After four years in the wilderness, the X-Men’s hairiest, surliest associate is back with his own feature film. And good news: it’s not X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
There was a lot to feel hopeful as The Wolverine approached. Even with the original director, Darren Aronofsky, having dropped off the project, there was still the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller source material in place – the cool Japanese milieu, Wolverine as a ronin (samurai without a master) – and, of course, Hugh Jackman, who is to the 20th Century Fox X-verse what Robert Downey Jr. is to the MCU.
After 3:10 to Yuma‘s James Mangold came on-board and trailers revealed that the film would address the issue of Wolverine’s invulnerability (going so far, in fact, as to strip it from him), as well as being a “sort of sequel” to X-Men: The Last Stand. While The Wolverine may not fully live up to the promise contained above, it manages to be a pretty awesome Samurai Western that does a lot right.
Following the events of Last Stand, Logan is in a bad place, namely living rough in the backwoods of the Yukon, trying not to come to blows with the neighborhood grizzly. He’s still mourning the death of Jean Grey, more specifically being forced to take her life. Famke Janssen makes repeat appearances in Logan’s dreams/nightmares to allure and torment him, though whether as just an aspect of his trauma or something deeper (perhaps a psychic remnant of The Dark Phoenix, for instance) is never made clear.
Soon enough, however, Logan finds himself forced back into civilization when Rila Fukushima‘s red-haired, pixieish-but-deadly Yukio escorts him to Tokyo as the final request of her employer, Yashida (Harahiko Yamanouchi), whom Logan saved in the nuclear blast at Nagasaki almost sixty years before. As the trailers have revealed, Yashida makes Logan an offer, to take from him the curse of immortality. Logan gives him the old “thanks but no thanks”, but quickly comes to realize he’s not gonna be given much choice in the matter.
While Origins felt largely expository – filling in gaps in Logan’s backstory that nobody really asked for – The Wolverine really feels like it has a purpose and a story to tell. After suffering heartbreak, Logan has reverted to the type of figure he was pre-X-Men; if anything, more of a hermit, an outwardly pathetic figure. The script here, by Mark Bomback and Chris Frank(with an uncredited first draft by The Usual Suspects scribe Chris McQuarrie, who also did uncredited rewrites on the first film), is more concerned with taking Logan past them, getting him back on his feet for X-Men: Days of Future Past.
That may sound dismissive, but Logan can’t just shrug off that personal tragedy unaffected – despite what Scott Summers might say – nor, for that matter, bullets. The secondary characters don’t fare quite as well – more on that later – but this a film about what makes Logan tick, perhaps even more so than X2; arguably the previous gold standard for all things Wolverine.
In recent months, Mangold has revealed many of the films that influenced his take on The Wolverine, even Tweeting a series of images from ten films that were particular inspirations. These films, including Chungking Express and The Outlaw Josey Wales, were a peculiar blend of Japanese culture and the Old West (with a touch of film noir thrown in for good measure).
While not always stylistically in evidence, Logan, gunslinger-like, does arrive in town largely unwelcome (like the eponymous Shane in another film on Mangold’s list). Mariko Yashida, the elder Yashida’s granddaughter (played by Tao Okamoto), dismisses him as a “caveman” while her father Shingen (played by the strangely recognizable Hiroyuki Sanada) encourages his departure.
The Western as a genre has always been influenced by samurai films (John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is a Westernized remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), though here the parallels are made overt. It’s easy to forget at points that this is an X-Men film – in a good way.
For one thing, Logan’s fellow mutants are thin on the ground in this one – Origins was overloaded with them, here you blink and miss them. The only other substantive mutant presence in the film comes in the form of the death-foretelling Yuriko (the second bearer of that name after X2‘s Lady Deathstrike) and Svetlana Khodchenkova’s smirking Viper, a poison spitting self-professed “chemist, nihilist, capitalist”.
