The Wolverine is a creative venture into unfamiliar territory, and a prototype for a new era of standalone CBMs.
“A man who has nightmares every night of his life is in pain.”
A pulpy actioneer that frequently flirts with some weighty dramatic concepts and genuinely compelling themes – only to fall short at the final hurdle. In an era where audiences are starting to reject the traditional save-the-world superhero schlock (X-Men: Apocalypse, Fant4stic) in favour of less conventional, standalone stories (Deadpool, Logan), The Wolverine feels like it came out just a few years too early. In many ways, it was a game-changer, heralding a new era for Fox’s inexplicably long-lasting X-Franchise – while pushing the studio ever closer to green-lighting an R-rated X-Men flick. It did the dirty work, but never seems to get recognised for its troubles.
That’s probably because it’s wildly inconsistent. The plot is pleasantly ambitious, taking this iconic North American rogue and placing him right in the midst of an operatic power struggle – set in unfamiliar territory. The various characters in conflict all expand the narrative – but some of the sub-plots feel woefully underdeveloped (Harada’s motivations). The more compelling supporting players distinguish themselves early on (Yukio, Shingen), but the film doesn’t seem to be aware of that – dolling out more screentime and significance to a somewhat stale romantic foil (Mariko) and an utterly absurd pair of villains (Viper/Yashida).
There is a fantastic character arc at the heart of this – one full of pain, fear, loneliness and regret. Hugh Jackman isolates everything that made Wolverine so compelling in the original trilogy, and intensifies it – sprinkling in a touch of “I’m too old for this shit” for good measure (but never enough to make the upcoming Logan feel redundant). This is a tale about a man dealing with grief, tormented by the lover he killed & wrestling with his immortal existence. As Yukio puts it, he’s a soldier, seeking what all soldiers do: an honourable death. It’s deep stuff from a guy who’d been largely confined to a played out Hollywood hero archetype up until this point.
By far the most intriguing element of this film is its setting. Japan offers a welcome escape from bland New York-set heroics, blending gloriously stylish ne0-noir visuals with its society’s unique reverence for history and tradition. James Mangold skilfully incorporates aspects of Japanese culture (such as love hotels or the bullet train) in distinct and entertaining fashion – without ever feeling like a superficial multi-stop tour bus. As much as I loath the film’s misplaced giant robot antagonist, even that’s a little hat-tip to the nation’s love of robotics (notably mirrored in 2013’s other blockbuster love letter to Japan, Pacific Rim).
This isn’t really a superhero flick. It’s Lost In Translation meets The Outlaw Josey Wales – infused with bitter family politics, a hero’s haunting quest for closure, and gloriously shot samurai skirmishes bathed in moonlight. And that’s something worth celebrating.
After re-watching this, I’m in the same boat as my pal staypuffed. Watching all these early reviews come out boldly declaring Logan to be ‘Wolverine finally done right’ has been pretty painful. I’m willing to bet James Mangold feels the same way as well.