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Believe it or not, this bit works a lot better in context than it did in the trailers.

The Wolverine isn’t just the best X-Men movie (First Class has not aged well), it is also nuanced and focused in a way that most comic book superhero movies just aren’t. This makes it feel more like a “real movie” than Origins or even First Class ever did. This is because pandering is kept lower key, characters don’t get thrown in for no reason or just to be cute, and most everything is foreshadowed, setup, justified, and paid off. There is way less “and then” storytelling going on in The Wolverine than has become typical for superhero movies, let alone Hollywood’s foundering big budget output.

Though the third act is clunky and full of bad contrivances that threaten to derail the movie, it’s also the only part where The Wolverine fully indulges its comic book origin. This is going to work for some and be a dealbreaker for others. For me it was a mild mess. I’ll go into more detail later, but for now be satisfied that it’s the third act problems that keep The Wolverine from being legitimately great. It seems like we have to wait a bit longer for a superhero solo outing to be truly awe-inspiring (Man of Steel comes so close), but in the broader context of these types of movies it is hard to be cynical about the satisfaction level that The Wolverine reaches rather handily.

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Full-bearded caveman Hugh looks a lot like Robert Carlyle.

When we see our friend Logan (Hugh Jackman), he’s living in a cave somewhere in the Yukon territory. After having to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in X-Men 3, he’s haunted by his history of violence and the high price he’s paid for doing the right thing. While I don’t know that this movie can really earn the idea that Logan is immortal and haunted by “the deaths of all he loves”, it certainly sells the idea that he’s given up on living in the world. The thing about the former is that Logan is always outside, always isolated. Who are these people he’s lost, aside from the few dead members of the X-Men, who died violent deaths? And is his healing factor really going to let him live forever? The Wolverine basically lands on that being the case, but it hasn’t been more than a vague bit of angst for the character up to this point. Always, his being at odds with himself is about more pressing things. This time, it’s not having anything to live for. Like I said, this movie makes that idea work.

In his grief, Logan has hit rock bottom and frequently has dreams about Jean where she beckons him to “come to her” via death. Conveniently, there’s an old figure from Logan’s past who’s around to offer him just that.

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That bed is super cool.

Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) was saved by Logan during the bombing of Nagasaki. Interestingly, The Wolverine only flinches away from indicting that act a little bit. In the younger Yashida’s eyes, looking out at the devastation wrought by the use of an atomic bomb, is all the indictment we need. But Logan, too, looks horrified.

Yashida has come a long way from frightened prison guard. By now, he’s created the richest and most technologically advanced corporation in Japan. He sends Yukio (Rila Fukushima), one of the handful of mutants in the movie and his adopted daughter, to fetch Logan to Japan for an offer that grizzled old Wolverine probably won’t be able to turn down. Yashida doesn’t want to die of the cancer that’s eating him up. He wants Logan’s healing ability and he assures him that he can take it if Logan truly does want to free himself from the existential horror of an immortal existence. I thought it was refreshing that Yashida was honest about his self-interest and I also thought it was refreshing that Logan doesn’t even consider the idea, not just because he thinks it’s not possible, but because he’s stubborn about who he is.

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Jackman frequently looks 10 years younger than he actually is, but that’s dialed up in this movie.

One of the most important lines in the film is the one I used for the title. He seems to be explaining his disbelief to Yashida about the adamantium and the mutation, but it goes much further than that. The subtext is actually his nature as a killer and the grief that haunts him which he believes can’t be undone. The movie is all about him discovering this isn’t the case, and that’s a fine bit of setup for the substantial (surprisingly) journey of self-acceptance that Logan undergoes. The dialogue doesn’t always service this as well as it could have (the “you’re a/I’m a soldier” bits are cheesy) but the idea comes through very nicely. And it’s an actual idea, an actual arc that goes beyond figuring out how to be a hero. Logan already knows how to be a hero, he begins the movie with natural heroism (no hesitation, just saves the Japanese prison guard and goes after the guys who used poison on a grizzly for a sport) and ends by figuring out that it’s what he’s for. Not just for killing, which is part of it, but to save people and serve his moral code.

The primary way Logan finds reasons to live again, and begins to let go of Jean, is through forming personal attachments. It makes sense that he’s sort of abandoned his X-Men allies after what went down with Jean, but finding friends has ever (right back to X-Men with Rogue) been Logan’s way of connecting to the world and demonstrating that natural heroism and protective instinct. Here he as Yukio, a spunky sidekick and the movie’s true female lead, as well as Mariko (Tao Okamoto), a damsel with a strong will who winds up a love interest.

