As a kid, the overwhelming popularity of Wolverine among my friends and my brothers always vexed me. To an extent, I could certainly understand; the old canucklehead, his bones as laced with machismo as they were with Adamantium, was an undeniable bad-ass. His advantages on the playground were beyond reproach; were you lucky enough to snag the role of Wolverine during a game of “X-Men,” the mutant’s advanced healing factor practically guaranteed your protection from death, or even prolonged injury. Yet Wolverine always bored me. His Bub-riddled, growling invincibility (and his imperviousness to the kinetically-charged playing cards I used as “Gambit”) always steered my interest to wittier characters like Beast, or more troubled heroines like Rogue and Storm.
It was not until director Bryan Singer gave me his own contribution to the X-Men mythology that I finally found something about Wolverine I could latch on to. That something was “Logan,” a tortured vagrant whose palpable abilities have ultimately resulted in his unceasing disconnect from his own past. Finally, the invulnerable warrior of my pre-adolescent years revealed some vulnerability, and what’s more, he is being played by an actor who sees facets in the character I never bothered to see! As played across thirteen nears and six films by Hugh Jackman, my perception of Wolverine has risen from that of an overhyped comic antihero to a legit tragic figure of popular culture. I am truly grateful Jackman has been able to lend a consistent tone to his character of Logan/Wolverine, even as other characters, directors and writers have come and left the franchise, and those six films showcasing him have varied wildly in quality.
James Mangold is but the latest director to collaborate with Jackman on the movie treatment of the “Wolverine” story. The result of that collaboration is The Wolverine, a rather pleasant surprise considering not only how dismally Logan’s last solo outing turned out a few years back, but considering how dismal a season it’s truly been for summer blockbusters overall. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Mangold reaches the thematic or experiential heights of Bryan Singer’s movies (which have become unjustly overshadowed by Marvel’s overblown Avengers series), this continuation of the Logan story feels somewhat contained, and marginally freer of the exhaustive (and exhausting) CGI bloat that turns most franchise movies today into punishing ordeals.
While co-screenwriters Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank won’t exactly garner acclaim for innovative character-building or sweeping narrative, it is nice to see a somewhat credulous effort to develop the character of Logan we have come to know (something that cannot be said about the superfluous 2009 Wolverine). Broken up about having to kill his beloved Jean Grey at the climax of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan has dropped out of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and returned to his more comfortable state of brooding in the wilderness, like the wild beast he is. Tracked down in the wilderness by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an assassin with the mutant ability to predict the deaths of those around her, she convinces Logan to travel to Japan to visit a powerful businessman named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). The dying Yashida, whom Logan saved years ago during America’s raid on Nagasaki, offers the still-grieving mutant a business proposition: he asks to employ a newly-innovated technology to transmit Logan’s healing abilities to him, thereby relieving Logan of his effective mortality.
As there would be no movie worth telling if he accepted the offer, Logan refuses and Yashida eventually succumbs. When this happens, all hell breaks loose in the Yashida clan: Wolverine is attacked by the enigmatic “Viper” (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Yashida’s menacing nurse who manages to steal Logan’s healing powers anyway. What’s more, the old Yashida’s beautiful granddaughter and heir apparent Muriko (Tao Okamoto) finds herself in considerable danger as her corrupt father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) works to usurp the family business. Weakened, Logan is compelled to work with Yukio to protect Mariko, and to get the bottom of Viper’s curious relationship to the Yashida family.
Revisiting the plot in my mind, it surprises me how willing I was (and still am, to an extent) to forgive The Wolverine for its needlessly complicated plot and its almost ludicrous overabundance of necessary characters (there are several more, and they are hardly worth mentioning). Did I even mention that Famke Janssen reprises her role as Jean Grey in a series of completely useless flashbacks, primarily as a lazy means of conveying Logan’s lovesick grief? Heck, even as I praise the movie’s writers for bothering to give Hugh Jackman an inkling of character development to work with, I concede that as drama, little of it actually works. The movie’s clearly intended as the episode of Wolverine’s interminable life where he learns it is indeed possible to move on from tragedy, and perhaps even to find love and hope again. This explains the existence of a romantic sub-plot between Mariko and Logan, but that doesn’t make their courtship feel any less disposable (Frankly, Logan, I think Yukio is a far better catch than the boring Mariko).
Keeping track of the entire Yashida clan is an exhausting undertaking, as is enduring the cheap symbolism of Logan’s dreams and keeping up with his generic bestial angst. And while that all represents precisely the kind of bloat I was just complaining about in this summer’s other blockbusters, I admit I would vastly prefer grappling with a convoluted family tree and mere shadows of genuine human emotions than endure one more sequence of 9/11-evoking mass carnage, giant clunking robots, and superheroes with no apparent regard for human life. Thanks should go in no small part to Jackman, whose accomplishments with this character, in this genre of film, deserve more credit than he is likely going to get. By now Jackman fits so comfortably into the role of Logan, it is difficult to imagine any other actor taking over the gig once Marvel Studios inevitably reboots this series. That comfort with the role, and that fundamental understanding of how this character ticks, do more to flesh out this hero than anything in the movie’s overstuffed script could ever achieve.
The Wolverine is essentially an action movie, in the end, so thank goodness that action largely feels well-conceived and competent in its execution. Even when a martial arts sequence feels choppily edited, or when the action climax sadly devolves into yet another hackneyed brawl with a gargantuan CGI monster, there is a heightened sense of dread for our hero throughout. With the added tension of Wolverine being robbed of his ability to heal immediately after sustaining a typically life-threatening injury, the action feels a bit more dangerous as well. The most elaborate action set-piece, a battle atop a high-speed train, is messy in execution, but it is at least cleverly conceived. The movie’s most fraught action sequence however, a sword duel between Shengen and Yukio while Logan lay cut open and helpless on a surgery table, is also the smallest. That is no coincidence.
As that action sequence shows, I wish The Wolverine as a whole had been audacious enough to temper down the scale even further. But even if The Wolverine’s ambitions for audacity are meager, it still has ambition, and its relationship with the audience feels like just a little bit more than a blatantly cynical cash-grab (though of course, it is that as well). That is enough to make it a comparatively refreshing installment in the assault of terrible movie blockbusters. For some, that may not be enough. But as a fan of the X-Men, it’s nice to feel hopeful about the franchise once again.
Bottom Line: While The Wolverine has its share of problems, its ability to satisfy X-Men devotees is not one of them.