It’s been a Summer of spectacular failures and unlikely surprises. It’s also been a popcorn season of the same old spit strewn out along an already preplanned international market payoff. Something like Pacific Rim can struggle while Iron Man 3 banks another billion plus. Johnny Depp’s superstar status drops a few determined degrees while Warners wastes no time tripping over itself to save Superman via an infusion of unnecessary Dark Knight determination. And then there is The Wolverine, the latest installment in the leggy superhero franchise that, at least in this critics opinion, has always been the bargain basement equivalent of the recent Marvel movie trend.
Established before the comic book giant took over creative control of its properties, this fanboy fascination has always lived or died based on who was sitting behind the lens. Bryan Singer earned almost all his commercial cred helming X-Men and X2. Brett Ratner almost singlehandedly destroyed the series with X-Men: The Last Stand while the first solo outing for brooding ex-super soldier James “Logan” Howlett, X-Men Origins: Wolverine suffered from Gavin Hood’s overstuffed, too much of a mediocre thing ideal. At least Matthew Vaughn’s bouncy X-Men: First Class had a swinging pre-hippies ’60s vibe going for it, as well as stellar performances by James McAvoy (as the young Dr. Xavier) and Michael Fessbender (as his soon to be arch-nemesis, Magneto).
So it makes sense to keep the focus on the near-immortal mutton-chopped champion. Hugh Jackman is a major star, like a certain Cool James, ladies love him (and his buff body), and he’s incredibly talented outside the action hero role. Besides, Origins made $373 million at the box office, and studio heads love to count their cash. This time out, however, James Mangold of 3:10 to Yuma remake fame has been given the daunting task of taking one of the mythology’s most memorable arcs (the Japanese storyline celebrated by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller in their 1982 limited run series) and matching it up against the return of Clark Kent, the second voyage of the newly outfitted Starship Enterprise, and an ethnically diverse cast careening around in incredible fast (and furious) cars.
He doesn’t succeed. The Wolverine is a waste of time from the first shot to the rushed, slipshod finale. It feels forced, sledgehammering you with how deep and important it thinks it is while never really explaining how, or why. Christopher Nolan did something similar with his take on the aforementioned Bruce Wayne, but he’s an auteur. Mangold has barely established his directing chops. Similarly, the storyline, which sees Logan heading back to Japan to “say goodbye” to an old colleague reeks of unrealistic expectations. Stuff like the samurai code and the strength of Japanese steel are bandied about (and then forgotten) while our hero takes on all comers with a calculated, shirtless disregard. There are a couple of clever action scenes (one atop a bullet train is defiantly deranged) and some nice performances from the star and his Asian costars. But there is one glaring error and several more subjective flaws that doom this tentpole to being a profitable, if dispassionate piffle.
Our story begins with Logan as a prisoner of war. It’s Japan…Nagasaki…the day the A-bomb will be dropped. A sympathetic officer named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) goes about freeing the remaining captives, but our hero won’t budge. Instead, he hides his supposed enemy in his underground cell, keeping him out of nuclear harm’s way. Fast forward 70 some years and Yashida wants his mutant pal to visit him on his deathbed. He sends a spunky sprite – his adopted daughter Yukio (Rila Fukushima) – to gather Logan and get him to Tokyo. Once there, he learns that there was an ulterior motive to the invite. Yashida knows Logan is more or less immortal, and with the help of a suspect female scientist (Svetlana Khodchenkova), he wants some of that fountain of youth for himself.
There’s also some unnecessarily messy subplots involving Yashida’s granddaughter (Tao Okamoto), an inheritance, her power mad father (Hiroyuki Sanada), and a high ranking government official (Brian Tee) with ties to the Yakuza. There’s also a childhood friend of Okamoto’s Maiko who is devoted to protecting her, though he typically does a piss pour job of same. As for Logan, he’s mired in nightmare memories of his dead lover, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and angst over his status as a mutant. Like Yashida says over and over again, our hero must be sick of watching everyone he loves die. Eventually, it all ends up in a face off at a far off mountain lab where a bit of CG special effects takes over to add some much needed spectacle.
Now, over the course of that overly complicated synopsis, one mandatory X-Men element is conspicuously absent here… OTHER MUTANTS. That’s right, The Wolverine can’t be bothered to share the spotlight, so it simply trots out one of the most minor members of the comic’s cadre, the poisonous Viper, to remind us that Uma Thurman was equally ineffectual as something similar in Batman and Robin. Granted, this blonde baddie also has the power to sap some of Logan’s life force to give it to Yashida (yep – she’s the aforementioned scientist), blow acidic breath on opponents, and shed her skin, but that’s about it. She’s pointless to the plot a placeholder where other characters should sit. Elsewhere, Yukio has a bit of clairvoyance, but the rest of the genetically jerryrigged regulars are MIA. No Beast. No Storm. No Cyclops or Juggernaut, bitch! In fact, you’d swear this was an X-MAN, not X-Men movie.
Of course, those heavily invested in the polythene-bagged issues of the comic from the early ’80s will probably adore the outcome, even if it suggests that all Japanese men are sleazy scumbags, that all Asian women are doting dimwits (or worse, ass kicking kung fu fighters), and that the customs of the country can be easily trodden on by a bulked up brute with bad facial hair. For his part, Jackman simmers with the best of them, even offering up a few seconds of recognizable human emotion. But this is a movie where everything is basically suggested. Heck, we don’t even get what Wolverine will be up against until someone stumbles across some blueprints an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, and then, said standoff is relatively anticlimactic.
As the money keeps pouring in and the fans keep clamoring for more (look for Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, with Wolverine as a main story catalyst, in 2014), expect to see more solo outings for the character. Hugh Jackman has more to offer than playing at a melancholy, muscle-bound mutant. Sadly, The Wolverine provides little more than an outlet for same…and a lot less.