Whichever way you slice it, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a disappointment. Although competently put together and a brisk watch, it was nonetheless saddled with weak computer effects and an overstuffed script that added little of worth to the title character. So it’s unsurprising that eyebrows were raised when it was announced that another Wolverine movie was in the works. Fortunately, the mistakes of the past have not been repeated. While The Wolverine might lack the minute-to-minute excitement of something like Iron Man 3, it has a level of intensity that few other comic book adaptations have managed.
The Wolverine escapes the prequel curse by not being a prequel. That’s right – The Wolverine is set after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. While it can be viewed as a standalone feature it also works a pseudo-sequel to the original trilogy, and by extension acts as a bridge to next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (which is both a sequel to X-Men: First Class and The Last Stand… confused yet? I blame time travel). Mercifully, the plot this time is far removed from the mutant-centric shenanigans of the previous films, with a very different look and tone. Beware however, if you haven’t seen The Last Stand then watching The Wolverine will spoil a crucial dramatic moment from that film’s climax (as will this review).
The Wolverine actually begins with a flashback, as we’re taken to a scene in Japan where Logan (Hugh Jackman – inhabiting the role for the sixth time) helps a Japanese soldier named Yashida survive an atomic blast. Flash forward a few decades to a disheveled Logan leading a solitary life. He still mourns Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he loved but was forced to kill because she had become corrupted by the evil Phoenix in The Last Stand. Famke returns for several scenes in which she haunts Logan’s dreams. Her presence is connective tissue to what’s come before but also adds weight to Logan’s guilt.
Having forsworn ever killing again, Logan is seemingly without purpose. Of course, fate comes knocking when Yukio (Rila Fukushima) invites him to Japan. It turns out that Yashida is now old man Yashida, the ailing head of a powerful technology empire, and wants to give thanks to Logan for saving him all those years ago. Geographically separated from everything he knows, it doesn’t take long for Logan to become trapped in a complex plot that involves Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s granddaughter and heiress to his empire, who’s being targeted by the Yakuza, ninjas and shady government types. Naturally, there’s a bigger scheme but it’s nice that The Wolverine doesn’t feel the need to level buildings to engage.
Pulling elements from one of Logan’s most celebrated arcs in the comics, The Wolverine launches into a story that for most of the film feels very un-comic like. Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) has crafted a tense action drama that takes itself very seriously. Time is spent on lengthy, meaningful conversations between characters – a rare treat in blockbusters these days. Character development is a focus, with Logan ending in a different spot, mentally and physically, than where he started. It helps that the story finds ways to make the seemingly-indestructible Wolverine vulnerable, and the movie is much better for it.
A lot of this is thanks to Jackman, who continues to command the screen in the role that made him famous. Indeed, Logan is described as a ronin, a samurai without a master. In a way, The Wolverine works as a better origin story for the character than the one in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, since this time it’s about Logan rediscovering the Wolverine within. Expectedly, the movie also makes the most of its Japanese setting (though it was mostly filmed in Sydney, Australia), with concepts like duty and honour being bandied about.
It’s also very violent. Logan mainly fights human adversaries this time around but whenever he skewers someone with his adamantium claws they come out covered in blood. Mangold lets the red river flow and fits in a few more cuss words than you’d expect for the typical superhero production. But The Wolverine is anything but typical. Minus the precognitive Yukio and venomous femme fatale Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Logan is the sole mutant on show. Only the final act ventures into more familiar comic territory, betraying the tone of the rest of the production with a climactic showdown that wouldn’t be out of place in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Still, the action is visceral and ranges from good to excellent in what’s ultimately a very different comic book movie and one that’s well worth your time. Make sure you stay for the mid-credits epilogue – it’s a doozy!
The Wolverine is an intense ride and return to form for the clawed X-Man.