Here’s the thing. I actually don’t know if I’m in the tank for Wolverine or not. As I have written, Wolverine is one of my favorite characters. But am I the kind of fan who is going to like his favorite character no matter what, or the kind of fan who is never going to be satisfied with a particular interpretation because it doesn’t live up to the one in my head? I never watched Constantine (or, to be honest, Wolverine Origins X-Men or whatever the fuck the actual title was) because I had a suspicion it would make me want to put my foot through a wall.
On the other hand, I happily forgave Hugh Jackman for being too tall after he wrecked all those guys in the mansion in X2.
As it turns out, The Wolverine is actually pretty good, which means I may never know the answer for sure.
The premise of the movie is: Wolverine goes to Japan to meet the very old and sick head of the Yashida Corporation, who offers to take Wolverine’s healing factor, letting Wolverine grow old and die. Wolverine gets embroiled in the succession to the Yashida Corporation by saving the life of the old guy’s hot granddaughter, has to fight a million Yakuzas, &c.
That’s pretty much it, and one of the things I like about it is that — much like the new version of Dredd — most of what’s going on here doesn’t really have anything to do with Wolverine (it does a little, I am saving that for spoilers). This is really about some Japanese guys and their own internal family struggles, and Wolverine pretty much just gets involved because Mariko Yashida (or Yashida Mariko, I guess — the hot girl) is hot. (This is not a GOOD reason, but it is a PLAUSIBLE reason.)
As a consequence, the secondary characters (i.e., everyone who isn’t Wolverine) all kind of seem more fleshed-out and interesting than they do in these comic book movies — in particular the women. Mariko and Yukio both get to do some fighting, and have a couple badass moments, which is fine, but altogether ancillary to the fact that they both have motivations that don’t really have anything with Wolverine at all. Yukio is trying to protect Mariko, Mariko is trying to stay alive and honor her grandfather and get away from her crazy father, &c. Sure, of course, we shouldn’t give a movie credit for fulfilling the basic requirements of character development for women, but on the other hand, any progress is some progress, right?
I guess half-credit is in order.
Similarly, this movie is full of Japanese people. I know, I know, but think about it — what was the last superhero movie you saw that had more than one non-Western (i.e., European or American) character? When was the last one you saw that even acknowledged the existence of places that weren’t America or Europe? There’s still problems obviously — I mean, I am no expert in Japanese culture, but I am pretty sure that not every cultural touchstone in Japan is about samurai (although, it’s mostly the real old guy, and his son, Yashida Shingen, who are really into samurai culture, so maybe that wasn’t even too bad). And I guess it’s a little reductive to portray the Japanese as samurais, ninjas, or Yakuzas, but it IS a Wolverine movie, whatever culture he goes to is going to be pretty exclusively about whoever he’s going to fight there. (In fact, now I think on it, they do some good stuff with Nagasaki in there, touch a little on the political-economic atmosphere of Japan, maybe it’s not actually too bad at all? Still, a lot of samurai-ninja stuff.)
The point is, you’ve got a bunch of non-Western characters here, and they all exist for some reason OTHER than being the badass martial arts expert that the hero has to fight, and thus demonstrate the superiority of American Toughness over your fancy karate bullshit.
Half-credit again, but that’s more than most superhero movies have going for them.
There’s some okay fights, I would actually say the fights are the weakest part of the movie. There are two really pretty good ones (one bonkers fight with Wolverine and some Yakuzas on top of a bullet train, the other between Yashida Shingen and Yukio, where they fight with samurai swords while Wolverine has to do heart-surgery on himself). The problem is that the major fight — between Wolverine and a Million Yakuzas — is filmed in this quick-cut, shaky cam style which is shitty when I came to the movies specifically because I want to see Wolverine wreck a million Yakuzas, but DOUBLE shitty because I kept getting quick glimpses of someone doing something that looked like it might be awesome, like a backflip or something, only I can’t really see what it is. (I swear there was a part where Mariko, like, punched a guy in the hand and knocked his knife up into the air and caught it, but it all happened so fast that I couldn’t be sure; and then later on, she doesn’t seem like she has the knife anymore? Did she stab a guy and leave it in him and I just missed it? I don’t know.)
The other part was where Wolverine comes to the town at the end, and a million ninjas appear, and you say to yourself, “Oh man, all right, here’s the part where he fights ALL THE NINJAS”, except then he just runs through the town and they shoot him with a bunch of arrows with ropes on them. Lame.
Anyway, I don’t a hundred percent know why you’d make a Wolverine movie — the premise of which is, “Let’s think of a couple solid reasons for Wolverine to fight a hundred guys” — and then hire a bunch of stuntmen who can all do backflips and knife-flipping and such, and then shoot it in a way in which I can’t tell what the fuck is going on.
Still, not completely unsalvageable, there were some okay parts in there.
Also, Wolverine curses more in this movie than probably the entirety of his appearances in the comics, which is a very surreal experience; on the one hand, yes, obviously Wolverine is going to say things like “bullshit” and “go fuck yourself”, duh, but on the other hand, Wolverine NEVER says that stuff. It’s still PG-13, though, so not very much blood and severed limbs, and no nudity except for some of Hugh Jackman’s buttcrack (I would rate this nudity…two stars, tops).
Now, here is the spoiler part, SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.
It’s not real hard to figure this out, but the old guy fakes his own death early on in the movie, and then they put him in a robot suit, and kidnap Mariko once the realize that Wolverine is protecting her, so the old guy can steal Wolverine’s healing factor, so in that way the movie kind of DOES become about him — but the plot hangs together fairly well, and it’s got a good thematic arc going: Wolverine is trying to find something to live for after having had to kill Jean Grey in X3 (there are cut scenes where he imagines himself in bed with her that are actually pretty appropriate to the story and well done!), the old guy HAS something to live for but is dying, while Wolverine has nothing but is going to live forever. Good theme, good arc.
There are some questions, I guess, about how putting some drills into Wolverine’s severed claws allows the old man to steal his healing factor, but they don’t bother explaining it which is just as well, because what possible explanation could there be for a way to steal a healing factor that didn’t also have to explain how the healing factor worked in the first palce? Don’t bother. Robot cricket around your heart suppresses a healing factor? Sure. Dentist drills in your bone marrow? Sure, why not, who cares.
Also, props to the moviemakers for generating genuine suspense and being willing to make permanent changes to a franchise character, that was very surprising!
Overall, this is a pretty solid movie, with a good thematic arc, some nice emotional development for Wolverine, a couple of good, well-thought-out characters, a solid plot, and a bunch of fights.
It’s weird, though, I kind of can’t tell if I straight-up LIKED this movie, or I’m just pleasantly surprised that there isn’t anything fucking terrible about it.
The only really bad-part is the after-credits sequence, both for being kind of dumb and unnecessary, but also because it spoils the possibility of Wolverine & Yukio: Adventures in Madripoor.