Despite being a decades-long franchise driving character, Marvel hasn’t had much luck with Wolverine in their movie adaptations. Hugh Jackman was a virtual unknown when he was originally cast in the role (replacing the over-committed Dougray Scott), but time has revealed how multifaceted the actor really is. Unfortunately, excepting his brief (but wonderful) cameo in X-Men: First Class, each cinematic chapter has gotten weaker and weaker, culminating in the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which surrounded the character with too many other Marvel figures and was obviously limited by having to steer those characters into the places they were supposed to be when the prequel ended. Somehow, Jackman has endured it all and still not dropped out of the Marvel universe and his commitment has finally paid off with The Wolverine, another solo picture that finally allows the actor the chance to really explore the character’s depths. The result is a character-driven piece (don’t worry – there are still some amazing action sequences) that captures why Wolverine has maintained such lengthy popularity.
Unlike the previous solo venture, The Wolverine doesn’t try to go back to before the character met up with the X-Men. Instead, we pick up after the events of the poorly adapted “Dark Phoenix” events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Wolverine, aka Logan, has struck out on his own following the deaths of Professor X and Jean Grey. He has turned his back on society and become even more of an outsider, complete with “mountain man” hair and beard. Wolverine’s self-imposed isolation comes out of the guilt of killing Jean with his own hands and he torments himself with imagined conversations with her, refusing to do any more harm. The device allows Famke Janssen a sultry chance to play the character as Wolverine perceives her without being pulled by the romantic triangle of her previous films, but more importantly it becomes an interesting starting place for the story’s exploration of heroism and responsibility.
Adapted from a Chris Claremont storyline, the film finds Logan summoned to Japan to pay final respects to a man whose life he save a lifetime before, during the bombing of Nagasaki. The elderly Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) brings an interesting offer to Logan – he can remove Wolverine’s mutant power, his healing which ultimately causes the character’s near-immortality. The offer winds up becoming less of a choice and more of something that is forced upon Logan. At the same time, Logan finds himself drawn into a web of intrigue surrounding Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). After years of isolating his super-powered self, now Wolverine has to protect the young woman with his powers in decline, facing the Japanese mafia, ninjas, and a few super-powered villains thrown in for good measure, with only the aid of another young mutant, Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who has the not-so-spectacular ability to see the moment a person will die but is incredibly quick with her sword.
Wolverine’s personal journey throughout the film is a fascinating exploration of heroism and responsibility and gives Jackman a lot of opportunity to play with a deeper side of the character then we’ve gotten to see before. This is, after all, a figure who has watched his friends, his teammates, and event he love of his life die. Meanwhile, he himself heals so rapidly that death eludes him. Haunted by the death of others, Logan is content to live out his near immortality in the bottom of a bottle, isolated, but there’s still a spark of something within him that is forced to do the right thing when he is needed, whether it’s avenging the mistreatment of an animal or helping Mariko evade kidnappers. That spark is part of Wolverine’s core, completely separated from his superpowers, as we see when he continues to pursue gun-toting mobsters regardless of his healing factor not helping with the gunshots he’s already taken. Instead of Spider-Man’s mantra of “With great power comes great responsibility,” Wolverine finds that the call to duty comes whether you want it to or not, and answering it or ignoring it has nothing to do with having mutant powers. While Wolverine has always been lauded as a gritty anti-hero, Jackman’s portrayal reveals that he’s a good person at heart, regardless of berserker rampages, foul language, or bad attitudes (all of which are equally important parts of Jackman’s Wolverine).
Director James Mangold certainly gives Wolverine plenty of opportunity to be the gritty loner fans know and love. Taking Logan to the honor and tradition fueled culture of Japan immediately makes him even more of an outsider, and the speed with which the character resorts to violence or action is frowned upon by those around him, including his guide and aid in the strange land, Yukio. As Wolverine’s healing powers go into decline, the film gets grittier, focusing on the wounds inflicted upon the character and depicting his pain and confusion through intense close-ups, focal shifts, and yes, even the dreaded shakey-cam. Here it’s used to such good measure, however, that it intensifies the lead character’s state instead of detracting from the action. The action sequences become an even mix of impressive design and tactical confusion which amplifies Wolverine’s characterization and the thematic exploration of the story. It’s rare for me to praise some of the techniques used here, but finally I feel like they’re being used skillfully instead of just being thrown at the audience in an effort to “increase realism” or simply because they are cool. The first real action piece of the film is an extended chase scene that, thanks to Mangold’s skill, never feels tiresome or chaotic; we get drawn in by Wolverine’s weakness and how it impacts the fighting just as much by the embracing tension of the situation.
The Wolverine is not all perfection, however. Thankfully the story really focuses on Logan’s journey, both inner and outer, because the villainy afoot here leaves something to be desired. Logan should be even more at odds with his surrounding considering all that is mentioned of honor and family, but as the story goes on it doesn’t feel like there’s a single character devoted to those ideals, making Wolverine just like everyone else. Even worse is the physical presence of the villain in the form of Viper, an out-of-place character whose vamping would be more at home in Batman & Robin than the gritty approach of The Wolverine. The character simply feels out of place, down to a focus on her preparation for her final action scene that makes no sense and undermines the tone and tension the rest of the film has been setting up. It doesn’t help that it’s pretty obvious actress Svetlana Khodchenkova’s dialog has been overdubbed; whether it’s by the actress herself or someone else isn’t indicated by the credits, but it’s a shoddy job with a distracting disconnect between the words and lip movement. Add in a final-act appearance by something that looks derived from Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor and suddenly the tone of the story has shifted. It’s short, and even at its worst it’s better than what audiences suffered through in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (we should all still be angry over the treatment Deadpool recieved), but it’s a deviation from what is otherwise an excellently assembled story up to that point.
Honestly, I’ve never been the biggest Wolverine fan, preferring more traditional heroes over the anti-hero approach, but Jackman’s portrayal of the character won me over throughout the X-Men trilogy. I’m thrilled that he’s finally gotten a solo picture worthy of his skill as an actor and his dedication to this character. If the audience can follow the path of the film, focusing more on the exploration of character and heroism and less on the weak villains presented here, they’re sure to enjoy The Wolverine.