The Wolverine gets an A for so many things – for the expected (Hugh Jackman’s performance as the titular feral beast has always been spot-on, both in moments of rage and in those moments where he gets to express the characters trademark pithy wit) and the unexpected (it’s the female characters, Yukio and Mariko, who carry the day here; Logan gets both a convincing young female sidekick, and a convincing soulmate, and the character works best when he has both). The action is remarkable, particularly a fight atop a bullet train. When this film simply follows Logan protecting Mariko from some unseen threat, we have something that really works here, something that brings this character back into respectability after that… thing that happened a few years ago.
That only goes so far though. Because The Wolverine gets an F for some really crucial stuff: what is this film’s overarching plot for instance? There’s some sinister scheme at play, obviously, but I’m pretty sure I’d need a semester-long seminar to figure out what it entails. I shouldn’t have to work this hard (the screenwriters should have to work this hard, but not me) in a movie with ninjas and samurais. Something, something, honor, something, something, sacrifice… right? Pretty hard to mess up. The film coasts off of that alone for it’s first hour and a half, and it works tremendously. Then we leave our lesson on Japanese culture – and a good movie – behind for some old-fashioned comic book villainy. But who are these villains? Why are they doing this? HOW are they doing this? What the hell are they even doing?
I do not know. And I never will. I will never understand the purpose of the Viper character in this film, and now I don’t care to find out -I was happy to see her die if only for the relief I felt when I knew I wouldn’t have to deal with her nonsense in any subsequent films. As for the Silver Samurai… I understand that the desire not to die, to live forever, to be immortal is a powerful impetus to do some shady things; it will always be a solid motive for arch-villainy. But my question for the filmmakers is this: did they understand what they were doing when they had a survivor of Nagasaki leech the life out of an unwilling immortal being who had saved his life? I suspect they knew they were saying something: something about a man who had witnessed so much death seeing it as his right to take from a Western man, a man who could not appreciate the power he had been bestowed with just by being born with the right genes. But I wish they’d taken more care in expressing exactly what that message was. It’s not often we see the event this film evokes on Western screens, so to rob the soul of the one character who acts as our connection to that horrible day seems like it could be profound in the right hands, but in these hands it instead just looks desperate and mildly offensive.
Still, in sum, if you’d told me three months ago that The Wolverine might be my favorite superhero film of the summer, I would’ve said “Get outta here, bub.” Here I am, admitting that much of what James Mangold put on the screen rocked my world, so take that as you will: don’t come to Th eWolverine expecting narrative clarity (you probably didn’t anyway, so we’re already there) but be ready to cheer when those claws come out. The villains they slash make little sense, but it’s the slashing itself that really matters.