Wolverine – he’s the best at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. Which may or may not have proven true for the character’s four previous film appearances over the last thirteen years – despite playing center field from 2000’s X-Men to 2006’s X-Men: the Last Stand, Wolvie was still never portrayed quite as deep a character as fans were hoping. 2009’s laughably bad corporate bile X-Men Origins: Wolverine fared even worse, taking a huge nosedive in quality and featuring a script plagued with clichés, plot holes, inconsistencies, and an ensemble of trivial mutant cameos distracting from the title character. Now, fans finally have a good reason to be excited – The Wolverine is the first real attempt to let the character shine on his own, a feat which the film is largely successful at.
The Wolverine opens with the clawed mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) several years after the events of Last Stand, wherein he was forced to kill his great love Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) after she’d been possessed by the destructive Phoenix entity. Logan is now grizzled and bearded, a drifter roaming the forests of Canada, every night being jolted awake, claws extended, by nightmares of his loss. In his travels he is found by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a lady warrior who escorts him to her employer, the wealthy tycoon Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whom Logan once saved during the Nagasaki bombing of World War II. Yashida offers to remove and take on Logan’s healing abilities himself, allowing Logan to live a mortal life and Yashida to go on living. But when Logan is thrown into a plot to kidnap Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), he must face his deadliest demons yet, among them the mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and discover what it truly means to carry the burden of being the Wolverine.
Based on the excellent 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book miniseries, The Wolverine is the first real character-driven film of the series, standing Logan firmly in the spotlight and asking the hard questions of his immortality. What is it like to be forced to kill the one you love? How can you live knowing that everyone you ever meet will die before you? Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) approaches the material like a Clint Eastwood western or James Bond film – a straightforward plot and setting intended as a backdrop for its protagonist’s character. Indeed, from the opening shots of Wolverine trapped in a World War II prison hole, we see only his squinting eyes peering out into the bright of day; one could mistake Hugh Jackman here for a young Eastwood himself.
Trouble is, the Claremont Wolverine series was strictly a character piece with very little plot, setting Logan in Japan to contrast his animalistic fighting style with the honor-bound, swift samurai culture of his surroundings. Mangold doesn’t do enough to play up that contrast, choosing instead to follow the film’s ordinary, linear narrative to its unsurprising conclusions, and use the Japan setting as more of a place where things happen than a true test for its protagonist. Mirroring the flaws of his aforementioned inspirations, even Mangold’s side characters only seem to be granted as much personality as the plot demands, lending things an unmistakably run-of-the-mill feel. And where the film should be exploring Logan’s bestial intuition, it is instead focusing on the loss of Jean Gray, a far less interesting, far more Hollywood-friendly machination.
There’s more power, I think, to be had in this narrative. Mangold himself first read and returned his copy of the script after scribbling the phrase, “Everyone I love will die” on the back, so clearly he had a mind to play up the weight of Logan’s immortality. And yet, the film is only satisfactory at exploring that conflict, falling victim to the classic 20th Century Fox pitfall of being too action-driven, too blockbuster-y, too safe to venture deeper beneath the surface. Shame, as I’ve skimmed Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie’s draft of The Wolverine, first intended for director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), and it is far more character-driven than the onscreen result, the latter featuring studio-commissioned rewrites from Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. With just enough subtlety lost along the way, it’s a bit disappointing to think that Wolverine in its original form might’ve been a defining film of the superhero subgenre.
What nonetheless gives life to Wolverine is Hugh Jackman, who lends his performance as much dedication and raw energy as he would the artsier Les Mis. It’s the Australian music man’s best turn in the adamantium claws yet; not only is he the spitting image of Frank Miller’s Wolverine, but his physique for the film is nothing short of incredible. Jackman, 44, has gotten himself into outstanding shape for his (or any) age, aiming to give the character a more “animalistic” look, and handling the film’s many elaborate stunts and demanding physicality like a pro.
It’s nice to see Fox finally getting serious with their Marvel properties; The Wolverine is one of the best films of the franchise thus far. After hitting a surprising high note in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the studio is counting on The Wolverine to keep the momentum going for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (stay after Wolverine’s credits for a brief teaser) and rejuvenate their brand in the face of competition from Marvel’s own Avengers films. Even if The Wolverine isn’t as remarkable as it could’ve been, considering the lows this franchise has dipped to, it’s nice to see the claws a bit sharper this time around.
This article was intended for publish on the ERIE READER website.