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Marikolike much of this movie, is a throwback to the 80’s.

Something I liked about The Wolverine was that its DNA has just as much classic 80’s era action movie as it does superhero stuff. Probably more, actually. Even down to the gruff hero ending up on the lam with a pretty damsel feels like it’s right out of the classics. On a basic level, before you get mutants and claws and the details of The Wolverine‘s occasionally silly plot, this could easily have been a Stallone movie. It even has the cheesy fetishization of Japanese culture, history, and customs. Characters opine about samurai and Japanese honor, there are actual black-clad ninjas, and even a fun bit with a “love hotel”. Because of its affection and light touch with this, director James Mangold never quite pushes it too far and manages to maintain an agreeable balance between respect and cribbing the cool bits.

That all said, the Mariko character is a gambit that I’m not sure everyone will agree pays off. Rather than being an empty dress like so many of her cinematic sisters, Mariko does get to have a personality and strength of character that somewhat elevates her from the plot device she is often used as. Mariko is about to inherit Yashida’s legacy and this makes her a political target as well as a criminal one. Even her own father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), seems to dislike her. She’s surrounded by threats and obligations and when Yashida finally dies, she’s totally vulnerable. It’s Logan, who sees something of himself in her (his suicidal malaise?) and immediately steps in as her protector, whether she likes it or not. This, too, feels like a classic trope.

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Yukio is the more realized character, and the movie wisely keeps her around and makes use of her.

Their attraction also makes sense, and the movie takes time to justify it. That wouldn’t normally have to be said at all, if most movies of this kind bothered to flesh out “trivial” matters like major relationships. Unfortunately, the trend is to gloss this stuff and rely on the audience just going along with characters falling for each other and hinging their entire motivation on each other. Mariko’s vulnerability and ability to understand and empathize with Logan is what makes this shit work. For his part, Logan is the wounded animal who can’t run nor fight when held in up in Tao Okamoto’s huge luminous eyes.

That Mariko winds up mostly a damsel in the third act is something that Mangold and/or his writers must have realized. The movie is often very self-aware and it knows that balancing out the classic “hero rescues the princess in a tower” imagery they are working with is a tricky job in a genre fraught with disappointing female characters. I think the shit works, really, and was quite taken with the somewhat mythic structure of this part of the movie. Unfortunately, there are some logistical things leading up to Wolverine’s final rescue that hamper it and wind up leaving the audience with at least one scene that makes no sense, as well as a female character so wasted and tone-deaf that it seriously undermines all the nice stuff that can be said about Yukio and Mariko.

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Lady Viper ( Svetlana Khodchenkova) is an awful, semi-pointless rip off of Poison Ivy right down.

There’s a part where the ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee) who loves (and was loved by) Mariko brings her to the Yashida tower where they are going to use her as bait to draw out Logan. When Mariko confronts Viper, she knocks her out only to, a scene later, monologue at her after she’s come to. The editing separates these scenes with a brief bit of Logan driving up to the mountain village on a motorcycle. But why does Mariko need to be knocked out? I get why Logan gets knocked out so often in the movie (weakened powers plus necessary for Jean Grey haunting) but this seems like a bit that exists just to kill some time for Logan to get there. It feels like a sloppy patch job on a logistical issue in the script that most people probably never would have noticed. Or were we supposed to think Viper had killed Mariko for all of 30 seconds? This shit is dumb.

Not quite as dumb but still pretty dumb is the way Mariko is taken. In the village where she and Logan are hiding out, Logan awakens after the consummation of his feelings for Mariko to find her being dragged away by a couple of Yakuzas. Now, we’ve already seen that Mariko can fight well so where is this here? Why go to the trouble of using her to get Logan to come to the Yashida complex when they could have probably captured him while he was sleeping, along with Mariko? Presumably she was outside the house or something. Presumably Logan killed so many Yakuzas that they just don’t wanna fuck with him at this point. Presumably there are ways to sort of patch this together in your head as you watch, but it’s too sloppy not to notice and therefore it’s a problem for the third act as it feels so haphazardly plotted.

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Also, how does Shingen survive Viper’s acid or whatever? Who knows.

