Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine

He's arguably the most popular of the X-Men, or at least Hugh Jackman's portrayal of him is. Logan, or as he's more commonly known "Wolverine," has already had one outing as a lead character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and it didn't go so well. Despite sufficient commercial success, the film received a great deal of negative press - though Jackman's take on the character remained in the fan's and critics' good graces.

Initially envisioned as a sequel to Origins, The Wolverine went through a minor whirlwind of writers and directors before eventually securing James Mangold behind the camera. Having been at the helm of decidedly non-comic book fare (Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted, and 3:10 to Yuma most notably) for most of his career, Mangold's involvement implied a more character-driven piece than most comic book films are known for being - though personally I was a little dismayed when Darren Aronofsky dropped off this project.

Emerging from a minor miasma of production delays and setbacks is a film that chronologically follows the events of X-Men: The Last Stand but succeeds as a standalone piece. Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) lives as a kind of mountain-man/hermit on the outskirts of a nondescript Yukon town, plagued by nightmares of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and surviving the bombing of Nagasaki long before the events of the first few X-Men films. Early on, he's approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who tells him that a Japanese soldier he saved during the bombing named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is on the verge of death and wishes to thank Logan for saving his life all those years ago. Arriving in Tokyo, Logan discovers a much darker plan behind his being brought to Japan, suddenly pitted against ninjas, yakuza, Viper (played by Svetlana Kodchenkova) and - naturally - his own demons.


Fortunately, there are a lot of good things to say about this movie.

Taking the character completely out of his natural North American habitat is a fantastic setup, and the film makes wonderful use of the contrast. Accustomed to getting in bar-fights and shocking non-mutants with his vicious adamantium claws, Logan undergoes more than just culture shock once the action gets going. But rather than simply being another "white savior" narrative (e.g. The Last Samurai or 47 Ronin - whose trailer practically promises a dud), Logan is unwittingly swept away by the complexities of an epic family feud and the machinations of villains beyond his control. It's not something we've never seen before - the reluctant, cynical hero forced to get involved - but it's something that suits this character perfectly.

On top of that, the film's side characters are actually engaging and fleshed out (to varying extents) individuals with often complex motivations. Yukio acts as something of a companion to the Yashida family, who we discover adopted her at an early age. Despite her appearance - a kind of punk anime school girl - she demonstrates masterful skill with the katana and jokingly refers to herself as Logan's "bodyguard." Mariko Yashida, (Tao Okamoto) the granddaughter of the Yashida that Logan saved at the beginning of the film, becomes something of a love interest for Logan - despite the apparitions of Jean Grey that act as a manifestation of his psychological torment. Hiroyuki Sanada plays Shingen Yashida - Mariko's father, a son jilted out of his inheritance by the dying wish of an old man.  So as you can see, the underlying framework of the narrative into which Logan is dropped is complex and engaging enough even before he shows up, thus it gives our hero a good deal to work with story-wise.

And no superhero movie is complete without the fight scenes. Though the first big outbreak of gunfire and Wolverine-rage gets a bit lost in the somewhat shaky-cam shuffle, the rest of the film wisely restrains itself in letting the action flow with a much more choreographed and structured grace. The visual effects are also tastefully deployed for the most part, relying on CGI only when necessary and not bludgeoning the audience with spectacle the way a handful of recent superhero films have seen fit to.


The Wolverine is not without flaw, though I'll say that overall its shortcomings are outweighed by its strengths.

My biggest beef with the film is that the main antagonist, Viper, isn't really the villain I hoped for. Kodchenkova plays the character with all the appropriate vampy beats, but as a character she's not very fleshed out or strong. This isn't always a bad move - especially considering how many characters this film asks you to keep track of - but Wolverine is such a strong character to begin with, he needs an equally strong character pitted against him.

As a number of critics have noted, the film's third act does stumble a bit. It couldn't really be avoided; a film like this has to pay off with a big epic showdown, and in this case it's effectively Wolverine versus Silver Samurai. Story-wise, again, it's the right kind of ending - but the film takes such pain to build a narrative that's more grounded and character-driven that it felt like more of a stretch than usual to suspend disbelief during the climactic conflict.


With movies like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3 letting their visual effects take a front seat to some of the more meaty aspects of their story, The Wolverine is a welcome change of pace. It's still a superhero movie, and even an occasionally predictable one, but the finesse with which its crafted and the tasteful presentation of most of the film's visual effects are what set it apart.

There's some real character development here, which is no easy trick considering how well-defined Wolverine already is. While The Wolverine has a very definite place in the sequence of events outlined in previous films, it feels much more like a standalone story than a sequel or a prequel or a whatever-quel. Even with a post-credits stinger that seems to set up the events of the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, this movie exists as a narrative unto itself and doesn't require any pre-existing knowledge or understanding of the X-Men universe to truly appreciate. There are a handful of sight gags and references here and there, but The Wolverine isn't confined to the chronology of another film or series of films and as such explores its own story on its own time by its own rules - much like the title character.

The Wolverine doesn't fully ascend to the heights of the original X-Men, X2, or X-Men: First Class - but it's a vast improvement over Wolverine's Origins title. And Hugh Jackman still spends just enough time shirtless and raging to make it all worth while. So if you're getting tired of some of the excesses of more recent superhero films, The Wolverine is a welcome reprieve and return to form.