You don’t get a lot of second chances in Hollywood. Although it’s more common now than ever before, we rarely see a studio basically admit they messed up a property and try it all over again a short time later. Perhaps not so co-incidentally, nearly all of the times this has happened recently have involved Marvel comics characters. After Hulk wasn’t well received, we got The Incredible Hulk, ditto for The Punisher to Punisher: War Zone and Ghost Rider to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Hmmm….
In each case there was an improvement, but only a minor one, it’s not as if they learned from all the mistakes made first time round and knocked it out of the park upon their second chance.
Wolverine finds himself in the same position now, even after the rushed, messy and poorly received X-Men: The Last Stand, 2009’s promising X-Men: Origins: Wolverine turned out to be the worst X-Men film yet. Misjudging nearly every aspect, it gave us an unnecessary and unwanted re-telling of Wolverine’s back story, the most interesting parts of which had already been satisfactorily dealt with in X2, while shoehorning in too many extra mutants.
In taking a second shot at a solo Wolverine movie, they’ve kept the best part of the previous one – Hugh Jackman – but otherwise gone with a mostly new creative team, and taken inspiration from a popular 1980s limited series for the story. The title itself – The Wolverine – seems like a statement of intent, “this is the actual Wolverine movie, forget about the last time”.
As good an idea as that might be, The Wolverine does not just forget about the last few movies, it takes place after X-Men: The Last Stand (the first movie to do so, the last two were both prequels) and the events of that film’s climax are still with Wolverine. This actually works to the film’s advantage, but it could also function perfectly well as a standalone piece. He is now living in the woods somewhere, his only friend being a grizzly bear, while being haunted by memories of Jean Grey. Soon a Japanese girl called Yukio turns up to take him to Japan, where an acquaintance from his distant past requests his presence.
For a good part of its run time The Wolverine is unlike almost every other superhero movie we’ve had recently. It’s a character piece for the most past, there is no new bad guy threatening the world, and the plot is more of a mystery. There are some highlights to the first part, an impressive WWII set opening, and a spectacular chase/fight scene on a train that ranks as one of the year’s best action scenes so far.
So while its approach is refreshing, The Wolverine is still not the home run it could have been. Wolverine ends up spending a lot of time with the daughter of his old friend, and a tepid romance ensues. She’s just a very dull character who it’s hard to care much about. We’re in her company a lot more than that of the far more interesting Yukio. There’s also another Japanese character who pops up throughout whose purpose is never really explained. Wolverine’s principle foe is the comics character Viper, who has a bizarre and unclear set of powers, leaving us unsure of what exactly she can and cannot do. Her motivations are also hard to define.
(mild potential spoiler that’s in the trailer)
Wolverine is essentially an immortal character, and an attempt to humanise him will inevitably involve weakening him in some way, which this film does. It’s not a bad idea but the film seems uncertain of the logic of Wolverine’s powers. One of the great little touches in the first X-Men was Wolverine revealing that every time he extends his metal claws they cut through the skin of his hand, causing pain. Which would surely mean the use of his claws is dependent on his healing factor? So if he couldn’t heal, how can he use his claws without crippling himself?
There’s a lot to admire in The Wolverine’s intentions, it’s trying to do something new with a superhero movie, it’s more interested in character than action, it’s almost entirely set in a foreign country, and actually uses foreign actors for nearly all the roles. However, it’s muddled in places and come its third act it descends into a protracted and unremarkable fight scene, far more typical of a superhero film, and it doesn’t manage to really get under the skin of Wolverine and the pain of being essentially immortal as much as it could.
But be sure to stay for the totally awesome extra scene in the credits.