Lone Wolf and Bub
Marvel Comics' answer to Yosemite Sam makes a proper return to the big screen in The Wolverine. This marks a bit of a moment in superhero movie history, as Hugh Jackman definitely pushes past Christopher Reeve's record to become the first actor to play the same superhero as a main character in five major movies (to say nothing of his F-bomb-tastic cameo in X-Men: First Class). The last solo Wolverine movie, 2009's Origins, is not a well-loved film, but it clearly did enough at the box office to prompt a follow-up. Possibly the most surprising thing about this film is that for a while it was slated to be directed by Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan renown: but he moved on and the actual director is James Mangold.
As the movie opens, our skeletally-souped-up hero is not in the best of states: beset by guilt over the death of the woman he loved (not to mention over a century of frenzied and largely indiscriminate gutting and maiming), Logan (Jackman) is living as a hermit in the Canadian wilderness. He is drawn back to civilisation by the appearance of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the young ward of Yashida, a man Logan saved from the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. Now Yashida is dying and wants to do Logan a great favour before he dies.
So, somewhat against his will, off Logan flies to Tokyo and into a tense situation. In the intervening years Yashida has become a mogul on an immense scale and his business empire is one of the most powerful in Japan. As Yashida's health fails, powerful forces in his own extended clan, the government, and the Yakuza are all circling – but what none of them realise is that Yashida has no plans to die. The great favour he has in mind is to relieve Logan of his burdensome near-immortality and relentless healing factor, and take them for himself…
The X-Men movies have been running for 13 years now, which is quite long enough for their internal continuity to have become as tangled as those of the original comics: nevertheless, it was still a little bit startling to be presented with a film set firmly in the same continuity as the original trilogy (as opposed to the most recent film, which – if you're paying attention – is about a different version of the same characters. Some sort of doubtless-unsatisfactory unification bout between the two looms for next summer and is unsubtly trailed at the end of this movie). On the other hand, I had sort of forgotten how much I liked Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and how much undemanding fun those first few films were. So more of the same wouldn't necessarily have been a problem.
However, and quite excitingly, this film is clearly at least partly inspired by Claremont and Miller's Wolverine mini-series from the 80s, which had the same Japanese setting and imagery and some of the same characters. That series was acclaimed, partly for simply being very well scripted and drawn, but also for doing something different with Wolverine as a character. This is where the problems with The Wolverine really start to come into focus, unfortunately.
When superhero characters start acquiring definite articles they don't usually have, it's usually a sign that an inherently absurd character is being taken very seriously indeed, either by creative types or fans (note the legions routinely referring to The Batman rather than just Batman). I'm not sure what difference this really makes, but there you go. On one level The Wolverine obviously wants to have a bit of heft and gravitas to it – it pulls a trick very similar to the original X-Men, which opened with a scene set in Auschwitz. This film starts with a triple-seppuku and the atom-bombing of Nagasaki (still an incredibly touchy subject in Japan, by the way: curious to see how this plays there), and if something as serious as that's your big opening you'd better be damn sure you've got something solid and thought-through coming up to justify it.
The Wolverine's problem is that it really can't decide exactly what it wants to be – another competent, if by-the-numbers superhero movie? A japonesque action flick? A moody character piece? At various points it has a go at all three, but never really fully commits itself and so isn't entirely successful at any of them. And whatever qualities it has, dramatic heft and thematic gravitas are not amongst them.
Despite the putative complexity of the story, the plot basically boils down to Wolverine and Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) on the run from bad guys, from whom they escape via a series of competently orchestrated action sequences. Given the number of stereotypical Japanese settings in which this occurs, it looks ominously like cliche-tourism is in progress: we get Wolverine at Tokyo Tower, in a pachinko parlour, on a shinkansen (a preposterous fight occurs on the roof), and in a love hotel. Presumably the sequence set in a karaoke club will be a DVD extra.
However, then the film calms down a bit and we get some proper mood-and-character-based stuff about Logan and Mariko and the relationship that develops between them. There's a slight problem here in that Mariko always comes across as a slightly drab and passive character compared to Yukio, but Okamoto and Jackman are good enough – just – to make you care about and believe in the romance.
Needless to say, it can't last, and before you can say onegaishimasu everyone's off to yet another laboratory built on a soundstage for the CGI-enhanced fight sequence that makes up the climax of the film. Once again, this isn't exactly badly done, and there's an interesting new take on a comics character as the final villain, but it's still a very, very generic conclusion to a film which had the potential to do something a little bit different and a lot more interesting. (I think the climax is, in terms of the drama, quite confused on a number of levels, but unfortunately can't go into meaningful detail about this without spoiling the movie. I should point out I've also seen it convincingly argued that the plot of this film is, almost literally, nonsensical – I just didn't bother thinking that hard enough about it myself.)
Let's be straight about this: Hugh Jackman's charisma and presence go a long way towards making any movie he does watchable, and cameo appearances from a few other big-name X-Men stars don't hurt the film either. Unlike Origins, The Wolverine doesn't just feel like a succession of comics references and set-piece fights. And it's never offensively dull or stupid (although one is inclined to sigh when jokes from 40-plus-year-old Bond films get recycled) – but it never really dazzles, not with the intelligence of its script, the strength of its performances, or the dynamism of its action sequences.
It's quite rare for Hollywood to do an action movie this firmly rooted in Japan, let alone a superhero movie: The Wolverine could have been something really unique and memorable. But it feels like every time a key creative decision needed to be taken, keeping the mainstream superhero-movie audience happy and unchallenged was the one and only consideration. For a project attempting to fuse American superheroics with Japanese culture old and new to turn out to just be an okay, vaguely sort of fun, vaguely sort of exotic, just generally sort of vague fantasy action film must count as a bit of a fumbled ball. Zannen desu.