Wolverine is a comic character who’s popularity has continued to grow steadily for many years, ever since his first appearance in The Incredible Hulk #180. His fame has gotten to the point where he’s starring in at least six different comic series at the same time (maybe he has time altering powers too?). Given this, it’s understandable why it was felt necessary to give him his own solo movies apart from the main X-Men franchise. 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine though was not received well, and can be described as (paraphrasing Ned Flanders slightly) “a feature length answer to a question nobody asked”. Thankfully, The Wolverine is a vast improvement, giving the franchise the same sort of shot in the arm that First Class did for the main X-Men series.
Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is living rough in a self-imposed exile, haunted by his distant past and more recent tragedies. He is bought out of this by the arrival of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a representative of the Yashida corporation. The head of the company and family (Hal Yamanouchi) met Logan at the end of WWII when Logan saved his life near Nagasaki. But this is more than just a reunion of friends; there’s a deadly conspiracy at work against Yashida’s Granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and Logan must do battle once more. This time however, something has happened to his healing powers, so this is one battle he may have to face while mortal.
The film’s greatest strength over Origins can, in a way, be summed up with the titles; a simpler, more focused title for a simpler, more focused movie. The Wolverine is a leaner and more personal story, where, even though it presents an interesting mystery, it never gets too convoluted like Origins did and never loses sight of it as a character study. Based very closely on a popular storyline from the comics (written by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller), it’s a story that explores Logan’s status as very much an antihero rather than a traditional superhero. Of particular note are touches like Logan’s visions of Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) in his dreams, and the ways the story manages to make a character who is under normal circumstances unkillable be in actual peril. All of this is very well anchored in probably Hugh Jackman’s best performance in the role yet.
In terms of other characters, another major strength this has over Origins is that the characters here all feel appropriate for the story and it fits together pretty well. There are actually a lot fewer mutants and super-powered characters this time around, which is good because it means those that are around get the right time to shine. Villains here include Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper (a slight mod to the comics character Madam Hydra, since Hydra in films is currently tied up with Captain America) who makes a great impression and some inventive visuals. The mostly Japanese supporting cast acquit themselves extremely well, with their performances and characters bringing a great sense of immersion and location to the Tokyo setting. The definite stand outs include as Rila Fukushima, and Tao Okamoto, who’s performance is all the more impressive for being her first big screen role.
The strong performances, characters and storytelling are all bought together in very assured direction. James Mangold is a self confessed comic fan, with a great love for the original storyline, and that shows through here. The film is paced just right, between huge set pieces and quieter, more character-based moments, both of which are compelling stuff. The action direction is of particular note, in that there’s a lot of variation within; running gun battles, one-on-one sword-fights, a lot of ninjas (who for once don’t follow the Inverse Law!) and an incredible finale against an opponent that’s a genuine challenge for Wolverine. Even in the most ludicrous, comic book-ish scenes, like a knife fight on top of the bullet train in motion, it’s done with such a commitment, energy and flair you don’t question it, and can easily go with the flow. All this is enhanced by the Japanese setting, offering a very different aesthetic and style to look at from the other X-Men movies.
The Wolverine is a huge success and stands incredibly strong. The storyline makes a nice change from the usual story stand-by of “mutants = insert any oppressed minority here” of the last five movies, the action is incredibly memorable, and it really reminds you of why we like the character of Wolverine. The studio should also be applauded for going for a far darker tone for a standard superhero movie, but unlike a few others that do go down that route, it’s one that doesn’t allow the tone to get in the way of the fun, it doesn’t confuse serious with solemn. Between this and First Class, the X-Men franchise is truly back on track and can stand tall among Marvel movies again. Roll on next year’s Days of Future Past!
(Oh, and be very sure of staying through the credits. You probably already know to do that with comic book movies by now, but you really don’t want to miss this stinger…)