It’s astonishing how much super-hero movies have changed in just five years. Compare Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) first solo cinematic foray in 2009 with his latest in 2013. Even their titles denote a fundamental shift in approach. Whereas X-Men Origins: Wolverine practically cries out, “Watch this movie! It’s connected to a franchise you like!”, The Wolverine not only expects you to know that the titular character is a mutant X-Man rather than an overgrown weasel; it even goes so far as to distract you with a misleading determiner.
Perhaps a bit of context is needed here. Production on X-Men Origins: Wolverine started before Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) revolutionised the genre, back when such films seemed ashamed of featuring costumed titans. As a result, every bit of dialogue was devoted to explaining Wolverine’s mutant abilities, apologising for the film’s high concept, and streamlining its mythology. The Wolverine, on the other hand, belongs to the new super-hero tradition, which values above all else character development, reverence for the source material, and obscure inter-continuity nods.
For instance, even though Wolverine spends the whole movie moping about it, we’re never explicitly told that, two instalments ago, he killed a resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to save the world. This suits me fine, as it helps me pretend X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) never happened. More to the point, though, The Wolverine wisely strips our hero from all that X-Men baggage, relocating him to Japan, where people favour his civilian moniker “Logan” (or “Logan-san”) over the code name “Wolverine”. As in Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the goal here is to explore the man behind the powers.
Heck, The Wolverine even cripples Logan’s infamous healing factor by way of a mysterious virus that still allows him to survive minor gunshots but not without passing out from blood loss. Though you can only pull this trick once, it’s nice to see our hero have to break a sweat to defeat the baddies. Consider the pulse-pounding set piece atop a high-speed train, how much excitement we get from knowing Wolvie can’t just plough his way to victory. Forget the flesh-disintegrating energy beams and amnesia bullets of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Director James Mangold ramps up the tension without escalating the central conflict to cosmic levels.
In fact, the stakes in The Wolverine turn out refreshingly small. Summoned to Tokyo by an old acquaintance (Yamanouchi Haruhiko), Logan finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to kidnap Mariko (Okamoto Tao), the sole inheritor of the Yashida corporate empire. Our hero falls in love with her, of course, and discovers his presence might have been planned all along. It’s a simple crime story that perhaps loses its way in the final act, when a giant samurai robot shows up to siphon Wolverine’s marrow. Still, the film offers up plenty of soulful moments and characters to whom we can genuinely get attached.
The X-Men movies have a long-standing tradition of taking the names and abilities of minor mutants and attaching them to any random personality. The Wolverine feels like the first entry in the series for which the filmmakers bothered to read the source material. Sure, some details have been altered, like Viper’s (Svetlana Khodchenkova) powers and occupation, but screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank get every voice right. I particularly like Yukio, the rebellious action junkie assigned to look after Logan. In this version, she can foresee the deaths of those around her, but, otherwise, Fukushima Rila portrays the character straight out of the comics page.
By the end of The Wolverine, I found myself eager for the further adventures of Yukio and Logan-san. I wanted to know more about the impossible love between our gruff, cynical hero and the delicate, idealistic Mariko. I may yet get my wish, seeing as the post-credit Easter Egg sets the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) a full two years later. Granted, the X-Men timeline is getting a bit convoluted, but compare this small concession with the continuity mess that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine. We’re making progress here.