Here's how Superhero film franchises can work and not lead to ever increasing tent-pole film making that cripples creativity, destroys studios, and paralyzes audiences. I open this review with the full knowledge that The Wolverine is a one-hundred-million dollar film and in the current Hollywood superhero climate that's almost an art-house budget. The Wolverine's budget is a full sixty million dollars less than X-Men Origins: Wolverine from 2009. But, that's enough money talk for now. Why then, do I suggest that The Wolverine is the way to make Superhero films work?
Because The Wolverine is not an origin story, it's not a reboot, it's not a superhero film trying so desperately to be taken as a serious work of adult drama that it drowns beneath its own pretensions (Christopher Nolan's Batman series I am looking at you), or wrings every last drop of fun out of the story (Cough Cough Amazing Spiderman Cough). What The Wolverine does is give us a 99% stand alone story that takes our main character on an adventure. It's almost a complete one-shot deal, you know, like actual comic books used to be. And, because this is the 5th appearance for The Wolverine in cinema, including the one-line cameo in X Men: First Class, so explaining who Wolverine is, where he came from, and why, isn't at all important. The script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank does the work of introducing his mutant abilities quickly and unobtrusively so that even the rare two or three people on Earth who acquainted with Wolverine won't be left baffled by the rest of the film.
The story is simple, taken from, I believe, a Frank Miller story from around 1985 in which our hero is brought back to Japan to meet an acquaintance from his time in The Pacific Theater of World War 2. While there he's brought into a family battle featuring high finance, ninjas, and Yakuza gangsters putting good ol' Logan sort of in the same kind of role that Shintaro Katsu used to play as Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman. That film series, all 25+ films, succeeds for the same reason that The Wolverine succeeds, it doesn't come with the baggage of the preceding films – well, not much of it anyway.
The connective tissue, and that which puts The Wolverine into the X-Men film timeline is Logan's recurring dreams of Jean Grey who is still dead, and constantly beckoning to him to join her in the afterlife to which he sentenced here. It wasn't overdone and sort of reminded me of the Deadpool comics where he is sweet talking The Grim Reaper who is is true unrequited love. The little scenes with Logan and Jean are well spaced, and occasionally work to flesh out some little characteristic of Logan's psyche. He is completely aware that he is a killer, and that he is dangerous, and that when he is around people they tend to get hurt and hurt badly. We catch up with Logan living as a – well, as a Wolverine really – deep in the Canadian wilderness, perpetually camping and sporting a ZZ Top quality beard. Before you can say unleashing his claws on a clueless asshole, he's found by a representative of his long lost friend's family and flown back to Japan for a formal goodbye and thank you – At least, that's what he's told.
Wolverine has never been the smartest of characters, which considering his age is maybe unusual, so that when he is finally face to face with the man he saved from the nuclear explosion at Nagasaki and that man is 80 years old and dying of terminal cancer and that man is a billionaire... and that man makes not so subtle hints that he has the technology to take your mutant healing power away and bestow it on someone else who – I don't know, maybe just throwing this our there, has terminal cancer and is about 80 years old, and a billionaire – and it bounces off your adamantium-lined skull like the plot points are written on ping pong balls, and you still don't put 1 and 1 together. Well, like I said, Professor X is known for his brains, Wolverine not so much.
Idiot-plot aide, The Wolverine is a very engaging film. Once the plot to assassinate the daughter of Wolvie's now-dead-80-year-old best friend is revealed the film doesn't slow down much. There's some stereotypical dumb plot stuff, he and Mariko (the daughter) spend way too long in a house that all of the other characters know about, for example, and the subplot about Wolverine losing much of his healing ability, but not enough to really slow him down or force him to make sacrifices, goes on too long. The only real hole in the plot is for the villain, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), other than being a doctor treating the head of a Japanese corporate empire for cancer, and her revelation as a mutant she is a weak mcguffin of a villain. But all in all the script is solid and offers enough twists and seemingly weird little side elements that come back around to the final act for a very thorough if not satisfying cleanup.
There's a little bit to set up the next X film too, but not enough to make stink about.
The acting is universally good, which considering the quality of the cast isn't surprising. Hiroyki Sanada, Tao Okamato, Rila Fukashima, and of course Hugh Jackman, carry this material with a surprising amount of gravitas.
The direction by James Mangold is great except for frenetic incoherent fight sequences. Honestly when will directors stop shooting these from ball-height and cutting every .0004 seconds? I know it's meant to emphasize the action but unwatchable visual confusion isn't the way to impart excitement, but a way to impart anger. I realize that it's ironic to complain about a superhero movies being a better drama than an action film, but The Wolverine is one of them. Mangold's done good work, Cop Land, Walk the Line, and 3:10 to Yuma, metsa-metsa work like Girl Interrupted, and crap like Knight and Day. The Wolverine falls somewhat closer to Knight and Day, but it's still better than ANY origin story or reboot.