The Wolverine is quite daring in terms of how much it tries to not be exactly like every other comic book based blockbuster from the past decade. It’s character based, features almost an entirely Asian cast outside of its main star, never succumbs to being a standard fish out of water story, has strong roles for female actors, and the focus on actual combat taking centre stage over enormous set pieces is refreshing. So despite a third act hiccup in the narrative, there’s a lot to love about director James Mangold’s take on the X-Men character. And rest assured it’s almost infinitely better than the origin movie made for him a few years back.
Picking up after the events of the last proper X-Men film, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has moved to the mountains to life in seclusion out of fear for hurting anyone else. He’s plagued by the losses of his past in his nightmares (including the ghost of Jean Grey, played once again by Famke Janssen). He’s sought out by the associate of Japan’s wealthiest corporation and asked to return to Tokyo. The old man named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) is grateful for Logan saving his life during World War II, and in exchange after all these years he offers Logan the chance to rid him of his immortality to prolong his own life. Things don’t go according to plan thanks to Logan’s reluctance, the old man dies, and his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) inherits the company, positioning her as become the most powerful person in Japan. It sparks a war both from within and without to take out Mariko, who Logan seeks to protect despite having his healing abilities inhibited by Yashida’s evil doctor, and fellow mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).
Right from the almost mournful opening sequence that goes back to the Nagasaki bombing, the tone has already been set for a vastly more serious take on Wolverine, and on comic spin offs in general. Logan isn’t in a battle to save the world. He’s in a battle with himself and he eventually decides to help in the life of another only when his own is threatened. Logan’s very being in Japan isn’t a story of a white man transplanted to a foreign land being played for laughs. The trademark Logan wisecracks are still there, but they’re pointed critiques on the action going on around him and not some veiled and possibly racist remark on everyone around him. If you want to get really technical about it, the story at work is still the same “white saviour” plotline, but it’s not like those around him are defenceless. If anything, he learns a lot more from them than he teaches them.
Jackman adjusts his performance quite nicely here to portray Logan at his lowest point. He’s beyond having a death wish. That’s the point in his life we seem to have missed. He’s moved beyond that to a point of numbness. Although, interestingly enough, the film posits the character as that of a Ronin in search of a honourable soldier’s death. It’s the best take on the character yet. He’s a warrior without a war, and yet battle will be the only way he could ever hope to end his pain with any amount of satisfaction.
It’s clear that Mangold has studied the great Japanese filmmakers from Ozu and Kurosawa to Seijun Suzuki and Kon Ichikawa, but the visual style, while accomplished and more seamlessly integrated into a comic book movie than one might think, is arguably one of the least interesting dynamics to the film. While vaguely using the visuals to inform the story, thematically the script from Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback, and Scott Frank makes the project feel more like a modern samurai movie, and the cast plays the material accordingly.
The familial dynamic in play also assures that the film doesn’t put the dramatic burden entirely on Jackman’s shoulders. It’s almost more of a Greek or Roman tragedy than a traditional Japanese epic. I mean, that might be a bit of overly high praise for a summer blockbuster, but few other films this year have ever attempted anything this interesting with secondary characters. It’s hard to believe that a studio film would allow a big budget superhero movie to be made with only one big star and this many subtitles, but it allows everything to have an air of freshness to it beyond just simple novelty. It’s certainly not something that has been seen before, but it falls in nicely behind something like Skyfall in terms of reimagining an already established character, while still retaining everything that made that character fun in the first place.
It’s also heartening to see a film with such strong female roles. Granted, Khodchenkova’s villainess just seems to be a cross between Poison Ivy and Venom and newcomer Okamoto struggles at times, but these are tough, uncompromising women, and thankfully there isn’t a single point where their gender is ever made that big of a deal. They are perfectly capable of making their own decisions and protecting themselves when they can. It’s also interesting to note Janssen’s chilling cameos as a manifestation of Logan’s guilt and sorrow over what his character did to her and how their relationship, um, ended. It’s an interestingly realized side character since it’s never clear if she really exists or not. In this universe, she possibly could, but then again Logan is probably just that depressed.
The Wolverine isn’t without its problems, and it mostly goes off the rails just as the film enters the third act. It’s not without style and there’s still some excellent hand-to-hand combat being shown off, but the grand finale is both predictable and pretty much straight out of the first Iron Man film. It’s a strange note to go out on, especially given that with the exception of a fight atop a bullet train there aren’t many go-for-broke special effects heavy set pieces to be found. The ending holds the story together just fine, but it feels almost studio-mandated rather than organic.
The film also has a romantic subplot between Logan and Mariko that’s half baked at best, and there’s a credit stinger to build a bridge to the next X-Men film that feels sadly tossed off at the last second, but those quibbles aside, this franchise entry is far better than it probably has any right to be and it definitely gets by on points for originality. It’s better than the late summer blockbuster we normally get at this time of year, and a worthy tribute to one of Marvel’s best characters.