The first Wolverine standalone movie was not good. We know it, you know it, even Hugh Jackman knows it. With Marvel Studios running circles around their licensee cousins, the task of putting Wolverine back on track wasn’t just about rescuing earnings potential – it was about saving face in an industry that Fox itself reinvented with the first X-Men adaptation.
Based, rather more loosely than anyone involved has yet admitted, on the classic Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries, The Wolverine sees the character summoned to Japan by an old friend, whereupon he becomes embroiled in a war of succession within the Yashida clan. Director James Mangold has melded this plot with some musings on the character’s near-immortality to create a comic book movie that (for the most part) avoids the standard genre tropes and feels more like a Gaijin-in-Japan action movie than yet another superhero blockbuster. If you’re feeling fatigued by tights, suits and capes, this may be the antidote.
The basic outline is this. Tasked with protecting the inheritor of a business empire, Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), from various factions who would see her controlled, Wolverine finds himself crossing Japan, fighting mobsters and ninjas everywhere from central Tokyo to pre-war villages, even (in one of the more ludicrous sequences) atop a bullet train. The setting is one of the film’s strengths, delivering interesting locations and unfamiliar cultural texture, while the largely Japanese cast is populated by well-rounded characters and striking actors – most notably Rila Fukushima who, as Yukio, is a sidekick worthy of the screen time she receives.
Mangold’s version of Wolverine is probably the most interesting yet. At the outset, we find Logan in a dark place following the (admittedly distant) events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Lost for direction, he’s feeling the effects of powers that keep him alive while those around him die. The trailed appearances by an ethereal Jean Grey anchor the film in the X-Men universe, but in the context of the film she could be any past love. This is a movie largely intended to stand alone, and which – in keeping with the mutant metaphor – focuses on super-powers as a curse as much as a blessing.
Without giving anything away, even though one of the subplot choices the film makes is familiar, The Wolverine gets it right. Whatever happens, Logan is still Wolverine, and the film consistently remembers that to its credit. By varying degrees, this is actually a story about who he is, not what he can do. It’s dark but not humourless, pensive but not slow, and keeps a tight focus on Logan’s arc as he finds new things to live for.
At least, that’s what it’s like until the third act, when the film suddenly delivers a dumber-than-rocks collage of supervillain monologue and CGI fight scenes, abandoning what worked best in the previous hours – street level brawls and intimate character moments – in favour of something more conventionally ‘blockbuster’. It shaves at least a star off the rating and hugely over-complicates an otherwise straightforward story, opening up plot holes you could squeeze a comically-oversized samurai robot through.
In truth, there are one or two problems before that. There are parts where the script gets clunky, there are sequences where the camera work renders the action tough to decipher, and the script is fastidious in making sure all of the subtext is rendered into text just in case you’re concerned you might have to engage your brain. As a fun game, you might also want to count the times someone makes a Japanese cultural reference and then immediately explains it in layman’s terms (with bonus points for spotting the one they do twice).
But for the most part this is a good movie. It gets Wolverine in a way that the last film completely failed to. It has something to say about the character, and it says it. Because of that, we can mostly forgive the bizarre tone shift of the final reel, or the tics that weaken its presentation.
It hasn’t got the swagger of the Iron Man films or the densely layered story of the Dark Knight movies, but it’s at least getting part of the way towards being that good. Wolverine’s versatility as a character is one of his biggest strengths, and in The Wolverine, we finally have an on-screen demonstration of what that actually means. For all its loftier ambitions, the best gift The Wolverine gives is a simple one: that you’ll leave the cinema wanting to see more of the character. And that’s, straight away, a vast improvement over the last standalone Wolverine outing…
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