This is a nice bounce back.
Fox’s X-Men film series has always been kind of a mixed bag. The first film, which came out in 1999, was a good, but not great, introduction into this world, but, most importantly, it was a success and really kicked off the modern superhero movie trend. The second one (X2 or X-Men 2 or X-Men United or whatever the hell they called it) was a huge step forward and is still one of the great comic book films of all time. After that high water mark, things went down quickly. The third X-Men film (I’m not even going to bother looking up its title; was it The Last Stand?) was a textbook study in studio development gone horribly awry. Director Bryan Singer left to make Superman Returns (yikes!) and the roulette wheel of possible replacements finally stopped on the fanboy-hated Brett Ratner. Stealing pretty liberally from Joss Whedon’s run of Astonishing X-Men comics, the third movie was a complete mess. For me, the worst aspect of that movie is that major plot developments took place until they didn’t. For instance, Magneto loses his powers to manipulate metal until he gets them back inexplicably at the end of the film. Charles Xavier is killed by Jean Grey until he isn’t. There’s nothing quite as frustrating for an audience as raising the dramatic stakes for beloved characters only to later reveal “it-was-all-a-dream-style” that those stakes never actually happened, or at least didn’t stick. Next came Fox’s truly horrendous stand-alone Wolverine movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The most interesting historical footnote in all this was that Hugh Jackman wasn’t the first choice to play Logan. (Dougray Scott must despise Hugh Jackman.) Still, Jackman kills in the role and was easily the breakout star of the series. It seemed natural to give Logan his own movie, except that movie was terrible. It also had one of the worst titles in film history. Even Jackman has recently spoken publicly about how terrible that Wolverine movie was.
Things started looking up last year with Matthew Vaughn’s 1960s-set X-Men: First Class, a genuine return to form. Unnecessary prequels are all the rage these days, but First Class effectively saved the franchise by actually being good. And, while this new Wolverine movie (simply titled The Wolverine to distance it from that last disaster) isn’t quite as good as First Class, it does continue to move the series forward in a positive direction.
A direct continuation of the “events” that took place in X-Men: The Last Stand, the film finds Logan back where he started. After a prologue that echoes the first film (it’s also set in World War II and involves Logan saving a man during the bombing of Nagasaki), we find our hero in the frozen wilderness. Still reeling from having killed Jean Grey in order to save the world, Logan has banished himself to the woods and vowed to never fight again. Jean (Famke Janssen returns for the dream sequences) visits Logan nightly in dreams that morph into nightmares. If you think Logan’s new “no violence” policy is going to last, you’ve never seen a movie before. In a weird way, The Wolverine reminded me of Shane.
Logan is soon ivsited by a punky Japanese girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the granddaughter of Yashida, the man Logan saved in the prologue. It seems Yashida went on to become a titan of industry, but he’s now and old man dying of cancer. Yashida has tracked Logan down, so he can say goodbye in person. No sooner is Logan off the plane in Japan when all hell starts to break loose. Yakuza attack Yashida’s funeral, sending Logan on the run with Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s other granddaughter and heir to his empire. Complicating things is Logan’s self-healing powers, which have somehow been neutralized. Gunshots and stabbings are now taking their toll on him.
After a pretty rousing first act, The Wolverine gets pretty baggy in the middle as Mariko and Logan are playing house and hiding from the bad guys. Jackman and Okamoto have no romantic chemistry whatsoever, so their romance doesn’t play at all. What isn’t baggy in the middle is Jackman himself, who is in tremendous shape but also shirtless in the movie to the point of it being sort of ridiculous. I know it’s rare for a middle-aged dude like Jackman to be in this kind of shape and he must have trained his a– off, but the body-flaunting started to reek of vanity after a while. Thor and Cap each got shirtless scenes to show off their superhero bods (you can make a strong case the Cap shirtless scene is actually necessary to his character), but Jackman is shirtless half the movie.
Things rally in the third act in a final showdown that while admittedly being a little silly (it involves a giant samurai robot) does have personal stakes in play. I really liked how scaled-down and personal the film is. After that Origins nightmare that tried to cram as many mutant characters into the story as was possible, I really liked that Logan is almost the only mutant in the film (Viper shows up as Yashida’s oncologist). Logan’s battles are with mortal men, lots and lots of mortal men, but he’s also mortal for most of the movie. Well, as mortal as you can be with claws and an adamantium skeleton.
The film was largely shot in Japan and features mostly Japanese actors; this gives it a nice feeling of authenticity. Fans of Asian cinema will likely dig it. And, I really liked Yukio and Logan together and how she takes on the role of being his bodyguard when he loses his invulnerability. I hope she shows up in Days of Future Past, but that thing is already so overstuffed I don’t know where she’d go.
The Wolverine was originally developed as a reunion for Jackman and his Fountain director Darren Aronofsky, which never came to fruition. James Mangold was brought in to replace Aronofsky, and Mangold is a fine journeyman filmmaker. He’s just not a visionary, and I would have loved to have seen this material brought to life by the man who made Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan.
Still, you have to review the film they made and not the one they didn’t. The Wolverine isn’t without its flaws, but it’s a return to form and a step in the right direction for the entire series.