Are American audiences starting to get bored with superhero movies? While 20th Century Fox’s “The Wolverine” did solid business overseas this weekend, the James Mangold-directed picture failed to outperform the routinely loathed “X-Men Origins: The Wolverine” stateside, making for the 2nd lowest grossing opening weekend of any X-Men movie so far (though on par with “X-Men: First Class,” and just slightly higher than the original “X-Men”). Was a lack of “X-Men” in Wolverine’s personal story to blame? The movie itself seemed to do favorably, considering its “A-” Cinemascore for those that actually paid to see it, but clearly American audiences didn’t come out in droves.
It probably wasn’t the reviews either (it’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), that were mostly positive. Well, if you go by our review, it definitely was the movie itself, but it’s highly doubtful we made any difference. Regardless, we thought we’d take a closer look and do a post-mortem on “The Wolverine,” a movie that some of us liked, some of nearly hated, but almost all of us agreed was a bit of a frustrating, at-odds-with-itself effort; a dark character story that also wanted to be a slam-bam, thank you man, superhero movie.
“The Wolverine” is easy to enjoy superficially, but its dark, existential themes and soul-searching belie the underbelly of problems that run counter to all its surface texture. Anyhow, without further ado, here’s the best and worst of “The Wolverine.” Suffice to say spoilers abound, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie, we suggest you wait or proceed at your own risk.
Until the third act, when everything goes awry, “The Wolverine” is admirable for creating and then sustaining a consistent and palpable mood of a kind of forlorn loneliness and isolation, where the sins of the past make themselves known (violently) in the present, that hangs over the movie like a thick Japanese fog. It starts with the quiet, nearly silent opening shot that traces a World War II bomber (the World War II bomber) over the skies above Nagasaki and concludes with an elegant two shot of Wolverine and his newfound “bodyguard” (Rila Fukushima), sitting silently in an airplane, bound for parts unknown, and in between, a singularly somber and heavy mood permeates. It’s not suffocating or oppressive, like the angst found in “Man of Steel,” since it’s broken up with moments of levity and surprising sexuality, but it adds just the right amount of weight to something whose inherent silliness could have caused it to blow off the movie screen altogether. It’s nice to see a superhero movie with a premium being placed on atmosphere instead of on how many spaceships they can send careening through the streets of New York City, even if that mood admittedly doesn’t last.
This is, if you count his cameo appearance in the swinging ’60s reboot/whatever “X-Men: First Class,” Hugh Jackman’s sixth appearance as the metallically clawed mutant. And he’s still superb in the role. Besides a slight webbing of wrinkles around his eyes, Jackman doesn’t look a day older than when he first put on the claws 13 years ago (which is perfect for the character) and unlike someone like Johnny Depp, who seems to be bleeding his “Pirates of the Caribbean” character dry, it’s really sort of admirable to see Jackman sticking by the role that made him famous out of what seems to be a genuine love for the character. He knows that the audience hadn’t gotten the Wolverine movie they had wanted from him and he’s sticking around trying his damndest to make that happen. It’d be easy for him to move onto more prestige projects and leave his Comic-Con day job behind, but he seems hell bent on repaying his debt to the geeks who made his career by really trying to do right by the role. Jackman seems just as plugged in and stimulated by the character as when this all began, and it shows in every vein-bulging scene.
There are certain reservations one can have with the storyline of “The Wolverine,” but one cannot deny that everything about it screams “comic book.” The people who make these films sometimes forget that all comic stories don’t end in a mass apocalypse or a world-threatening danger. Instead, they’re often self-contained tales, particularly in the X-Men universe, where characters aren’t necessarily heroes, as tortured by their powers as they are blessed, and unable to get out of their own way. So it is with “The Wolverine,” which allows the practically Jim Lee-drawn Jackman to brood at the moon with the tragedy of his immortality. Most of “The Wolverine” draws from the character’s misadventures in the ’80s, pulling from storylines that found the hero tango-ing with unstoppable ninjas and ruthless Yakuza and that too is preserved, enough to please the fans without toppling over into ridiculousness. There’s an ounce of camp in all good superhero films and “The Wolverine” knows how to revel in pulp in a manner unlike any of the po-faced films in this franchise thus far, and in a way, it shows a fidelity to the source that captures the character in all his melodramatic glory. In many ways, “The Wolverine” achieves what the Marvel films have not: those efforts too often have seen filmmakers take classic characters and try to shove them into a conventional blockbuster adventures that have less in common with Stan Lee than they do Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. But this film, for better and for worse, feels very much like picking a floppy off the rack and peeling through, eager to see the continued adventures of one of comicdom’s most soapy characters.
