The Wolverine is the best X-Men movie since X2, a long decade ago; but what the hell kind of bar is that to clear? It's one of the most successful and aesthetically coherent tentpole movies of summer, 2013, but that's a lower bar, if anything. It's a solid movie, that is to say, one that's perfectly entertaining and diverting for as long as it goes, but I can't help like I'm grading it on a curve anyway, and that my already muted feelings of warmth towards it would be gone completely if it wasn't so lucky to have such a lukewarm, mediocre context underpinning it. I guess something has to benefit from the deflation of the Hollywood blockbuster that has been going on for some time, and seems to have intensified this year.
Set an unspecified amount of time after 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine finds the titular hero (Hugh Jackman, appearing for the fifth time, sixth counting his glorious cameo in X-Men: First Class) dealing with the emotional scars that set in following the events of that film. Which events are alluded to but not really spelled out in any useful way until awfully late, and it seems awfully damn presumptuous to expect the audience to remember something as damnably weak as The Last Stand this many weeks later, but The Wolverine, more than most recent comic book adaptations, seems unusually comfortable with the idea that nobody besides established fans is really going to give a shit. Unlike nearly every other superhero movie of the last several decades, or at least the last three or four years, The Wolverine isn't at all interested in grandiose scope or giant gestures; it's stunningly narrow, in fact, basing its entire conflict on little character-driven notes, where the price of failure isn't the end of the world, but simply the hero's death. Which, in theory, are the only stakes that any movie needs, but superhero flicks have been more and more excited to explode bigger and bigger sets with more and more at stake, culminating in something like Man of Steel being hellbent on destroying a massive city for thirty straight minutes that it doesn't stop to wonder if it's actually earned that size of devastation, or if the character at the center of it has been established enough that we credit him as worthy of saving the day.
The Wolverine gets to cheat a little bit on that latter point, by giving us a protagonist that virtually the entire audience will already have some level of attachment to (with this film, Jackman's Logan/Wolverine has surpassed Christopher Reeve's Superman for the most headlining appearances by a single actor as one comics-derived character), and I daresay that from the material as presented here, if you've been cool on the character in the previous film, you are surely not going to change you mind now. On the other hand, if you've been fond of him - and historically, there've been more reasons to like Jackman's version of the character than not - there's also nothing here that's apt to make you like him less, and in this regard at least, the film is a notable step up from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, though that is the lowest bar I have mentioned yet. The point being: even if Jackman adds literally nothing to his characterisation that hasn't been there before (indeed, given how much glummer this movie is than any of the others - the influence of Christopher Nolan strikes again - the character is probably less dynamic than ever), he'd already gotten it so perfectly, creating easily the most interesting of all the X-Men outside of the Shakespearean-trained dynamic duo of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, that simply repeating it is really all he, and the film, "need" to do to achieve simple competence as amusing, forgettable summertime fun.
The story, adapted from a legendary and beloved comic book arc by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, which I have never read,* finds Logan plagued by nightmares of his dead lover, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), killed by Logan himself after she'd gone all psycho-mutant, and attempting to bury himself in the Canadian wilderness. He enters civilization only for supplies, and to beat the tar out of a hunter who illegally used poison to hunt grizzlies; it's in the middle of the bar fight that thus occasions that he's found by Yukio (Fukushima Rila), a terrific swordswoman with neon red hair, who has been seeking him out on behalf of billionaire industrialist Yashida (Yamanouchi Haruhiko). Back in the war, when Yashida was just an officer (his younger incarnation played by Ken Yamamura), the indestructible mutant saved his life from the nuclear explosion that leveled Nagasaki, and now the dying man wishes to thank Logan by offering him a unique gift: the ability to transfer his long-despised immortality and regenerative gift into another human body.
Even before Logan is able to storm off in a huff, Yashida is dead of the very disease that he'd hoped to cure with the mutant's powers, and a gang of Yakuza thugs use the funeral as an opportunity to kidnap his granddaughter and heir, Mariko (Okamoto Tao), rousing Logan's well-hidden sense of duty and heroism. And thus does a trans-Japanese quest to protect the new leader of Asia's biggest tech company and also figure out what the hell is going on begin, and by the time it wraps up, it's only a little bit full of plot holes, which isn't a bad record for a superhero movie whose entire narrative hinges on a largely predictable twist ending.
I'm being snittier than the movie warrants; I liked The Wolverine well enough, almost despite itself. Lord knows, there's plenty to be wary of, from its clichéd reduction of Japan to fanboyish ideas about badass chicks and venal gangsters, to its paint-by-numbers narrative structure, to its less-than-amazing CGI. But even in the dour mode that the film traps him in for most of its running time (and for Christ's sake, when are we going to get fun superhero movies again? Even Iron Man 3, latest entry of one of the breeziest franchises going right now, was suffocating on its own importance), Jackman is still too damn good at this character for it to be an unpleasant job of watching him, and while James Mangold's directing leads to a particularly bland movie, the one thing that cannot be denied is that The Wolverine is clean and efficient and effective: the first superhero movie in years that I, personally, didn't find significantly too long, and whose vanilla style errs on the side of coherency and classicism. Is it easy to regret that this isn't a Darren Aronofsky film, as it very nearly turned out to be? Lord, yes. But if Mangold is a mere hack, he's a good hack anyway, and that's not something you can laugh off too easily. The film he made works, and there's a fight scene atop a train that's as engagingly conceived and executed as any setpiece in any action movie all summer.
It is the very definition of a "good enough" film, and it sucks that this is the best we can expect out of our summer popcorn movies these days. But "good enough" is better by far than "not good enough", and while it's hard to work up an enthusiasm for The Wolverine, at least it's not unpleasant to sit through. We should have higher expectations than that; but sometimes, you have to appreciate what little you get, when you can get it.
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