Fox’s latest installment in their on-the-road-to-recovery X-Men franchise, The Wolverine, is a markedly stark departure from its mutant-filled predecessors. Like the cigar smoking, ‘bub’ spouting titular character, it’s a complicated film (and not always in a good way).
Wolverine’s second solo outing finds America’s Favorite Mutant living as a recluse in the Canadian wilderness, haunted by his past both immediate (his mercy-killing of Jean Grey in X3) and further back (experiencing the bombing of Nagasaki first-hand while in a Japanese POW camp). It’s not exactly clear why Wolverine can have such a detailed memory of his past given the events detailed in X-Men Origins: Wolverine but at the same time why ruin your perfectly decent movie by referring to X-Men Origins: Wolverine? While much of The Wolverine tells its own original story, the beginning of the film does a nice job of incorporating the opening sequence of Miller/Claremont’s classic Wolverine miniseries as well as elements from Brian K. Vaughn/Eduardo Risso’s Logan miniseries from a couple years back.
Much of the film takes place in Tokyo as Logan is summoned to the bedside of Ichirō Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi/Ken Yamamura), a soldier he saved at Nagaski who went on to forge a vast corporate empire. The old man’s dying wish is to thank the man who saved him all those years ago and grant him a “gift”: the removal of his mutant powers. This becomes much more complicated as Wolverine is drawn into a plot by outside forces to assassinate Yashida’s granddaugter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto).
Let’s start with what works here: The Wolverine doesn’t really feel like a superhero movie and it’s better because of that. It avoids what has become the classic X-Men Movie Problem which is there’s an overwhelming urge to establish a bunch of bullshit from the comics. Did X-Men Origins: Wolverine need all that Deadpool stuff? Did any of the two dozen crustpunk mutant bad guys from X3 add anything worthwhile to that movie? Even X-Men: First Class, which boasts some of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie, is bogged down by throwaway characters like Kevin Bacon’s minions, The Black Eyed Peas.
Mutants are discussed in The Wolverine, but there are (charitably) only three mutant characters in the film. What this does is enhance Wolverine’s status as a cultural outsider: not only is he a white man in Japan, he’s a white mutant. The film’s Japanese characters view him with either fascination or outright disgust. I also found it interesting that Mangold frequently chooses not to subtitle scenes where Japanese is the spoken language, forcing a largely English-speaking American audience to infer just enough to understand what’s happening.
In using a very scaled back approach, Mangold can focus on Wolverine: The Character more than the last few X-Men outings could. The movie’s most triumphant moment isn’t Logan killing anyone or uttering a good one-liner, it’s when he finally forgives himself for killing Jean and allows himself to move forward. That speaks to what I personally love about the character as he exists in the comics: his ongoing quest for redemption. The film leaves Wolverine a uniquely different character: the removal of the Adamantium from his claws is an inspired visual to pair with a Logan that can now live with his own weaknesses.
The Wolverine boasts a surprisingly large cast and this both helps and harms the film. As an old man who will do anything to stave off death, Yamanouchi’s Ichirō Yashida provides an interesting, if underutilized, villainous counterpart for Jackman’s Logan. Even though she gets the somewhat thankless role as love interest/plot device, Okamoto’s Mariko feels like a very three dimensional character: although much of the film centers around her (kinda icky, in context) romance with Logan and she’s dragged off to more than a few Super Mario castles, you get a good feel for the dilemmas she faces and she really shines in the film’s climax. Probably the film’s strongest supporting character is Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who dominates the film as a sort of living anime heroine and gets the film’s best action moments/wisecracks.
Unfortunately, I’m hard pressed to tell you what any of the other characters in the film want. In particular, the film’s reimagining of Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) as a forked tongue venom spitting super-scientist is…troubled. What few lines she has are too vampy for a movie like this and it’s never really clear what her character wants beyond “totally messing up people’s faces.” The few times The Wolverine does work in comic booky elements (the aforementioned Viper, the Silver Samurai-as-conceived-as-a-giant-Adamantium-Robot-Suit-With-An-Old-Guy-Inside), you’re taken out of the movie. And as much as the film’s trailers hype up the removal of Wolverine’s healing abilities, he’s still surprisingly resistant to close-range gunfire.
Far from the best or worst movie of the summer, The Wolverine largely succeeds as a translation of the character’s trademark Japan stories to the silver screen and thankfully avoids many of the pitfalls that plagued its predecessors.
And how about that post-credits sequence, huh? I think we’re all pretty amped for Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past now.