Apr 10, 2015
The Wolverine (2013)
The Wolverine is a movie incredibly fortunate to have found itself in a position where, essentially, it’s impossible for it to fail. Following as it does X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that was an embarrassing train wreck even for the chronically mediocre X-Men film franchise, even just “pretty bad” would be seen as an improvement at this point. You see, The Wolverine kinda sucks. But it’s the followup/reboot to a movie that really sucked, therefore “kinda sucks” still counts as a win.
The film follows essentially the same curve of quality that the first X-Men film did back in 2000, meaning it has a really strong first act, a decent second, and an abruptly awful third. It opens with a nearly beat-for-beat translation of the opening vignette from the comic book miniseries from which the film is otherwise loosely adapted. It involves Wolverine avenging the death of a bear that was illegally poisoned by irresponsible hunters. Good stuff, but unfortunately, after that, we have to get back to the actual plot, which is far less interesting than it should’ve been.
The script borrows the setting and characters from the original miniseries by Chris Claremont, but little else. The plot concerns an aging Japanese billionaire, Ichirō Yashida, whose life Wolverine saved from an atomic bomb back in WWII (how Wolverine remembers any of that remains unexplained, since it was very emphatically established in every previous movie that he remembers nothing before Weapon X).
Nearing the end of his life, Yashida offers Wolverine a dubious “gift”: he will transfer Wolverine’s immortality-granting healing abilities from him to Yashida, so Wolverine can finally die and Yashida can live forever. What makes Yashida think Wolverine is sick of living forever also remains unexplained; after all, Wolverine doesn’t even remember most of his 100+ years of existence. Also, calling it a “gift” seems like a clever bit of spin-doctoring, when it’s pretty clear from any angle that Yashida’s benefiting from this way more than Wolverine, even assuming he does want to die.
Wolverine, of course, refuses this rather asinine offer, but Yashida, being old and hard of hearing, apparently heard him wrong, because Wolverine wakes up the next morning to find his powers slowly slipping away. Yashida is also now mysteriously dead, leaving his vast fortune to his granddaughter Mariko, making her a target for many, including her own jealous and dangerous father. Wolverine elects to protect her, drawing him into a conspiracy involving ninjas, the Yakuza, and some snake woman we’re told is the comic book villain Viper (once again having little relation to her literary source, presumably because Fox doesn’t have the rights to HYDRA).
The miniseries that inspired all this is notable for making a interesting character out of Wolverine, who was previously (and frequently since) a rather one-note brawler. It introduced Wolverine’s fascination with the culture of Japan, and the samurai tradition that sprung from it. The samurai honor code gave Wolverine a purpose, and a way to contain his feral urges. He no longer had to be a mindless animal; he could now channel that into being a noble warrior instead. It’s this struggle between his civilized and bestial natures that is the source of just about any good Wolverine story.
Tragically, the film does nothing with the concept, paying only passing lip service to it. The “show, don’t tell” rule is heavily abused, as we’re repeatedly told that Wolverine is a “ronin”, a samurai without a master, but none of his actions ever back that statement up. He shows no real interest in Japanese culture, seeming annoyed by their traditions more than anything. He doesn’t even speak Japanese in this version. He never makes any attempt to act honorably or according to any samurai ideals.
The closest thing is in the beginning of the movie when he remorsefully promises the ghost of Jean Grey, his lover who he killed in X-Men: The Last Stand, that he will never kill anyone again. That promise lasts for about 3 minutes of screen time, when he says “screw it” and tries to decapitate the first guy that pisses him off. After that, he spends the rest of the movie merrily dicing his way through dozens of combatants without even an ounce of restraint. This is for the fans, obviously, most of whom come to see Wolverine go kill-crazy, ride motorcycles, and remain gruff and cigar-chomping-ly detached about everything. Because that’s what badasses do: not give a crap about anything. Being emotionally engaged is for wimps.
Besides failing miserably to motivate Wolverine to not kill everyone who gets within clawing range, Jean’s ghost also serves as the barometer for Wolverine’s “find something to live for” arc. Despite turning Yashida down, Wolverine apparently does want to die, because Jean’s ghost keeps popping up to tell him he wants to die so he can be with her (once again, no regard for “show, don’t tell”). By the end of the movie, we know he’s completed his arc, because he tells Ghost Jean he’s found a reason to live. What that reason is or how he found it, I couldn’t tell you, but the movie insists he’s found it.
The plot is also needlessly convoluted and obfuscated. Sure, the original miniseries had its share of mystery, backstabbing, and surprise twists, but at least character motivations were clearly established to give you something to latch onto. Wolverine leaves you in the dark for most of its runtime. There are several factions at odds with each other, with multiple characters connected to one another in a variety of ways. But most of it isn’t revealed until after the climax, and in the meantime, you’re left watching a lot of meaningless action sequences that are impossible to get invested in.
And by the time they start giving us answers, the movie has already gone off the rails and become humiliatingly silly and stupid. I mean, it gets really, really dumb. It honestly starts feeling uncomfortably like a deleted scene from X-Men Origins: Cheap-looking CGI, nonsensical plot developments, and laughable execution. The only thing that prevents it from having the worst payoff to a mystery in a movie this year is the fact that Star Trek Into Darkness came out.
The Wolverine is not without merit. Hugh Jackman continues to make for a charismatic action star. The opening scenes, as I said, are strong, with good atmosphere and pacing. And if you’ve shown up to see Wolverine fight ninjas, you’ll definitely get that. But it’s not something you can really call anywhere near “good”. I’m once again left with the unshakable feeling that the only director who ever really cared about this franchise was Matthew Vaughn. I know everyone’s been harping on this for 13 years now, but: costumes. What kind of madness is it that Hugh Jackman has been playing a superhero for six movies now and has yet to actually wear a costume? You want to get me excited about a Wolverine movie? Bring out the yellow spandex, then we’ll talk.