Wolverine first appeared in the final panel of Incredible Hulk #180 and matched his claws up against the Hulk’s gamma powered fists in the very next issue. But, it was his appearance in Giant Size X-Men #1, when he became a full-fledged member of Marvel’s premiere mutant team, that truly launched him into the pop culture stratosphere. Since then, he has stood as one of Marvel’s most popular and enduring characters. His past was shrouded in mystery and his no-nonsense attitude clashed with the squeaky clean morals of his more colorfully attired peers. It’s no surprise that the big screen version has gained equal popularity. A huge part of that is owed to his portrayal of Hugh Jackman, who was virtually unknown before he was cast by Bryan Singer in the first X-Men movie. To think, he almost didn’t get the part. Russell Crowe’s name was originally bandied about before Dougray Scott was chosen. However, Scott had to drop out due to filming Mission: Impossible II, Jackman popped the claws, and the rest is history. Now, Jackman sports the epic mutton chops of everyone’s favorite Canadian superhero for the sixth time in The Wolverine.
The Wolverine is a title meant to signify the filmmakers’ desire to capture THE definitive version of the character on screen. This latest installment serves as an apologia to the critically derided X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which suffered from too many characters, shoddy special effects, and a poor attempt to shoehorn Wolverine’s origin into the movie continuity. Rather than a prequel, The Wolverine is a direct sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand, another mess of an X-film that also met with a poor response from fans.
The Wolverine opens during WWII with Logan as a POW outside of Nagasaki. Thanks to his healing factor, he manages to survive the atomic explosion and saves the life of a guard named Yashida. In the present, Logan lives a solitary life in the Canadian wilderness, haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who he was forced to kill during Last Stand. Wolverine’s hermit existence is interrupted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a former orphan and current employee of Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who has since become a captain of industry and now lies on his deathbed. Upon arriving in Japan, Logan is shocked by Yashida’s proposal to take his healing factor and allow our hero to grow old and live a normal life. Logan also stumbles onto a whole mess of political and corporate intrigue involving Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who stands to inherit the entire company. The Yakuza are after Mariko and it seems her father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), and fiancé (Brian Tee) want a piece of the pie too. Then, there’s the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mad scientist with her own agenda for stripping Wolverine of his mutant powers.
The Wolverine is a refreshing change of pace from the usual comic book movies where entire cities are reduced to rubble. The movie is surprisingly light in action and heavy on introspection. The script credited to Scott Frank and Mark Bomback (who rewrote an initial draft by Christopher McQuarrie) used the 1982 mini-series by Chris Clairemont and Frank Miller as a springboard to explore the title character’s existential crisis. While superheroes bemoaning the burden of their powers have become cliché, it fits Wolverine perfectly. Director James Mangold (who replaced Darren Aronofsky) draws on a variety of inspirations including film noir, spaghetti westerns, and Japanese masters like Kurosawa and Mizoguchi. The tender romance between Logan and Mariko blossoms when they seek sanctuary in a seaside town will immediately bring forth thoughts of Ozu.
Jackman makes the noir and western comparisons apt by giving a performance that evokes Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum. He’s the gruff tough guy smoldering with rage and ready to explode in a violent fury. Practically stealing the show is newcomer Rila Fukushima as Wolvie’s pixie punk sidekick. With her large and expressive eyes, Fukushima looks like a Japanese Christina Ricci or a girl who just stepped off the page of a well-worn manga. Forget about more X-Men movies; give us the adventures of Wolverine & Yukio. Perhaps, take them to the isle of Madripoor?
The Wolverine isn’t entirely about soul searching and belly gazing. Mangold, who gave us the excellent remake of 3:10 to Yuma, puts together several solid action sequences. The highlight sees Wolverine doing battle against Yakuza thugs on top of a speeding bullet train. We also witness the amazing visual of Wolverine being turned into a human porcupine when he takes on a clan of ninja archers. Yukio gets in on the fun with a swordfight against Hiroyuki Sanada, who is terrific for the limited part he plays.
Where Wolverine goes off the rails is during the third act when all the character work is tossed away in favor of mind numbing spectacle. It’s as if someone forgot they were supposed to make a comic book movie and threw in a giant robot samurai. Meanwhile, the Viper is thrown into the mix without much thought with Khodchenkova (who was quite good in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) sounding like she should have gone after moose and squirrel instead of Wolverine. The story only requires a cursory knowledge of the franchise. In fact, being steeped in X-Men lore may be a curse and not a blessing as it reveals numerous hiccups in continuity. For one thing, how does Logan suddenly have all his memories?
Third act aside, The Wolverine differentiates itself from the majority of recent comic book films by not relying heavily on tired tropes or expensive effects. Just be sure to stay through the first half of the credits to see a teaser for X-Men: Days of Future Past.