Written by David Holland
When I looked at my list of Marvel movies for my next article and saw “The Wolverine”, I thought for sure there must be some mistake. After all, I wrote about that Wolverine movie last week! It took a moment to refresh my memory – there was another solo Wolverine film. And it involved Japan somehow. But when did it take place again? Was it after “Origins” but before “X-Men”? Or after “Last Stand”? I have definitely watched this movie before, but couldn’t remember almost anything about it except the Japan part. So this week I got a chance to watch it for the first time… again.
I was prepared to not like this movie. After all, I assumed that if I had forgotten it, then there must have been a good reason. But it endeared itself to me in spite of my biases against forgettable movies. I think one reason is that it is different from other X-Men films. Both the original X-trilogy and Origins brought a lot of flashy powers and CGI fight scenes that I have previously argued laid the groundwork for big battle scenes like the one in Endgame, and I stand by that. But mutant powers in “The Wolverine” are understated – no teleportation, no eye beams, no fireballs. Instead we get a mutant who sees people’s futures (but only their deaths) and Viper, a poisonous mutant who doesn’t go full snake-person until the very end of the movie. I actually like this direction for this movie. The mutations aren’t a crutch, they are just there, the way a character in another action film might have a gun or be good at playing cards or have an eidetic memory – just one step more supernatural.
This movie is also full of comforting tropes. “The Disillusioned Knight with a Rough Past gets brought Out of Retirement for One Last Job”, which ends up being “Protecting the Princess from the Evil Chancellor”. Obviously there are no literal knights, princesses, or chancellors, but you can fill in the blanks – or if that is too subtle, the movie hits you over the head with this metaphor since Wolverine nicknames Mariko, the woman he is protecting, “princess”.
Callbacks to the previous films are woven throughout, but not overwhelming. Famke Jameson returns as Jean Grey for dream sequences that illustrate Logan’s sense of loss, his overwhelming duty to protect the helpless, and ultimately his decision to choose life. The movie also flirts with depowering Logan, giving us our first taste of actual stakes for him – something that will be revisited in “Logan”.
What didn’t work?
This movie is a great bridge from “Origins” to “Logan”, but as a standalone, it is still trying to find its footing. “The Wolverine” is really the first time we see Logan struggling with the ramifications of immortality. This Cracked article deals with some of the implications of not dying, specifically the fact that if you are immortal there is a near certainty that eventually you will get trapped somewhere forever, unable to die or escape, but also the fact that immortality would become mentally taxing on an otherwise ordinary human. Viper depowering Logan does put him in genuine jeopardy, but other films grapple with this issue in much more emotional ways. “The Wolverine” goes there first, but “Logan” and other projects exploring similar questions of ending immortality such as Netflix’s “Old Guard” do it better.
On my second-first watch of “The Wolverine”, I didn’t dislike it. But I do think it is a bridge from “Origins” to “Logan”, a necessary piece that still hasn’t solved everything a Wolverine solo movie can be. As with previous X-Men movies, this one was based on iconic storylines – specifically a limited series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. But despite an excellent performance by Jackman and the rest of the cast, once again the movie does not quite rise to the level of excellence demanded by the status of the content on which it is based.
The Wolverine experiments with a new comic book movie genre – Solo Hero on the Run – which will be perfected in future comic book hero movies like “Winter Soldier”. It is an improvement on “Origins” but its most important themes will be revisited with more depth and courage in “Logan”.