With the exception of Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, no single superhero has seen more screen time than Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Since he was spotted on the set of Bryan Singer’s genre-propelling 2000 release X-Men wearing yellow spandex (a costume that would later be changed due to internet outrage), Wolverine has been Jackman’s role to own. From that first X-Men movie to the third, in which he was forced to end the life of his love Jean Grey, Wolverine has always been a central character to modern X-Men cinema.
But unlike the armored billionaire Tony Stark, whose worst outings have been no worse than average (ahem, Iron Man 2), Wolverine has had some real stumbles — namely 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It was the kind of critical and fan-disappointing quality control disaster that would kill a lesser franchise. But like its central character, this is a franchise that heals well (and makes money despite itself), so Fox was willing to give it another shot.
Luckily for fans, The Wolverine delivers where the previous outing failed, giving us what could very well be the defining cinematic appearance of Hugh Jackman as Logan.
We are reintroduced to Logan as he lives out his days as a prisoner of war in Japan near the end of World War II — just outside Nagasaki on the day when American bombers dropped an infamous atomic payload on the southern Japanese city. There we meet a Japanese soldier named Yashida who decides that he’d rather live than die honorably in a nuclear blast. Thankfully, he’s got an unexpected friend in Logan, who covers him up and takes the brunt of the blast, only to see his mutation repair his completely charred body. It’s a moment that instantaneously defines the differences between this Wolverine movie and previous Wolverine movies. The digital effects appear to be finished, the destruction is elegant and Wolverine stands tall in the middle of it all.
The story flashes forward to modern day, long after Logan’s bones have been laced with Adamantium, some time after the events of the first three X-Men movies and the death of Jean Grey. Logan is living somewhere in the mountains, distant from the rest of humanity save for the occasional run to the general store for batteries. After a tender moment with some local wildlife and a run-in with a loud hillbilly hunting party, he is met by Yukio, played by Rila Fukushima. She’s been looking for him on behalf of an old friend who would like to say goodbye before he dies, an old friend dying of cancer likely caused by radiation.
This is where Logan’s story begins to get a little convoluted, perhaps the only weakness of his cinematic return. Just know this: He goes to Japan, plenty of stuff goes down, he fights ninjas, yakuza, a few other mutants and a giant Silver Samurai. And for the most part, the story follows a consistent logical path and only falls victim to a few minor narrative holes. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by the visual elements crafted by director James Mangold, cinematographer Ross Emery and production designer Francois Audouy. The elegant Japanese sets and highly detailed set pieces lend a deal of grace to the grit and intensity of the action.
Also adding grace (and a bit of their own violence) are two newcomers, the aforementioned Fukushima and Tao Okamoto, who plays Yashida’s granddaughter, a character who eventually falls under the protection of Logan and his sensationally defined abdominal muscles. Both bring a different energy to the film, but are equally effective. For her part, Fukushima matches the fire of her character’s bright red hair with a fierce demeanor and some badass fighting moments. On the other side, Okamoto develops organically into the emotional core of the movie. Much of the thematic momentum of the film is centered on Logan’s search for peace, for an honorable death and an end to his immortal curse. Okamoto’s Mariko provides him the kind of strength and romantic balance that gives him something to keep fighting for.
And fight, he does. For anyone (myself included) who watched the trailer for The Wolverine and worried that it was going to be Origins: Part Deux with effects problems, rest assured that is not the case. There is a fight on top of a bullet train that exemplifies the improvements made since the last film. Mangold and team infuse the action with enough brutality to make us feel the rage of Wolverine, enough quick cuts in the right spots to maintain a PG-13 rating and enough humor to remind us that all this grunting and slashing is still meant to be fun.
Even when the story becomes more convoluted, the scale of the action succeeds in ways that you’d expect to see from the films of Marvel Studios, not the recent X-Men films of 20th Century Fox. It has scale and speed, simplicity and brutality to match the demeanor of its titular character.
It all works so well because of a layered effort — from the design of the set pieces to Emery’s well-placed camera (which spends time shaking out its inner Paul Greengrass early on only to settle down in time for all the best action) — but the key piece here is Jackman. We don’t just get Wolverine the Wallflower in this movie, he’s an active participant, a fleshed-out emotionally rounded character whose actions are rooted in the emotional trauma of the loss of Jean Grey. We see her, played again by Famke Janssen, tormenting Logan in his dreams. It lends weight to his quest to end his immortality, makes him human and propels a great deal of his rage later on. And when the rage kicks in, it’s impressive. Like much of the action coordination, Wolverine’s own single combat moments are more impressive than anything we’ve seen in Jackman’s 13-year run in the role. His enemies are formidable, his wounds are, at times, gruesome, and his power is felt.
After the outright creative failure that was the last Wolverine movie, this kind of Adamantium-solid effort is something to be appreciated by fans. It’s not the pinnacle of superhero cinema, but it’s a movie that understands what it’s working with. Above all, it gets the tone of its central character right and lets a leading man with great presence do his work in a way that honors a beloved comic book tough guy. Finally, Wolverine shows us his berserker rage. Finally, we get to see one of his finest tales told on-screen. It’s hard not to imagine that even Iron Man would be impressed.
The Upside: The action is strong, Jackman delivers and the elegance of the setting provides balance to some serious grit.
The Downside: As is the pitfall of many comic book adaptations, there’s a great deal of the story that becomes convoluted as stories are mixed, remixed and remastered.
On the Side: There is a post-credits tag on The Wolverine, one that might actually pay off in Fox’s mutantverse.