I think if you asked most people what is ruining superhero movies today, many would point to predictably tedious origin stories, stereotypically global stakes and out-of-character moments designed to fit Hollywood formula more than fan service. It can fairly easily be said that The Wolverine doesn’t fall into these traps to the same degree that its predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine did.
Does it break away from them as cleanly as it needs to? Well, that’s a different question. Truth is, this may yet not be quite the Wolverine movie you’ve hoped for. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction. It’s close…and yet it very literally has no cigar.
James Mangold’s film loosely follows the popular Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries, with complications added for the sake of the cinematic storyline – where the comics could presuppose an existing relationship between claw-popping mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Japanese heiress Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), the movie makes their attraction new, while ignoring the part of the love triangle filled by assassin Yukio (Rila Fukushima) in favor of the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who bit the big one in X3, and Wolvie still pines for. So much so, in fact, that she keeps reappearing to him in dreams urging him to kill himself so they can be together in whatever cinematic afterlife this Marvel universe has. (Sadly for this scenario, Peter Fonda’s Satan, Ciaran Hinds’ other Satan, and Nic Cage’s Ghost Rider exist in a different movie studio’s reality.)
Summoned to Japan at the dying request of Mariko’s dad Mr. Yashida, whose life he saved in Nagasaki – where he was a POW yet somehow knew everything about the atomic bomb that was coming – Wolverine/Logan finds himself faced with an offer: attain the mortality he has longed for all these years by somehow transferring it to the dying CEO. In short order, he finds out the hard way that it doesn’t matter what his answer is, as his powers have already been stripped. That the movie never bothers with the pseudo-science to explain why is for the better – just accept that he inhaled green mist and that a mechanical spider is now clutching his heart, and we’re good.
The whole power-losing thing isn’t in the comics, but Superman and Spider-Man made it mandatory in solo sequels, don’cha know. At any rate, there’d be no more film if Wolverine decided to use his newfound mortality to go quietly into that good night; instead, he sleeps with Mariko and impales a whole bunch of disposable baddies en route to finding out what exactly is going on. Doing so brings him into confrontation with Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who, unlike in the comics, is now a mutant with poorly defined powers of convenience – she can spray poison, but also suck it up and negate its effects completely if she so chooses. How? Shut up.
Despite the leaps in logic – which I’m more forgiving of simply because Mangold doesn’t even try to justify them – this is a nifty solo adventure for Wolvie, with the stakes being notably less than the usual fate of the world, and lacking a tedious moral compass to keep lecturing us about how killing is bad, m’kay? Despite what it looked like in the trailers, the fight scene atop the bullet train is a masterpiece of staging, and Jackman’s sarcasm takes us back to the first film where he won us over.
It’s a shame, then, that things end up in yet another hi-tech secret lab as yet another new mutant awakens to test his ostensibly superior abilities against Logan’s – the comic series had it be a rematch between Logan and a non-powered samurai master who had bested him prior, while this feels like a studio-mandated effects monster, whose identity would be more relevant if unveiled sooner.
Seeing a solo hero without constraints on a mission purely to serve his own ends is something reasonably new for superhero cinema, yet the fact that this flick pulls it off somewhat doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask for more. At the same time, had this been the first Wolverine movie ever, we all would have eaten it up. It may not be perfect, but at least this time it is recognizably Logan.
Stay through the mid-credits for a scene setting up the next X-flick.