The Review: Comic book movies are now starting to explore previously uncharted territory for the genre. While the Star Treks and the Bonds of this world have proven that franchises and characters can have unending longevity – as long as they are not afraid to regularly reinvent themselves – no franchise ripped from the pages of coloured panels has so far managed to put on an extended run. The success of the various Marvel cinematic universes has seen Tony Stark get his run up to five, with a sixth in the pipeline. He still has some catching up to do with the pack leader, who’s already onto his sixth entry in the competing X-Men universe. Logan to his very few friends, Wolverine to just about everyone else, Hugh Jackman wasn’t even first choice for the role but has been every bit as successful as Robert Downey Jr. at making the character his own. While the X-Men movies themselves have produced entries varying from outstanding to desperately average, the first attempt at an origin story for Wolverine was just plain desperate. Now James Mangold has been given the task of making a more successful standalone Wolverine movie, and to that end he’s produced a long-awaited adaptation of Logan’s earliest Japanese adventures.
Many lesser summer movies would feel the need to layer on the exposition or the captions when dropping viewers into an unfamiliar milieu; the 1945 Nagasaki prologue thankfully avoids the need for both, although viewers might need to know their X-Men chronology well or be confused as to why Logan starts out with bone claws rather than his normal adamantium-covered set. There’s a case that a little more exposition might have been handy, or at least a refresher for those (like me) who’ve not seen X-Men: The Last Stand in seven years, as The Wolverine acts as a pseudo-sequel to that film, with Wolverine not the only character to be carried over. Either way, The Wolverine has few established characters to base its story on, so eventually has to do some narrative heavy lifting to get Logan out of his seclusion and into Japan to meet the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whose life Logan saved in the prologue. Wolverine quickly finds himself acting as protector to Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) as the relatives of the soon-to-be-deceased struggle for power, and also finds himself compromised when his powers of healing seemingly disappear.
There’s a lot going in The Wolverine’s favour, not least the variety that the Japanese setting brings to the franchise with its pagodas and ninjas and James Mangold’s ability to stage a decent action sequence. While this is on the middle of the scale-o-meter for summer blockbuster franchises, a couple of hefty fights – including one with the aforementioned ninjas – and a scuffle in, around and on a speeding bullet train more than make up for it in invention. Logan also picks up a sidekick of sorts, Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who’s one of the few others on display to possess a mutant ability, and there’s very little other than the weight of initial backstory to connect this to previous adventures; once the story’s in motion this becomes very much a standalone adventure. Fukushima gives Jackman an effective foil and he appears as settled as ever in the role, having bulked up to a very buff level and he makes the most of both his physical presence and his established character traits. Mangold and Jackman do a great job of balancing the darker elements with the sense of fun, and for about two thirds of the film The Wolverine is a great piece of summer entertainment.
It’s just such a shame that there’s a big black hole in the centre of the film, centred somewhere around the two romantic leads. Famke Janssen is back as Jean Grey, literally haunting Logan and acting as a plot motivator. It’s nice to see Janssen again, but there’s never any doubt where that thread is heading. And then there’s Mariko. She has a difficult relationship with Logan once they are forced together by circumstance, as well as an arranged marriage and a former lover who’s in league with the ninjas (and I keep mentioning them, but what film ever couldn’t have been improved by the addition of ninjas?), but none of it ever feels substantial or affecting. She’s a character from the Chris Claremont comic book run that inspired the Japanese setting, but sad to say it may have been better if she’s been left on the sidelines. Certain other characters are split or invented for the film, and the last act becomes a little convoluted as various loose ends need to get tied up. The ending is faintly preposterous, but leaves things in an interesting place for next year’s Days Of Future Past to pick up, although if this had backstory baggage then the prologue for DOFP will need to be about an hour and a half just to get the pieces in place. That’s for next year, and for this there’s a lot of fun to be had with The Wolverine if you can overlook the saggy middle, and no reason why Jackman can’t extend that run a few films further.
Why see it at the cinema: From the action of the bullet train sequence to the well-constructed imagery of the latter stretches, this visually justifies its cinematic release. Wolverine’s on decent form and will generate a few laughs, and there’s plenty of buzz from the post-credits scene to feed off as well (more on that below).
Why see it in 3D: Middling from a 3D perspective. Some effort has been made to adjust the brightness for 3D viewing, and Mangold has noticeably extended the length of his shots in a few places in an attempt to make them just long enough for your eyes to focus. But there’s still not much to justify the extra depth and some shots feel resolutely flat. Not worth it if you have to pay extra, but tolerable if you don’t.
Should I stay through the credits? Oh yes. If you’re a fan of the series, then you might actually find what’s in the end credits more exciting than anything in the film itself.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate action violence and one use of strong language. That use of strong language will evoke a sense of deja vu for anyone familiar with the franchise; the action itself won’t worry parents used to taking children to 12A films, but it definitely fits well into the 12A category.
My cinema experience: An early evening showing last Saturday at the CIneworld in Cambridge. A reasonably packed crowd that seemed generally entertained, with no noticeable sound or projection issues. In the row behind me there was one person who felt the need to give an occasional running commentary; maybe tolerance for this has increased, as I detected no noticeable “sssh!”ing from anyone around him. When the post-credits scene played out, he exclaimed, rather loudly, “Shit just got real!”. Shit indeed, sir, did just get real.
The Score: 7/10