The Wolverine: Hugh Jackman Takes Japan

I am not a big comic book fan, but pop-cultural osmosis and adaptations have made me a fan of a number of comic book characters. The X-Men cartoon of the 90’s was my all-time favorite show growing up, and in that show my favorite character by far was Wolverine. This has always given the live-action X-Men films prominently featuring Wolverine as the protagonist a special place in my esteem, even though X-Men 3: The Last Stand was depressingly bad and X-Men Origins: Wolverine was still not up to the standards of the first two movies. Still, hope springs eternal, and despite what had gone before, I gladly gave The Wolverine a chance to make me like it, and was pleasantly surprised by the most enjoyable X-Men movie I’ve seen since X-Men 2.

Taking place after the extremely disappointing X-Men 3, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has taken to a hermit’s life in the mountains and woods, guilt-ridden over having to kill Jean Grey at the end of 3 and without any direction in his life. He is sought out by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who is representing Ichiro Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), who Logan personally saved from Nagasaki’s bombing in World War II. Yashida is now the elderly and dying owner of a powerful corporation, and has requested to see Logan again before his death. With nothing else to draw him away, Logan reluctantly accepts the invitation and flies to Japan. Once there, however, he discovers that Yashida did not merely wish to say good-bye; he called on Logan to offer him a chance to transfer his near-immortal healing powers to Yashida, saving Yashida’s life and allowing Logan to live normally, grow old, and eventually die. Logan rejects the offer, and Yashida passes away shortly afterwards, but shortly after Yashida’s death he finds himself drawn into a plot against Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and discovers that his healing factor is suddenly starting to give out, leaving him more vulnerable than he’s ever been. Logan needs to become Wolverine again to save Mariko’s life, but is uncertain if he will survive the effort of protecting her and finding out who’s after them and why, or if he even wants to.

The Wolverine has a somewhat different feel to it than the other X-Men movies; previously, the X-Men have been ensemble action pieces, with a large cast of protagonists and simply using Wolverine as the “viewpoint” protagonist, which has had mixed results. The Wolverine feels a great deal more focused; Wolverine is the protagonist, with Mariko and Yukio providing supporting characters for him to play off of and everyone else providing the latest army of people out to make Wolverine’s day a little worse. This is not a criticism; attempting to balance the character of Wolverine, naturally a loner, with a big team of mutants that all need some spotlight and character development has meant some of the previous X-Men films have felt uneven and unsure if they’re telling Wolverine’s story or the team’s story. The Wolverine knows it’s telling Wolverine’s story, and it’s able to focus itself so that the characters don’t feel like they’re struggling for a limited amount of representation. Additionally, while The Wolverine certainly does not lack for action, it also utilizes a bit more quiet character-building in the mix; Wolverine’s guilt and growing exhaustion with his endless, violent life takes center stage, but Mariko and Yukio also get some nice characterization and development in the movie’s progression. If the movie stumbles a little in this department, it’s mostly that it’s not great at surprising you; you can get a pretty good idea of the major plot twist almost immediately if you’re paying attention, and first impressions of who’s on the level and who is up to no good are nearly always completely right. The Wolverine tries to be a bit more of an action-mystery than the previous big threats to the future of man/mutantkind the X-Men usually deal with, but a savvy viewer will call the film’s twists like a cellphone with unlimited minutes.

When there is action, however, it’s quite well-executed action. The Wolverine features some pretty impressive free-running stunts and Wolverine’s typical brutal down-and-dirty fight scenes. The drama of Wolverine in action is also heightened by his healing factor starting to fail him; while Wolverine still takes on big gangs of battle-hardened Yakuza thugs and wins, Hugh Jackman plays up the once nearly invulnerable badass suddenly feeling his injuries more and brings a vulnerability and tension to the fights where many of Wolverine’s previous battles in X-Men movies have been about his endurance as his healing factor deals with all the punishment he takes. Even if you’re looking for some good old superheroic violence and Hugh Jackman being wonderfully flippant at people over character exploration, The Wolverine won’t let you down.

All in all, The Wolverine is a quite satisfying movie to watch, particularly for the many loyal fans of everyone’s favorite angry Canadian. While it builds on previous X-Men movies (and sets up for a future one, for credits-watchers), it tries to do its own thing as an installment in the franchise, and despite a couple minor flaws, is certainly worth a watch if you’ve liked the first couple X-Men movies.

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