The best at what he does (when he does it)
Consider two superheroes that have made their way to the big screen this summer: Superman and Wolverine. Both are near-immortal with preposterously useful superpowers, and both have traumatic origins that make adult life difficult for them. But there are two sides of immortality: hope and tragedy. Superman has always represented hope for the future, whereas Wolverine is tragically stuck in his past—whether he can remember it or not. Most Superman stories involve him losing his abilities at key moments so he can triumphantly return and save the day, while Wolverine’s inability to lose them leads to almost every hardship he faces, and his prolonged lifespan makes them all the more tragic. Superman is blessed, Wolverine is cursed.
That, and Wolverine’s movie is better.
Continuing one of the more baffling superhero trends of 2013—strong sequels (Iron Man 3) and mixed-to-bad original stories (Man of Steel)—comes James Mangold’s The Wolverine, based in part on the venerated Japan saga by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller and Joe Rubinstein. Thankfully ignoring any of the events of X-Men Origins and the dumb parts of X-Men: The Last Stand, the story finds Logan in self-imposed exile, roaming the woods and drinking himself as close to death as he is able. As much as he tries to escape his former life and the loss of Jean Grey, his nightmares are a constant reminder. After spending his entire life trying to remember his origins, he now tries to forget the consequences of his actions. Along comes a visitor from Japan representing a man whose life he saved years ago, who wants to thank him and offer something in return: mortality. Complex emotions and an awesome fight atop a bullet train ensue.
The first thing audiences may notice about The Wolverine is the lack of action for the majority of the film. Compare my reaction to that of a 9-year-old two rows behind me during a conversation in which Logan is schooled on the significance of Japanese dining etiquette that is a crucial character bonding moment loaded with symbols of tradition and mortality.
Me: Wow, so this is how he realizes his feelings for Mariko Yashida and regrets exposing her to his demons. This is hugely significant.
Both reactions are valid. What The Wolverine does right relates to Logan as a character, what drives him, his strengths and weaknesses. What it does wrong is action movie stuff. Just as it seems to find its feet, it gives up the emotional capital it earned from the audience for a big fight scene against a not-scary bad guy.
The action itself is great, but save for two chases near the beginning, the tension in the commotion is lacking. For at least 40 minutes in the middle of the film, there’s no villain, just existential threat and character study. Then when a villain finally does show up, it’s less “Oh, that guy!” and more “Oh. That guy.” What ends up being a well-written and acted story gives way to predictability and convention, making it similar to Iron Man 3 in both the best and worst ways. The benefit to this is that in this age of franchise upon franchise, tie-in upon tie-in, both The Wolverine and Iron Man 3 are highly effective, self-contained stories that understand their characters’ strengths and weaknesses without being beholden to an inevitable sequel.
Before you come away with a negative impression of The Wolverine, know this: it’s 3/4 of a great movie, and 1/4 of an OK one, and it’s in that transition that it loses its potency.
The Wolverine is most gripping when it’s not trying to be epically big, but profoundly small.
RATED | PG-13
OPENS | 7.26.13