The Quiet, Ozu-Inspired Section
There’s a moment early on in “The Wolverine” when Jackman and his charge (Tao Okamoto) are hiding out from the bad guys and they slip into a sleazy motel. She informs him demurely that the hotel is a “love hotel,” one specifically designed for couples who want to get their freak on. It’s a funny little bit but also startling in the sense that it’s a superhero movie that is implying that two of its characters might actually have sex (and it exists in a world where other people have sex – can you imagine?). A little later, the unthinkable happens: the same two characters actually have sex. While there’s little context or reason for the two to get together (the achilles heel of the forced romance in the movie), especially since Wolverine is so chewed up over what happened to his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but it’s a sweet, tender moment in a movie mostly defined by our lead character hacking people to death with his metal claws. The Nagasaki Ozu-inspired sequences where Logan and Mariko hide away from the yakuza mob and everyone out to get her is an admirable and quiet section of the movie shot in a kind of romanticized haze, in the sense that it showed you the kind of emotional complexity that could be attempted (if not necessarily completely achieved) in this kind of movie. And it’s a testament to the general mood and pace of the movie that a sequence like this, delicate and serene, could be dropped into a superhero movie without adversely affecting the pacing or structure. You generally don’t see this kind of detour in a blockbuster flick and it’s a shame that the romance in the movie isn’t established earlier in the picture because this portion could have been actually affecting.
The Nagasaki Opening
Of all the ways to start a tangential “X-Men” spin-off, a somber shot of a World War II bomber, about to deliver the devastating payload to Nagasaki, Japan, as it glides across the horizon, isn’t the most conventional. The sequence that follows—in which several Japanese soldiers commit hari kari before the nuclear blast engulfs them, and one, who attempts to free a mysteriously imprisoned Logan, is then saved by our nearly-invincible hero—is one of almost unbearable tension and suspense. But like a lot of things about “The Wolverine,” it almost undoes itself as it goes along. The scene where Wolverine shields the young soldier from the blast is affecting, but Wolverine starts to regenerate seconds later. The nuclear burns that he suffers, turning him into a largely hairless cinder, is undone almost immediately. It would have been nice to see something of that magnitude at least slow him down. It would have added an element of danger and upped the stakes considerably. Instead, he’s back up and running mere moments later. It’s a wonderful way to kick things off, one that could have really set the stage for the rest of the movie, but instead it becomes evocative of the rest of the movie’s highlights and low points, all in a single opening sequence.
It’s Ambitious At Least
This summer, superhero movies have gotten bigger and more explosive than ever, basking in destruction and levelling entire cities. By contrast, “The Wolverine,” is a much more contained piece, with maybe a dozen characters (though even that many poses a problem, as you’ll see), an emphasis on the hero’s existential dread, some delicate emotional underpinnings, and a climax that seems relatively small in comparison to these other movies. Mangold, too, tried for a more sophisticated look for the movie, tipping his hat to a number of influences from both the east and west (including Japanese filmmakers like Hiroshi Inagaki and Kenji Mizoguchi), which results in an elegantly pronounced style. But as we shall learn, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and as often as “The Wolverine” tries, it just as often fails…
The Motivation Problem
Logan is summoned by a mysterious stranger with ninja skills to collect on a debt owed from a man he saved during WWII in Japan. When he gets there, the now elderly and dying friend offers to give Logan the gift of mortality, which our superhero pretty much rejects flat out. So why does he want to stick around in Japan? Well, it turns out the comely granddaughter of his dying pal is pretty attractive and has a couple of factions trying to prevent her from cashing in on her inheritance—the old man’s company. That’s it? In previous X-Men movies, Logan could barely be bothered at all to care about his fellow mutants, not to mention the lives of randomly affiliated strangers. But now, stuck in a country he didn’t want to be in for more than 24 hours, he feels compelled to act? Why? Aside from having a clear adamantium boner for the young woman he (suddenly) must protect… It’s never really certain why he’s so invested, aside from a very vaguely defined sense of honor. It’s certainly not to collect on the “gift” from his friend, and you would think that getting involved in the power grab for a Japanese corporation is the last thing Logan gives a shit about. More importantly, from an audience perspective, it’s dull. Attention Hollywood screenwriters: blockbusters based around corporate maneuvering are boring. (Please see “The Lone Ranger” for more evidence from this summer). No one sits down to watch a superhero movie that ultimately finds our hero making sure the right person heads a major corporation—where’s the fun in that? It speaks to the villain problem the movie also faces (which we’ll dig into) in that there isn’t really one, but a few, and they’re not that well-developed. Combine that with a story that gives little motivation for Wolverine to act and you wonder what he’s doing in Japan at all.
