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Notes On A Film: The Wolverine

I’m beginning to worry that I keep coming across as a grumpy old fan when reviewing geek-related movies, because lately I seem to be unsatisfied with the results of loose adaptations of existing work, particularly comic books. The Wolverine is very loosely adapted from the mini-series Wolverine, by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, and it is a mostly enjoyable piece of cinematic entertainment until the disappointing climax of the film, which leaves you with a feeling of discontentment after all the hard work. If it weren’t for the credits teaser scene (20th Century Fox steal the idea from Marvel Entertainment of lining up the next movie at the end of the previous one), you’d leave the cinema slightly disgruntled.

The Wolverine (which I saw in 2D, as it was filmed, and not in the 3D conversion, which I avoided) works well when it is doing two things with the central character: keeping him street level, and basing the action in Japan. It does this for most of the running time, which is why the finale feels so disjointed, when it ignores the gritty tone of the majority of the film and goes for CGI and a lame female villain in an ill-fitting and unnecessary green cat suit. It starts out with Logan (Hugh Jackman, who feels very comfortable in the role after so many outings, and displaying the packed muscle of the character that I envisage when I read the books, instead of the super-ripped and super-pumped version of the misfire of Wolverine: Origins) saving a Japanese officer who freed him from his solitary confinement in a POW camp at Nagasaki as the atomic bomb is dropped – it’s a bold opener, but done well. After this flashback, we find Logan in the Canadian mountains, all long hair and beard, who is haunted by visions of Jean Grey after he had to kill her at the end of X-Men: Last Stand. He is avoiding humanity and has vowed not to kill again, but he is dragged back to civilisation due to the incompetency of a thoughtless hunter against a grizzly bear. He is stopped from killing by Yukio, who works for Yashida, the man Logan saved in Nagasaki – Yashida is dying and wants to see Logan one more time, in Japan.

In Japan, Logan is taken to the ancestral home and sees that Yashida became a very successful businessman since Logan saved him, although it is now being run by his son, Shingen. Logan meets Yashida senior when he is with his grand-daughter, Mariko, stirring a connection within him – he stops her from jumping off a cliff after she has an argument with her father. Yashida is desperately trying to stay alive, introducing Logan to the doctor keeping him alive (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and offers Logan a bargain: Yashida can take Logan’s healing factor from him so that Logan can die after a normal and full life and Yashida can stay alive. Logan refuses because he thinks that nobody should have his curse; when he dreams that night, Jean Grey morphs into the form of the doctor, who may or may not have done something to Logan. When he wakes from the dream, he hears commotion outside: Yashida has died.

The funeral the next day sees the development of the plot and the best action sequence of the film: Yakuza disguised as monks at the temple try to kidnap Mariko and Logan goes to the rescue, only to discover that his healing factor is not working and the wounds aren’t healing. Director James Mangold isn’t the greatest director of action (if you’ve seen the lamentable Knight And Day, which is also directed, then you have my sympathy), but he does a fair job of putting Logan in the middle of Tokyo with a horde of Yakuza to fight, and Yukio and Mariko demonstrate that they are more than capable of looking after themselves. Also joining the battle is Kenuichio Harada, the head of the Black Clan, the ninjas who look after the Yashida clan, who is adept with a bow and arrow.

[Comic book geekiness alert: in the comic books, Harada is the Silver Samurai, who is a mutant with the ability to focus his chi into his sword, and was the half-brother of Mariko; here he is the head ninja with no powers and was a former beau of Mariko. It’s nice to have nods to the comic books – the connection with Viper, the doctor looking after Yashida, references the original stories that had the Silver Samurai and the Viper as allies – but it seems to miss the point if they are going to create new characters with different powers and characterisation. Couldn’t they just create new characters?]

Logan and Mariko escape on the bullet train (there is a silly action set piece on the moving train) and end up hiding in a love hotel (which is amusing, and I really want to go to the Martian Explorer suite they use in the film) before hiding out in Nagasaki and becoming closer … It’s a strange mix of the established Wolverine lore and the creation of the same lore in the films: Wolverine had a connection with Japan when he first met Mariko, having been there before and able to read and speak Japanese, which helped to develop the theme of Logan being a ronin, a masterless samurai, with ideas of honour and duty and being a better man; here, he has no connection with Japan, no concept of the notions which are foisted on him about being a masterless samurai, and thus misses the point of why Wolverine and Japan are such a good combination.

The inability to grasp the reasons behind Logan’s connection to Japan means that the film-makers aren’t able to make the best out of the source material. For example, why does Yukio have an ability to see the future? There is no reason for it, there is no plot function behind it, it doesn’t develop her as a character (she is also different from the comic book character, although she is equally bad-ass) and seems vestigial in the film. Why is Viper like a non-plant version of Poison Ivy, with her ability to generate toxins that are poisonous to others but not herself? Does the plot require her character to be like that, instead of being a human being with brains to create toxins and antidotes? Why does she suddenly develop, at the end of the film, the urge to wear an ill-fitting green cat suit when she’s in villain mode, other than the fact that the film-makers think that the bad guy should be in a special suit? This is particularly egregious when it contradicts the essence of the film (and the bits that work the best): taking Wolverine away from the superhero stuff and making it street level. He doesn’t put on a costume (unless you call the black suit, black shirt and black tie he wears for the funeral a costume, and he does look very cool in it), he is vulnerable to pain, he is fighting Yakuza on the street, yet they bring it back to supervillains in costumes. They even tease a big fight with lots of ninjas in the grounds of what becomes the villain’s lair, only for it to peter out and end up with Logan being captured – that’s not what we want when Logan meets a horde of ninja.

It’s a shame that the film turns boringly formulaic and feels the need to have a super-powered adversary for Logan at the end, which steals the imagery of the Silver Samurai and makes it far too literal and over the top, and turn it into something that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. There are some nice things to enjoy here, and it’s certainly an improvement over Wolverine: Origins, although that’s not difficult; it’s more evidence that Marvel films that are not under the watchful eye of the brain trust are not making the best of the characters’ silver-screen adventures and don’t deserve the properties they picked up cheap in the 1990s.

Rating: DVD

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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