With Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine soon becoming the single most often depicted character portrayed by a single actor on-screen, James Mangold attempts to convince us that we should return after the last solo outing burned bridges and disrespected audiences. Should you take him up on his offer?
The Wolverine, pulling from Frank Miller’s celebrated story arc, finds Logan living a nomadic, pacifist life in the wild before being brought to Japan by a wealthy businessman, who he saved in the second World War, with the promise of a gift enticing to a tortured immortal. Giving a ronin a purpose, to use the film’s rhetoric.
Straight off the bat what’s most apparent is that the film really embraces its Japanese setting. It takes place almost entirely in the land of the rising sun, looking and feeling like it without venturing into the realm of the stereotypical. This extends to the cast as well where Asian actors handily outnumber their Western counterparts. It’s refreshing to see a major tentpole that’s not just a plethora of white dudes saving the world.
This is an X-Men film through and through so you largely know how it goes, although the pacing is surprisingly measured, it’s not as much of a balls-to-the-wall action bonanza as you might expect. Instead, the focus is on exploring Wolverine’s character, and it’s really when it tries to bring action onto the center stage when the film and script falter. Wisely, they avoid any sort of fish-out-of-water humor, instead maintaining a, mostly, consistent tone.
For as strongly as the film handles its protagonist it handles the antagonists poorly in equal measure. The villain’s motivations don’t really make sense and don’t really gel with the main villain that’s set-up up until that point. The filmmakers never earn that character’s actions and decisions, partly because of them being dead set on including a mystery element. The central mystery’s ultimate reveal is nowhere near rewarding or worthwhile enough to justify keeping the villains’ motives oblique throughout the film. You may find yourself wondering why all of this really happened when all the cards are down. The movie also plays a little too fast and loose with character powers and abilities, which does hinder your engagement with proceedings.
Viper in particular is a complete nothing character, she’s simply evil for the sake of being evil. Svetlana Khodchenkova does what she can with what she’s given, but it ends up as a rather cheesy 90s villain with no discernible motivations or reasoning beyond being bad. The film doesn’t often fall victim to the exposition stick but Khodchenkova is on the receiving end of its most severe beatings, notably in a scene which serves no other purpose than to recap the preceding events and remind you that the super obviously evil Viper is super evil. Obviously.
There are a handful of impressive sequences and moments that really work and feel impactful; among them the opening that depicts the bombing of Nagasaki, an inventive action scene on the top of a bullet train (which looks better than it does in the trailer) and good character moments with Wolverine. All of them hinge on Hugh Jackman selling the nature of a tortured animalistic immortal. The most insanely ripped, tortured immortal ever, mind you. The entire crux of the film is him losing his ability to heal so for the first time he’s actually physically vulnerable, not just emotionally. Without Jackman’s performance the film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, or at all.
The central romantic relationship between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is frustrating. For the most part the film seems like it’s just setting up a platonic bond between the two (perhaps because she already has two other love interests), but as it turns out it was simply doing a poor job at romance. Beyond that there are several other problems involved such as her being hundreds of years younger than Logan, Edward Cullen Syndrome, and the fact that she grew up with stories of him, Wolverine eventually becoming something of a spiritual guardian to her. It’s all a bit icky and tone-deaf. The film could’ve gone in several more interesting directions with her romance thread but instead chooses the laziest and most predictable one.
What fares far better however is the relationship between Logan and Yukio, played by Rila Fukushima. There’s much more present in that connection for you to latch on to. She’s a capable warrior and a fun screen presence, it’s a shame really that all of her action scenes are so poorly framed, with the camera much too close for the viewer to accurately comprehend what’s going on. This problem also extends into to the entirety of the first half’s action set pieces, save for the aforementioned train sequence.
Tertiary characters are frequently underwritten, most egregiously for who can only really be called Asian Hawkeye. He starts out mysterious but you eventually discover that’s only because there’s actually really nothing there to discover as his motives and actions fluctuate without rhyme or reason.
Mangold and co. do lose their grip on proceedings almost completely in the final confrontation, where all of the film’s failings are glaringly apparent. It’s still pretty fun to watch but it really goes off the rails.
Despite these problems the film is still eminently watchable and frankly enjoyable. Jackman is so good in the role that he does distract from a lot of the problems that are present and carries the film on the strength of his dynamic with Yukio and the lingering presence of Jean Grey on his conscience.
In a somewhat unfortunate turn of events the absolute best thing about the film however is its ending stinger, a nerdgasm setting up the events of next year’s Days of Future Past and Wolverine’s role in it. It’s almost a shame that Mangold’s mostly solid effort is overshadowed by something that’s essentially completely removed from the plot of the film.
Final Verdict: The Wolverine is a fine entry into the X-Men series, handily better than the abhorrent Origins and Last Stand but also way inferior to First Class and X2. Sitting somewhere below the original X-Men, Mangold’s film remains entertaining throughout and a stands as a worthwhile summer blockbuster. So, yes. You can accept Mangold’s offer, without too many hang ups.