I don’t know if it is common knowledge yet, but I pretty much hated the first stand-alone Wolverine movie. Its plot didn’t make any sense, the CG was lazy (at best), and the far-reaching story-line left much to be desired. Almost none of those problems exist here. The Wolverine is a high-octane action thriller with a fairly self-contained narrative, decent female characters, and a
compelling, though limited, examination of mortality. This is one you should see on the big screen!
The Wolverine begins many years after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. A psychologically-wounded Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) lives a mostly solitary life in the woods, desperately trying to fend off his nightmarish dreams with alcohol. One of the dreams involves a Japanese soldier man named Yoshida (Ken Yamamura), who he saves from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The other dream involves none other than a mental reconstruction of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who forms the metaphorical representation of his deepest injuries: those of the soul. Eventually his past catches up with him: much older Yoshida (Hal Yamanouchi) has sent one of his agents, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to find the Wolverine to offer the “gift” of mortality in exchange for taking Logan’s gifts for himself. But the schemes in the Yoshida household are not what they seem: Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is set to inherent “the throne,” her father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), wants her out of the way, and a mysterious mutant known as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) has managed to stop the Wolverine’s regenerative abilities in the service of her own violent agenda. Trapped in the middle, Logan must protect Mariko, uncover the plots that seem ready to destroy her, and regain his abilities before his injuries finally catch up with him.
Needless to say, a lot of people get stabbed.
There are a lot of things I love about this movie, but due to space, I can’t cover them all in depth. What I will say is this: the film met my basic expectations. When I came to The Wolverine, I wanted the following:
- Decent CG (Wolverine’s claws should actually look like metal claws)
- A Coherent Plot (no giant plot holes)
- Decent Character Development (the main folks should actually change somehow)
- Focus (10,000 subplots do not a good movie make)
- Awesome Action (good choreography and bit of gritty realism)
The Wolverine offers pretty much all of these, more or less.
First, I have to talk about the visuals for the film. While the direction is perhaps somewhat uninspired (where’s some Bourne-style action when you need it?), the look of the film does not disappoint. Bad visuals are one of my biggest pet peeves. If I can’t believe what I’m seeing on the screen — within reason — then I cannot get into the characters whose motivations are based in part on the world in which they exist. In the case of The Wolverine, the visuals rarely fall short of reasonably realistic, and this made it possible for me to suspend disbelief and immerse myself into the film experience. For example, Wolverine’s claws, which spend as much time on screen as every other actor other than Jackman, are rendered so well that it’s hard to believe they’re not actually part of his hands. The same is true for Wolverine’s injuries, which always look (and, by extension, feel) real.
Additionally, the action sequences look beautiful, most notably the bullet train fight, in which Wolverine takes on several knife-wielding thugs while trying not to get thrown off the 300 MPH vehicle or get smacked by a metal arch or a billboard. Usually fights on top of large moving vehicles are dull and repetitive. While I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness, the climactic flying dumpster battle at the end left much to be desired. Here, however, the stakes have been raised. The heroes and villains both struggle to hang on to the top of the train while trying to kill one another. This makes for good comedy, such as when Wolverine feigns jumping over a metal beam, thus smacking one of his enemies into paste, but it also makes for a fight scene that has seemingly real stakes.* Anyone can die.
Death is one of the things that makes this film far better than the Origins version. The film explores two different dimensions of mortality: the pain Wolverine feels at carrying the memory of killing Jean Grey within him and how discovering the possibility of death can change people. I’ll admit that I didn’t care for the way they manifested Wolverine’s dream-sequence-Jean-Grey terrors, but I at least understand what the director/writers wanted to do. Wolverine believes he has no reason to live, and that the root of that disinterest in life stems from Jean Grey’s death/murder. But what he apparently has to discover by the end of the film is a different sort of purpose in life, one that involves using his powers for something greater than himself. I don’t think the film makes this message explicit, but the last moments of the film seem to suggest, to me, that Wolverine’s rediscovery of the value of life, in part through his relationship with Mariko, represents one of the fundamental breaks from a life of killing necessary to turn Wolverine into more than his past.
