While not entirely devoid of problems, The Wolverine proves it can heal from its wounds to deliver an underrated and satisfying experience.
You have to feel a bit sympathetic for Wolverine in his solo movies. He went through so much, and yet all that most people remember is the last one.
The Wolverine is directed by James Mangold and stars Hugh Jackman as the titular character. Back in his WWII days, Wolverine once saved a Japanese soldier named Yashida Ichiro (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) from the Hiroshima bombing. After many years, Yashida contacts him again, and invites him to Japan where he offers to take Wolverine’s healing factor and give him a mortal death. Unfortunately, things quickly turn sour when he gets wrapped up in a vicious conspiracy involving samurais and ninjas – and that last bit is where I was sold.
As I said, The Wolverine typically doesn’t get much attention from X-Men fans. It’s not on the level of X-Men: Origins-Wolverine, where fans are petitioning for it to be thrown in a cage with actual rabid wolverines. But it’s like that one kid in school that gets 4th place in every contest: people don’t acknowledge its existence, and it’s not even out of malice. When people think about Mangold and his Wolverine movies, their focus typically goes towards Logan. However, I actually beg to differ on that front, as I always found the film to be rather underappreciated.
One of the things that stands out the most about The Wolverine is its grittier nature. Mangold hasn’t gone full Logan yet, it still is struggling to throw off that suffocating blanket of PG-13, but you can see roots of its more brutal nature here. The fight scenes are less CGI explosions or superpowers, as nearly all of the players involved specialize in fighting up close and dirty. This relative scaling down ironically makes things feel more frantic and dire, as we can actually relate to throwing fists over throwing glowing beams made from the soul of VFX artists.
All of this makes for a tone that is…I hesitate to say the word realistic, because, let’s face it: Wolverine is fighting ninjas and jumping on top of bullet trains. I don’t think that sort of occurrences pop up in tourist blogs often. But it’s certainly a relatively grounded one, allowing for an atmosphere that feels colder, more personal. Whether it be fighters soaked in rain in darkened alleyways or Wolverine and a samurai clashing blades with a backdrop of midnight blue, it brings back memories of old martial arts films, allowing a good chunk of the movie to feel unique.
It also helps that The Wolverine fittingly takes a deep dive into the character’s mind. The film takes place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, where Wolverine was forced to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), his one-sided love. Throughout the film, she constantly haunts him as he’s unable to rest, unable to let go. It ties in well alongside the theme of immortality as well. Wolverine’s lived long enough to do military service a hundred times over, which is bad enough, but also has met and let go so many people. And he doesn’t know whether the ones he meets in this movie will heal him the way his healing factor can’t, or just remind him of what he’s lost.
With all of those elements combined, The Wolverine makes for a very down to earth journey. There are of course truly thrilling moments like a fight between Wolverine and ninjas, on top of a shinkansen that is cool enough that I don’t care how many laws of physics are being torn to shreds there. But then there are moments where Wolverine just spends personal time with newcomer Mariko (Okamoto Tao), getting to know the locals that help make this film feel both entertaining yet personal.
Sadly, not all of this movie cuts home, and it’s primarily due to the third act. Now, it’s not to the point where it causes the whole film to commit seppuku. But its tone just doesn’t mesh smoothly with the rest of the movie. One moment we were in a grounded-looking village with Wolverine against human opponents. Then, suddenly, we’re in a bond villain laboratory and Wolverine has to fight against the Silver Samurai, who may as well be an adamantium transformer. It’s as if you served me sushi but then shoved some fries in the wasabi.
What’s even more frustrating is that this isn’t a bad climax by any means. On the contrary, on its own, it’s pretty action packed, and has some good thematic relevance. (Spoiler warning in the rest of this paragraph) Yashida’s thirst for immortality and his unwillingness to move on serves as a nice contrast to Wolverine suffering from the events of The Last Stand. It’s just…look, the finale has Wolverine say “Sayonara!” as the fatality one-liner, I’m not saying that’s bad, but that sort of cheesy goodness feels off from when he was suffering PTSD.
In addition, I would like to make a quick note about the aforementioned adamantium mech suit, the Silver Samurai. Apparently comic fans wanted to pepper this movie with shurikens because the character is so radically different from the source material, where it’s a normal samurai wearing more realistic armor. However, I don’t mind this myself. One, because I am not really a comics reader, so it doesn’t bother me much, and two, as long as what we have works within that narrative, I can accept a more unfaithful adaptation. And this version of the Silver Samurai, despite the more over-the-top nature of the climax, fits well into that frame.
The Wolverine isn’t a perfect movie by any means. It’s clear James Mangold is finding his footing with how to handle the character. But that also means the movie has lots of seeds of positivity that still make this an overall enjoyable experience. It may suffer from some inconsistency, but neither parts are terribly written or break my immersion, so I can give it a pass. Mangold might be remembered more for his next Wolverine movie than this one, but as Wolverine himself may grudgingly agree, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The Wolverine is now available to watch on digital and on demand.