In the 2013 superhero film The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, Hugh Jackman repraises his role as Wolverine for the sixth time. This time around, the movie breaks from the usual X-Men exploits with a surprising level of entertaiment value and even existential exploration. By choosing to strip away Wolverine's immortality, the movie recovers the superhero's soul by testing the extremes of his physical and emotional stamina.
Set sometime after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, the film opens with Logan sulking somewhere in the Yukon wilds. Having sworn off his violent ways, he identifies more with a feral grizzly than with any of the sport hunters he encounters in town. The beginning of the narrative establishes concerns about whether he can successfully overcome his animalistic nature and introduces symbols, such as a poisoned-tipped arrow, that resurface later in significant ways.
When hunters kill the grizzly, Wolverine flies into a rage but is rescued by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who whisks him away to Japan. There Logan is introduced to Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee), a man he saved from the atomic blast that destroyed Nagasaki. Kenuichio desires the immortality that Logan considers his curse, and suggests a trade. Wolverine is stripped of his immortality, which would allow him to reunite with his dead former love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who frequently appears to him in visions of the past.
Half an hour into the movie the first action scene arrives as a squad of yakuza descend on Harada’s funeral, attempting to assassinate his daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). The fighting, inspired by Hong Kong films, proves elegantly choreographed. The next scene is even more impressive: Wolverine combats a group of yakuza thugs atop a speeding bullet train. Though Wolverine emerges victorious, his wounds no longer heal themselves; Harada’s nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova) has impaired this part of Logan’s abilities. This marks a transition from a character that is merely cool to one that is actually interesting, since there’s a genuine risk that he could die while trying to protect Mariko.
Even better than Wolverine's newfound physical weakness is the emotional vulnerability that The Wolverine introduces. By revealing unexpected new layers of psychology the film allows the ever-charismatic Jackman to breath fresh life into his character. The long road from Logan’s initial tortured condition to the fulfillment of his heroic potential is paced satisfyingly; ideas grow to maturity throughout the narrative.
While the storyline and acting are inspired, Mangold's directorship leaves something to be desired. While other directors have elevated the superhero genre by incorporating elements of their own style, Mangold opts for a more conventional path that borrows heavily from other productions. This style choice removes The Wolverine from greatness but still works with remarkable effect up until the end of the film, at which point the finale reverts to the lowest common denominator. Wolverine takes on two villains, one the Silver Samurai and the other Viper (a snake-like mutant), in a derivative metal on metal showdown.
Nonetheless, The Wolverine is easily the best superhero movie of the year to date. The drama is better handled than Iron Man 3, Logan is way more fun than the Superman of Man of Steel, and the narrative is built around the character and a substantive story rather than being just a bunch of action sequences strung together. Even the post credits clip, which comes out of nowhere, suggests a forward progression of the series that we can all eagerly anticipate. The Wolverine is hardly perfect, but it’s the rare superhero sequel that doesn't disappoint.
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