For the first 2½ acts, The Wolverine is an engrossing slow-burn psychological thriller about the crippling effects of grief, powerlessness, sin, rediscovering your life’s purpose, and stranger-in-a-strange-land culture clash, all nestled inside an outlandish but well-oiled martial-arts flick that easily outclasses the previous Wolverine solo film. That being said, this is a rare instance of a Marvel film that would’ve functioned more cohesively if super-villains had been kept out of it altogether.
Picking up where the generally miserable X3: X-Men United left off, our man Logan remains separated from his teammates and living life as a bitter, unshaven hobo, a mere shell of a man haunted in his dreams by the psychopathic woman he dearly loved but had to kill. When a young swordswoman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima — youthful, fierce, and deserving her own solo film) delivers a compelling message from an old acquaintance, Logan finds himself lured to Japan for a reunion with the soldier whose life he saved at the bombing of Nagasaki, where the best protection from pervasive nuclear radiation was to live in a deep, uncovered hole for a while. (Does radiation rise like hot air? Shouldn’t someone have informed our schoolchildren and thereby changed the course of America’s duck-and-cover filmstrip history?)
The old man thinks he has Logan’s number and offers him a gift some 60+ years after the fact: the chance to die a natural death by taking away his mutant healing factor. Little does the old man know that Logan may be mentally tortured at the moment, but he’s not full-blown suicidal yet. The plan moves forward anyway thanks to shenanigans committed by a mysterious chemist (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who’s also the only blond character in the movie and therefore suspicious on principle. Suddenly Logan finds himself beset by a host of new challenges he’s never faced: wounds! Bruises! Limping! Back-alley bullet removal! Prometheus-style twisted invasive surgery! Exhaustion from manual labor! Can Logan save the old man’s granddaughter Mariko (model Tao Okamoto) from Yazuka henchmen while he’s stuck within the physical boundaries of every other action hero? (Trick question, apparently: after multiple gunshot wounds and numerous blows to the head — all in the space of ten minutes — Logan keeps ticking despite battle damage that would’ve ended three John McClanes.)
Director James Mangold last worked with Hugh Jackman on the whimsical comedy Kate and Leopold, but proved himself in the men’s-action realm with his remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Here he and Jackman both seem just as confident in portraying Logan’s introspective moments as they are in knocking out the first two acts’ crackling set pieces. My personal favorite: a chase sequence set atop a Japanese bullet train that, at speeds nearing 200 mph, turns into the world’s deadliest game of leapfrog. Our Hero’s skirmishes with Yakuza, ninja, and the other main characters are among Jackman’s most impressive fight scenes to date.
Older comic-book fans who remember the very first Wolverine miniseries, the 1981 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller classic, will be overjoyed to recognize flourishes borrowed from it — not just Yukio and Mariko, but the climactic swordfight with Mariko’s father Shingen is revisited with striking similarities. I was also frequently reminded of the best Wolverine solo comics, stories in which Logan didn’t even bother with his costume and still struggled to overcome challenges presented by deceptively ordinary antagonists. Most of the movie centers itself in that bailiwick and worked better for me than most Wolverine comics from the last ten years.
(Fair warning to parents: in keeping with the above, and not unlike the last film, the majority of the movie is in the same violent antihero’s vein as The Punisher and Blade, where villains are massacred in bulk and your protagonist’s mindset is in a place so dark that there’s very little levity and no Stan Lee cameo. Granted, that last bit is also because The Wolverine was shot in Australia, beyond Stan Lee’s travel range for filming three-second cameos, but still.)
Unfortunately, the grand finale then rudely shifts the tone into straightforward superhero-movie gear, and in waltz our final bosses, two Marvel super-villains in radically altered forms. Viper, once a dark-haired, high-ranking HYDRA operative with mad combat skills and poison-tipped weaponry, is now a blond chemist with no discernible motivation of her own and B-movie snake-woman pretensions, whose skill set and performance are modeled on Uma Thurman from Batman and Robin. In the comics her longtime partner was the Silver Samurai, a skilled fighter with mutant weapon-enhancing power who dressed exactly as his name suggests. When I picked up Marvel Team-Up #85 at age 7, I thought he was the most amazing villain ever. In this version, setting aside some spoilers, he’s basically a super-sized Ultron with a sword.
That’s not the same thing, and the frantic catwalk-leaping, death-defying falls, big-robot antics, and pompous super-villain speeches are kind of a dishonor to the rest of the film. Not that acts one and two were a joint model of stark realism and internal logic, but at least they allowed Jackman to take Wolverine to some impressive new areas for a while, emotionally as well as geographically.
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene at the tail end of The Wolverine‘s end credits, but if you’re one of those credits-haters who sprinted for the exits as soon as “DIRECTED BY JAMES MANGOLD” flashed onscreen, then you missed an extended epilogue after the main cast/crew credits.
For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know what scene they missed…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…Logan disembarks into a western-hemisphere airport, only to be ambushed by two familiar, elderly gents. One of them projects a field that rattles all the loose metal objects around them, demonstrating his recovery from abrupt power loss at the end of X3. His companion freezes dozens of extras in their tracks and zips into view in his brand new wheelchair, even though the last time we saw him, his body had been disintegrated but his consciousness had manifested inside the head of a coma patient.
Alas, “dark forces” are afoot, possibly related to a split-second shot of a screen with a Trask Industries logo on it, and it’s time for mutants to unite once more, including the evil ones, in order for everyone to survive. Our old friends have no time to explain how long Magneto’s powers took to resurface, or where Professor X obtained a spare handicapped body.
To be continued in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which has some explaining to do.