How fair is it to review one film while comparing it to another? It would be easy to simply say that The Wolverine is better than its predecessor (2009’s terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and leave it at that. But that would be grading on the steepest of curves, and would unfortunately give The Wolverine too much credit. It’s true that it is a better film than Origins, which wasted an otherwise interesting character in boring backstory surrounded with a mess of jumbled X-Men mythology. The Wolverine is undoubtedly more interesting and enjoyable, but for me it’s perhaps the final nail in the coffin for X-Men spinoffs.
The Wolverine opens in 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Logan is being held there as a POW, and at the last moment he uses his body to shield a young officer from the blast. Fastforward to today, and Logan is living alone in the mountains in Canada. He is haunted by dreams/visions of Jean Grey, who he killed at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand in order to save the day. He’s a man apart, with only the barest minimum of human interaction, unable to die but afraid to live. One day, while punishing a hunter in a bar, he meets Yukio, a punkish, Japanese girl with a samurai sword and the ability to see the future, who tells Logan that she has been sent to find him. It seems Yoshido, the officer Logan saved all of those years ago, wants to see him one last time before he dies, to say thank you and to repay a debt. So Logan reluctantly agrees to meet Yoshido in Tokyo, where the old man has built a massive technology empire. Yoshido tells Logan that he has the ability to transfer Logan’s healing ability to another person, allowing Yoshido to continue living and giving Logan the death he longs for.
All of this is setup for a more interesting movie than this one, however, because time has to be spent on chases atop a bullet train and Wolverine variously fighting Yakuza gangsters or ninjas. By the time the giant robot shows up you’ll have forgotten that you were watching a movie that started by asking the question of what sort of life an immortal can ever hope to have. The Wolverine fills itself with new characters, with only Logan and the ghostly Jean returning from the previous films, but none of them are particularly interesting and some are downright confusing. It seems like almost every character outside of the easily defined “heroes” is a villain, and each has a motivation more confusing than the last. It’s easy to see why Yoshido wants to keep living (though his plan is beyond silly), yet there’s no explanation as to why his blonde nurse, a mutant herself, is in on the plan. The entire film is loaded with action that lacks context and is therefore uninteresting, while the final third of the film is just a mess.
That’s not to say the people involved aren’t trying. Hugh Jackman is as ripped as ever, and he gives the performance his all. His Logan is believably tortured and is easy to root for, though with an Oscar nomination under his belt I would hope he could demand a higher quality script. It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t have much chemistry with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, because we get countless dream sequences of the two of them which do little to advance our understanding of Logan and nothing to advance the plot. Tao Okamoto is enjoyable enough as Yoshido’s granddaughter, Mariko, whom Logan takes it upon himself to protect, but she is given little to do other than serve as a romantic interest/plot point. Rila Fukushima is similarly enjoyable as Yukio, who feels like she could have been a fun counterpart to Logan had she had more to do other than kick ass. The Japanese men in the story, Yoshio, his son, and Mariko, are not interesting enough to even mention on their own. And Svetlana Khodchenkova’s performance as the mutant Viper is so wooden and silly it feels out of place in this film.
The Wolverine is mostly a somber affair, where even the first stirrings of love aren’t given any pleasure. I imagine this was intentional on the part of director James Mangold, who wanted to give us a more serious and introspective Wolverine than we’ve seen before. I can appreciate his goals, but the need to balance over-the-top action sequences and meditations on life and death proved too much for him to handle. The movie has some interesting ideas behind it, and by attempting to make Logan mortal they at least add some suspense into the story of an invulnerable god, but none of the ideas are followed through on. The Wolverine, stylistically, seems designed to appeal to Japanophiles, which is both a blessing and a curse. Japan is a gorgeous country with a rich and intricate history. And while the scenery often does the country justice, the characterization is far from it. Every character seems to fit into a western stereotype of Japanese culture, in order to appeal to Americans. There’s the punk samurai girl with dyed hair, the demure and traditional beauty, the perpetually angry father, the corrupt partying businessman, the noble ninja warrior, etc. Combine that with some stereotypes of the culture (love hotels?) and The Wolverine comes off as kind of sad, as wish fulfillment/fantasy.
It’s all kind of a shame, and a mark of how bad Origins was that this is a noticeable improvement. And despite my complaints about The Wolverine, Logan is still an interesting and enjoyable character to watch. And with a mid-credits scene (the best part of the film) that teases the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, we clearly haven’t seen the last of him. But I think he works better as a counterpoint to the group dynamics of the X-Men than he does as the center of a movie. We’re a long way from the funny and interesting first two films, which balanced action, drama and social commentary in such a skillful way. If anything, this film could have followed soon after The Last Stand and it would have felt more relevant to the story. I have hopes for Days of Future Past, which is bringing back director Bryan Singer, but until that point we’re unfortunately left with The Wolverine. Hopefully the next film can take an Oscar nominee playing an immortal with claws and an indestructible skeleton more interesting.