Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s four-issue series Wolverine was the first time fans of the X-Men comics really got to know everyone’s favourite claw-carrying Canadian. But despite the presence of Wolverine’s two Japanese lady friends, Mariko and Yukio, James Mangold’s new stand-alone film The Wolverine bears a less than uncanny resemblance to the classic Claremont/Miller story. Neither does it have the feel of an X-Men movie – or, mercifully, the train wreck prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine. What The Wolverine feels like, most of all, is a James Mangold film – not necessarily a bad thing, unless the film in question is Knight and Day.
The film opens in a prisoner of war camp just outside Nagasaki, on August 6th 1945, the fateful day on which America dropped a nuclear bomb on the Japanese city, thus winning the war in the Pacific, while losing its moral authority. Logan (played, for the sixth time*, by Hugh Jackman), who somehow knows what kind of bomb is about to be dropped just by identifying the bomber as a B-29, saves a young Japanese officer, Yashida, from the blast, while Logan shrugs off the shockwave like a sunburn. Seventy years later, Logan is moping about the Yukon woods, mourning (and dreaming of) his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), one of the casualties of X-Men: The Last Stand, when Logan is visited by a blast from the past: Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an expert sword-fighter with candy-coloured hair, who has come with a message from the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), now a billionaire industrialist. Before Logan can say, ‘I’m not going to Japan!” he is off to Japan, specifically Tokyo, where he finds a new Yashida to save: the beautiful Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the old man’s granddaughter and heir to his fortune, who is being targeted by Yakuza-backed ninja – and a statuesque beauty (Svetlana Khodchenkova) with a poisonous kiss (a bit like Poison Ivy) and a fondness for green garments (actually a lot like Poison Ivy). Forced on the run after a gun battle, Logan suddenly becomes aware that his healing powers are no longer working – adamantium skeleton or no, he can be injured, or even killed!
Any film that opens with its hero surviving a nuclear explosion better have other weapons in in its arsenal, and The Wolverine has a few. Moving Logan to Japan increases his sense of alienation, and provides the opportunity for lots of martial arts mayhem – not to mention a knife fight at 270 mph on the roof of a speeding bullet train. Robbing Wolverine of his powers is another good move: a superhero who won’t use his special powers (as in Man of Steel) is boring; one who can’t, like Wolverine, opens his character to a number of dramatic possibilities, not to mention putting him in mortal peril. Do Logan’s superpowers define him? Is he more than the sum of his adamantium parts? And should he think twice before getting into another bar fight?
Some critics seem to be disappointed that The Wolverine doesn’t have the scope, scale or sense of fun of stand-alone Marvel movies like Iron Man, Thor or Captain America, or the dark grandeur of the Dark Knight films. But Wolverine isn’t that kind of hero, and The Wolverine isn’t supposed to be that kind of film. Wolverine’s mood is dark and brooding, but the film often manages a lighter tone, and even though the supporting characters could use some fleshing out, Wolverine himself is fleshed out nicely. At heart, it’s the story of a superhero’s search for meaning again, after everything he loves has been taken away from him, and taken on its own terms, it’s a success. Set somewhere between The Last Stand and Days of Future Past, it sets the stage for the next full-blown X-Men movie (especially in the post-credits taster), and helps erase the memory of Wolverine’s last stand-alone adventure. At last, Wolverine has been given the film he deserves.★★★★
*including his cameo in X-Men: First Class