Comic book movies seem to be trying to get bigger and bigger. Marvel’s entire business model is to use smaller* movies to build up to a huge movie. DC Comics is going to try to compete with their Batman vs. Superman movie. The X-Men movies are about to carry out the mother of all team-ups with past X-Men teaming up with their future selves. At some point, the cineplex is going to explode, probably around the time the Guardians of the Galaxy team up with the past and future versions of the Justice League and the Avengers.
That’s why it’s nice to see The Wolverine try something different. The director, James Mangold, has made a couple great movies, several mediocre ones, and some that no one will ever remember. With The Wolverine, he’s somewhere in between mediocre and great. It’s an admirable movie, because the story it’s telling hasn’t been told in superhero movies yet. The Wolverine (as has been said almost too much recently but must be repeated because it’s the perfect comparison) is a samurai movie. We’re drawn to these movies, because of the brooding nature of the protagonists and the noble causes they fight for. Wolverine is no different, and it’s really a swell idea for a movie about him. The execution is just a bit off.
We begin the movie acutely aware of how upset Logan is about (SPOILERS AGGGGHHHH) Jean Grey’s death**, because we see her in several dream sequences. He’s wandering around Canada and America, when Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant who can see the future and who also happens to be great with a sword, convinces him to come to Japan to receive a gift from her grateful employer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), whose life Logan saved years ago when we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Yashida’s gift doesn’t interest Logan, but his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), definitely does, especially when she is pursued by the Japanese mob. The whole movie comes across like a Japanese soap opera, with deft touches by Mangold on Logan’s pure naivete when it comes to Japanese customs.
I like the smaller scope of the story. Wolverine is an epic character, but Hugh Jackman is a good actor, and the depth that was always there gets exposed a bit more in a more limited context. The context is certainly limited; this movie is almost all Logan. Okamoto and Fukushima are nice spices, but it’s Jackman’s stew; they’re just swimming in it. I’m always game for more Jackman, and he does a remarkable job as his character is once again put through hell- sludging his way through sewer muck in Les Misérables just wasn’t enough for him, I guess.
But though Mangold puts the focus of the movie on Wolverine, the main plot machinations don’t even involve him. It’s as if the story is happening around him. That’s not a terrible thing, but ultimately, The Wolverine feels a little weightless. We watch a melodrama and expect to feel at least a little different at the end. In the comic-book story on which they based the movie, Wolverine’s entire life is changed***. When The Wolverine is over, it feels like Logan’s going to go on about the same as he did before.
There are other flaws with the movie than that. The villain, Viper, is a cypher without any clear motive. And a twist at the end is hardly surprising. But there are some great moments in the movie that point at what it could have been, such as quiet scenes between Mariko and Logan at a summer home or the expertly tautened scene when Logan attempts to rip out his own heart. Overall, though, Mangold missed a chance to really impact the cinematic story of one of the best superheroes they’ve put on the big screen. Mangold showed good wisdom by choosing a smaller, different sort of comic-book story to tell. But he didn’t give Logan a sufficient arc; since he’s the whole movie, that’s kind of a problem.
**I wish they had left this out. I’d like to pretend The Last Stand never happened.
***Which says a lot about the impact of that story arc, because Wolverine’s life NEVER ENDS.