When director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman took the stage for their Q&A with “a few clips” at Comic-Con, they had some baggage to confront. Jackman, especially, acknowledged the many, many, many shortcomings of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mangold and Jackman discussed wanting to deliver the Wolverine, hence the title, The Wolverine. Fans have been waiting for the essential Wolverine tale and, for the most part, the two have succeed in giving it to them.
The film beings where X-Men: The Last Stand was too busy and bland to go: Logan struggling with the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Like most depressed people, Wolverine is buried under a deep bushy beard to show you his pain over his loss. He’s keeping to himself in the mountains, living as an animal. Then a mysterious (and incredibly badass) figure comes to town, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring him back to the world. She tells Logan he has to come to Japan, to give his goodbyes to the life of a man he once saved, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi).
Once there, Logan realizes there’s a hidden motive to his invitation. A dying Yashida offers Logan the life of a mortal, but after refusing, the clawed mutant is thrown into somewhat of a conspiracy thriller blended with a samurai film, and the samurai side of The Wolverine is the superior film. Seeing Logan unravelling the mystery is fine, but nothing quite compares to him going berserk on a few gang members or partaking in a sword fight.
The Wolverine delivers on what was shown in X2: the mansion attack scene. We saw a man let loose, holding nothing back on his opponents. There’s a bar brawl in this film where the sheer sound of the Wolverine’s intense breathing is chilling. The physicality Jackman has in this film is an intimidating presence on its own right, but there’s a whole other layer there. It’s not the muscles that make him a threat, it’s the fact that this immortal anti-hero won’t stop at anything until he’s dead.
There’s a few novel action beats that truly express who Wolverine is as a character. Surprisingly, the action is somewhat sparse, at least until the bombastic third act. The pace doesn’t move at a breakneck speed, but more so as a character study, which will throw some viewers off. Mangold takes his time, never rushing to the next set piece. Seeing him drop his best f-bomb to date, being a fish out of water in Japan, and stomping towards an enemy is far more entertaining than seeing any capital building get blown to sky high. There’s often an effective simplicity to The Wolverine we don’t see often enough.
That’s why the more outlandish side of The Wolverine feel like a completely different, lesser movie. Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) — a mysterious mutant working for Yashida — isn’t a strong villain. Her motives aren’t entirely defined, she bares scarce connection to our hero, and again, tonally, doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. The character is entirely problematic, and not because Khodchenkova doesn’t give a fine performance, but because we spend a good deal of time with her away from the characters we do care for. She bogs the pace down, at least until The Wolverine or, especially, Yukio appear onscreen again.
In terms of strong female characters, this is a movie that has them. Yukio and Wolverine’s love interest, Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), are hardly ever damsels in distress. Tao isn’t one to get dragged off from Wolverine without a fight, while Yukio is bound to give plenty of teenage girls (and maybe boys) a terrific costume for Halloween this year. It’s refreshing to see a female character actually defend the in peril male hero, not the other way around.
Scenes such as that one makes James Mangold’s approach stand apart. He doesn’t waste a shot with some of the the film’s wonderful landscapes and set design, both in terms of scope and character. There’s plenty of striking shots of Wolverine isolated from fellow characters or his environment. He gives us an already lonely figure in an unknown enviroment, rendering him even more cutoff from the world.
There’s a surprising amount of gracefulness to The Wolverine. Yes, the movie does end on Wolverine fighting a “robot,” but there’s enough weight to it. The time was put into making sure we care when Wolverine is dealing with mortality for the first time or, say, comically fighting some goons on top of the train. That potentially silly sequence is fun, as oppose to Wolverine attacking a helicopter, because there’s clearly defined stakes in place for the character and the film to make it have a pulse. Hopefully the character continues to receive this level of care, flaws and all.