The Theme That Wolverine Wants To Die Is Debunked Early On, Yet The Film Continues With This Idea
As an adjunct to its motivation problem, the fascinatingly bungled immortality theme of “The Wolverine” is killed early on. Through nightmares and dreams of characters that are no longer alive (Jean Grey), “The Wolverine” tries to tell us Logan is in a very low and horrible place mentally. He’s suffering from the loss of Jean Grey, he’s living in the woods in Northern Canada and he’s shut off from everything. An old Japanese millionaire who met him 60 years prior for about a day seems to know that he is deeply suffering inside and offers to restore Logan’s mortality so his pain will end (how does he know Wolverine is feeling so shitty? Did he read his TMI blog?). And just as the movie offers up an interesting existential quandary—Wolverine could simply be mortal and live life like a normal person—Logan shoots it down immediately. Sorry, bub. I don’t want to be mortal and I’ll take my chances which effectively tells the audience, “Yes, I’m down, but not out and I don’t want to die.” THE END. He never says that he wants to be mortal, but everyone just assumes it (including the ghostly Jean Grey, who seems to want him to commit suicide so he can be with her in the lingerie-heavy afterlife), and when the proposition is offered to him he flatly refuses. Since we never get to see Logan wish for mortality or flirt with his own suicidal tendencies, like Mel Gibson in the first “Lethal Weapon” (for example), and there is no thematic dimension to any of the stuff people are saying on screen. In the end, it all amounts to empty lip service, in search of something deeper and more meaningful. This is what we mean when we call “The Wolverine” maddeningly frustrating. It brings up an incredible interesting tone and texture, closes the door on it and yet continues with the idea as if the audience hadn’t just watched the previous scene. It’s borderline insulting.
Good Scenes Killed by Bad Execution
The film’s train sequence is exhilarating, but imagine how good it would be if its CG execution lived up to the action. Our suspension of disbelief is already present (the film’s about an immortal mutant with adamantium claws, after all), but it can only take us so far. We can believe our hero survives a fight on a bullet train, but the visuals do nothing to convince us of this. The train speeds through Tokyo as Wolverine battles his attackers, but the city doesn’t look remotely real. This is a challenging scene to create with the struggle between balancing the men fighting on top of the train with the backgrounds city, but we wish there were a bit more time and money put into the sequence to make the surrounding visuals match the epic leaps and fights. The bear sequences are even worse; they’re a moving series of moments, connecting Logan with an enormous grizzly and then making him put the animal out of its misery. However, the bear looks roughly as lifelike as the animatronics at Chuck E. Cheese, taking the audience out of what should be a revealing look into Wolverine’s psyche.
