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It’s been four plus years since X-Men Origins: Wolverine stunk up theaters as the first big summer movie of 2009. Though I didn’t find the film nearly as odious as many others, it is a genuinely flawed film that could never be described by anyone as resembling anything close to good. For some time, I thought it just may have killed a possible Wolverine film franchise (the constantly revolving list of directors for the proposed sequel also spelled bad news – remember when Darren Aronofsky was attached to direct?). With comic book films continuing to be considerably profitable for the big movie studios, however, a new installment in this spin-off of the X-Men film franchise was to be expected. Thus, this summer’s recently released The Wolverine is a huge improvement for the X-franchise, and a pretty decent comic book adaptation in its own right as well.
The Wolverine takes place in the aftermath of X-Men III: The Last Stand. Wolverine has abandoned the X-Men to roam the northern wilds as a hobo after the deaths of Professor X and would-be love interest Jean Grey. He eventually runs afoul of the mysterious Yukio, a Japanese mutant with the ability to see one’s death. She asks him to come to Japan to bid farewell to the dying Yashida, a man whom Wolverine saved from certain death in World War II, and who went on to found the highly influential Yashida Corporation. The dying man proposes using his company’s technology to take Wolverine’s healing factor away from him, allowing him to die as a mortal and end his life of suffering and violence. Throughout the film, Wolverine gets deeper and deeper into depths of the ancient Yashida clan as well as the Japanese mafia, the famed Yakuza, culminating in a fantastic showdown with the Silver Samurai, an adamantium-clad behemoth set out to destroy our hero.
Though it lacks both the flashiness and the spectacle of its big-budget cousins like The Avengers and Spider-Man franchises (this film cost significantly less to produce than those movies), The Wolverine is a much more powerful film in a lot of ways (thanks to a pretty good script from Christopher McQuarrie and Scott Frank. Heavy themes like mortality and humanity permeate the film, grounding the titular character for a large portion of the running time, and for the first time making Wolverine seem more like an actual human being rather than a comic book character. Jackman continues to be great as Wolverine, here giving his strongest performance as the character since perhaps X2: X-Men United. James Mangold, best known for films like Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, acquits himself well (mostly) as director, choosing to focus on the themes and characters for the most part over the action. The end result works pretty well, establishing a nice pace between the big action set pieces and the smaller, quieter dramatic moments.
The film is not without its weaknesses. Mangold is a solid genre director and I have always enjoyed his work. The action set-pieces in The Wolverine leave a bit to be desired, however. Notable moments of action, including a full-out assault on a funeral and a game of chicken on a train, are cool to watch, but lack something to make them really pop on the screen. The Wolverine also suffers a bit from shaky-cam syndrome, and some characters are unfortunately given short-shrift. Fortunately, Jackman is game for anything. The Wolverine is a much quieter comic book film than one might expect, and the movie is not balls-to-the-walls action like The Avengers or Man of Steel. There’s probably less action in any of the Nolan Batman movies as well. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, I see it as a positive) but someone going in expecting Wolverine to just shred bad guys for two hours may come out a bit disappointed. There is also a notable lack of chemistry between Wolverine and love-interest Mariko, which is somewhat disappointing considering Mariko is a huge part of Wolverine’s life in the comics.
As noted earlier, the end result is a pretty big improvement over the poorly-received X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and a much needed boost to the X-Men film franchise on the whole (unlike many, I didn’t really care that much for First Class). The Wolverine is a pretty decent comic book adaptation, with some great character work from Jackman and some decent enough action set-pieces. Though not without its flaws, I greatly enjoyed this late-summer film release. Due to next summer’s highly anticipated Days of Future Past film adaptation, I can’t imagine we’ll get another Wolverine stand-alone movie anytime soon. If we do, however, I wouldn’t mind Mangold coming back to direct another feature in the franchise, and I certainly expect Jackman to continue in the role – he owns it at this point.