02 August 2013

MUTANT MUTANDIS

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.

6/10

23 comments:

Brian said...

I dug it. After nearly everyone but you (myself very much included in "nearly everyone") way overrated First Class, I think largely because it was finally a new X-Men movie that wasn't actively bad, it was nice to get one that might actually be actively good.

I think the final act kind of went a bit out of tone to the rest of the film, despite being rather predictable at the same time.

I HAVE read the Claremont/Miller story, although not in many, many years. It's definitely based on it, and it follows it somewhat closely as I recall, although nowhere near beat for beat.

It is worth the time to read, if only for the incredible spareness of it. The legend, at least, is that Chris knew that Frank liked to fill every inch of his panels with detail, and so tried to keep his normally verbose scripts more sparse, while, at the same time, Miller, knowing how much Claremont liked to fill his page with speech and narrative bubbles, decided to leave a lot of white space for that... It ended up working way better than you'd expect.

Chris D said...

I've never read the comic either, but I thought the reductive view of Japan and the (spoiler, sort of, I guess) man-hating lesbian villain both seemed very Frank Miller, though I suspect that the comic would have been a lot more introspective than the movie.

Anyway, I think I liked this film more than I would have otherwise just because it felt like a breath of fresh air. It was aesthetically unadventurous and kept frustratingly shying away from its themes (which I think Aronofsky would have done wonderful things with), but it's the first superhero film I've seen in forever that didn't feel like an Iron Man/Dark Knight retread and that was enough.

That said, I would have liked the movie a hell of a lot more, vanilla and all if it had had a single action setpiece worth a damn. Even the train didn't do much for me, given how short it was and how loose the editing was compared to the trailer.

KingKubrick said...

I really like it. Finally, a character-driven comicbook movie that didn't depend on a city being destroyed for it's dramatic stakes. Quite refreshing actually. It made me excited for Singer's return to the franchise.

The.Watcher said...

I didn't hate it, which is what I prepared myself for before sitting down in the theater, so that's a definite plus.

Still, I loved Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim (which is probably my favorite popcorn blockbuster of the decade so far. Hey, I love giant robots fighting giant monsters, and cutting the latter's wings off with a fucking sword in mid-air , so sue me) a lot more than I did Wolverine.

It's very kinda bland, isn't it? Two weeks since I've seen it, and I'm really struggling to remember the majority of its scenes. At least it's not as bad as Only God Forgives. Refn really spat in the faces of all who liked Drive with that one.

KingKubrick said...

@ The Watcher
Well holding it up to the standard of being better than Only God Forgives is quite low. Forgives is a movie that becomes worse and worse the more you let it sink in.

I'll say, for myself, Pacific Rim is the best spectacle of the summer and The Wolverine is the best all around movie, discounting Gatsby, which I practically loved but discount from the summer movie race because it adapts a great novel. I have to admit, despite my anti-Snyder leaning, that Man of Steel had some eye-popping moments.

But I'll be damned if Only God Forgives isn't the greatest disappointment since the Dark Knight Rises. It could have been so much more. It's a failure we can all agree on wasn't very good.

The.Watcher said...

Yeah, I've been unable to let that one slide. The really shitty part is that I can't even be mad at Refn. The man gave us the Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Drive - he deserves to fuck around and make a spectacular failure, and just as long as he bounces back, all will be forgiven. But goddamn, is it hard for me to look past it right now.

The thing about comparing it with TDKR, though, is that Nolan's finale was about one rewrite away from being phenomenal, but clearly not enough of a crap was given to get it there. Forgives, however, if pretty much un-salvageable on every level. It reminds me of the time an entire container of apple juice spilled in my car, and the horrible, putrid stench of rot that soon wholly engulfed it. No matter what I did, I could not get rid of the smell. Took about two years for it to clear out.

Thrash Til' Death said...

For me, this was one of those rare movies that didn't really prompt any negative or positive reaction from me. Its good points and its bad points, for me, weighed out almost precisely, cancelled each other out and gave rise to absolute neutrality. It's the biggest "meh" of the summer. I'm with The Watcher; when it comes to popcorn sci-fi movies of 2013, I found IM3, PR and MoS infinitely more appealing. As X-Men movies go, I far preferred First Class.

One point: after seeing "The Wolverine," I actually feel better about sticking to my guns that "Man of Steel" was awesome, even if it was seriously problematic. God knows, after something as formulaic and anodyne as this, where two-thirds of the action only incidentally involves the hero and title character, I say bring on the opulent, overwrought myth-making with actual gravity, consequence and spectacle.