The Invulnerable Invulnerability
There are a couple of problems with the thematic concerns of Wolverine’s immortality. Firstly, there are the halfhearted attempts at making him slightly more “human”—he’s slipped a supernatural-ish mickey and all of a sudden is sort of mortal, even though he keeps getting shot every five seconds and the only real effect it has is making him grumpier. When he figures out what the mickey is—some kind of weird robo-spider—he just cuts himself open and, voila, he’s back to his old, invincible self again, in a sequence that heavily borrows from “Prometheus.” (Fox, for some reason, is big on self-surgeries and wealthy old men chasing immortality.) And so there are never really any stakes for “The Wolverine,” which lowers the drama considerably. He goes from totally invulnerable (no one can kill him), to being semi-invulnerable (things sting, he’s in more pain than usual, but nothing really stops him) and before any kind of “mortality” can actually creep up on him, he’s pulled the MacGuffin spider-whats-it out of his chest and he’s back to normal.
The Jean Gray Framing Device
As filming began on “The Wolverine,” there was a certain amount of buzz and speculation around the not-so-guarded secret that Famke Janssen would be reprising her role as Jean Gray in the film. As fans know, she was killed by Wolverine in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” a painful decision he had to make as her Phoenix personality grew out of control. The decision was so painful, in fact, that it still haunts him (LITERALLY) throughout “The Wolverine” to a degree that often grinds the movie to a halt. A device used to underscore Wolverine’s tortured mindset and his inability to forgive himself and move on, presumably to the very hot Japanese woman he’s trying to save, Mangold’s film doesn’t just lean on Jean Gray once or twice, but multiple times throughout the picture. Wolverine wakes up panicked from so many dreams featuring Jean Gray, that you wonder if his side mission in the film is just to get a decent night’s sleep. Like many other elements of the film, “The Wolverine” favors explicit explanation over subtle character moments, and the Jean Gray sequences are heavy-handed scenes that over elaborate what the audience can figure out right from the start. For a standalone film, “The Wolverine” certainly clings heavily in this regard to ‘The Last Stand,’ and in a manner that prevents Logan as a character, from moving in any interesting new directions.
The Romance is Total Bunk
As we’ve established, “The Wolverine” has myriad motivation problems, and one of the central issues is the romance in the film between Logan and Mariko. The problem is the movie never establishes why these two people actually love each other than physical attraction which is definitely not enough. Sure, Logan sees her slapped by her father and senses something is amiss and he “sort of” saves her from jumping off the cliff of her grandfather’s house, but that’s hardly any reason for love. Moreover, Mariko seems to be completely uninterested in Logan other than his looks. When the two get together in Nagasaki, while the moment is kind of admirably tender and quiet, the film still has barely established why these two are hot for one another. Maybe it’s because Logan is still in love with Jean Grey? Wait… or maybe she’s giving it up because he’s been so chivalrous in saving her from all the baddies in the movie? The right moment in the film to start establishing some rapport and connection on the film should have been the train sequence, the first moment when the story takes a breather for a second, but instead, Mangold, Fox and the writers use that brief pause as a launching pad to one of the movie’s most ridiculous action setpieces. It might be more excusable in a film that’s not even pretending to care, but “The Wolverine” seems invested about every emotional texture it houses, but the follow-through is half-hearted.
Too Many Characters, Too Many Conflicts, Too Many Bad Guys.
An interesting story gone awry, “The Wolverine” has a great premise, great themes and great emotional conflicts, but instead of following through, the movie just decides to go with the bigger is better maxim, which feels completely antithetical to the story they’re trying to tell. Part of this is because “The Wolverine” wants its cake and to eat it too, and so the movie pours on the bad guys: yakuzas, samurais, ninjas, gigantic robot samurais, sexy mutants, corrupt politicians, a dream shadow presence… We get it, Logan will face a lot of obstacles. It doesn’t help that on top of that there are tons of characters to deal with too: the grandfather, his son, his daughter (Mariko), the man she’s supposed to marry, her companion/bodyguard (Yukio), the friend from the past who’s now a ninja, a doctor who’s a mutant… No, this doesn’t add layers of mystery and intrigue that we’re trying to figure out, it just makes for a clutter of people, many whose motivations are murky at best, while their justification for actually being in the movie is hazy.
