THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR PLOT SPOILERS
As the awe-inspiringly beautiful image of Nagasaki, 1945, fills the screen, one realises that this will not be another trashy, cheap superhero film churned out of the studio machine for the purpose of retaining rights. This is a film with ambition, made by a fan of the story and characters for fans, and made with a great deal of respect. Respect is a major theme of The Wolverine, James Mangold’s firmly stand-alone follow up to 2009’s commercially successful but critically hated X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film which bombarded its viewers with so many big stars playing so many iconic heroes, it was overwhelming. Origins wasn’t a bad film, it just attempted to give the fans too much, too soon, making up for the previous X-Men film- the atrocious Brett Ratner-directed The Last Stand. The Wolverine couldn’t be more different- the focus is entirely on Hugh Jackman’s Logan, and although the supporting cast do a superb job in their respective roles, these are not particularly well-known roles, and so the comic-book mythology isn’t as disturbed as it was the last time around.
We first meet Logan during the Nagasaki bombing. He is a prisoner of the Japanese army, chained up in a deep underground cellar. As the final of four soldiers prepares to carry out kamikaze in the face of the billowing mushroom cloud which has engulfed his hometown, Logan pulls him into the cellar and shields him from the fire. This is The Wolverine as we haven’t seen him in over a decade- a true, selfless hero- using his healing powers to help non-mutants through disaster and turmoil. This is The Wolverine as he should be.
Skip forward to present day (through the first in a series of emotional Jean Grey-starring flashbacks), and Logan is living alone in the Canadian mountains. He defends himself from the predators that share his soil, but keeps his vow to Jean never to harm a living creature- until the arrival of the mysterious young woman Yukio causes a bar-room brawl. Rila Fukushima is a standout in this role- witty, beautiful and feisty- but never crossing the fine line between action heroine and plain old token eye-candy. For the first third of the film, it seems that she is the true female lead, the woman Logan is destined to fall for, but in a surprising turn of events, it is in fact her adopted sister Mariko, played by the stunning Tao Okamoto (Japan’s answer to Scarlett Johansson) that brings out the romantic, more protective side of Wolverine. Yukio and Mariko are both very likable but intriguingly quiet women, who although we learn very little about throughout the story, are just as relatable and engaging as Logan. They are two of the strongest female characters we’ve probably ever seen in a superhero film, and the fact that neither of them have their screen-time occupied with sex scenes or stripping is a testament to the respect the filmmakers hold for them as characters and as actresses. The Wolverine will appeal equally to men and women, I feel, and that’s in keeping with this Summer’s theme of strong female characters in blockbusters (see Pacific Rim, Fast and Furious 6 and Iron Man 3).
While the Japanese women in The Wolverine are strong, tough characters, the role of Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, the only credited caucasian in the film besides Jackman), the film’s eventual primary antagonist, is not so. Viper is, quite literally, a stripper. After stripping Logan of his healing powers with her poison, she later strips off her coat to reveal a skintight catsuit, to reveal a snakish skin which she then strips off. Her similarities to Batman and Robin‘s Poison Ivy- a truly ridiculous cinematic character- are very noticeable. Apart from her method of kissing her victims in order to jam her poisoned tongue down their throat combined with her control over the Bane-ish Silver Samurai (later revealed to be not-so-robotic after all) to Khodchenkova’s uncanny resemblance to 1990s Uma Thurman bring back terrible, terrible memories of that terrible, terrible film.
This Summer’s previous blockbusters have mostly been based around prolonged scenes of cities being wiped out, skyscrapers being knocked over and giant holes being blown in walls. Those who felt the urge to walk out of Man of Steel an hour before the end (as I did) will rest well knowing James Mangold has no such tricks up his sleeve. The central set-piece involves Logan and an adversary fighting on the roof of a high-speed train as it moves through Tokyo, and although some shots are taken almost directly from Spider-Man 2, that’s a pretty good film to take inspiration from. This train scene is almost certainly the most (literally) gripping fight sequence we’ve seen so far this Summer, and is a very high watermark for other films to follow in the footsteps of. As in Origins, the film’s final confrontation takes place on a high structure amidst a scientific research centre, and although it doesn’t match the dazzlingly stunning sights of the nuclear-reactor fight between Wolverine and Deadpool, the mountain-top setting is quite lovely to look at. Everything, in fact, in The Wolverine is lovely to look at. Once you get past the actors (Jackman shirtless will keep those of that lifestyle happy while the rest get to watch Viper and Yukio fight), the fact that the majority of the film is set at night, in rain-soaked Tokyo and the snow-covered research centre, and the rest in the beautiful sun of modern-day Nagasaki, where we, the audience, as well as Logan form a closer bond with Mariko. The film is, as expected, available in stereoscopic viewing, but the rain and snow are at no point brought forward by the 3D, as Martin Scorsese did so wonderfully in his Hugo. This is a disappointingly lazy use of the medium, and as Sam Raimi proved with the hypnotically gorgeous Oz The Great and Powerful earlier this year, 3D can still improve the cinema experience for some films.
Famke Janssen’s, basically, cameo as Jean Grey shows off Logan as his most emotionally frail, and I think would be heartbreaking if watched immediately after The Last Stand. The end of the film is surprising, as it neither shuns or elevates the idea that Logan and Mariko may have a future together once he has moved past Jean’s death. It is absolutely necessary to say that if you have ever watched one superhero film in your life, or if you have even the smallest bit of appreciation for fanboy culture, you will remain in your seat until midway through the credits when you will experience the single most spectacular post-credits scene ever made- believe me, it’s even better than Iron Man‘s!
The Wolverine is in a different league to most of the trash we’ve seen this Summer. It’s use of Japanese culture neither confuses the casual Western viewer nor patronises the Eastern expert. It has an amazing cast and is wonderfully beautiful. For all of its small faults, it really is a must-see motion picture.