When it comes to superhero movies, I’ve been full of an awful lot of frustration these past couple years. Maybe it’s burnout, but something has been lacking since The Avengers. Either these movies have been way too self-important (Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises), too dumb (Green Lantern), or too silly (Thor: The Dark World) for me to really get behind them with any real geek enthusiasm. I’m not setting you up to tell you The Wolverine sets the genre back on its feet, or that it does anything particularly revolutionary. What I will tell you is James Mangold’s version is a fine story, with a strong performance from Hugh Jackman. It’s a quality movie – not a classic, nor the best example of the genre. Instead of swinging for the fences, it is quite satisfied with hitting a stand-up double.
Sometimes it feels like comic book movies have to outdo one another. Clamoring fans have really driven the work studios are putting out, and that has often felt like a detriment (have you seen Iron Man 2?). With every superhero flick, it is as if the ante is being upped, and the next story has to be bigger, better, faster, stronger, more. This is why we usually get sequels with end of the world scenarios, or more villains, or grand death scenes for important characters.
While I understand with all the money being thrown at these movies (The Wolverine is reported to have had a budget of 120 million) there is enormous pressure to make each sequel more epic, I would hope more filmmakers would take a moment to consider how comic books themselves are put together. Not every storyline in a comic book series has to have higher stakes than the previous one. Sometimes the storylines take a more introverted stance, or delve deeper into a running theme within the series, or take the character in a new direction as yet unexplored.
The Wolverine downsizes the epic scale we usually get in the X-Men films (I’m pretending X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn’t happen) and focuses on what turns out to be a pretty personal tale. He’s a wounded animal struggling with his will to live in the aftermath of the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. This movie takes Logan (Jackman) to Japan where he is reunited with Yashida, a man whose life he saved during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. As a dying man, Yashida propositions Logan, requesting an exchange: he will take Logan’s mutant healing powers in exchange for the allure of death. Logan rejects, the old man dies, and the situation gets more complex at Yashida’s funeral when local gangsters try to take out Yashida’s cherished granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Unable to deny his nature to protect, Logan rescues Mariko and whisks her into hiding. Unfortunately, Logan has a big problem. Somehow his healing power has stopped working, and he becomes weak and mortal. Not only does he have to save Mariko, but for the first time in his life, he has to also save himself.
The Wolverine is at its best when Logan is struggling with the loss of his power. We learn more about the heart of a hero when he or she cannot rely on their strengths. The storyline is similar to Shane Black’s vision in Iron Man 3, which found Tony Stark having to make do with a malfunctioning suit of armor and no lab to get another. Where Iron Man 3 was more interested in using the lack of power to humble Stark, The Wolverine is more interested in watching its hero grapple with mortality. Wolverine’s greatest struggle as a hero – the essence that makes his character endure – is that he, like a vampire, cannot die. He is brave, tough, macho, and all that, but deep inside he’s devastated at the suffering he’s witnessed, and the friends and lovers he has lost. His will to live is always under attack, and it is the only thing that can truly hurt him since guns and knives and sharp swords have no long lasting effect. Suddenly, without his mutant powers, Logan still must find the resolve to fight. The scenes in which he a Mariko are on the run are the movie’s finest, and the fight sequence on top of Japan’s bullet train is exhilarating as a result.
Once the film resumes the standard hero movie beats in its final act, it becomes sort of ho-hum, but not without its charms. Especially charming is the casting of Rila Fukushima as Yuriko, Mariko’s adopted sister who brings Logan into the Japanese storyline and eventually assigns herself the role of his bodyguard. She is fun to watch on screen with her lynx-like jaw and lithe kung-fu movements. I would be thrilled to watch a film chronicling the exploits of Yuriko and Logan as they travel around like badass samurais –it would be the Marvel Comics version of Akira Kurosawa legend. Not so much fun are the standard issue villains/shapeshifting rogues, Viper and Shingen. Viper is sexy and all that, but after watching Mystique in previous X-Men movies, it’s hard not to yawn. And Shingen, who starts the movie as a cool outsider, plays a role that is paint-by-numbers with a performance as dry as unbuttered toast.
The Wolverine is not going to set the bar higher for comic book movies, but I think that is a good thing. Its low key tale is evidence that if the superhero genre is going to thrive, we need more attempts to tell stories like these. With Marvel’s second wave about to kick start this coming summer with Ant-Man, I have a feeling this may be the case.
* Despite enjoying this movie, I was rather concerned with most of the action scenes. Wolverine's claws make him a deadly character, so it is next to impossible for him to fight with a group of people without killing anyone. Because of this movie's PG-13 rating, the fights are incredibly bloodless, and Wolverine tosses most of his enemies aside like rag dolls when it is obvious he just cut them to shreds. At times this also seems to undercut the major theme of fighting for the will to live. When life is so easily, and bloodlessly taken, it almost makes life look like it is not all that valuable. Mindless, consequence free violence is a prevalent trope of the action genre, and isn't nearly as off putting as it could be in this movie, but it does give one room to pause and consider the idea that maybe the PG-13 rating is sacrificing significance for a teenage audience.
* I laughed my ass off at the beginning of the movie as Logan emerges from his cave in the woods. For a moment, I imagined a scenario in which Jackman finished working on the set of Les Miserables, then sprinted across the studio lot to shoot these scenes in The Wolverine. I kind of hoped he would start serenading Jean Grey in his dreams.
* The now traditional closing credits tease scene was fun, and definitely sets up this summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past by having Wolverine intercepted in the airport by a couple old friends. But I did find myself wondering where the hell Yuriko was, since the title card tells us the scene takes place two years after the conclusion of the movie.
* Jackman is so ripped for this film that he single-handedly does for men what the movies have been doing to women for the last century: breed rampant insecurity. I will continue to ponder this as I crack open another Coke and shove a handful of Doritos into my mouth...