It’s An R-Rated Story, That Doesn’t Even Use Its PG-13 Rating In Any Smart Way
Despite all the toys and the marketing (and the kids packing the theaters), Wolverine is not a superhero for children. And neither is his movie. Wolverine makes Tony Stark look like a Boy Scout. He’s a badass who has good intentions, but he has no problem killing a lot of people. Fanboys are up in arms when Superman kills someone, but the body count here is about as high as the Man of Steel can fly and no one thinks twice. There’s no question of “Should I kill this person?” and no moral conflict for Logan between killing someone and knocking them out. But despite all the deaths, “The Wolverine” pulls its punches and doesn’t actually show much blood. From the Japanese soldiers committing seppuku in the first scene to Wolverine’s claws slicing through more people than we could count, the camera takes an angle that doesn’t actually show anything. Not that you need blood to depict violence, Christopher Nolan pushed the edges of PG-13 without showing a lick of gruesome material, but “The Wolverine” is different. The character slices and dices characters to death instantly, but there’s zero emotional, dramatic or spiritual weight to any of it. It’s like Logan’s just swatting flies and if these deaths were intense and meaningful, you could make them impactful in the same way Nolan did without showing blood. But “The Wolverine” isn’t interested in that. Instead, it seems more interested in showing how many gnats Logan can cut down within one scene. Occasionally, the film edges toward an R rating, allowing Jackman to say “fuck” and have (off-screen) sex with Mariko, but that’s as close as it gets. Sticking to a PG-13 theoretically gets more box office, but it doesn’t feel true to the character or the film at its heart.
The Post-Credits Scene
Now if you’re a fan of the “X-Men” movies you likely cheered with utter elation when (spoiler alert), Wolverine was seen on screen once more with Professor X (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen). But there’s something insidious about the scene given that “The Wolverine” aims to be “dark, character piece.” It’s as if 20th Century Fox and the filmmakers are saying, “Ok, kids, thanks for tolerating our detour into the darkness of this characters soul, but now, back to our regularly scheduled program!” Even if “The Wolverine” ultimately kind of sucks and falls apart, at least it’s trying to do something different in a superhero movie and this post-credit scene just feels like it’s all for naught. Don’t worry, true believers, we won’t have Logan struggle about existential ideas any longer, soon he’ll be back with the X-Men and another sooper dooper team-up film! *Facepalm* The irony is director James Mangold does not like post-credit sequences for this very reason. “Because I was trying to make a more serious film, I didn’t want to make an end sting or an Easter Egg in the tail that somehow took the piss out of the movie,” he told Empire. “Sometimes I think they border on being on the edge of outtake-y silly and something about that always seems wrong to me. You’ve worked for a year and a half creating a reality, and now you’re just going to do a Saturday Night Live sketch at the end of it?” Congratulations on your own SNL moment, James.
The Outright Terrible
The Last Act
While the first two acts of “The Wolverine” are dodgy, they’re still, more or less, good. They have their problems, but the intent is there and they are stylishly directed and well put together. Then the last act starts and things just go down the tubes. Wolverine gets his powers restored, which saps him of any of the intended dramatic arc and makes him an invincible killing machine once more (instead of a sort-of invincible killing machine, which was what he was for most of the movie) and then the entire story gets burdened by a lame reveal with the old man, who offered Wolverine his mortality, turning out to be the big bad, encased in an adamantium robot suit designed to keep him alive (or something). Also, the lizard woman shows up spitting venom and shedding her skin and some other stuff goes down. Honestly, it’s kind of a blur. And after 90 minutes of trying, desperately, to distance itself from the “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” disaster, it becomes an “X-Men”-palooza, with mutants and robots and people precipitously dangling over the sides of really tall buildings. The fact that we never get a clear cut explanation of how, exactly, the old man intends on stealing Wolverine’s healing energy, only adds to the muddled nature of the climax (especially since, even more bafflingly, it seems to work!). There are some significant stakes to this scene, after all Wolverine is robbed of his adamantium claws, but it’s ultimately revealed he still has bone claws underneath so… What was the point of that? Nice try? “A” for effort? Even original comic writer Chris Claremont couldn’t hang with the last act. “The third act wasn’t bad, per se, but it was a different tone,” he said diplomatically to Vulture. “That moment he starts motorcycling up the 400 kilometers… he was almost riding into a different movie. It would be interesting to talk to Mangold and ask why they felt they had to go in that direction.”
