Sunday, August 4, 2013
The Wolverine (James Mangold, 2013)
Neither especially inspired nor especially skillfully made, it is nevertheless an above-average action movie, largely on the strength of its main character and its lead actor. Bonus points if you're a Japanophile. Decent.
The Wolverine is not a terribly ambitious, original, accomplished, or fun film. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's also never crazy or weird enough to be remarkable even just in a so-bad-it's-good sense. It's a movie that plays it safe, from a veteran director (James Mangold of Kate & Leopold) professional enough to treat the superhero source material with respect while still keeping the geek world at arm's length. It's less comic book-y than the average superhero movie. It vaguely references the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and assumes an understanding of Wolverine's mutant powers—in fact, the whole premise of Wolverine being immortal is something that I don't think was ever explicitly confirmed in any previous film—but, for the most part, this is a fairly standalone story, without a lot of fanservice references or setups for sequels or spin-offs (which may actually make this, on second thought, one of the braver superhero movies out there). Aside from Wolverine, there are only two other characters—Viper and Yukio—that stick out as genre types. The way the story plays out is perhaps more characteristic of a traditional action thriller than a superhero movie, which can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it feels more grounded than a lot of superhero movies. On the other hand, it sacrifices a bit of the fantastic and settles into a possibly even more tired action movie formula.
So it's not really a good movie but also not quite a bad one. What pushes The Wolverine just above the dreaded territory of "merely inoffensive" is, ultimately, Wolverine himself and Hugh Jackman. Jackman will never own this role the way that Robert Downey, Jr. owns the role of Tony Stark, but his Wolverine is very cool and never tiresome. These movies, the fans, and even the role itself have been blessed to have him filling it for so many years and so many performances now. In the hands of a lesser actor, this could be just a snarling tough guy with claws, and people who don't go to superhero movies might lament that Jackman, a darling of the musical theater world, has had to become the mutant Wolverine in order to make it as a bankable movie star. But Jackman, for his part, has always contributed his utmost toward crafting the movie Wolverine into a compelling character, bringing a combination of confidence, charisma, and just the right amount of moody introspection and pathos for a badass with a bit more substance and psychological depth than the typical action hero. He's haunted but never self-pitying. After all the previews that played up the theme of immortality being a burden, I loved when, come Yashida's offer to relieve him of the burden in the actual movie, Wolverine immediately shot it down without ever giving it much consideration, because 1) it's an offensively stupid suggestion, 2) Wolverine has too much self-respect to take the easy way out, and 3) Wolverine has too much sense to be making deals with shady old businessmen on their deathbeds.
Aside from Jackman's Wolverine just being a great character, there is also, with this being our sixth time at the movies with him (including a cameo in X-Men: First Class (2011)), a familiarity here, as well as an affection earned over years—a major advantage this movie commands over others with similar scripts. I mean, I'll take the Wolverine I know any day over whoever the hell that stranger in the fourth Bourne movie was supposed to be.
The rest of the movie is unremarkable, although it's fairly attractively shot, even with Australia standing in for Japan through most of it. The story is both confused, in the convoluted manner of a spy thriller, and sometimes plain dumb, in the nonsensical manner of a superhero movie. There's more of the former than the latter, yet it is the latter that most distracts. Although the movie avoids a lot of the usual stupidity found in comic book plots, it does unfortunately hinge on one really stupid premise. I mean, seriously, Yashida's scientists figured out a way to steal Wolverine's immortality (more precisely, his healing factor, I assume)?
Even once you get over the ridiculousness of that idea, nothing about Yashida's execution of the plan makes any sense. When it was over, my brother asked me what exactly Yashida's endgame was supposed to be. Was he planning, after having faked his own death, to just come back seventy years younger and resume as eternal head of his corporation? I thought about it for a moment and, actually, I couldn't think of any reason why not. In that world—a world where a guy once yanked the Golden Gate Bridge to serve as a platform to Alcatraz—would there be anything so unbelievable about a guy coming back from the dead, having harnessed the power of immortality, to rule his empire in a gigantic silver suit of armor? Either that or Yashida planned to command only from within the suit of armor, while pretending that he was actually his own granddaughter in there. And his actual granddaughter, "weak" and under his thumb, would go along with that, making the occasional public appearance as the puppet head of the company, before "changing into" (read: switching places with) the Silver Samurai when playing executive hardball. That at least would explain why Yashida willed everything to his granddaughter; he planned to rule through her. Except that... it still doesn't explain why he faked his death at all! Yashida had the adamantium armor, he had ninjas enough to crush any rival Yakuza, and it even seemed that he could have captured Wolverine much earlier in the movie. So why all the subterfuge, when he could have just directly taken everything he needed the moment he got Wolverine sleeping in his mansion?
No, the plot of The Wolverine cannot bear much scrutiny, but it's reasonably entertaining and, with the more obnoxious elements in previous X-Men movies having been removed from this standalone film, spending another two hours with Hugh Jackman's Wolverine feels like coming home. And, speaking of obnoxious elements, that mid-credits stinger? Best stinger ever!