The Wolverine (2013) – Directed by James Mangold – Starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Will Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Brian Tee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Famke Janssen, _______, and ___________.
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THE WOLVERINE is damn near perfect.
For the majority of its two hours, WOLVERINE is a smart, serious superhero movie for grown-ups that is far more interested in the damage in Logan’s head than it is the damage he can inflict with his adamantium-coated claws. Humor is used sparingly, emotion is painted large, and action punctuates Logan’s emotional state. It’s just a really good movie and I was totally hooked into this world, and pleased to see that Logan is still growing as a character and Hugh Jackman is still bringing a total commitment to the role. It’s all rather perfect.
And then Giant Silver Samurai shows up.
THE WOLVERINE is a superhero film that should have left the superheroes in the corner. Much like the excellent Batman Begins is really Bruce Wayne’s story, THE WOLVERINE is Logan’s story, and the inclusion of the idiotic Silver Iron Man Samurai and the B-grade villainy of Viper rob the movie of its psychological depth in order to get to the requisite punching and kicking. Whether it was director James Mangold or any of the producers or any of the studio execs, someone with control of this story lost the courage of their convictions.
It’s such a shame. I honestly don’t understand why anyone in power would think it was a good idea to spend all of this time putting Logan’s broken spirit back together, establishing his relationship with Mariko, and generally delivering a psychologically-soaked film and then washing it all away at the end so we could have a generic fight with a suit of armor and an acid-spewing villainess in green spandex.
Don’t misunderstand – I get why they did it. WOLVERINE is a superhero movie, after all, and the expectation is to see people in spandex punching and kicking one another, but if the filmmakers had enough belief in this material to not pile on the trimmings of a superhero story for so long, why cave at the end? At that point, you’d gotten everyone’s money and, just as importantly, their opinion. Altering a story’s tone that much at the end is a risky move, and for THE WOLVERINE, it’s a disastrous one.
I would not be surprised if THE WOLVERINE ends up hanging out over in the corner with Ang Lee’s Hulk, a movie that has been widely discounted save for a group of hardcore defenders. Like Hulk, WOLVERINE comes unglued at the end, might not provide enough popcorn-driven thrills to makes the masses happy, and brings in odd superheroic choices. Why Ang Lee included gamma dogs, I will never understand, and why Mangold gives any screen-time to a campy Viper and silly Giant Samurai … the shift in tone is a bit like going to Le Bernadin and getting Cookie Puss for dessert.
If that ending takes you out of the movie, I certainly understand, but for me, the strength of the bulk of Mangold’s film earns that ending a bit of a pass. Is it silly to see Wolverine suddenly fighting a giant Silver Samurai and his red hot sword – yeah, it is, but let me go back to the start of the movie and tell you why it doesn’t ruin the film for me, but rather comes off as seeing a good band put on a great concert but blowing the encore.
Taking its storytelling cues from the first two X-Men films, WOLVERINE opens in the grim reality of 1945, where Logan (Hugh Jackman) is being held prisoner in a well at a Japanese camp at the time of the bombing of Nagasaki. He sees Yashida, a young Japanese soldier, freeing prisoners, encouraging everyone to flee, but when Yashida opens Logan’s well, our bone-clawed mutant wants to stay right where he is because he knows no one is going to be able to outrun the blast. But when Yashida hesitates at committing suicide, Logan gets him to reconsider the safety of the well. Down at the bottom, Logan stands over Yashida with the well’s door pressed down onto him. When he pulls the door away, Yashida is horrified to see the very burned body of a man who just got roasted by the fallout fire from an atomic bomb. Because this is still the Marvel Universe (if not the Marvel Cinematic Universe), mutants are always more horrifying than anything else, so Yashida is freaked out by Logan’s ability to heal despite him just saving his life. Yashida recovers his good manners, offers Logan his sword, and then cries when Logan can’t accept it, but will come get it someday.
