dir. James Mangold
Release Date: Jul 26, 13
Given that 20th Century Fox landed on the perfect Wolverine right out of the gate, they’ve always struggled mightily at figuring out exactly what to do with him. Over the past 13 years of playing Logan, Hugh Jackman has run the gamut from a one-liner machine (the Singer years) to a walking cartoon (X-Men: The Last Stand) to a legitimate badass (his cameo in X-Men: First Class). Even the first attempt at a stand-alone Wolverine movie (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) didn’t ask Jackman to do much more than scream in futility at the heavens every three minutes or so, which makes The Wolverine a delight to watch. Even in its shakier moments, it’s just nice to see a movie finally get the most beloved X-Man right.
Based on arguably the most beloved Wolverine comic arc ever, The Wolverine follows Logan on a sojourn to Japan after he had to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to save Earth from the Dark Phoenix. After this, Logan lives in caves and rarely sleeps, and when he does he’s beset by nightmares about his former love. He’s pulled out of his suffering by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an adept swordsmith with the ability to glimpse the deaths of everybody she meets. She takes him to Tokyo to reunite with Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), a tech tycoon whose life Logan saved when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in World War II. Yashida is dying, and offers Logan a choice as repayment: Yashida will take his ability to rapidly heal from any wounds, and in exchange Logan can finally grow old and die, his agony now given a time limit.
Things quickly go wrong for Logan in Japan. Yashida dies, but Logan still loses his powers when the mysterious Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) infects him with a poison that renders him more or less mortal (more or less = still able to take inhuman amounts of punishment, just with longer-term effects). Given that Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) now needs protection from the many people jockeying for control of his company, this bodes poorly for the Wolverine. James Mangold’s film is heavy on the exposition but quick on its feet, guiding the film between action setpieces in such a way that the film never feels as though it’s holding the audience’s hand. Jackman helps quite a bit in this regard, as he negotiates the balance between jokey escapism and dour meditations on immortality so well that the film can’t help but follow suit. His Logan finally feels realized, more than a cigar-chomping tough guy or a wallowing sad sack. This is a man who knows that his inability to die has purpose, but refuses to realize it lest he destroy anybody else close to him.
Another note on that sense of humor: It’s refreshing to see a dark summer movie that can occasionally crack a joke. In a post-Dark Knight era, where urban destruction is the finale du jour and most superheroes are only allowed to fluctuate between brooding and bellowing, The Wolverine actually feels faithful to its comic origins. Even the preposterous final showdown involving adamantium exoskeletons and a legion of ninjas with telephone wires somehow feels more intimate than much of this summer’s fare. This is probably because the 90 minutes or so of film preceding it actually bother to create a connection between audience and character, instead of just trading on assumed knowledge to get to the part where things get smashed. (Looking at you, Man of Steel.) The Wolverine always has a handle on its tone, no matter how strange that tone often is.
Not everything in the film is so controlled, though. While it’s heartening to see the Japan storyline translated to the screen and more or less intact, the performances around Jackman are often spotty, largely because of the amount of English dialogue that the multinational cast is asked to pull off. Though we’ll probably sooner see an Aquaman movie than a Marvel film with large stretches of subtitled dialogue, the latter would have been beneficial. The film also loves its narrative twists, to such a point where by the third act it’s distressingly easy to lose track of who’s still alive and who’s a rival to who. But through all of the chaos Logan is the anchor, the rallying point around which the movie builds its hyper-geeky fantasy of superheroes fighting ninjas, making peace with their demons and (in one especially thrilling sequence) dispatching Yakuza thugs atop bullet trains. The Wolverine is a lot of things, and not all of them work, but the ones that do are a true delight to watch.
Plus, above all else, it’s a lot better than Origins.