Unlike pretty much every other superhero movie — to say nothing of the X-Men series — The Wolverine is far more interested in its character than the action scenes involving him. We’ve had, what, four Wolverine movies before — X-Men, X-2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Origins: Wolverine all starred Wolverine and don’t try to tell me otherwise — but this is the first one to really delve into what makes him tick. His arc here goes from one of complete isolation to that of the soldier we usually see him as. He also has to come to grips with his seeming immortality and also find love with women other than the deceased Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who appears in a few new scenes here).
That’s a surprising amount for a character to go through over the course of a superhero film. The plot this time takes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to Japan. We learn that he was here during the Nagasaki bombing, and that he saved the life of a soldier, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who is now on his deathbed and wishes to say goodbye to the man who saved his life.
Yashida is someone who later went on to create a technology giant, and now that he’s about to pass, someone needs to be appointed the new head of the company. The logical successor is Yashida’s son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), although there are many signs pointing to it going to Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s granddaughter and Shingen’s daughter. Wolverine winds up having to protect Mariko from ninjas, the Yakuza, and another mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who for a good part of the film negates Wolverine’s healing ability.
There is enough action to keep action hounds satisfied. The action isn’t particularly good — I can’t say one scene stood out and lots of it takes place in dark areas or at nighttime, meaning it can be hard to tell exactly what’s going on, especially when mixed with rapid-fire editing — but it’s there and at least isn’t worse than what was in that Origins movie.
What makes The Wolverine a better film than … well, Origins and The Last Stand, at the bare minimum, is that it does brings some much-needed depth to its lead character. This is a Wolverine we haven’t seen before, and it’s important both in the film and for the future. When we see the next film, we’ll be able to understand him better because of what we learned here. That’s part of the reason that Origins failed; it didn’t bring us the depth to Wolverine that we needed. This one does it and does it well, while also not sacrificing the amount of action that we’ve come to expect.
It’s also refreshing to not see a great deal of CGI overuse. While I’m sure there were countless points where computers created the effects, it certainly didn’t feel that way. It’s “realistic,” I guess, although I don’t mean that in the sense that all of this could happen. There just isn’t much fantastical superpowers at play. This gets thrown away at the end, which involves a giant CGI contraption fighting against Wolverine, but for most of the film the scale is small and the special effects are slight.
Smaller is probably the way this film should have gone, and I’m glad that this is the direction James Mangold and his team of writers took. It allows for stronger characters and it means that it feels different from the average superhero movie. I’m not going to say that I’m suffering from fatigue with this genre, but changing things up in a film like this helps prevent that and makes it stand out. The Wolverine certainly does enough different to keep it from blending in with the crowd.
In this day and age, where re-casts aren’t exactly uncommon, it’s surprising to see an actor play the same character for — as it is now — 13 years. This is what Hugh Jackman has done with Wolverine. You can tell while watching these films that the actor cares about the project and the character, and that he enjoys himself. He is the star. The supporting cast doesn’t consist of well-known actors, likely done so that nobody can even come close to upstaging Jackson. They all hold their own, but Jackson is the standout star.
I mentioned future films earlier, and the mid-credits scene featured in The Wolverine is one of the better ones. It provides the right amount of awe and suspense, and if you’re not excited for Days of Future Past after seeing it, you must not be a fan of the franchise. Furthermore, it also allows for another solo Wolverine film without disrupting the series’ loose continuity. You get a couple of great cameos here, and the promise of a bigger movie than this one is. The Wolverine lays the groundwork, and I’m hopeful that Days of Future Past will capitalize on that.
The Wolverine might not be a superb action film — the action is passable; it’s nothing to write home about — but it does bring some much-needed depth to the character of Wolverine. This is a smaller, more intimate movie about its titular character, and it works well as a solo film and in setting up something bigger. Wolverine goes through a rather large arc here, and it’s fun to watch it play out, even if the final fight does devolve into CGI overload.