Directed by: James Mangold
Premise: Taking place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, superhero Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels to Japan to pay his final respects to a dying acquaintance but finds himself involved in a power struggle involving gangsters, mutants, and a powerful corporation.
What Works: The Wolverine is the second standalone movie to focus on the title character, the previous being the underwhelming 2009 film X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Although The Wolverine is uneven, the new movie is superior to the 2009 film and it is generally better than most of the other superhero and comic book films that are fighting for the spotlight. What distinguishes The Wolverine is the fact that it does not resemble other X-Men or comic book films. Instead, The Wolverine plays much more like a gangster picture or a film noir and the movie is at its best when it explores unfamiliar territory. Taking a cue from X-Men: First Class, the second Wolverine film takes a darker and scaled back approach, with a greater emphasis on its title character. Following the events of The Last Stand, Wolverine is haunted by his past and the movie opens with the character drifting in the wilderness, trying to make sense of his life. The structure of this story is smart with Wolverine confronting his mortality and learning to appreciate his life in a way that isn’t hokey or unnecessarily brooding. In doing this the filmmakers address one of the problems of Wolverine as a character. In Origins and the chronologically subsequent films he was an immortal being who could not be killed or seriously injured. The filmmakers of The Wolverine undo his immortality and that gives the story a shape, as Wolverine attempts to recover his powers, and it gives the action scenes a greater sense of peril.
What Doesn’t: The Wolverine is an uneven movie, and its flaws are usually the result of compromises between artistic impulses and commercial obligations. Like the other X-Men films, The Wolverine is rated PG-13 but the filmmakers of this particular instalment struggle with the style and tone of their picture, especially with regard to violence. The Wolverine is, at its heart, an R-rated movie that has been forced within the limits of a PG-13 classification and that becomes apparent in the action scenes. As dark as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy could be, the violence rarely escalated to manslaughter but in this picture Wolverine maims and kills a lot of people, usually by stabbing them with his claws. This creates an obvious problem for the filmmakers and they deal with it by blocking the action so that the violence occurs just off screen. This results in awkward fight sequences, as Wolverine swipes and stabs villains just below or aside of the frame. The Wolverine also suffers from a forced attempt to hit all the familiar beats of a Hollywood adventure. There is too much story crowding the movie. The picture is burdened by an excess of characters and at least one subplot too many. The first half of The Wolverine does an adequate job of introducing and balancing a large cast but the story slows down in its second half and gets increasingly unwieldy with the various subplots pulling it in too many different directions. This is most apparent in Wolverine’s relationships with the female characters. Actresses Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima are not given much to do and they are cast less as characters and more as familiar storytelling functions. The movie also includes Svetlana Khodchenkova as the obligatory mutant villain, and the actress is especially terrible. Her performance recalls Uma Thurman’s role as Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, although Khodchenkova is far less interesting to watch.
Bottom Line: The X-Men film series has come to include six motion pictures (with the promise of more to come). As with any series that goes on for that long, some installments are better than others and The Wolverine ranks somewhere the middle. It is better than X-Men: Origins and The Last Stand but it’s not quite at the superior level of X2 and First Class. The movie is a compromised piece of work but it is entertaining and does justice to the established X-Men mythos.
Episode: #450 (August 4, 2013)