Also, let's talk plot holes. SPOILERS - if Yashida was pulling the strings the whole time, then what in the holy hell did he stand to gain from faking his death? All that served to do was make Mariko his eligible successor and set in motion her father's plan to remove her. If all he was after was Logan's immortality juice, wouldn't it have been so much easier to just have the Viper incapacitate him (and what was her stake in this film, exactly? Money, I guess?) and take it by force? The whole issue of Mariko's succession didn't even need to come into play.

Jeremy said...

^You must've seen a different Man of Steel than me if you talking about "gravity" and "consequence". Whole damn city gets blown up and they never give you a reason to care about any of it. The Daily Planet cast are damn near cameo appearances.

Thrash Til' Death said...

^When I say "consequence," what I mean is more the fact that Supes' actions in taking up arms against Zod have the result that Kryptonian civilisation - one half of his heritage - has its last chance of renewal dashed. The massive collateral damage to Metropolis is problematic, yes, but not to the point where I found it unforgivable. I'll take a heavily flawed but ambitious work like MoS over the total anonymity of "The Wolverine" any day of the week. When did we get to the point where studios are spending nine-figure budgets and engaging in months-long marketing campaigns for movies that amount to filler?

Jeremy said...

And I'll take a small but impactful film like this over the giant white noise of poor characterization and character motivation, superfluous supporting cast, large-scale action with zero stakes or drama, clumsy use of flashbacks, and poorly dramatized mcguffins any day of the week, and twice on sunday.

The.Watcher said...

Gotta say I agree with Thrash here.

I don't know whether my mind operates in two completely different gears for popcorn and serious, which allows me to enjoy even empty crap like the latest Resident Evil, or whether I'm just incredibly easy to please, but stuff like collateral damage in MoS bothers me not even a little bit.

I guess it has to do with expectations; if you go into it wanting nothing more than loud noises and explosions, which is what I do for any blockbuster, you won't be disappointed unless the movie just fails spectacularly on every level.

I went into MoS expecting Dragonball Z-levels of writing and fighting, and I got exactly that. I guess it helps that it's what I grew up on, love to death, and am perpetually watching here and there, but it still perfectly captured what a fight with Superman against another Krytonian would be like - the fist time any movie has ever done that.

Is it a good film in the classical sense? No, but who cares? It's a blast to watch and the destruction is spectacular. Even if I wasn't a fan of DBZ, I'd still take that over the vanilla mediocrity of something like The Wolverine, which, as I stated, I pretty much completely forgot already.

Thrash Til' Death said...

^ FWIW, I too grew up watching DBZ and still harbour a great deal of affection for it. Could be MoS just pushed a button in the brains of people like you and me.

KingKubrick said...

@The Watcher, Thrash
I doubt there's a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan than me. I've watched the entire original series, filler and all, every movie (except Battle of The Gods which isn't available over here yet) and recently watched all 100 episodes of Dragon Ball Z Kai. I can say that I found the final battle of Man of Steel the most tedious aspect of the whole thing. The parts I like most were the cinematography in the Smallville flashbacks and the destruction of Krypton. So take that as you will. I actually found, like the many steals from Dragon Ball Z found in the Matrix trilogy, Man of Steel's pilfering of DBZ style fighting to be one of the most bothersome aspects of the movie.

The.Watcher said...

@KK - "I doubt there's a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan than me."

Challenge accepted.

There are two version of DBZ available for purchase (excl. Kai) - the Orange Brick version, which has horrible picture quality - a widescreen presentation that is a zoomed in 4:3, leading to a loss of about 20% off the top AND bottom - that is automatically image enhanced (leading to horrid contrast levels and washed-out colors), and the Dragon Box version, which is presented in its native 4:3, and features a painstaking, manual restoration.

The Dragon Box version is superior to the Brick in every way except one: the audio track. The Dragon Box comes with the original Japanese mono track (which I hate. Goku is voiced by a girl smh) and the English Funimation dub with the original Japanese soundtrack in the background.

I don't know about you, but I grew up with the American soundtrack, composed by Bruce Falcouner, which is a lot more rock-riff heavy, and generally much more prevalent to its Japanese counterpart, which is very sparse, to the point of often going for long periods of time with no music at all.

Having downloaded all the Dragon Box episodes, I found that I could not watch them due to the soundtrack sucking all the life out of the show. It's astounding how much energy Falcouner brings into the saga, and without it, the show does't have the same momentum. Plus, seeing Vegeta without his bell-heavy theme felt wrong.