The other major exploration of mortality concerns Wolverine’s apparent vulnerability. For at least half of the film, Wolverine is supposedly susceptible to the same physical pressures of any other regular Joe. With his healing factor turned off, every attack could end his life. In every other film incarnation of the character, Wolverine can take bullet after bullet without so much as blinking. He doesn’t get tired. His head never rings from a blow. He simple grimaces and moves on. Filmmakers have responded to this by creating villains that do bigger and badder things, which seems like a horrible slippery slope to me: once you start doing that, you have to keep making the villains bigger. But in The Wolverine, he bleeds, and then keeps bleeding. When someone smacks him on the skull with a fist or a blunt object, he falls — the film also makes an effort to show just what having a metal skull would do to a person…ring, ring, ring. Unfortunately, while the narrative plays up the mortality narrative, the film doesn’t address why Wolverine can keep moving about despite his serious injuries. He might grow tired or weak, but somehow he keeps going. The film never offers an explanation for this, though I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that even without his healing factor, Wolverine isn’t like the rest of us. I, however, would have liked the film to reduce Wolverine to a total mortal, to put him out of commission for part of the film so that the secondary characters, especially the women, can take charge.
And that’s one thing that this film does quite well: the female heroes are relatively three-dimensional and compelling. Yukio, who sees the future, is a sensitive martial arts expert with a side of arrogant snark. And her action sequences are some of the best for one really good reason: she kicks serious ass and knows how to navigate the field of battle when the deck is turned against her. The other main female character, Mariko, seems to fall within the realm of a traditional Japanese woman (somewhat timid and willing to defer to her male elders) and fulfill the cliche “damsel in distress” trope. However, her character does develop from timid to determined young woman by the end; she may never become the one who uses physical force to get the job done (that’s Yukio’s job), but she seems to recognize that strength can come from elsewhere. The narrative also pays attention to the relationship between Yukio and Mariko, albeit somewhat simplistically. While they are interesting because they are opposites of one another — socioeconomically and physically — giving their characters some background makes them more than mere set dressing. I wanted to learn more about them, but I knew going in that The Wolverine was an action film, not a drama.**
That doesn’t mean the film didn’t have enough space to give us a little more about Yukio and Mariko. One of the criticisms many have lobbed at The Wolverine concerns its unnecessarily complicated list of villains. I won’t name them all here; all you need to know is this: there are at least five different villains, some of whom are working with one another (sorta). While the film more or less closes all of its villain loops, the overabundance of villainous characters means that no single villain gets much attention at all. The single mutant in the list, Viper, is the most caricatured villain of the lot; her motivations are never made clear, and what few lines she’s given tell us nothing about her character other than that she is a bad person and has creepy super powers. The other villains at least get a little depth, but it is superficial depth at best. The result is a film that sometimes has to rush through things before it can get to the next major plot point. This is no more apparent in the climax, when at least three of the five villains are dispensed in the same sequence. It doesn’t make for good character development, both because the villains aren’t really characters at all and because all the time setting up all those villains takes away from time that could be spent on other characters.
I will say this about the villains, though: the film avoids playing the “we have to create a villain so super powerful that Wolverine can’t possibly win” card.
Overall, I actually quite liked The Wolverine. While there are too many villains, which strains the plot and the development of the major characters, and there are some continuity issues in terms of Wolverine’s powers, etc., I found the experience of the film mostly enjoyable. There were quite a few humorous moments, the action sequences were exciting and high-energy, and the narrative, however strained, made sense. If this is what we can expect from future Wolverine movies, then I think we’re moving in all the right directions.
Adaptation: N/A (I haven’t read the relevant comics for this chapter of Wolverine’s life, though I am familiar with them.)
Overall: 3.5/5 (70%)
Inflated Grade: B (for exciting action, a contained narrative, decent secondary characters, and Hugh Jackman’s sexy self)
Value: $7.50 (based on a $10.50 max)
*This scene occurs after Wolverine’s healing powers have been dampened, which means that he’ll pretty much die if he gets smacked by a support beam.
**Yes, this film passes the Bechdel Test.
Note: I’ve heard some folks criticize the film because of its representation of Japanese culture. If I were more informed about Japanese culture, I would feel comfortable to comment. However, I honestly don’t know enough about Japan to know whether the Japan in The Wolverine is an ethnocentric stereotype. Does anyone have any insight here?