Part 1: The Source
I was seven years old when Wolverine first showed up in Giant Size X-Men #1 (I’d missed his debut a year earlier in Incredible Hulk – ah, the problems you have when your parents have to buy your comics for you), but I first discovered him a year or so later when I picked up X-Men #98 (cover dated April 1976, but on comic racks in January – I was just about to turn 8). There was something about the character that immediately appealed to me and once I was able to convince my parents to hook me up with a steady supply of X-Men comics (to go along with my Avengers, Captain America and the Falcon, and The Invaders) with X-Men #102 (cover dated December 1976, on racks in September), there was no doubt about it: Wolverine was my favorite character.
By the time the team went up against the Hellfire Club in 1980 I was 12 and X-Men #133 was a birthday present for me with “Wolverine: Alone” further establishing him as the baddest assest character at Marvel (although Deathlok gave him a run for his money a few years earlier). But by the time Marvel released the first issue of the now-classic Wolverine limited series in 1982, I had grown away from the character. I was all up in Daredevil by that point, so Frank Miller’s involvement drew me back to the character as Claremont and Miller added a level of depth to the character that had been missing for a long time. In the series, Wolverine goes to Japan to win back his love, Mariko, and became an exercise in breaking down the character and building him back up with a truly noble, samurai spirit. It was dark, stylish, and had lots of ninja-fighting awesomeness.
That was also the last time I would care about Wolverine as a character for a very long time.
Part 2: What Came Before
When the first X-Men movie was released in 2000, I – like most people, I think – didn’t really expect much. Sure, Blade had been a surprise two years earlier, but that could have been an anomaly. Marvel had yet to really do anything in live-action that was worth paying attention to unless you were a hard-core fan and sympathetic to their cause. So when X-Men turned out to be good there was much celebration. Even if, in retrospect, nearly everyone gave it a little more credit than it actually earned. X2, likewise was better than expected, but not as good as people like to maintain.
Looking back, I’d have rated X-Men 3 stars and X2 3 and a half. I also didn’t think that the near-universally loathed X-Men: The Last Stand was that bad, and will go on record saying it’s just as good as the first film: a solid 3 star superhero film. There was a negative creative zeitgeist happening in 2006 which I think led people to be harsher with this film than necessary, given that we’d been pummeled with Hulk, The Punisher, Blade: Trinity, Elektra, and Fantastic Four over the previous three years. Spider-Man 2 was the only arguably good film from Marvel (okay Hulk and The Punisher had their moments) during that period, and would be the last one until Iron Man hit in 2008.
The X-Men trilogy to this day stands as a solid, if limited, example of what can be done with a superhero franchise. It has a solid beginning, middle, and end, with Wolverine as the central focus. To be honest, all the other characters are incidental to Wolverine’s story-arc, although one might argue that Rogue also played a main thematic role. If there was a real problem with the conclusion of the trilogy, it was that now 20th Century Fox didn’t know what to do with their property.
And thus we were abused with the frankly miserable X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009. With Hugh Jackman’s commitment to the role of Wolverine being nearly the only element of the X-Men franchise that transcended the limitations of what was actually on the screen in each film (aside from Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto), it was a no-brainer to branch out with Wolverine. But in a monumental cluster-fuck of decision making, the suits at 20th Century Fox decided that instead of moving forward, they’d go back and explore Wolverine’s past – throwing in as many young mutants as possible in the CGI orgy of a climax and causing future continuity to simply act as though this film didn’t exist.
And that’s probably the best way of approaching it. It’s barely worth a 2 star rating, in my book.
2011’s X-Men: First Class, the first attempt at an X-Men film without Wolverine at its center (although with a scene-stealing cameo) also mined the past, but in a way that actually enhanced the earlier trilogy and renewed faith in the property. It was still not a brilliant film – the race and gender issues alone are problematic enough for it to not be truly satisfying – but with the bravura performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto, it easily matches the previous best work, X2: a solid 3.5 star film, if you ask me.
Which finally brings us to The Wolverine.
Part 3: The Build-Up
The problems that sprung up through the course of the development and pre-production of this film were staggering and echoed those leading up to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun) wrote a screenplay heavily inspired by that 1982 Claremont & Miller limited series and in October of 2010 Jackman himself confirmed that Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) would direct. The combination of McQuarrie and Aronofsky was enough to get everyone, not just comics fans, drooling. The film promised to be dark, personal, and down-to-earth; a stand-alone film not tied directly to the previous films which would allow for a real change of pace.
