The Wolverine marks Logan‘s second solo outing on the big screen and, unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was-charitably-really awful; James Mangold‘s tale of our favorite beclawed individual in Japan nearly pulls off a total coup. For the most part, the film is a fantastic surprise and as close to an unleashed Wolverine as Marvel will ever let get on the big screen.
Wisely choosing to ignore the first solo Wolverine film, this is very much a sequel to X3; picking up seven or eight years later with Logan living like a beast in the Canadian wilderness. Being forced to kill Jean Grey when she was under the influence of the Phoenix haunts him every night to the point where Jean herself (tricky way to get Famke Janssen back one more time) sits in his recurring nightmares asking him why won’t he die and ends with her holding her bloody stomach from her death wounds. If that sounds pretty brutal for a Marvel movie, you really haven’t seen anything yet. This film skirts an R rating on violence alone by the skin of its teeth. That’s not a complaint, mind you. Wolverine is a character who fights with six giant razors strapped to his hands. It’s unrealistic that any scene in his wake doesn’t look like a slaughterhouse. The film doesn’t go quite that far, but Logan is off his X-Men chain.
In Canada, he’s found by Yukio (Rila Fukushima in a very nice debut) an agent of the Yashida clan. Logan saved the life of the clan’s leader during the bombing of Nagasaki (the film’s prologue and the most injured you’ve ever seen him onscreen….apparently the mullet genetically regenerates as well) and now that he’s dying, he wants to say his good-byes to the man who saved him. Logan reluctantly journeys to Tokyo, where he’s offered death as a gift. Yashida says he can transfer Logan’s healing factor to another and allow him the peace of death. While Logan is mulling over the impossible sounding offer, Viper, posing as Yashida’s oncologist takes his healing factor anyway and Yashida dies throwing the clan into a chaotic power struggle and Logan takes it on himself to protect Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko.
The Wolverine tries to do something very cool in a comic book movie genre that’s getting way too focused on “HERO A will fight VILLAIN B”. The film is a character study of Logan and is his journey of going from being ready to die, to finding a reason to live an endless life once more. If Mangold had just let the film be that, this would be my favorite film of the year. It’s a love letter to Wolverine and Jackman has never been better as the character. Say what you will about recasting Iron Man being difficult; whomever has to follow Jackman has a task that no one has faced since possibly Connery left the Bond franchise. If Hugh Jackman has had a carb in the last decade, I can’t tell. The man is 44 and he makes Henry Cavill in Man of Steel look chubby. In his sixth film as Wolverine, Jackman knows this character cold and is given better material to develop him than in any other movie. Especially during the period when he’s physically vulnerable for the first time, Jackman is outstanding. You get every bit of Wolverine porn you could possibly want, except they won’t let characters smoke anymore so he can’t cigar chomp (yeah, Hollywood, because that’s more damaging to young minds than a triple digit body count).
Why doesn’t the film quite work? Viper. She has no business in the film. She’s so out-of-place that every time she’s onscreen, you get yanked out of the flow of what the story really is about. It’s like FOX was afraid of not having a BIG VILLAIN so they forced a bad actress into green spandex and shoved her in the middle of this samurai journey film. It’s completely jarring and, for that matter, how does FOX even have the rights to Viper? She’s Madame Hydra. She’s a Captain America villain, for the love of God; not a snaky mutant. It’s infuriating because they use the Silver Samurai in an awesome and clever way so they HAD a villain. They didn’t need her; she didn’t belong and she quite literally ruins the film.
In another nitpick, which really isn’t a nitpick at this point, what is Marvel’s problem with movie scoring? Since X-Men hit the screen in 2000, can you hum one hero’s theme? I’ll spot you John Ottman’s X-Men theme. Go. When DC has Batman and Superman with MULTIPLE classic themes, how can a character like Wolverine not have an iconic theme? Alan Silvestri has made a little progress with Cap and the Avengers, but neither of those themes are outstanding. As a movie music geek, it’s maddening to see all these opportunities squandered.
The Wolverine serves as an essential bridge between X3 and X-Men First Class and funnels the franchise directly into place for next summer’s X-Men Days of Future Past. If you leave before the post-credits scene, you’ll miss maybe the best one EVER and you’ll leave the theater incredibly hyped to see where things are headed from here. It’s a shame The Wolverine couldn’t quite pull off Logan’s journey in Japan to perfection, but it’s still essential viewing for fans.