Of all the superheroes in all the franchises, the undeniable popularity of Wolverine, a.k.a near-immortal mutant soldier James “Logan” Howlett, is the most curious. Granted, he’s an enigmatic champion, his retractable “claws” and funny facial hair making him a unique addition to the whole comic book universe, and thanks to the move to motion pictures, the character’s been lucky enough to have the equally magnetic Hugh Jackman assay the role. The Australian actor, talented in more ways than a standard summer blockbuster can fathom, has made his reputation off portraying this troubled anomaly, and fans have reacted by making both bankable superstars.
So it makes sense that Hollywood and its cadre of bean counters would want as much Wolverine as possible. He’s been in each installment of the never-ending film series (including cameos) and the star of two solo outings, the most recent being the widely panned X-Men Origins. Now comes the character’s post-Last Stand trip to Japan, something fans have been frothing over since Jackman announced that said story arc was a personal “favorite.” As with most contemporary comic book movies, there’s a real attempt to Dark Knight this material, to make The Wolverine as angst-ridden and dour as it is explosive and exciting. Sadly, Christopher Nolan is nowhere to be found.
Instead, James Mangold tries — and fails — to find a proper balance between the two normally divergent elements. We meet the mutant man as he is hiding from his recent past. He feels guilty for killing his love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and has uneasy dreams of her every night. After confronting some hunters at a Yukon bar, he is approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and asked if he will accompany her to Japan to “say goodbye” to an old friend. You see, back when he was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki, Wolverine befriended a guard named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) and saved him from the impending U.S. nuclear strike. Now, the rich industrialist wants to thank him.
Once Logan and Yukio arrive in Tokyo, however, things are not that simple. There is a power struggle going on between Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), both of whom may control the massive empire their patriarch leaves behind. Then there is a weird Western doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who is trying to “cure” Yashida but seems equally fixated on Wolverine. Finally, the Japanese crime syndicate known as the Yakuza are plotting against the family to steal their fortune. Naturally, it’s up to our mutton-chopped hero to set things right.
If you’ve been waiting for the film where Wolverine spends more time scowling and looking morbid while nothing much of consequence happens around him, this is your franchise filler. Oh sure, there’s a Yakuza attack at a funeral, some improbably fisticuffs on top of a bullet train, lots of swordplay, and some kung fu fighting, but the bulk of the action here is left to the end, and it’s empty and anticlimactic both in approach and meaning. Since we really don’t learn about the big picture plan until nearer the finale, such a finish feels rushed and ridiculous. Granted, it’s a chance for some CG wizards to work their magic once again, but it means nothing in the grand scheme of super-heroism.
Some may call this a “thinking man’s” take on the character, but apparently, all said thoughts are pretty superficial. For all the psychological hand-wringing and intriguing local color, this is a movie that can’t make the most of what it has going for it. Jackman is fine, but Japan and its culture are carted out and put back at random, without thought to giving the audience any real reason to care. It’s all about the buff badass at the center of the story, and he’s so morose it’s maddening. Naturally, a post-credits stinger suggests more modern X-Men down the line. Let’s hope the next installment in the series is not as big a waste of time as this one.