Even amongst the mutants and outsiders that encompass Marvel’s X-Men universe, Wolverine exists as a misfit who never feels as though he entirely belongs. He’s cynical, reluctant to form attachments to others, and more than willing to take lives if required. He’s the man with no name, except he happens to have a name. Well, he has a first name, Logan, and a nickname, Wolverine, but…look he’s a lot like the Man with No Name thematically, okay? He can be in society but struggles to be a part of a social circle. He seems practically doomed to watch human relationships form and break apart through the window of his own cursed near-eternal life. He may be invincible and practically immortal (not to mention he has some pretty awesome metal claws), but that ability gives him nothing but existential torment and grief. His grizzled, harsh exterior hides a wounded, vulnerable heart that drives audience attachment to the character. James Mangold’s new film, appropriately titled The Wolverine, reminds viewers how compelling he can be when given an effective story in which he can maneuver.
Set after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, we find Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in one of his best interpretations of the character) haunted both by memories of the 1945 Nagasaki bombing and the psychological spectre of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) while hiding out in the Canadian wilderness. With this matted hair and scraggly beard, he only appears slightly mangier than the rest of the Canadian population on-screen, and not dramatically less groomed than Jackman did when seen in last year’s Les MIserables, playing recently released convict Jean Valjean.
Separated from the X-Men that once functioned as his makeshift family, he now lives in near isolation. However, during a bar fight, Wolverine is approached by Yukio (played with great liveliness and kick-ass force by Rila Fukushima) with a request: come to Tokyo and say goodbye to the dying (in a deathbed that looks like a life-sized Pin Point Impressions toy that people press into to see an impression of their hands appear) Ichiro Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), the man he saved at the Nagasaki bombing and the head of Japan’s most successful technology empire.
After Wolverine arrives, and is properly bathed and groomed, he’s reunited with Yashida, who makes him an enticing offer: allow Yashida to take Wolverine’s invincibility for himself, and Logan will have the chance to live a normal, mortal life. Suddenly, Wolverine finds himself vulnerable to injury and trying to protect Yashida’s granddaughter (and potential love interest), Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from a seemingly endless onslaught of ninja assassins, and that’s all the plot that feels fair to spoil in a review.
It’s difficult to discuss The Wolverine without referencing the difficulties that plagued the film’s early production, in which various directors and cast members both entered and exited the project with such speed, one couldn’t help but wonder if revolving doors were placed at the front of the set for convenience. Early trailers for the film looked, at least to me, less than promising (despite the fact that it is based on an extremely loved and highly regarded comic series), and it was difficult for me to work up much enthusiasm for the project. Memories of X-Man Origins: Wolverine did little to increase my enthusiasm.
I went into the film with minimal expectations and was pleasantly surprised to discover I had a great time with The Wolverine. The film was exciting and engaging, with well-executed action scenes and the appropriate dose of angsty, emotional gravitas. In a summer of sequels and saga tie-ins, it’s also incredibly refreshing to see a film whose plot is almost completely self-contained, except for a fantastic post-credits sequence that caused an unceasing, involuntary smile to plant itself on my face and remain there for an excessively long period of time. The word “mutant” is barely uttered and references to previous X-Men installments, save for the ghostly, psychological tormentor that is Jean Grey, are completely absent from the narrative.
In addition, I’m happy to report that the film acts as though X-Men Origins: Wolverine never existed, which is really the only way to treat that film.
It lacks the flash of Iron Man 3 and the mass destruction of the underwhelming Man of Steel. There’s no threat to humanity or the planet Earth, no talk of an apocalypse or mass destruction or even world domination, and no endless band of flying robots either (although there is a silver samurai, so that’s kinda close, I guess). The major threat is against Wolverine and the vulnerable Mariko—refreshingly small stakes for a summer blockbuster, and the film’s plot is smaller, grittier, and more grounded than any other summer superhero film this year. However, this makes sense for a Wolverine solo vehicle, as the Wolverine character is a grittier individual than either Tony Stark or Superman, and he works best when surrounded by characters that bring out his humanity and in films that do not overwhelm human interactions with by mind-numbing spectacle.
Director James Mangold, best known for Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, was not the most obvious choice to take on a super-hero sequel, but he directs the action scenes with style and vigor (including a scene on a speeding train that’s one of the most entertaining sequences I’ve seen this summer), while ensuring those scenes are emotionally engaging through the proper balance of spectacle with actual character development.
We care about Wolverine as a character, and the stakes feel tangible as a result. Mangold is unwilling to sacrifice substance for visual splendor, which makes the film a refreshing palate cleanser after bright, splashy, faux-grittiness that was Man Of Steel. The film is darker and more deliberately paced than the average superhero extravaganza and is the better for it. However, don’t let that lead you to believe that the film is bogged down by the weight of its own sense of self-importance. Mangold and Jackman make certain that the film is frequently punctuated with sharp, clever moments of humor. In addition, Mangold also takes full advantage of the Japanese locales where much of the film takes place, giving the film a beautiful, exotic look.
The film also solves the problem of having an indestructible hero at its center by making him suddenly very destructible, right when could use his invincibility the most. His new physical vulnerability matches the wounded, damaged soul at Wolverine’s center, and Jackman dives into that side of the character with great relish. Appearing as an Adonis-like, behemoth of a man, he infuses Wolverine with much-needed humanity, making his guilt over the loss of Jean Grey feel tragic and emotionally involving and his reluctance to open himself up to someone else seem both understandable and pitiful. He has a natural charisma and compelling likability that comes through whenever he’s onscreen, and he reminds us how fascinating he can make Wolverine. Jackman could probably play this role without thought by this point in his career, but he’s fully committed to giving a brilliant performance, and his enthusiasm shows in every frame.
It may not be a perfect film, as the film’s final minutes begin to creep towards the line that separates awesome and ridiculous, and the villains are nowhere near as compelling as out titular hero, including the elusive Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who seems more of a flashy set piece than a fully realized antagonist.
Yet, if the film does go a touch off the path, it doesn’t stray far enough to be a major problem, and remains pretty entertaining even at its most absurd. By the time the final climactic battle drew to a close, the film had built up enough good will to guide me through whatever it wanted to throw my way, and I cannot stress enough how fantastic a tease the post-credit scene is. It had me ready to set up shop and watch X-Men: Days of Future Past right then and there. The Wolverine may not my favorite blockbuster of the summer, but it’s probably the one that most pleasantly surprised me.