There are a few little WTF moments like this throughout the movie but they only ever get close to throwing the whole thing over when we get to that final act. In spite of the obviousness of these flaws, it seems that more people are interested in complaining about the Silver Samurai reveal and the SFX-laden climactic fight which I admit, is a bit disappointing.

Most of the action in The Wolverine is very well done and often interestingly shot. There’s a fondness for close-ups, dynamic movement, and smartly done editing that makes you sit up and pay attention even when some of the details of the fighting are lost in the blur of movement. There’s a grittiness to the way its done that suggests the rumored R-rated cut of the movie is actually no rumor at all. However much SFX work was done in these parts, and the awesome train sequence definitely had a fair share, it pales in comparison to the comic book-y Silver Samurai fight.

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Though a bit ridiculous, the Silver Samurai armor nicely ties into the Sentinels that will be featured in Days of Future Past.

Like I said earlier, the third act is where The Wolverine embraces being a comic book superhero movie fully. Inside the Silver Samurai, an adamantium exoskeleton with flaming swords, is old man Yashida who is not dead after all. Logan figures out how to use the heated blades (only thing that can cut adamantium) to decapitate the armor, but he still has both sets of his own claws cut off and some of his bone marrow (or something) drained out of him. Meanwhile, Yashida monologues. There’s a fight with Viper and Yukio, Mariko’s horrified reaction to Yashida’s true evil, and even Harada having a change of heart. Since the cast is tight throughout the movie, this stuff is really well balanced and thought through in an attempt to give every character clear motive, resolution/comeuppance, etc. That doesn’t stop the sequence from feeling a bit misaligned with the rest of the movie. It doesn’t stop the marrow-draining facilities of the Silver Samurai armor from being ultra-contrived (if suggested earlier by Yashida himself “we made this to take from you what you would not give” etc), and it doesn’t stop Lady Viper from being Britta.

I do think that this is not where the problems with the third act of the movie really lie. It’s a fine action sequence, feels like a good personal climax what with Yashida being a big villain all along (the movie never really pretends this isn’t obvious and predictable either), and it lets Mariko pay off her earlier bragging about winning a martial arts competition with her knife skills. Yukio also gets to give Viper the most gruesome (and deserved) death in the movie. Kudos all around, The Wolverine.

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Yukio also gets to have a cool extended fight with Shingen, who is sort of a proto-Silver Samurai and nice red herring.

Now that I think about it, it’s actually all those payoffs that really make The Wolverine work. That type of thing always demonstrates the kind of mindfulness and attentiveness that make mistakes or shaky bits easier to accept and fold into a generally favorable evaluation of a film. There’s simply a distinction, possibly subjective, between flaws that arise because a filmmaker didn’t give a fuck and those that arise in spite of a filmmaker trying their best. The Wolverine is a movie that seriously goes for it and even though it indulges some silliness and undercooks its climax a bit, it mostly gets there.

The thing with Mariko and her knives is just one example. There’s also small stuff that sets up the Silver Samurai suit, like that Yashida almost bankrupted the company by stockpiling adamantium (along with paying for expensive doctors and treatments). There’s also visual bits like showing Wolverine in WW2 with the bone claws prior to the Weapon X program, then giving them back when he loses his metal ones later. This is just to remind audiences that the adamantium is a sheath over what he already has. It’s also nicely symbolic for what Logan has underneath all the surface of his powers and enhancements.

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The ninja sequence is a bit unnecessary but makes for fun imagery.

All in all, The Wolverine gets way more right than it gets wrong. It’s a textured, nuanced superhero film that owes a lot to classic action movies. If not for Iron Man 3, it would be the surprise superhero win of the summer. It will be for some people, and it does earn this. 

Because Fox is doing the unlikely and bringing everybody back in to twist up the cinematic X-Men continuity even more, this movie ties directly into Days of Future Past and is actually a pretty great set up for a reasons why Logan might want to travel backward or forward in time. His renewed connection to the world being one reason, the prospect of undoing Jean Grey’s death (given the appearance of Xavier and all) being another. While I’d like it better if they stayed away from Jean Grey’s death (plenty of it in this movie), I appreciate the idea that Logan might want to, above all, undo the one murder he most regrets.

In any case, The Wolverine finally justifies the prospect of keeping Wolverine a central character in the franchise, as well as having his own personal sandbox to play in.

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