But then disaster struck. Literally. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami struck, causing the studio to slow down the build-up to production. At the same time, Aronofsky bowed out, saying he didn’t want to be away from his family for the year they would be filming in Japan.
It would be more than six months before James Mangold (Cop Land, Identity, 3:10 to Yuma) was announced as the new director and a start date was set for October 2011. Filming was then postponed again, this time due to Hugh Jackman’s commitment to Les Misérables. Finally, with a principal budget of approximately $120 million (more than both X-Men and X2, but only around half of X-Men: The Last Stand‘s budget and $30-40 million shy of both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class), filming began on July 30, 2012 with a script rewritten by Mangold, Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Total Recall) and Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report). They shot in Australia and Japan, finishing principal photography on November 21, 2012.
Box Office anticipation was pretty high for this one, given that aside from X-Men: First Class, all but the first X-Men film had debuted with an opening weekend gross of $85 million + and the buzz going into the weekend was pretty strong with a $21 million opening Friday (plus early shows Thursday night), but by the end of the weekend the totals didn’t come anywhere near the expectations. The Wolverine won its opening weekend handily, but brought in only $55 million – almost dead even with X-Men and X-Men: First Class.
That’s not great news, but given the smaller budget from any of the last three films and promising overseas totals ($86 million), The Wolverine has already covered its production budget (only Iron Man 3, amongst the year’s other comic and sci-fi releases, has done that in its opening weekend) and stands to bring in a surprisingly strong profit. Given that unlike most of the other big films this year, it only has one well-known star, no major villain being pushed in the advertising, and is a much quieter film for most of its 2 hour and 23 minute runtime, that makes it a pretty clear financial success.
The responsibility for that can be placed almost entirely on the shoulders of Hugh Jackman.
Part 4: The Review (Finally…)
Still reading? Good. Hopefully all of that preamble will establish everything you need to know to see if what I’m about to tell you will be worthwhile or not. In a sentence or two, The Wolverine is at least as good as my previous high-water marks, X2 and X-Men: First Class. The only thing keeping it from distancing those films by a mile is the serious let-down of an ending.
Beware of spoilers from this point on.
Springboarding from the basic concept of the Claremont & Miller series, the film focuses on Wolverine in Japan trying to become a better person. It veers pretty dramatically from the source within seconds of starting, but ultimately remains true to the spirit of its inspiration. Despite what the original take on the film was supposed to be, The Wolverine is unashamedly a sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s at least a couple of years from the moment where Logan (Hugh Jackman) killed Jean (Famke Janssen) – saving the world and breaking his own heart in the process – and he is living in a cave in the woods, looking like Alan Moore, with only empty liquor bottles, a grizzly bear, and Jean’s hallucinatory guilt-tripping for company.
But before we get there, we get a flashback to the bombing of Nagasaki – a bold choice for a film being made in a country that just had a nuclear accident that helped postpone filming for over a year. It’s beautifully shot and extremely tense as we see a young Ichirō Yashida (Ken Yamamura) freeing prisoners of war, one of whom is our hero, being kept in a locked and chained hole in the ground, as the bombers approach. Yashida’s superiors order him to join them in committing seppuku but at the last minute he freezes, unable to follow through. Wolverine saves him, and in the process reveals his mutant ability to take a monumental amount of abuse and survive. And there, in the hole, Mangold establishes that this is going to be a film about the dynamic between wanting desperately to live and wanting desperately to die.
It’s not a dynamic that is explored as successfully as it could have been thanks to a final act (well, the final half of the final act, anyway) that collapses into spectacle and CGI that undermines everything that came before. But more on that in a moment.
Back in the present day, Logan just wants to be left alone and maybe to die. Hallucination Jean never allows him to move past his guilt and there’s a lovely parallel drawn between Logan and the grizzly bear that slaughtered a group of hunters who drove it insane with their illegal poison arrows. Logan, in an act of mercy he wishes someone could provide him, puts the bear out of its misery. But how do you kill an immortal?
That’s what the now old and dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) brings to the plot. Logan is found and brought to Japan by Yukio, played by the delightful first time actress Rila Fukushima. This Yukio shares a little bit of the edge and talents of the half-crazy assassin of the comics, but serves a different role here. While in the original mini-series, she was a soul-mate to Wolverine, and a foil for Mariko, Fukushima’s Yukio is a straight-forward ally for Logan. Her performance is a high point for the film and she does an excellent job playing off of Jackman, creating a strong chemistry that would translate into any number of enthusiastically anticipated sequel possibilities.
Unfortunately that probably won’t happen thanks to the direction these films are taking, but a boy can dream.
