By Alan Mattli
While the most striking difference between the current wave of screen incarnations of DC’s superheroes and those crafted by the rivalling Marvel Comics lies in the presentation of the characters and the resulting tone – dark and brooding (DC) versus more obviously campy and self-deprecating (Marvel) –, they also differ in one perhaps less intentional characteristic. While DC has a reputation for telling stories that tend to be more convoluted than they need to be (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy comes to mind), Marvel’s recent cinematic output is defined by fairly simple movies that form a more complicated whole, as every film is part of a larger narrative framework.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the X-Men series, which, other than the Avengers project is not built on individuals who form a team but on a group whose members are only partially defined, the franchise’s only solo act being the indestructible, adamantium-clawed Logan aka Wolverine, who has been engagingly played by Hugh Jackman for more than a decade now. Indeed, he is now virtually the only constant in the scattered X-Men film chrononlogy, having made his debut in Bryan Singer’s eponymous start of the series in 2000, which was followed by two sequels – X2 in 2003 and Brett Ratner’s destructive yet underrated The Last Stand in 2006 –, a ludicrous origin story (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and the reboot/prequel First Class, arguably the franchise’s highpoint, which is set to be continued in 2014’s Days of Future Past, which in turn seeks to undo the events of The Last Stand.
Sandwiched in between these two team efforts is The Wolverine, stylishly if a little stiffly directed by Walk the Line‘s James Mangold, which feels less like an Origins sequel and more like a straightforward comic book adaptation weaving in series canon as it goes along. This is particularly visible in the rather repetitive scenes of Logan having visions of fellow mutant extraordinaire Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he killed at the end of the third film, and the obligatory mid-credits scene, which shows him meeting up with mutant mentors Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and which might just be the film’s most exciting moment.
This is not to say, however, that the two hours preceding it are an utter waste of time. Centering around Logan being transported from his anchoretic life in northern Canada to Japan where he is offered the chance of mortality by a dying magnate (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), whom he saved from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and, after declining, suddenly losing his healing abilities, The Wolverine features an at least somewhat refreshing take on Wolverine in particular and Marvel material in general. In an odd yet ultimately strangely beguiling directorial choice, Mangold does not attempt to circumvent the dissonance between the gritty and the cartoonish, which often plagues Marvel’s films (as opposed to DC, where the cartoonish is all but absent), but actually embraces it. Resulting from this is an interesting variety of mood and imagery, ranging from the graphic depiction of the Nagasaki bombing or Logan’s grisly self surgery (both as graphic and gruesome as the PG-13 rating allows) to the campy, corny slow-motion shots of Yakuza henchmen roaring like lions and ninjas turning unwarranted somersaults.
In other areas, variety also proves to be a keyword, such as in Marco Beltrami’s accomplished score, which features an almost ridiculous number of modes, shifting between standard orchestra tracks, traditional Japanese chants, J-pop influences, and, for whatever reason, something sounding suspiciously akin to Scottish bagpipes. In terms of action, The Wolverine does make adequate use of its versatile setting, which, even when substituted by lavish (and overused) CGI, feels fresh enough to satisfy and which allows for a few decent set pieces in the first half of the movie.
The story, on the other hand, is standard fare, if less attuned to mutant/non-mutant relation and confrontation as the rest of the X-Men cinema canon, dealing with familiar themes like self-acceptance, the two sides of immortality – inevitable loss and perennial self-improvement –, and the value of friendship. To this end, writers Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable), Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Minority Report, Marley & Me), and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie introduce a number of non-descript, interchangeable secondary villains and two young Japanese women aiding the main protagonist; precognitive mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and magnate-to-be Mariko (Tao Okamoto). The former is indubitably the more engaging character, whereas the latter is subject to the authors’ whims and the plot’s turns, making her both bland and erratic – throughout the film, she’s portrayed as alternately weak and desperate, immature and naïve, and strong and analytical. Even though Yukio, with her neon red hair, short skirt, black stockings, and thigh-high boots, seems designed for the sole purpose of attracting the attention of anime-loving cinemagoers, she offers a zesty, energetic alternative to the gruffly deadpan Wolverine. (Also, when the focus is on her, Mangold’s staging of action is at its best.)
Conversely, Wolverine, while still a welcome main character, seems slightly underdeveloped in this installment. Although stripping him of some of his powers suggests the emergence of a more human, more relatable side to his character, the move feels like too much of a chore; with the regaining of his abilities never in doubt (though the film does end on chopping off his trademark adamantium claws, which are once again replaced by his natural bone extensions), the newly vulnerable Logan is less of a flawed hero in crisis and more of a temporarily disadvantaged super-being. It seems that vulnerability is an ill fit for the strongest, most blasé member of the X-Men.
The limited impact this transitional change to the character has is further emphasised by the movie’s final act, where it succumbs to a simplistic action-packed climax, where dialogue is reduced to (sometimes genuinely rousing) one-liners, and where Mangold’s embracing of camp reaches the critical point at which it starts to take itself seriously. On the whole, The Wolverine is too underwhelming to rank as a major entry into the X-Men franchise. As a warm-up act to the more highly anticipated Days of Future Past, though, it’s just good enough.
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