The Mess That Is The Villain Viper
Actress Svetlana Khodchenkova was terrific in the recent big screen version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” as Tom Hardy‘s doomed lover, but in “The Wolverine” she’s saddled with an unbelievably awful character who spouts some of the worst dialogue in the entire movie (which is really saying something). Ostensibly, Viper is supposed to be the big screen version of a longtime foil for Captain America and the rest of the Avengers (she’s also known as “Lady Hydra,” thanks to her association with the HYDRA terrorist group), but that Viper doesn’t have any of the bizarre mutant abilities awarded her here. (This makes it seem like Fox just wanted to keep that particular villain away from Disney/”The Avengers” for a little while longer. Classy!) Not only can Viper spit acid (or something), but she also knows all about poisons and is immune to them, bearing an uncomfortable similarity to Uma Thurman‘s equally groan-worthy character in “Batman & Robin.” Additionally, there’s zero motivation for her character other than doing her master’s bidding (twirls fingers manically and laughs). For a movie that strives, so hard, for a certain amount of comic book realism (or at the very least logic), Viper blows all of that out of the water, a WTF-flourish unworthy of “The Wolverine.”
The Old Guy Gag
The reveal that the man who summoned Wolverine to Japan was actually the big bad is something that can literally be seen miles away, especially when the villain is encased in a giant robotic suit that obscures his face (who is that in there?). But the gag at the end, after Wolverine has ripped the big robot guy’s head off, that—whoa!—the old man is still alive and able to suck Wolverine’s powers out of him (through a bizarre and painful inner-bone-claw process that is never sufficiently explained) is the worst kind of “the killer’s not really dead” cliche. It just adds to the cluster fuck cacophony of the third act.
The What Could Have Been? Sorta…
Maybe the most disappointing thing about “The Wolverine” is what it could have been. At one point, this was scheduled to be Darren Aronofsky‘s follow-up to his Oscar-winning sensation “Black Swan,” but a number of factors forced him out (not that it was a huge surprise). While James Mangold is a perfectly capable, workmanlike director, it would have been great to see Aronofsky, one of the finest filmmakers working today and an unparalleled stylist, put his distinctive stamp on a big time superhero tentpole (he had been loosely attached to both “Batman: Year One” and “Watchmen” in the past). Little remains of what Aronofsky’s intentions were; the script that he was working from by Christopher McQuarrie was so heavily reworked that McQuarrie doesn’t even receive a screen credit on the final version and production artwork from the Aronofsky period has yet to see the light of day. So this could be the most tantalizing what-ifs in recent memory, yes? Mmm, not really…
The Christopher McQuarrie Script
Don’t get your hopes up that there’s a brilliant Wolverine still to be made from Christopher McQuarrie’s script. While the “Usual Suspects” writer’s draft is significantly different from the final screenplay we see onscreen (by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank) and deviates quite a bit from the movie, it’s just as problematic, if only in a very different way. Hewing closer to the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller “Wolverine” mini-series that dealt with corrupt family politics, shady businesses, family honor and love, it’s still just as convoluted, throwing Viper and Silver Samurai into the mix to add layers of mystery and intrigue. One central difference is that Logan still hasn’t regained his memory, so one of the key ways to lure him to Japan is to intrigue him with the details of who he is and why he was given this adamantium exo-skeletal. None of the existential immortality themes, or a grandfather trying to steal Logan’s healing powers, are there, making for script that is arguably even worse with less emotional and dramatic texture. Maybe this is why Aronofsky bailed?
There are a number of other nuggets to dissect in regards to “The Wolverine,” both good and bad. On the good side, there’s the movie’s scale and pace, which was unusually deliberate for one of these giant Hollywood monsters; Marco Beltrami‘s score, which is wonderfully evocative, and the Japanese setting, a flourish that turned out to really prove distinctive. On the other side of things, there’s the occasionally iffy computer effects and digital photography, which sometimes makes a very expensive movie look very cheap, and the sidelining of Yukio who is far more interesting than the bland Mariko. – Kimber Myers, Drew Taylor, Kevin Jagernauth, Rodrigo Perez, Gabe Toro, Cory Everett