If you were to take everything I loved as a grade-schooler (superheroes, swords, Japan, ninjas, explosions, trains, robots) and mix it all together, the end result would probably come out looking rather like “The Wolverine.” Hugh Jackman’s scowling, blade-fisted mutant warrior has been a favorite of mine for a long time (I even enjoyed 2009’s much-derided “X-Men Origins: Wolverine), making this latest iteration a must-see.
And indeed, “The Wolverine” delivers. This superhero action flick (I hate to even call it that, since it feels so little like its more clangorous brethren) offers a well-written, suitably contemplative story with real character depth.
Picking up some time after 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “The Wolverine” finds protagonist Logan hiding out in the Canadian wilderness. It’s not long before he’s found by crimson-haired, anime-heroine-styled Yukio, the ward of wealthy Japanese businessman Yashida. It seems that Yashida (formerly a Japanese soldier in WWII, saved by Logan from the devastation of Nagasaki) has a debt to repay. So, off Logan goes to Japan.
The resulting adventure (involving bullet-train chases, ninja duels, political conspiracies, and a cadre of beautiful women) feels far more like a James Bond movie than anything in the conventional superhero canon…and that’s a good thing. Partway through the story, Logan loses the use of his mutant regeneration powers, which further raises the stakes: sure, the whole “loss of powers” thing has been done before, but never with a character as emotionally brutalized as Wolverine. Both tonally and thematically, “The Wolverine” feels a good deal like last year’s outstanding “Skyfall.”
The storytelling success of “The Wolverine” is due in part to director James Mangold’s refusal to choke the movie with action. The combat scenes, when they happen, are kinetic and fantastically choreographed…but never overwhelm the very human story being told. Regarding this, it’s crucial to note that Logan’s inner conflict transcends the stereotypical “am I putting those I love at risk? superhero dilemma. For Logan, who’s basically immortal, the issue is far more abstract: what does meaning look like in an otherwise eternal existence? (Or, put another way, is it possible to live “the good life” when your life doesn’t follow a normal existential trajectory?) That’s some pretty heady stuff for a summer blockbuster, and it demonstrates a certain intellectual respect for the audience. More directors need to go this route.
Unfortunately, this question is never answered satisfactorily; the movie’s final half-hour, which devolves into a been-there-done-that symphony of chaos and destruction, keeps “The Wolverine” from top-tier greatness. Due to how dramatically it diverges from the rest of the film, I’m inclined to think this was an instance of studio meddling. On that note, it’s worth noting briefly that “The Wolverine” is an extremely brutal movie (to the point where I’m pretty surprised it ended up with a PG-13 rating). The violence and gore are several notches above anything seen in the other “X-Men” films.
Aside: In case anyone from Hollywood ever happens to stumble upon this review, here’s a novel idea: make a superhero movie with no big action scenes or set pieces. Give us “Watchmen” without the gore, or “X-Men” without the big mutant throwdowns. Maybe squirrel a brief fight in at the climax, but spend 99% of the movie on plot, characters, and themes. Now THAT would be groundbreaking. (Last year’s “Chronicle” came close to this goal.)
So is “The Wolverine” worth seeing? Yes, definitely. It’s not as gleefully fun as “Pacific Rim,” but that’s because it draws on a more nuanced storytelling tradition. Superhero fans sick of formulaic Marvel movies or DC’s disastrous non-Batman forays will be more than satisfied. In short, “The Wolverine” is sharp and fierce in all the right ways.
(Also, stay past the credits. You’ll be glad you did.)
A fresh, suitably sophisticated action movie, and the best superhero film of the summer.
Normalized Score: 6.9