“The Wolverine” Can’t Claw Its Way to Greatness (Review)

The short version: It’s not bad: a good effort by director James Mangold that I might just feel generous enough to recommend if for no other reason than the mid-credits Easter egg, which I won’t spoil. Hugh Jackman is great as always but the movie doesn’t really work.

With Marvel’s sprawling Cinematic Universe having reached the unprecedented heights of critical acclaim and commercial fame that it has with seemingly nothing to halt its momentum and with Warner Brothers racing to rival it with their attempt to spawn a live action Justice League franchise, the X-Men film series has become something of an odd duck.

Despite having two serviceable but not all that great starter films, a third film that rivals Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and The Matrix Revolutions in terms of its unfathomable eyeball pillaging, a fourth film that was even stupider yet inexplicably more enjoyable, the franchise clung to life, only to be defibrillated back to relevance by X-Men: First Class which is one of the greatest superhero adventures ever filmed.

What’s most interesting about the franchise is the fact that despite how terrible two of the films were – one of which was a quarter-baked origin story for everyone’s favorite mutant, no one seems to begrudge Hugh Jackman. It’s like people have placed him in an immunity bubble from all the justified venom aimed at two of the most catastrophic superhero films in history. Jackman, despite his prominent career elsewhere, is still most well-known and well liked as the Wolverine. His ten second cameo in First Class was one of that film’s highlights and there’s a good bet that a lot of people would love to see his iteration of Wolverine eventually join the Avengers.

And that’s probably what is most appealing about The Wolverine. Despite its flaws (and it has many), it’s a chance to see Hugh Jackman reprise his role and non-gruesomely kick all the butts with his shiny metal claws again.

Like First Class, The Wolverine seems determined to get you to forget its own franchise’s embarrassment for a fourth film and it actually succeeds in that. The opening scene is a brilliant showing of one of Wolverine’s heroisms that reminds us all why we love the guy. From then on, we fast forward to the present day where, haunted by the memory of the death of Jean Grey in X3, he wanders the countryside lost and confused like a ronin – an analogy that one of the supporting characters actually explains to us even when it was already evident.

When Yukio – a warrior woman sprung right out of your average anime who is never given a chance to be anything more than a plot device that isn’t even utilized all that well – finds him and convinces him to come to Japan to re-meet the man you saw him save at the start of the film, Wolverine finds himself entrapped in multiple political, familial, and mad-scientific drama schemes from various uninteresting villains whose motivations are hidden from us until the movie decides to revisit them (thereby undercutting the suspense) that he has to almost blindly tear his way out of in what amounts to a B-story with the movie pulling the, “and then THIS happens!”

Wolverine in Japan

What The Wolverine does very right is to keep the vast majority of the story focused on Wolverine himself, especially Jackman who’s clearly still got the chops for this kind of thing. His vulnerability in the film, both physically and emotionally carry forward and is mostly shown to us rather than told. Nothing in the beginning of the film is rushed, which allows for our hero and Mariko – the granddaughter of the man he saved – to actually develop some chemistry and make her a decent character. And unlike Man of Steel, this film is less interested with our hero’s powers – which it knows you’ve seen before and are probably bored of by now – and more interested in what he looks like when you take some of those powers away. The film also does a good job establishing itself as something clearly separate from the rest of the X-Men series by making good use of its setting in Japan without being overbearing about it.

What The Wolverine does utterly wrong are its multiple clumsy attempts to raise the stakes and pull out all the stops for a third act that is shockingly underwhelming for a battle that involves ninjas, Viper, and the Silver Samurai. It all comes across as too little too late, with the only interesting parts of the second act being the screen time Wolverine shares with Mariko, and from there, a rush to a climax whose action isn’t all that thrilling.

The funny thing is, most modern blockbusters suffer the opposite problem – skimping on the main character while overplaying their hands at raising the stakes for a big voyeur action sequence they hope you’ll get a kick out of. This film has too many villains, none of which are given adequate screen time to personalize the central conflicts, supporting characters that are weirdly absent from scenes that they probably should be in and that return to the fray only when the script wants them to, and plot that just can’t muster up enough steam by the end to make the kind of spectacle Mangold was clearly going for.

Wolverine vs Ninjas

I wish the final fight could have been as cool as this…but it isn’t.

The end result of this movie is that while I genuinely believe that Wolverine is no longer the same person he was at the beginning of the film and has matured as the tragic hero we all love that is hopefully destined for a greater role in Marvel’s movie canon, I have difficulty believing that it was the encompassing events of Tokyo that spurred it.

