Throughout the course of the modern superhero era, one thing has stayed true: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. After being a successful piece of the “X-Men” franchise for three films, Wolverine got his own solo gig in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which turned out to be a chaotic smear of superhero film with a cliché-ridden script. Jackman, who has become synonymous with the part in a way that would make even Robert Downey Jr. jealous, deserved better.
Thankfully, “The Wolverine” is better. In fact, it bounces back from the very worst failings of “Origins,” telling a character-oriented story that borrows from the Chris Claremont-Frank Miller comic featuring Wolverine’s Japanese saga.
The story takes place post-“X-Men: The Last Stand,” as Logan is haunted in his dreams by Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he killed in that film in order to essentially save the world. Hiding out and looking like an imprisoned Jean Valjean somewhere in Alaska (he tends to do that), a Japanese woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) finds him and convinces him to travel back with her to Japan to meet her master, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whom Wolverine saved during the bombing of Nagasaki in World War II. Yashida is one of Japan’s wealthiest men, a technology entrepreneur, and he wants to offer Wolverine the one thing he’s never had – mortality. For someone who feels as though their gift has been a curse lately, it’s an appealing offer.
Of course there has to be a catch, and Wolverine soon finds himself dealing with the venomous Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and going on the run and protecting Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is being sought after by the Yakuza (Japanese mob).
The film almost never leaves Wolverine’s side, and provides more than adequate motivational fuel for us to become invested in the story. Wolverine’s consideration of his own inner pain and immortality finally gives Jackman something to work with, despite how good he is with all the more exterior elements of the character.
Director James Mangold (“Walk the Line” and the underrated remake of “3:10 to Yuma”) excels at finding these character moments, while also taking the opportunity to make a Marvel samurai movie. The film’s fight sequences take a visceral yet artistic approach reminiscent of a samurai film: violent, but stylized. An R-rated version, however, would’ve made this an exceptional film, but such is Hollywood.
In summer after summer of large-scale blockbusters with immense action sequences, “The Wolverine” will be a tad underwhelming for anyone impartial to the character that is just looking for the “next big movie.” Again, this movie is as much about Wolverine’s internal struggle as what’s happening on screen. It is exciting in small ways, not in big ways (outside of a sequence on top a bullet train). Mangold also does some cool things with a chase sequence through Tokyo in which the archer Harada (Will Yun Lee) snipes Yakuza thugs as Wolverine runs with Mariko.
A lot of props go to the script team of Mark Bomback (“Unstoppable,” “Total Recall”) and Scott Frank (“Minority Report”), who revised the initial draft by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”). Obviously the character element of the story works well, but the pacing is strong and surprises wait at every turn, even if the plot trajectory follows a pretty traditional superhero movie structure.
To put “The Wolverine” in the context of the ever-growing rolodex of superhero movies, it’s a rock-solid, entertaining, better-than-most entry, but years from now, will probably get overlooked among the genre’s best thanks to the visually ground-breaking event films now and soon to be even more prevalent. It does little to stand out, but the Wolverine character didn’t need something to make him stand out; it needed something more personal. Why else would you isolate a character from the X-Men if not to tell his personal story?
“The Wolverine” is a superb film that should’ve come out four years ago, when it would’ve been a great film. If it were an origin story and not the fifth time Jackman put the claws on (not counting his “X-Men: First Class” cameo), I would put it on par with “Iron Man” minus some of the flashy CGI and a decent percentage of humor. There’s no question Wolverine’s lack of novelty will play a factor for those who find it unimpressive, but getting down to what it means to make a good superhero film, you can’t go wrong with the model used in “The Wolverine.” And fans will genuinely be excited about what Wolverine does next, with or without the X-Men.
- Directed by James Mangold
- Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, Christopher McQuarrie
- Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova