Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Wolverine

No Claws For Alarm

By Melissa Agar

The Wolverine (20th Century Fox, 2013) – Director: James Mangold. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rita Fukushima, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Famke Janssen, & Brian Tee. Color, 126 minutes.

If film is to be believed, being a superhero really sucks. It is a dark, lonely existence where you are perpetually misunderstood by the world, isolated from the ones you love, and haunted by your own mistakes. Sure, the whole flying/super strength/invulnerability thing seems like it would be incredible, but don’t fall for it because the existential crisis that those powers bring is clearly not worth it. Despite the fact that comic book superheroes were originally created to be an entertaining diversion during the Great Depression, in our own dark times, those heroes now mirror our own fears and angst rather than helping us escape. Never has this been more obvious than after seeing The Wolverine, Marvel’s latest offering in the X-Men saga.

Jackman is back as Logan, the spiritually wounded mutant with the adamantium claws. Rather than going back to the prequel well a la 2009’s X-Men Origins: WolverineThe Wolverine picks up some time after 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Logan, haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Janssen), has become a shaggy mountain man, sleeping in caves, and eschewing hygiene. Via flashbacks, we also learn that Logan was witness to the bombing of Nagasaki and saved the life of a young Japanese soldier working in the POW camp where Logan was being held. Now, years later, Logan is approached by Yukio (Fukushima), a red-banged, sword-wielding servant to Yashida (Yamanouchi), the now-elderly man Logan saved all those years ago. Yashida is dying and his final wish is to see Logan one last time to bid him farewell.

Despite the fact that Logan has cut himself off from society, he feels obligated to accompany Yukio back to Japan where Yashida has become a rich and powerful man whose name adorns billboards and buildings all over Japan. Yashida offers Logan a proposition – he can strip Logan of his immortality, taking away the darkness that haunts Logan’s soul and allowing him to lead a “normal” life, free to fall in love, have a family, and ultimately die a natural death. Logan refuses, the old man dies, and Logan finds himself having to help save Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Okamoto) from tattooed hitmen and ninjas while battling his own diminished powers courtesy of the reptilian mutant biochemist Viper (Khodchenkova). 

As a character, Wolverine is a tough one to embrace particularly in a film landscape filled in recent years with engaging, charismatic heroes. Wolverine is a tortured soul, and there is a darkness to his character that often seems to hold the audience at bay. Like Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Logan is a bit of an enigma although both this and Origins work to give his torture a sense of context. Logan’s immortality and his choice to largely remain a loner, though, make him a more challenging character than, say, Wayne or Tony Stark who display both emotional and physical vulnerability and have people in their lives that provide a stronger emotional core. Logan doesn’t have an Alfred or Pepper Potts with whom he can exchange quips and to provide an incentive to defeat evil or a reminder of their human identities. While Logan here does form friendships and attachments with both Yukio and Mariko, there is still a distance there as his conscience struggles with his evening nightmares starring Jean Grey. It doesn’t help that Jackman and Janssen’s chemistry onscreen far outpaces the chemistry he shares with either Fukushima or Okamoto – or maybe it’s just easier to see a chemistry with history rather than with two brand new characters. 

While the darkness of the film is at times a bit unrelenting, it’s still a strong entry into the X-Men canon. Watching Logan struggle with his sudden invulnerability is riveting – the confusion when his skin doesn’t instantly heal, the shock at feeling real pain, the struggle to fight through his injuries. Logan, too, must decide whether or not to allow himself to care about Yukio and Mariko, something that seems to happen in spite of himself. Ultimately, the film is vulnerability – both physical and emotional. Logan learns to allow both into his life, and that is what leads him to actual healing and embracing his true fate. In lesser hands than Jackman, this movie would wallow in self-pity, but he finds a way to infuse Logan with just the right blend of swagger and angst that keeps Logan charming but tortured. To be fair, May’s Iron Man 3 dealt with a lot of these issues in a much more entertaining and engaging way, but The Wolverine far surpasses June’s Man of Steel in terms of giving us a story of an extraordinary being finding a place in the ordinary world. It also is a far superior film to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This film went a long way, actually, in removing some of the bad taste Origins left in my mouth where Wolverine is concerned and helped me re-discover my own affection for the character.

That’s not to say that The Wolverine is perfect. In addition to surrounding Logan largely with “strangers,” it also throws a ridiculous amount of villainy his way. There are at least three different antagonists who pose a threat to Logan throughout the course of the film. Having multiple villains serve to dilute the conflicts to the point where it became a bit ridiculous. I’ve found that the stronger superhero films tend to focus on the core conflict between one hero and one villain. I don’t mind a diversion or two, but when you have villains fighting villains to get to the hero, you’re overdoing it. The villain’s motives, too, remain largely unclear or rest too much on eye-rolling cliché. It leaves the audience to just shrug and root for Wolverine because we know that’s what we’re supposed to do rather than because it seems like the correct narrative course.

In a summer that has become hugely disappointing over the course of the past couple weeks, though, The Wolverine stands out as being a stronger entry. There is an intelligence and complexity to the protagonist and his internal struggle that doesn’t pander to the audience. While it does troop out some tired tropes, it also gives us a solid core in Logan. To be honest, the secret ending in the middle of the credits is maybe worth the price of admission by itself. For the casual filmgoer, The Wolverine may be a bit inaccessible in terms of its mythology (I had to really rack my brain to remember what happened in The Last Stand, a seven-year-old film), but it is a gritty, action-packed film with enough intelligence to challenge and entertain audiences. That’s more than can be said for most of the films released this month.  

Grade: B

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