Which he has no intention of doing.
Yashida grows up to be Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita rolled into one, and when the film opens, he’s dying and has sent his semi-adopted daughter, Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to track Logan down. Logan is not having a good time of it. Borrowing another story point from X-MEN, he’s back in loner mode. Living in the Canadian woods, Logan doesn’t shave or cut his hair, he listens to a crappy radio, and he dreams of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).
I was surprised when the ads for WOLVERINE included Jean because this should have been a pretty good “Whoah” moment, but I was still pleasantly surprised at how the film uses Jean not just as a “Whoah” moment, but as an integral part of the story. She shows up several times in the film, and serves as Logan’s judgmental consciousness, tempting him to come over to the dead side of life. He dreams of her because he’s at a crossroads in his life. Jean is dead, the X-Men are in the past, and his immortality is weighing heavy on him. When a hunter shoots a poison arrow into a bear and doesn’t finish the kill, but let’s it suffer, Logan heads into town for some old school vengeance.
It’s there that Yukio finds him and instead of just watching Logan do his thing, she jumps in and kicks some ass of her own. I can’t remember growing to like a character over the course of a superhero movie this much. In these opening scenes, where she has to sell Logan on coming back to Japan with her so that Yashida can say thanks for saving him back in ’45, I wasn’t feeling the character all that much. It felt too close to simply reimagining the Logan/Rogue relationship with the younger female now the one in a better place. Over the course of the film, however, Yukio completely won me over. We learn that she was brought into the Yashida family to be friends with the old man’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who has trouble making friends. It’s an impressive performance from Fukushima, who has to remain the kick-ass swordstress while slowly peeling away her emotional shell to reveal someone who still has a very vulnerable core. She also has to be the character to carry the plot forward on multiple occasions: Logan kicks ass then looks at her to tell him where to go next. When we hit the end of the movie and she leaves with Logan, telling him, “I’m your bodyguard,” I’m ready to watch that movie right now.
Yashida doesn’t want to thank Logan, the old man wants to take his healing power in a bid to become immortal. He tries selling Logan on the idea that he’s become a Ronin, a “masterless samurai” and that what he really wants to do is die. Thankfully, Logan doesn’t buy into it, unwilling to give his burden away to someone else, but Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) comes in and puts some weird parasite inside of him that attaches to his heart and dampens his mutant healing ability.
I’m not a fan of the power dampening/removal plot – why do I want to watch Wolverine limp around? – but the film does as good a job with it, as possible. It uses Logan’s new vulnerability to open up character moments, both small (like when he gets winded after helping locals remove a felled tree) and large (like when he cuts himself open to pull the parasite out). Mangold expertly uses the lessened Logan to make the restored Logan a real big emotional moment in the film.
Yashida “dies” (it’s pretty obvious right from the start he’s not really dead because Yukio didn’t foresee it) and at the funeral, a Yakuza attack sees Logan playing hero for Mariko. It’s to WOLVERINE’s credit that there’s a fair amount of alliance shifting going on, because while Mariko’s childhood love Kenuichio Harada (an excellent Will Yun Lee) works on the same side as Logan during the funeral attack, he opposes him later on, yet his ideals to protect the Yashida family and Mariko never change. He’s allied himself with Viper because he thinks it’s a short-term evil that will lead to a long-term good.
Logan and Mariko run to Nagasaki and play house. They fall for each other but Logan is still haunted by Jean in his dreams. I really like how WOLVERINE doesn’t take the easy route with the love angle. Logan is clearly taken with Mariko but even at the end of the film, it’s Jean that gets his proclamation of love. What Logan and Mariko have together is not quite magical, and not quite true love-at-first-sight, but their relationship feels very real to me. Mariko is a bit of a flat character, but that works to the story’s advantage; she’s in need of protection and Logan is in need of someone to protect so they come together based largely on the other filling a need, but at the end of the film the romance isn’t developed enough for them to stick together.