This is the closest to a motivation the film gives Viper: there’s no ostensible reason for her to be doing what she’s doing, apart from taking a certain wicked delight in the death and mayhem, and, as such – palling around with the likes of Will Yun Lee‘s equally secondary, somewhat more conflicted Harada – she’s probably the most forgettable villain the X-Men series has had since… I forget (well, Toad possibly; more likely Last Stand‘s Psylocke – I know, you say, “Who?”).
Hugh Jackman, however, is on usual great vein-y, muscle-y form (lean and animalistic, he says this is the closest he’s got to the look he’s wanted for the character); even more impressive when you consider this is his first proper film appearance since Les Mis‘ emaciated Jean Valjean.
After four films in the role (plus a cameo in X-Men: First Class) and with Days of Future Past likely to be his last, Jackman continues to capture the perfect balance between gruff, rough-edged-ness and fundamental decency that make Logan so compelling. His recalcitrant need to do good, to get involved, almost against his will is made all the more heroic in The Wolverine by his new-found vulnerability.
While you might never quite believe he can die – this is, after all, a franchise – the film certainly generates a sense of jeopardy as those wounds resolutely refuse to heal. There’s a particular scene involving an impromptu bit of self-surgery that certainly gets the blood pumping and when Logan hurtles down a bullet train, airborne and snarling, claws extended, at an unfortunate henchmen it certainly makes you remember there’s more to Wolverine’s reputation than a laconic “Go fuck yourself” – this guy’s an animal!
Sadly, however, The Wolverine falls down a little on one aspect that will be close to the heart’s of comic book fans, namely the romance between Logan and Mariko. While there’s nothing particularly wrong with its portrayal – he starts off calling her “Princess”, she wants to be left alone, soon enough they’re snogging, all very Temple of Doom – it feels wrong in the context of Logan’s continuing grief over the death of Jean.
The exact nature of their relationship is never explained – he wants to protect her, sure, but is this true love or what? – and it gives the whole affair the feel of a summer hookup in order to get over a bad breakup. The whole Logan/Mariko thing would have worked better platonically, you know, as friends.
Even so, The Wolverine‘s action sequences and the title characters arc more than make up for these flaws; the supporting cast all turn in solid performances in, to differing degrees, thankless roles (after initially being set up as a bad-ass, Harada becomes this film’s Cyclops). A climactic battle with the Silver Samurai, for instance, features one or two surprises.
The Wolverine even, borderline remarkably, just about manages to justify its use of the bombing of Nagasaki as relatively non-exploitative. Admittedly the Nazi death camps were a crucial part of Magneto’s origins in X-Men and First Class, but America’s second nuclear strike on Japan is just one in a long series of events that make up Logan’s storied existence (after all, he made it through “every” American war).
The film, however, manages to weave it into a metaphor for the possibility of recovery: if the scorched and blighted landscape Logan and Yashida witnessed when they emerged from cover can be restored why not Logan himself? The elderly Yashida’s fear of death is what sets the whole plot in motion – not unreasonable given he witnessed an event responsible for the deaths of up to 80,000 people. Logan’s journey is about coming to terms with life, which tends to be the most difficult part.
The Wolverine‘s approach to the character is alluded to at a moment in which Mariko reveals to Logan that her grandfather told her of Logan’s existence in a bedtime story, claiming that the man who saved him would be her guardian. As well as being strangely prophetic, it suggests what Mangold and co. have been up to all along: re-mythologizing the beast.
The film cuts to the heart of who Logan is by making him more human than he’s ever been yet – while Origins knocked him down by dwelling too much in/on the past, failures and tragedies – The Wolverine has an eye on the future; setting Logan against archetypes, like the purely evil Viper, in order to build him up, get him back in fighting shape for the comping apocalypse.
It’s about Wolverine resuming the mantle, rising again from the ashes, appropriately (ironically?) phoenix-like. This might be giving the film too much credit: it’s flawed, occasionally predictable, but it’s fun, well shot, has purpose, focus, and isn’t as standalone as you might think…