And so I downloaded all the Brick version, ripped the audio track for all 291 episodes, and manually spliced every. single. episode. of the Dragon Box series to include the Brick audio, except for the intro, intermissions, and outro (the intro and outro wasn't present on the Brick version at all, and the intermission's worse than in the Japanese version), which I kept in its original, Japanese music form. It took me months, but I finally got it all done.

Now I can enjoy the best video quality along with the best audio track, and I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who has ever done something like this. When I was a kid living in New Zealand at the time, I was a regular at local DBZ events, where the voice of Goku would fly in and host a Kamehameha tournament.

Your move, Kubrick!

PS, as for MoS stealing pretty much everything from it, I don't mind at all. The Dragon Ball movie Fox made was a complete embarrassment for everyone involved. It was easy for me to squint and pretend that Clark was Kakarot and Zod was King Piccolo (technically it would make it a DB story, and not DBZ, but whatevs).

The.Watcher said...

The manga is one long arc, anyway. Toriyama made no distinction between the two series.

Brian said...

Lord I wish I could afford The Dragon Box stuff, but, having most of the orange brick sets, and the last couple seasons on the original (mostly) 3 episodes a disc releases, and most of Kai, except the last two volumes (eventually) I really can't justify spending MORE money on DBZ.

Jeremy said...

Yeah, I'm a huge DBZ fan, and I still have some fuckin' standards for blockbusters, tho. I'm not up on "turn your brain off and watch shit fly BAM POW WOOO" thing. It's that mentality that let the blockbuster sink into the kind of loud mediocrity it's become today. The best blockbusters(hell the best movies) engage your brain just fine. Die Hard, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Bourne Ultimatum, Jaws, Empire Strikes Back, Back to the Future, most of Pixar's films, etc are great, entertaining blockbusters build on well-crafted classical Hollywood storytelling. It can be done; it SHOULD be done. Man of Steel could've been, but it wasn't, it was a mess. I don't believe in lowering the bar for mediocrity because it reminded you of a show you watched as a kid.

The.Watcher said...

Well, ok. We all decide how to spend our money on things we deem worthy.

I'm not lowering anything, for my part - I genuinely enjoy flicks like MoS, and always have, going back to the days of Hackers, Spawn and Mortal Kombat, just as much as I do films like Godfather. Everything has its place.

I must admit, though, I do find it pretty funny that you can be a fan of DBZ and simultaneously hate MoS, since they're both basically the same thing, but hey, I'm sure you have your reasons.

The.Watcher said...

@Brian - Ha! Good luck with that. Volumes 2 and 3 are around 800 bucks each right now, since for some reason the company refuses to re-release them.

Honestly, if you shell out that kind of money for something that is readily available online, for free, I'd seriously question your sanity.

KingKubrick said...

@The Watcher,

Well, you win there. I don't have the technical savvy to splice the soundtrack from one version to another. For me it's more about the story and the characters anyway more than the minutia of the presentation.

The writing in DBZ is vastly more sound than the man of steel, from the characterization to the plotting to the dialogue. Man of Steel is like DBZ devoid of all personality and poorly rendered. Cavill's Superman registers a 0 for 10 in terms of depth and humour compared to Goku. I don't see how liking DBZ would make me like a poor rehash of it or condone Snyder's thievery. I'd have much preferred he do an outright adaptation with Goyer staying as far away from the script as possible and someone competent taking a pass at it.

The.Watcher said...

Well, I can certainly respect your point of view, but I'd be lying if I said I agree.

I'm also a big fan of Snyder, so the widespread hatred he receives is pretty puzzling to me.

That said, every art form is very subjective at the end of the day, and while I'm kinda sad that so many people disliked MoS, since that's the direction that WB is clearly heading in with its DC universe, I'm also excited that it's a direction I'm, personally, very happy with.

I think I mentioned this under Tim's MoS review, but Superman as a character really did nothing for me. This darker tone piqued my interest, and that's really more than I ever could have expected.

As for the DBZ thievery, well, seeing it in live action is better than watching it done through drawings, and that alone is worth the price of admission. For me, anyway.

KingKubrick said...

@the watcher,
I understand your how you feel. I might have mentioned it before but I'm a Tarsem Singh fanboy and all the criticisms that I can level at Snyder can equally be levelled at him. So I get loving an artist's visual style enough to forgive his or her failings. If Tarsem did Man of Steel I'd be on the same bandwagon. But much respect for you loving DBZ as much as I do. You have tremendous taste.

The.Watcher said...

Thank you, Kubrick, and likewise.

Oh, and Singh's films are complete eye porn. The Fall will probably stay with me until the day I die.