I stress – The Wolverine is not a bad movie, and compared to the two duds of the series, it’s practically high art. But the excellent setup coupled with Jackman’s charisma really can’t save the rest of it. And that’s just too bad.

Then again, as I said at the beginning, the mid-credits sequence is kind of awesome and has made me genuinely excited for Brian Singer’s upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past…y’know, other than Peter Dinklage in the role of Bolivar Trask (holy crap! holy crap! holy crap!).

The Good: The film has a terrific opening, Jackman’s still got it, solid moments of character precipice, a good chase and bullet train fight sequence at the end of the first act, great nightmare scenes with Famke Janssen, and a cool little Easter egg towards the end.

The Bad: A lot of unneeded exposition, a sloppy attempt at contriving devious villainy, and a rushed & underwhelming third act.

The Ugly: Viper is a really dumb villain who can’t seem to separate herself from Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy.

Overall: 6.3/10

Written By Vivek Subramanyam

Vivek is a handsome, talented, well-spoken political aficionado and part-time film critic who totally never ever writes mini-bios about himself.

Follow him on Twitter @VerverkS or check out his blog V for Verbatim.

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  • I really wish Fox cast bigger stars as the villains and secondary characters. I understand Jackman is the star, but you can’t have a lazy villain.. First Class did it right with bringing in Kevin Bacon. Wolverine needs a big name as well. Origins had… Danny Huston? Good actor but not the same kind of star power.

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    X3 had at least some of the same star power that its previous films had, but none of them could make a bloated and boring waste of a 3rd movie even remotely exciting. I remembered 2 lines: “I’M THE JUGGERNAUT, BITCH!!!” and Magneto saying: “In chess, the pawns go first.” when he held Pyro back. And that’s…it. Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey went from being interesting and heroic in the 2nd film to becoming almost literally an evil Galadriel. Prof X’s death was ridiculously underwhelming. The film had no idea what to do with Rogue and couldn’t decide what to do with much of the supporting cast. It’s like they were there in all their awesomeness but with nothing interesting to do.

    I agree with you that some better talent in the roles of the bad guys would have helped “The Wolverine” – especially Viper. But the third act is such a mess with very little cohesion that it’s tough to picture star power as sufficient to save it.

  • It’s such a shame too, given the characters and the mythos. You’d think ideas, stories, etc would come a lot easier and a lot cleaner.

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  • Rodney

    I think I’ll see this on Blu – I’m a bit “over” the X-men franchise at this point, and it’ll take a bit to really excite me again (I’m not even really keen to see Singer’s return to the main stable) but I hold hope that when I check it out, it’ll do what it needs to.

    Nice review!!

  • ruth

    Yes there were ninjas (and who doesn’t love ’em?) I only wish they actually had to do w/ the Wolverine story instead of just for show. Everything feels so superficial on this one, not a smidgen of emotional gravitas I expected.

  • I think its two thirds a very good film, minus a few things here and there… but If ever a franchise needed the Nolan make over its Wolverine he is the darkest of all characters…

  • Vivek Subramanyam

    I’m going to disagree with that only because Nolan’s imagination is based around reason verses emotion. His films romanticize professional coolness while dressed in dapper attire as the masculine ideal and the characters who embody such a trait are brought down or come into conflict by emotional weight. Wolverine may be dark but that wouldn’t be enough because Nolan creates films that are less about who characters truly are and more about what they do and what their goal is. That’s partially why I think that in spite of a really great three-movie run with Batman, Nolan ought to be working on his own projects and should not be adapting comic book material anymore because there really aren’t any other characters whose arcs are so compatible with Nolan’s optics as Batman is. “Man of Steel” really showed what Nolan’s limitations are. I love the guy, and I’m pumped for “Interstellar”, but if I had it my way, I’d keep Nolan as far from comic book projects as possible. Even though he’s generally the only filmmaker who can sometimes make it work, he tends to take a reductive and hyper-convoluted approach to what ought to be a simple story, and that works less and less the less realistic (and human) a superhero actually is. But that’s just what I think.

  • Dont get new wrong I am not a Nolan fan boy hated inception, hated the dark knight returns and all but hated Man Of Steel . but the early drift sequences in Man Of Steel screamed of Wolverine and the oil rig episode could have be lifted straight from a Wolverine film…

    “Wolverine may be dark but that wouldn’t be enough because Nolan creates films that are less about who characters truly are and more about what they do and what their goal is”
    but this is Wolverine to a degree, he is the sum of his parts and cant help but help… he want a nothing life but he cant have that because he cares… Hes dark because of his long life and demons, so the whole build them up and smack them back down is what he did so well with the Batman series, I dont wanna see him do it but a director like Soderberg would have been great pitty …

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