It’s a good thing Wolverine is indestructible.
Hollywood still can’t figure out what to do with him, but keeps putting him through the wringer anyway.
More than a decade after Hugh Jackman first unleashed the murderous mutant’s adamantium claws, the Marvel Comics character still hasn’t been properly translated to the big screen.
That deficit becomes ever more glaring with each passing year, particularly with well-received reboots of Superman, Batman and even the X-Men themselves (see: Matthew Vaughn’s sterling 2011 effort, X-Men: First Class).
As comic book protagonists have become worthy of real, raw cinematic treatments, the one who would benefit most from a rough-edged recasting continues to have his story told in the most bloodless fashion possible.
All that said, director James Mangold comes closer than many have in this — detour? reboot? franchise rejuvenation? — to fully realizing Wolverine on screen.
However it’s classified, The Wolverine pulls from rich source material: Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 arc depositing the tortured Logan (Wolverine) in Japan.
It’s a seminal piece of the Wolverine’s mythos, and a landmark example of comics beginning to be taken seriously as literature.
Yet screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank drain any sense of urgency from the tale, populating a sparse, grim and violent narrative with paper-thin characters.
The relatively straightforward plot becomes bogged down in the final act, undone by the need for an action-filled climax rather than closure.
The Wolverine follows Logan over the years, first in a flashback to World War II-era Japan, then to present day, where he’s haunted by visions of his lover, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).
After being mysteriously summoned to Tokyo by an old acquaintance, Logan finds himself enmeshed in corporate intrigue, bureaucratic corruption and a vicious family feud.
Amid the plot contortions, Logan is forced to grapple with something he hasn’t faced before: mortality. The twist briefly raises the stakes — Wolverine can no longer wade into battle and miraculously heal moments after being wounded — but the suits have a franchise to protect, so the flirtation with humanity is a brief one.
Mangold adroitly stages a few action set pieces — there’s an early, breathless stunner atop a bullet train, as Wolverine battles Yakuza gangsters — and labors to keep things moving during the lugubrious scenes of exposition. (The conceit of Logan being a stranger in a strange land, with mystifying customs and talk of honor, works early on but wears thin by the finale.)
The buffed-up Jackman does what he can with his signature role, gamely taking his lumps (he’s already shooting the next X-Men movie, Days of Future Past, due out next year). The rest of the cast are relative unknowns, with Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee and Rila Fukushima all but fading into the scenery.
What’s most frustrating about The Wolverine is the brief glimpses of what might have been, if Jackman, Mangold and the screenwriters had been allowed to truly cut loose.
There’s an ascetic quality to certain sequences — a funeral disrupted by an abduction, a snowy rescue attempt thwarted by deadly arrows — that feels fresh, and most importantly, right.
But rather than throw caution to the wind and make a film that takes Wolverine’s popped-vein rage and angst seriously, The Wolverine wastes another opportunity, giving audiences one more dull blockbuster.
It’s the latest example of Hollywood’s inability (or unwillingness) to do justice to a beloved character, instead of obsessing over the bottom line.