The superhero movies so far this summer have not wowed me, at best meeting expectations without exceeding them. My expectation was not high, however, for the new Wolverine movie, considering the sheer awfulness of the 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie, which was the only other solo Wolverine movie to date. This one, however, really captures the mutant’s essence, and was a genuinely pleasant surprise, making the film my favorite of the summer so far.
Because the Wolverine is effectively indestructible, the temptation might be to ramp up the power of his foes, effectively engaging in a cinematic arms’ race. One of the first of several right moves this film makes is de-powering Logan early on, making him susceptible to physical harm which he would have previously been easily able to shrug off. This means the fights with even regular human opponents to carry weight in the film, whereas one could reasonably said that, considering his power set, they would otherwise be meaningless unless a third party is in danger.
This also allows the filmmakers to scale down the plot as a whole, placing the titular mutant in what is essentially a Japanese gangster drama with superhero elements thrown in. The majority of the plot circles around a beautiful woman inheriting a large fortune, elements which would keep her from receiving it at any cost, and a rugged, dejected outsider who strives to defend her from those forces. Described that way, it sounds more like a film noir detective movie than a summer action blockbuster.
To be clear, there is no lack of action, or over-the-top superheroics here. The fight scene which has been talked about more than any other is a confrontation with gangsters on top of a speeding bullet train. Even faced with possible mortality, Wolverine seemingly sometimes has no regard for his own physical well-being, possibly out of sheer habit or simple dumb bravery, hurling himself around in combat with wild-eyed rage. Us comics fans, we like to see this. The berserker rage is, after all, an essential part of the character.
The film was shot in Japan, with a largely Japanese cast, which is definitely a change of pace. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper, as well as Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey who haunts the hero in his dreams, are the only outsiders in this film. For the most part I am happy to see a film of this scope where all of the supporting characters are not immediately recognizable. It allows oneself to submerge in the story to a greater degree, which is welcome in an age where each project has to be stacked with stars in order to be produced. Tao Okamoto as the woman in distress does a great job, considering she is tasked with providing the emotional heart of the story. A failure on her part would have meant that we do not care what Logan is fighting for. The other stand-out performance here is by Rila Fukushima, who provides not only much of the humor of the film, but also looks seriously intense when she wants to. The character sets herself up to follow Wolverine around for at least a while, and I for one would be disappointed to not see her at Logan’s side if there is another Wolverine film made. She does not seem to be cast in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, at least officially, but that is at the very least fully understandable given the cast in the film is already bursting at the seams.
The Japanese setting itself provides much of the visual excitement of the film. It is nice to, for once, see a superhero movie not set in New York. More than that, however, the moody weather and landscape, as well as the beautiful architecture, means that sometimes the location downright steals the show, though not in a negative way where it would distract from the impact of a scene. Simply put, the set design and locations chosen for this film are all top-notch, allowing the film to combine the fun of an action story with the thrill of watching something that is exciting aesthetically speaking.
This is not to suggest that everything in the film is pure gold. The climax of the film unfortunately succumbs somewhat to the generic action film confrontation in a villainous lair we have come to expect from every superhero movie (the alternative being a fight which knocks down half a city). The before-mentioned Viper character, too, has the general effect of simply not fitting in. Why her inclusion was necessary, frankly boggles the mind, as she appears simply to be a refuge from the much more garish X-Men movies Wolverine comes from originally.
These, however, are mere squabbles. The first two acts of the movie are so enjoyable, and the setup for the final confrontation is simply so satisfying, that nothing short of a complete fail in the climax could derail the momentum of the film. And it isn’t like any of the elements that I described as downsides are really bad, either. They merely don’t fit in as well as the other elements. Those slightly schizophrenic tendencies aside, the movie really does a fine job, and I suspect will serve as the quintessential Wolverine film for the foreseeable future.