Of all the many super heroic mutants to be classed among the ranks of the X-men, it is unquestionable that Wolverine is the most popular and recognizable. One only needs to look at the repeated attempts to foreground the character at the centre of Fox’s own cinematic X-Men universe, from a hilarious and simple cameo in X-Men: First Class, to the film that, at one point, made the odds of another solo adventure for Logan seem rather slim: X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This was a film so bloated, unfocused, audience friendly to the point of becoming disinterested, and unfaithful to the main character, that it has become something of a warning to all those who would attempt the comic hero genre. However, the allure of bringing the crazed Canuck back to the big screen was too much, and thus we have The Wolverine…but this time, the result is far more memorable, and is without question, the most complete interpretation of the character to date.

The most obvious elements that illustrate both the learning curve from the last Wolverine film, and the film’s distinct identity are the choice of the right source material and a singular drive to explore the character as an iconic force. The film takes heavy inspiration from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine mini series, a story that (like the film itself) sees the character as a ronin figure, a master less samurai, against the backdrop of love, honour and revenge in Japan. Mangold expertly channels this interpretation of the character, establishing Logan as a lost, haunted drifter, inspired in particular by Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name persona; a force of nature that moves from place to place, and delivers his own brand of brutal justice. Becoming, on the words of the wind, a legend…THE Wolverine (an inflection that reinforces the film’s mission to define this oft misrepresented figure).

The opening third of the film, establishing the relationship between Logan and Yashida through a starkly brutal flashback to World War II Japan, and, in the film’s most beautiful and captivating sequence, a move back to the modern as the audience follows Logan living in the mountains of the Yukon, haunted by the memory of Jean Grey and caught in the heart of nature, confronted by man’s cruelty and lack of honour (foregrounding this crucial theme in the process), which is mesmerizingly articulated through a tender sequence between Logan and a wounded bear. This portion kicks the film into action, instantly compelling, emotionally and thematically complex. However, after an extremely promising and intimate start, the middle is crushed under the weight of a forced and unbelievable romantic sub-plot, one that ultimately damages a lot of the drive and intensity that Mangold had previously established. Mangold does drag some of this power back, particularly in the push towards the finale, taking the character back into the duality between the relentless animal and the honourable warrior, delivering a small, low-key battle between Logan and Yashida’s son, Shinjin, that is the film’s highlight in terms of iconic imagery, excitement, brutality and articulation of the character. Without a doubt, the purest ‘Wolverine’ moment ever devoted to film.

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Overall, the film is at its best when it doesn’t overload the action, giving the audience a focused and intimate experience, like the Logan/Shinjin showdown. However, it is a shame that the film at times suffers the seduction of the summer blockbuster in the other action set pieces, in particular the much advertised bullet train battle. This fast paces, landmark-exploiting sequence feels too forced, and hold no real excitement, sense of danger or emotional weight behind the conflict. It is a shallow piece of action cliché that undermines the great work done elsewhere.

The focus upon the iconic can also be seen weaved into the very visual dimensions of the film. Mangold creates a visual dynamic that blends the classical and the futuristic, in terms of inspiration and the specific textures of the imagery. The film moves between modern Toyko, lit coldly, dominated by blue light, dazzling neon and a crisp sheen, that feels as cool and metallic as Wolverine’s adamantium claws, and at times, more than a little reminiscent of the future noir of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; and spaces that evoke Japanese classical history, often bright, dominated by a symmetry that is ordered and natural. This juxtaposition of aesthetic tones reflects the clash between the old and the new, one that is personified in the figure of Logan himself, constantly torn between the two in an endless cycle of pain because of his immortality.

While the film’s visuals are at times coolly brilliant, the choice of shooting the film for 3-D proves to be a pointless endeavor in terms of adding texture and depth. Simply put, it is an unnecessary feature that is obviously only a money-spinning gimmick, which as cynical as it is pointless.

Alongside James Mangold, Hugh Jackman deserves great acclaim for his defining role in the film’s success. After playing the character for over 13 years now, Jackman delivers his best performance, presenting the character as a tragic hero, who is tormented by his past sins, but driven by an inner violence and a sense of justice, trapped between the warrior and the animal. Jackman articulates this with tremendous pathos, you can feel his pain, anger and righteous fury in both his burning stare and the sheer physicality of his body; Sinew, muscle and tendon moving and popping with the energy of an explosion. It is his ability to physically express the inner workings of the icon, alongside delivering the cool, laconic line with as much conviction as the honesty and guilt-fueled conversation with Jean Grey, his tragic demon, in his dreams. In a film that foregrounds Logan in such a pronounced and singular fashion, Jackman excels.

While Logan receives depth and new levels of personality, the other characters in the film are not given the space for any depth beyond the trivial and expositional, becoming truly wasted in the cases of Shinjin, whose irrational hatred of mutants is never explored, and Viper, who had the potential to be a compelling foil to Logan, able to manipulate and intoxicate the anti-hero, turning him against himself and representing a more intelligent and sophisticated femme fatale villainess. Instead she is given a few moments of dialogue, gimmicky examples of her ‘viper’ power and the chance to sex up the film in tight green latex outfits.

Ultimately, The Wolverine is a worthy addition to the X-men canon. The focus upon Logan as a troubled, raw and iconic figure is an inspired decision, with Hugh Jackman giving his best performance in the role so far. It’s complex blend of dark tones, comic book excess and the inspiration of samurai and western genres, conveyed with style and sharp visual mastery by James Mangold make it stand out from the crowd. However, while these elements are the film’s great successes, the narrative pacing issues, disappointing action set-pieces and an unfortunate underdevelopment of pretty much every character other than Logan (particularly frustrating in the case of promising villainess Viper), hold the film back, leaving it a bittersweet experience and far from the ‘definitive’ take on the character it could have been.

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980’s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: mattpaul61@o2.co.uk