Thirteen years ago, director Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to the big screen, and in the span of two movies, he helped to wipe away the stigma that hack filmmaker Joel Schumacher had left upon the superhero genre. Then Singer jumped ship to direct a mediocre Superman movie, and the franchise was left to be mismanaged by a barrage of talentless executives at Twentieth Century Fox. Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class boldly rebooted the flailing property, but The Wolverine marks the first X-Men movie to actually follow the disastrous X-Men: The Last Stand in terms of continuity. The question on everyone’s minds: Can director James Mangold un-fuck the thorough fucking over this franchise received at the hands of mediocre filmmakers and clueless studio execs?
Fortunately, the answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes!” James Mangold’s take on the surly superhero is dark and thrilling. It wipes away the bad taste left by X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, proving that the X-Men franchise can still be revived without the need for a massive reboot. Further, The Wolverine is arguably the most competently crafted X-Men movie to date.
Set after the events of the franchise’s previous entries, The Wolverine finds Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) living as a hermit in the wilderness, racked by guilt over the death of his love (Famke Janssen reprising her role as Jean Grey). He wants to end his suffering, but he can’t because his mutant superpower is basically immortality. Logan’s self imposed exile ends when he’s sought out by the emissary of a dying Japanese industrialist. She begs Logan to travel with her to Tokyo to visit her master before his death, and he capitulates.
Upon arriving in Japan, the ageless superhero learns that the mysterious industrialist is none other than Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), a veteran of World War II whom Logan saved in Nagasaki on the day the atom bomb dropped. Yashida offers the tormented Wolverine a Faustian bargain: Yashida will strip Logan of his mutant invincibility, and in exchange Yashida will receive the powers himself. Yashida views it as a fair trade—Logan wants to die and the old man desperately wants to live, after all. Logan refuses, but not before he’s been irrevocably drawn into a world of shifting family alliances, corporate espionage, and super-powered femme fatales.
The most noticeable thing about The Wolverine is the film’s narrow scope. The story here is considerably more confined and intimate than that of the typical superhero movie, which is refreshing. Whether its Magneto attempting to unleash a biological weapon on the planet in X-Men, Earth’s mightiest heroes fending off an alien invasion in The Avengers, or Superman yet again attempting to stop the eradication of humanity in Man of Steel, the filmmakers behind superhero movies seem determined to one-up each other in terms of consequence-free destruction. Eventually, the repetition of world-ending scenarios just becomes mind-numbing. How many times can the world teeter on the brink of disaster before villainous schemes to annihilate the planet become tedious?
With its comparatively low-key tale of a downtrodden man merely attempting to preserve his own life against the backdrop of feuding families and political intrigue in modern day Japan, The Wolverine feels like foreign arthouse fare by comparison. It’s the Yojimbo of superhero movies.
But that’s not to say the film is dry, boring, or overly artsy by any stretch of the imagination. The Wolverine sill delivers the goods. Logan’s adventures in Japan bring him to blows with armed Yakuza gangsters, black-clad ninjas, and a gigantic metal samurai. The screenwriters up the ante by severely weakening Logan’s superpowers at the beginning of the movie, placing the hero in constant physical peril.
Every action sequence involves visceral hand-to-claw combat, with Wolverine finally being allowed free reign to use those vicious metal claws of his. In several sustained action sequences, Wolverine tears through gangsters and modern day samurai alike as if they were tissue paper. One brilliant, show-stopping set piece involves the superhero battling gangsters on the roof of a 300 mph bullet train. Previous entries in the X-Men franchise skimped on violence, but the carnage on display here nearly pushes the film into “R” territory.
Much has been made of the fact that celebrated filmmaker Darren Aronofsky was originally set to helm the project only to later drop out. We’ll never know what Aronofsky’s The Wolverine would have looked like, but I strongly doubt it would have been any more riveting than the film James Mangold has crafted. With films like the underrated Copland and the utterly brilliant 3:10 to Yuma remake on his resume, Mangold has established himself as one of those rare directors competent both in action and drama; he’s the American answer to the equally underrated Martin Campbell. He continues to adeptly deliver action and drama in equal measure here, giving us not only a solid X-Men flick, but one of the summer’s best action movies as well.
The bar has been considerably raised for the next entry in the multi-billion dollar franchise.