WOLVERINE is Jackman’s finest hour as our favorite furry Canadian, and he plays a strong character in a bad place very well. There is a sheen of cleanliness to all the proceedings, and I think I would have preferred to see the film be a little less slick and little more dark and atmospheric. None of the X-Men films have been anything but slickly visual, though; much like Jon Favreu set the proper tone for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I think Bryan Singer set the wrong tone for the X-Men films, which have always comes across to me as a little too much like a costume party. That’s not to say there haven’t been good films (X2 was fantastic), but I’ve rarely believed in the X-films as wholly realized universes. THE WOLVERINE carries on with the same look, but Mangold manages to create an actual world that I can believe. With simple strokes, Mangold gives you just the right information about a character for their whole life to emerge. You can see how all of these pieces have been woven together over the years, which helps to enforce Logan’s position as outsider.
The world of the Yashida family is so good, and Logan’s battle with Mariko’s father is so great, that it’s almost incomprehensible to me that no one saw how Viper and Giant Samurai derail the film’s final act. We have this fantastic lead up where the revitalized Logan is battling against Harada and his ninja allies (including a truly heartbreaking look from Mariko as Logan falls, his back littered with arrows), and then he wakes up and it’s just silly nonsense the rest of the way.
What we’re witnessing here is Mangold’s Japan slowly giving way to Singer’s costume party. The fights between Logan and Silver Samurai and Yukio and Viper are instantly forgettable, and the Samurai comes off as completely goofy, which is not what you want when Logan is going to get all six of his claws cut off. It is pretty cool to see Logan with his bone claws again, and I really love the ending with his saying goodbye to Mariko and climbing aboard the Yashida private jet with Yukio. I really did not like the post-credits sequence with Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) recruiting him at an airport as an advertisement for Trask Industries plays on a television screen. It’s a clumsy and hammy manner to bridge THE WOLVERINE with X-MEN: DAYS OF THE FUTURE PAST, and it completes the walk back over into Singer’s world. It’s nothing but a tack-on (why couldn’t we get Trask laid in during the film?) and because we’ve seen the Avengers films cross-pollinate so effectively, it’s not enough just to have Magneto and Xavier show up. No one in the crowd (a very sizable audience for a noon showing) clapped or whooped at their arrival.
Despite the cheese of the final act, however, THE WOLVERINE ranks with the best non-MCU Marvel movies. It’s exactly the kind of superhero film we need to see if we want to avoid superhero burnout because WOLVERINE is clearly it’s own film until those last 15 minutes. James Mangold, Hugh Jackman, and the rest of the excellent cast have produced a serious, mature film. It’s the first superhero movie where I wanted to see less superheroes. Logan’s final battle didn’t need an inflated giant man in a suit of adamantium, and we we didn’t need Viper to put on the green spandex and have a forked tongue. Those are plays to expectation and not the bold, signature, singular statement delivered by the rest of WOLVERINE.
Maybe, like Ang Lee’s Hulk, I’ll end up defending THE WOLVERINE a little too vociferously over the coming years. This is not a perfect movie, but it’s so damn close that I’m not willing to let the final act destroy my admiration of the fine work put in by the cast and crew. Like Hulk, like Blade, THE WOLVERINE is something familiar but also unique, and I appreciate the heck out of that.
When he’s not reviewing movies, Mark Bousquet is doing some creative writing himself. He is the author of multiple novels and collections, including The Haunting of Kraken Moor (horror), Gunfighter Gothic (weird western), Stuffed Animals for Hire (children lit), Dreamer’s Syndrome (urban fantasy), Harpsichord and the Wormhole Witches (cosmic pulp), and Adventures of the Five (children lit). He has also published a review collection entitled Marvel Comics on Film, which covers every cinematic and TV movie based on a superhero from the House of Ideas. A complete listing of all his work can be found at his Amazon author page.