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Film Review: The Wolverine

The Wolverine (2013; Directed by James Mangold)

The Wolverine is now a largely forgotten entry in the X-Men film franchise/extended universe octopus, and technically a retroactively erased one, if the timeline-altering machinations of Days of Future Past are considered strictly canonical. It’s a bit unfortunate, as James Mangold’s Japan-centric story of the reluctant return of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to active moral action-heroism after self-imposed exile is better than some of what came before and after it in this uneven but often rewarding superhero film series.

Jackman’s Logan begins the movie’s contemporary narrative living alone in the vast, chilly Canadian wilderness. He’s retreated into the lonesome wild to simmer in his grief and guilt over the death of fellow X-Person and subject of unrequited love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, appearing to him in gauzy bedroom visions). Her end came at his hand (or, rather, at his adamantium claws) in X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner’s best-forgotten, out-with-a-whimper conclusion to the original trilogy of X-films, and although it was a tragically necessary act to save the world from her uncontrolled Dark Phoenix telekinetic powers, he’s understandably not close to getting over it.

Logan is pulled back into the messy human world when his only furtive companion, an old bear whose proud, grizzled seclusion is a metaphorical mirror of his own, is killed by callow, dishonourable hunters. In the midst of a bar-fight confrontation over this, he’s aided by Japanese martial-artist and future-glimpsing fellow mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Her appearance in the remote Canadian north is far from random: she’s been sent to solicit Logan’s presence in the Land of the Rising Sun by her boss, wealthy industrialist Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi).

Yashida was seen in the film’s WWII flashback opening sequence (played as a young man by Ken Yamamura) being saved from the atomic blast of the Nagasaki bomb by POW Logan and his fantastic healing ability (I’ve said so before, but the X-Men films have never shaken their addiction to invoking the horrors of 20th Century history to make thematic points since Bryan Singer kicked off the franchise at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp). Now a dying old man at the end of a long, fruitful life that Logan’s choice gifted him, Yashida claims to want to thank the Wolverine personally before passing away. But the potential of the mutant’s healing capacity might be of more interest to the old man, and he offers Logan, with his increasing angst at his inability to age and eventually pass on himself, a chance to end his pain as well.

Yashida’s apparent death soon after launches an involved succession battle over his lucrative and influential business empire, drawing in his preferred heir and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), his power-hungry samurai-wannabe son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), her Justice Minister fiancée (Brian Tee), an athletic archer bodyguard in Yashida’s employ (Will Yun Lee), treacherous poison-breathed mutant femme fatale Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a horde of Yakuza thugs, and a towering robotic samurai. Logan, intermittently haunted by the past, hesitantly principled about the present, and gruffly ambivalent about the future, is of course stuck square in the middle.

Mangold’s film, written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has an orientalist tinge to its setting and themes, relying on a postcard Japan of bustling cities, rolling rural hills, bullet trains (an amazing fight and pursuit sequence takes place in and on top of one of those), high technology, pagodas and zen gardens, shōji houses, and samurai fixations aplenty. Like many Hollywood blockbuster depictions of the country, Japan presents in The Wolverine as a contemporaneous floating world, infused with the exquisite romantic and/or sensationalist idealizations common to Edo-period Japanese painting. If you want quotidian Japanese reality on a cinema screen, I suppose you’d go to Ozu rather than a Marvel Comics actionfest, but such persistent stereotyping certainly grates nonetheless.

Still, The Wolverine is reasonably exciting when it needs to be and delves thoughtfully, if not too deeply, into its central character’s superheroic internal conflicts. Logan’s mind, heart, and soul is forever at irreconcilable odds with his body; the latter is indestructible and alienatingly foreign to his understanding, but the former are very much not. Placing this man at literal war with the implications of his own corporeal reality in a foreign setting, especially a land of mythic alterity and closed-system cultural inscrutability like Japan, is a canny way to throw Logan’s internal dilemmas into the sharpest possible relief. Mangold and Jackman are getting another swan-song shot this year at exploring this character’s unique agonies in the buzzed-about Logan, and it’s worth keeping the solid psychological and thematic consistency of The Wolverine in mind when thinking about what that new film hopes to accomplish with the character.

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