Turning Japanese, I Really Think So


It’s late July as The Wolverine prowls into theaters, making its way over the bloated carcasses of umpteen other summer tent pole films. Some, like the comic book movies Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel, bulked up at the box office and pounded the competition before powering down from the fleeting limelight.  Others, like the baked-from-scratch efforts Pacific Rim and After Earth, faltered at the starting line, already gorged.  Like most any other summer of recent memory, the big loud gianormous movies release at an exhausting rate of more than one per week, every week, starting in May and continuing through mid August.  For many filmgoers, “blockbuster fatigue” set in weeks ago.  Fortunately for The Wolverine, it’s of the comic book ilk.  Fortunately for filmgoers, the film is a decent one.

In a summer when even the major franchise hits, such as the afore mentioned Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel have managed to irritate longtime fans of their source material, The Wolverine stands proudly as perhaps the lone thorough crowd-pleaser.  But loneliness is nothing new for Wolverine.  When we catch up with him in this story, he’s abandoned the X-Men and the rest of society, having grown a Hagrid mane and facial hair while living isolated, in a cabin in the mountains.  His only friend is a grizzly bear, although he’s left his own animal moniker far behind. The man who was Wolverine now simply goes by his other name, Logan.  But it isn’t long before Logan’s history comes calling, and soon he is whisked off to Japan to meet with an aging tech tycoon whom he shared a connection with in the past.  In the end, he will find that no good deed goes unpunished.

In true modern comic book adaptation fashion, The Wolverine cherry picks moments and plot points from familiar print stories, this time including Bryan K. Vaughn’s “Logan” and the classic 1982 “Wolverine” mini series (the character’s first solo outing) by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.  There’s even a streak of recent writer Jason Aaron’s gleeful sadistic want to physically mangle the character to ridiculous degrees, just because his mutant healing power means that he can take it.  Since the ‘82 mini series, Wolverine has boasted an important and vital Japanese cultural component that has been heretofore lacking in his movie representations.  As a longtime comic book fan and fan of the character, it’s nice to finally see this aspect given it’s cinematic due, and successfully at that.  (Although a part of me still misses the mask he wears in the comics…  Back in 2000, I in fact was expecting yellow spandex!)

Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) handles the film’s action scenes with the same sure hand he brought to his previous action films, such as Knight & Day and 3:10 to Yuma.  But make no mistake – although Mangold, who rose to prominence with via gritty dramas such as Cop Land and Girl, Interupted, and replaced respected auteur Darren Aronofsky early on in making this film, this is Mangold firmly doing his version of action blockbuster storytelling.  Although The Wolverine is far more decompressed than most of the slam-bang films that surround it on the summer marquee, this is ultimately an audience picture through and through.  The Japanese texture is to be appreciated, and it permeates the proceedings properly, but this is no character study in disguise.

Although The Wolverine marks the fifth time Hugh Jackman has strapped on the retractable claws of the character that made him famous (sixth if you count his dopey cameo in X-Men: First Class), this is actually the first time we’ve seen Logan in contemporary times since 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.  Consequently, this new film is asking audiences to recall details of that several-year-old unpopular would-be franchise-capper.  (For those who don’t recall, at the end of that story, Wolverine was forced to kill the woman he loved, Jean Grey [Famke Jansen, present in flashbacks] after she had gone irrevocably evil and super-threatening.) Ignored is the previous Wolverine solo outing, 2009’s terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Some may complain that The Wolverine is too slow going at times, and maybe it is.  But the film’s biggest problem is it’s uncharismatic villains.  It is cool to see Wolverine have to square off against a small army of ninja warriors, but their bosses – the snake lady Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, demonstrating a serpentine struggle to be sexy, which just isn’t sexy)and her Silver Samurai henchman – are completely unmemorable.  While they do manage to reduce our hero to a state more vulnerable than we’ve ever seen him before, their motivations remain murky.  But somehow that just didn’t matter all that much.  The time spent with Logan in the land of the rising sun earns certain forgivenesses.  Despite their non-presence, the consequences of the film still add up, and Logan must come to terms with who he is.  Which for him is never easy.  On a lighter note, in the short but concrete history of inconsequential credits scenes in super hero movies, The Wolverine might just have the best one yet.

Thanks to the cumulative dislike of the later X-Men movies (even the positive first impression of First Class becomes transparent upon further viewings), a certain stench of apprehensive dread has settled over every new X-project to come down the 20thCentury Fox monument.  Between that and the late July blockbuster fatigue, The Wolverine is actually aided by low expectations and tired eyes.  And although to some degree we may feel as though we’ve seen it all at this point (this film even recycles an action sequence from Star Trek Into Darkness.  This version is better) Hugh Jackman makes it work, and is a perhaps unexpectedly welcome and familiar presence to multiplexes. Wolverine is back, and even in his vulnerabilities (because of his vulnerabilities?), he’s better than before.