THE WOLVERINE Review: Who Wants to Live Forever
My cinematic life is filled with many superhero moments (all of which are made that much more important by the fact that for years I used to collect comics). My first recollection of seeing a comic book character on the big screen was 1978’s Superman. My first big event movie was 1989’s Batman. My comic-to-screen dream was fulfilled with 2000’s X-Men. My biggest adapted disappointment was 2003’s Daredevil. The list goes on. And while I haven’t seen every sequel to every superhero film out there, I have seen just about every incarnation of every mainstream comic book tight-wearer there is, and after having done so, here is what I know:
Since that 1978 Superman screening, and not including television series or made-for-TV movie duds, I have seen seen two different actors play Spiderman (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield), three actors play Superman (Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, and Henry Cavill), three actors play the man who becomes the Incredible Hulk (Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo), and four … FOUR … actors play Batman (Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and Christian Bale). That’s 12 actors covering four characters in 35 years.
However, in five films with release dates spanning from 2000-2012, only one actor has played that most celebrated X-Man, Logan (aka Wolverine): Hugh Jackman. In those five films, despite much skepticism way back in 2000 (skepticism from many, including me), Jackman has proved himself not only to be worthy of the clawed Canuck role, but as the years have passed, he has become the embodiment of the role. Someday Jackman’s run will end, and someday there will be a reboot with a new actor, and it simply won’t be the same. Unlike The Dark Knight trilogy, which was more about director Christopher Nolan‘s vision than it was about Bale’s Caped Crusader, all appearances by Wolverine, no matter how brief, are about Jackman and how he plays the part.
The case is the same with 2013’s The Wolverine, which marks Logan’s sixth cinematic appearance since that 2000 debut. In fact, this is not only the most recent appearance by Logan, it is by far the best, in both performance and character development.
The film opens in flashback, by way of a dream. Logan is a prisoner of war in Nagasaki during World War II, and when the US drops the bomb, Logan manages to save one the captors who set him free to avoid the bomb, Yashida (the young version played by Ken Yamamura). Logan suffers unimaginable pain, but manages to save Yashida’s life. Logan awakes next to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) whom he loves but was forced to kill in a previous X-Men adventure (lest she destroy the planet). Logan awakes again to his true reality: a camp in the Yukon territory. It’s clear he has lived this way since taking Jean’s life, and it’s clear he is haunted by his love for her and the action he had no choice to take.
While on a supply run to town, Logan is contacted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a runaway who had been taken in by Yashida (the elder version played by Haruhiko Yamanouchi). He is dying, and his last wish is to see Logan one more time to say goodbye, and to give him a sword that Logan refused to take after the dust cleared from the Nagasaki bombing. When Logan travels to Japan, not all things are what they seem to be. Yashida, whose decades since the war were spent building a massive global tech empire, offers Logan something the mutant never thought possible: a chance at mortality, a chance at forfeiting his mutant powers of healing so that he might live out a normal life. Logan is dubious and wants nothing more than to go home.
But before the next morning’s flight, Logan is visited by Yashida’s suspicious doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who slips something into his system by way of a sleepy kiss. When Yashida dies that night as well, Logan stays for his funeral and finds himself embroiled in a power struggle for control of the Yashida business empire, facing enemies ranging from Yashida’s son (Hiroyuki Sanada) to that suspicious doctor, and falling in love with Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). He also finds himself without his healing powers, thus susceptible to the damage caused by bullets, arrows, and ninja swords.
As action movies go, director James Mangold knows what The Wolverine needs to do and he does it just fine. The bulk of the action involves well-chroagraphed and executed hand-to-hand combat scenes, with Jackman at his physical peak and often shirtless (as I would be if I looked like him, being only two weeks his senior). The best action scene of the bunch is a fight atop a bullet train speeding along at 300 mph, while the best action visual is the nighttime scene (shown in the trailers) of Logan walking into a Japanese village with dozens of ninja arrows strung into his back. This scene is an excellent representation of Mangold’s strength as a director (at least here) … the nighttime scenes. Many scenes are shot at night, some of them in the rain, and each is beautiful (particularly an early scene involving Logan and Mariko when the lightning lights the ingenue so wonderfully). That’s not to say the daytime scenes are ugly; they aren’t. They pop with the color and energy you would expect from downtown Tokyo, and Mangold looks like he’s been influenced a little bit by some recent Asian drama and Korean noir films.
The two main female protagonists were both something of a surprise to me. From the trailers, I thought Yukio was going to be somewhat obnoxious, but she never is. In fact, she plays a more integral part than you might expect, but nothing too lofty. As for Mariko, I was stunned to learn through research that this is Okamoto’s first appearance on a screen of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, she’s no Oscar contender, but for the primary female character in a tentpole summer film that is part of a very important franchise, her rookie effort is fine.
The film’s weakest links are its villains, who are quite two-dimensional, particularly the doctor. She’s pretty and serviceable, but I can’t see remembering much of what she did by the time the movie drops on home video. Ultimately, it matters not. The villains are there for Logan to fight physically. What’s integral to this film is the battle he wages inside. It’s the heart of the film, really, and what makes it so good.
We know from 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine that Logan is hundreds of years old. His true mutant power (not the adamantium frame that was later added to his skeleton and its natural bone claws) not only allows him to heal at an astounding rate, it also slows his aging to a crawl. This is what is at the heart of Logan’s pathos in The Wolverine: he is, essentially, immortal, and as such has and will live long enough to feel the pain of love’s loss over and over and over again, making that most basic emotion one of sorrow rather than one of joy. It’s what drives his psyche to constantly return to Jean Grey and what makes part of his character so Shakespearean in scope: as one who is as close to immortal as you can get, he would have outlived his love anyway. And yet circumstances required him to kill her, not only robbing him of the long-term life together that his circumstances would allow him to have but not hers, but robbing him of even a few decades of time with her. It’s what drives him to live in the mountains – not the aversion to combat or the berserker rage, but his inability to love for a lifetime satisfactorily.
For a character that is supposed to be something of an animal, it’s a very human condition.
So of course he must fall in love again, this time with Mariko. The “opposites attract” quotient is off the charts. He is so old, she is so young. He is primal, she is delicate. He is western, she is eastern. He is country, she is city. And yet.
Ultimately, and fitting with the Shakespearean theme, Logan is a warrior and a soldier above all else, and the one wish he thought could never be granted yet was … the loss of his healing powers so that he might become as normal as possible … is the one thing he ultimately needs – not just to come to the rescue of his love in peril, but to be who he is, who he is destined to be.
What Mangold and Jackman have done is so sneaky good. They brought you into the theater for a superhero action film and gave you a layered character tragedy. I didn’t see that coming, but I’m very glad to have seen it.