The X-Men film series is definitely one with a hit-or-miss track record. Bryan Singer’s original film was a defining moment in creating the current pop culture landscape, but unfortunately it hasn’t aged terribly well. The black leather uniforms, the action, and major portions of the plot feel distinctly like relics of the late ’90s/early 2000s, but the elements that work – the mutants as metaphors, the impeccable casting, and the chemistry most of the characters have on screen – still hold up. Since then, the series has had its good moments (X2 and First Class), its bad moments (X-Men: The Last Stand) and its moments of wholly god-awful brokenness (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It’s been wildly inconsistent, but the one thing that has remained constant is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He’s the only member of the cast who has made an appearance in each of the six movies, and even during the depths of the series’ worst moments, he’s completely owned the character of Wolverine and brought him to life on screen with complete sincerity.
The Wolverine is the second movie in the X-Men series that focusses on Logan by himself, rather than as a part of the X-Men. It’s set several years after X-Men: The Last Stand, and Logan has taken to a life of exile, wandering the mountains of Canada racked with guilt over his killing of Jean Grey. He is eventually tracked down by Yukio, an employee of one of the wealthiest businessmen in Japan. Yashida, Yukio’s employer, was a soldier for Japan during World War II who was rescued by Wolverine during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki; now, as he nears the end of his life, Yashida requests a meeting with Logan to thank him for what he did all those years ago. Logan agrees to travel to Japan where he learns that Yashida’s intentions go beyond a mere extension of gratitude. Yashida reveals that he has learned off a process to allow for the transfer of mutant abilities from one individual to another and he wishes to take Wolverine’s healing factor, granting him a longer life while allowing Logan a release from the curse of immortality. Wolverine declines the offer and Yashida passes away the next day. During the funeral, members of the Yakuza (Japanese mob) kidnap Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter. Logan attempts to rescue her, but finds that his healing factor is slowly diminishing.
I’ll be upfront and say I didn’t really like The Wolverine. It’s not the worst of the X-Men movies (not by a long shot), but there were several major issues I had with the film. One of the most prominent issues for me was that the movie almost felt as if Logan’s story was grafted onto a story that had nothing to do with him. I understand that the movie is, more-or-less, an adaptation of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 comic series, but the story comes across as if it was written for an entirely different movie only to have Wolverine inserted in later drafts (think Die Hard With a Vengeance). The political intrigue and conspiracy plot is sort of interesting, but Wolverine feels decidedly detached from it. On paper, I like the idea of it: a smaller story focusing on Logan as a character, grappling with the dark side of immortality, having his immortality stripped from him, and then trying to come to the aid of the daughter of an old acquaintance who is now caught in the middle of a larger conspiracy; the problem is that none of it meshes on screen. All the disparate elements never quite come together into something that gives greater meaning to the whole.
To further complicate issues, the whole conspiracy plot is obfuscated to maddening levels. Motivations of characters are withheld from the audience until the last possible second in order to create a series of reveals that ring completely hollow. It’s the classic misconception that twists come from merely revealing something at a later time, when, in fact, an effective twist comes out of building a mystery that has legitimate weight for the characters involved. A twist should add FURTHER depth to the narrative, not hold back basic elements of character and story function from the audience. In the case of The Wolverine it’s next-to impossible to be invested in the conspiracy plot, because you have no idea what the point of any of it is. Okay, some people are after this dead business guy’s granddaughter. Why? There’s a group of ninjas who are after the other guys, but also after the granddaughter. Why? Things happen, but we’re at a loss to connect to any of it.
All of this also robs Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter, of the opportunity to establish a character. The narrative won’t allow us to know why she’s important or what role she plays in the larger conflict, so she’s essentially a walking MacGuffin; she’s something that every interested party in the story is going after without having any real motivations of her own besides not wanting to be kidnapped. Even worse, she’s a poorly developed MacGuffin because we don’t know why everyone’s after her. The movie tries to develop a love story between her and Logan, but the relationship ends up having all the chemistry and emotional weight of Indiana Jones making out with the Ark of the Covenant. On the other hand, Rila Fukushima brings a fair amount of life to the character of Yukio, and you buy her friendship with Logan more than you ever believe the romance with Mariko. It also helps that the story is allowed to define Yukio’s character.
On the bright side, the element in this movie that most consistently works is Jackman as Wolverine. As I mentioned earlier, he’s consistently been a great presence in the film series, but here he is given the opportunity to explore the character in a way that he really hasn’t in the other films. It’s the dynamic of a sensitive soul contained inside this animalistic person; the deep emotional wounds that are held inside a man created to be a weapon. Bringing him to Japan and calling upon the concept of a rōnin – a samurai without a master – is fitting and evocative of Logan’s role in the film (not to mention the landscape of Japan affords the film a gorgeously unique aesthetic among superhero films). While I know there are many of us who would be content to ignore X-Men: The Last Stand, the decision to reflect upon how the events of that film have impacted Logan is a smart one. There’s a real weight to the character’s emotional journey and it sets up a personal investment that seems to be a strong lead-in to what he will face in next year’s Days of Future Past. That said, the film DOES largely ignore the universally hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine, something I count as a wise decision. It’s not at all a sequel to Origins: Wolverine, but is instead sort of a bridge between The Last Stand and Days of Future Past.
The other thing that really did work for me was the contained scope and more methodical pace of the movie. The movie strives to be a character piece, and so the big action set pieces end up being fewer and farther between than your average summer superhero film. The elements may not always mesh 100%, but I very much appreciated the slow buildup in the beginning of the film, giving the focus to Logan rather than jumping head first into action. The action itself varies in effectiveness. There’s a fight that breaks out on top of one of Japan’s bullet trains that is a ton of fun, but a foot chase through the streets of Japan is notably less effective. Unfortunately, the tone of the movie takes a turn for the worse during the last half-hour or so, essentially turning a character story into a silly Saturday morning cartoon. It betrays the tone of the rest of the movie and ends the whole thing on a sour note.
Like the X-Men series as a whole, The Wolverine is a mixed bag. There’s definitely some value there, but the disparate nature of the story threads, the pointless withholding of information, and the jarring left-turn into the bad kind of camp made the movie fall flat for me. That being said, it seems to be well-received by many critics, including several that I have a deep admiration for. That fact alone makes me think that perhaps this movie is worth a second look, and who knows if my opinions on it will change over time. As for now, I can’t say I recommend it, and it’s just another entry on a long list of underwhelming films that have come out this year. Here’s hoping the second half of the year is better than the first.