Yashida, now the head of a technology empire making him the most powerful man in Japan, claims to have the ability to transfer Wolverine’s healing ability to someone else, and since he’s dying and wants to live, while Logan is living and wants to die, he makes an offer he doesn’t think Logan can refuse.
At the same time, someone has taken out a hit on Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) which allows for a string of violent, but mostly neutered PG-13 action, where many people die, but only Wolverine bleeds. This is where the film first falters. Okamoto, another first-timer, has very little chemistry with Jackman, but a large part of that problem lies in the script, which doesn’t really allow her to play a character where chemistry could even start to develop.
Honestly, this is something I always felt about the Logan/Mariko pairing in the comics when I was a child, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise. But at least in the source material, Mariko was clearly representative of a world that Logan craved desperately but didn’t feel worthy of. Here, Mariko serves mostly as a plot device. A functional plot device, but a plot device nonetheless. So the inevitable pairing up of the star-crossed lovers doesn’t really feel earned, and that’s a problem.
The action sequences during this phase of the film are almost there, but fall short. A massive gun-knife-arrow-claw fight between Wolverine, Mariko’s security, and a group of interchangeable Yakuza thugs is frenetic and exciting, but hard to follow at times. The fight on the roof of a bullet train (a highlight from the trailers) is silly but extremely satisfying. In a year of battles on the rooftops of trains, I think this one is the winner. It’s during all of this that Wolverine realizes that something has happened to him and he is no longer healing as he always has.
He still takes a lot of damage and heals, but it is slowed down to the point of needing doctoring, and it opens up a window of opportunity to finally maybe allow him to die. Of course, now with something to motivate him – the protection of Mariko – he doesn’t want to die so much.
Unfortunately, that leads us to the final act. This is where the film could have gone home with the gold and instead has to settle for silver. Or maybe bronze, depending on the depth of your disappointment. This is where we finally get our big ninja battle, and it is definitely a letdown – although I cannot express how much I loved the image of Wolverine forcing his way forward with scores of arrows sticking out of his back, each with a chord leading back to a ninja. It was beautiful and majestic and leads to a wonderful callback to the beginning of the film as it is a poisoned arrow that finally brings him down. And even though the film falters story-wise, it still looks as gorgeous as it did from the opening shot.
Will Yun Lee does what he can with the role of Kenuichio Harada, Mariko’s former lover and head of the Yashida clan’s army of ninjas, but is hampered by the script. Likewise, Hiroyuki Sanada as Mariko’s father Shingen isn’t supported by the material and turns into a two-dimensional baddie that he does everything humanly possible to elevate.
The only actor/character that really serves no purpose whatsoever and even fails to live up to the simple demands of a nineties comic book film is Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper. The only reason I can see any justification for including Viper in this film is that in the X-Men comics immediately following the Wolverine limited series, she and the Silver Samurai (who also shows up here as a massive CGI robotic beast that totally undermines all of the emotional gruntwork that Mangold and cinematographer Ross Emery have done along the way – seriously, this is one nice-looking film) disrupt Logan and Mariko’s wedding planning. If those two comics weren’t included in the collected version of the miniseries, I don’t think either character would have been written in here.
The opportunity to keep the film grounded in the neo-noir stylings that make the first two-thirds of the film work so well is simply tossed out the window in an inexplicable shift in tone and attitude that does absolutely nothing positive. In fact, I was reminded more of the horrible 1998 Nick Fury television movie with David Hasselhoff than any other Marvel movie experience of the last decade and a half. And depending on how much you hate this horrible ending, you may retroactively end up hating the whole film.
I mean it’s almost Haute Tension bad.
Without knowing anything at all about who contributed what to the script, I’d have to say that the resumes of Mangold, Bomback, and Frank might give some hints. I know that’s not fair, but only one of those folks made any craptastic CGI-filled wankfests while all the others are known for strong character work and noir sensibilities.
So what we end up with here is an acceptable superhero film that ultimately does nothing to move the X-Men franchise forward either narratively or creatively. The Wolverine squanders the opportunity to be one of the best superhero films of the decade to become a placeholder film, spinning its wheels until next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past can manifest. This is made explicit with the mid-credit scene set TWO YEARS LATER designed ONLY to connect this film to the next one. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the highlight of the film and it is not really good in any way.
Well, it is nice to see Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen again, despite the fact that when we saw Professor X and Magneto last, one was dead and the other was depowered. But here they are again, whole and wonderful and turning this film into a 2 and a half hour long lead-in to the next film in the franchise.