Wolverine really does refuse to die. This is the sixth time that Hugh Jackman sports the superhero’s signature mutton chops and as far as the appearance of Wolverine in films one could say that the sixth time is the charm. The Wolverine comes off as a reboot, for the most part redeeming and almost making us forget about the artfully terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine. James Mangold’s rendition is certainly a well-crafted film, but one whose excellent visual elements succumb to the banality that arises from superhero storytelling conventions.
The story, as the trailer will make clear, is that Logan (the Wolverine) has hung up his bright yellow jump suit due to “the accident,” a guilt ridden trauma that becomes the film’s driving problem to overcome. The challenge that must be met for any screenwriter dealing with the Wolverine character is finding a way to make an essentially immortal killing machine relatable to an audience. I can imagine the first question in the writing room was “How do we humanize an invincible character?” I imagine the first answer (because it seems like they didn’t go much further than that) was “Let’s make him mortal.” Don’t worry I’m not spoiling anything for you that hasn’t already been addressed in the trailer. This tactic to humanize Wolverine is successful and follows the trend of superhero movies providing their god-like protagonists with very human weaknesses. Logan’s newfound weakness coupled with his trauma allows for some actual characterization to happen, falling into welcome moments of standard drama. However, none of the humanization is ever enough to make you care that much, not more than our natural predisposition for the hero to come out on top. This is very much tied to the Superman syndrome in which a character is so powerful that it becomes difficult for the audience to connect with them. In this case, Wolverine doesn’t have the advantage of a well-meaning country boy charm to compensate. Naturally, he partakes in a lot of brutal killing, all the way to the obligatory final act boss-battle. The final act does a wonderful job of throwing away all of the brighter moments of characterization in favor of superhero movie tropes. There at least is an honest attempt at focusing on character and not making Logan a means to set up action sequences, which there are plenty of, don’t worry.
Speaking of honest attempts, the Japanese setting of the film definitely stands out. It’s refreshing to see and experience something other than western culture in a Hollywood blockbuster, but by the final act every American preconception of what it means to be Japanese is seen, e.g. pagodas, samurai, samurai swords, ninjas and of course the Yakuza (Who else is going to be a primary evil in Japan?). All these elements function as a mish mash of Americanized Japanese style action, culminating in the hilarious pseudo sci-fi villain of the climax. To be fair, there are times when Japanese culture is at least seemingly represented accurately. For most, these problems of representation won’t matter at all, but they seemed worth mentioning as we are living in the 21st century.
But about dat action. Frankly, besides a couple sequences and the fight on the train, the action scenes are mostly forgettable, albeit well executed. The fights lack any tension as the viewer is well aware that due to Logan’s ostensible immortality that there isn’t much to worry about. Wolverine isn’t an elegant fighter either, giving us essentially what amounts to a muscled windmill with a pair of three foot long metal knives drunkenly swinging about. The train scene, the centerpiece moment, that has wowed critics and audiences alike is clever, ridiculous, and fun, but the CGI limitations are quite apparent. Then again, Mangold seems to know this and manages to inject this action scene with some humorous self-awareness.
Stronger than Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton is Goldman’s (director of Walk the Line and 3:10 To Yuma) and his team’s excellent aesthetic execution. Great shots abound throughout the film. Goldman does a wonderful job switching to appropriate generic styles. The same level of thoughtfulness could be applied to the cinematography and editing. There’s a surprisingly elaborate threading of images and motifs in the film (aka image system), recurring objects like an arrow for instance that follow the character arch. These subtle touches highlight the attention to detail and high level of craftsmanship at work in this film. Too bad the strong aesthetics have to surrender to formula.
Since Nolan’s Batman Begins the superhero movie has become a formidable genre, a genre that transcended its “good for a comic book movie” judgment and became good cinema in its own right. That being said, the overly formulaic storytelling of these films does a great disservice to the potential power they can have. It doesn’t help that the genre is severely limited by its franchise building. They can’t kill off a hero because there’s a sequel in the works. They can’t change a hero too much because the fanboys will get angry. It would be nice to see an original superhero be taken to the screen or even a lesser known one that can provide a new narrative experience. For a genre that is all about putting the world and its characters in grave danger, the studios do seem overly protective of their heroes.