A Wolverine movie has always been a bit of an odd idea. The character might be just another member of the team in the comics, but on screen it’s always been his show. The first two X-Movies got that right: driven by Logan’s brooding over his past, and his simmering sexual tension with Jean Grey. At least part of the problem with X-Men 3 and the last Wolverine film was that they lost the focus on Logan and spread themselves too thinly. Finally with The Wolverine we’re back to what made the first films so good: a clear focus on Logan, and his relationships with the people around him.
Starting out in World War II Japan, the film moves very quickly into a post-X-Men 3 world where Logan lives under a rock, is friends with a bear and is failing to deal with his killing of the Phoenix-possessed Jean Grey. It’s a bit of a mis-step, that nearly ends in a tumble with a badly justified bar-fight. Fortunately at that point Rila Fukushima enters the fray as murderous pixie dream girl, Yukio, and the movie very quickly finds its feet.
From there we head to Japan, where director, James Mangold plays his real trump card: depowering Logan. The difficulty with un-killable heroes is always that the peril has to be to those around him. The only threat to the hero is emotional, which all too often results in them coming off as an over-powered angsty teenager. The joy of stripping that invulnerability away is that the threat is much more immediate. Suddenly we’re genuinely concerned for Logan in addition to those around him, and it makes the film much more emotionally engaging than it might otherwise have been.
It also makes the action much more tense. Even if we know that Mangold isn’t going to kill off his eponymous character, we’re never quite sure whether he’ll be walking away from the present conflict, or crawling. The result is raised stakes all round.
It’s also worth pointing out how well the action is handled in the film. Every fight has a purpose, driving the story forward, rather than acting as a distraction. Mangold uses steady cameras and wide shots to allow us to understand what’s happening, and the there are some clever and original ideas. It is true that we do get some of the old clichés: train top fights, and people being thrown from gantries spring to mind, but they both work well, and they’re balanced out by a scene where Logan takes on hundreds of ninjas.
What really allows The Wolverine to triumph though is the sense of fun that runs throughout. The film deals with a character who has suffered immensely, the story it tells is one with Shakespearean levels of deceit and betrayal, the tone is dramatic, and yet it still manages to be fun. We’ve known for over a decade that Jackman can deliver a cutting quip, but Mangold makes sure that we’re not overly relying on those quips to stop us wallowing in melancholy.
All in, The Wolverine is a refreshingly good entry in the X-Men franchise that completely wipes out the nasty taste Origins: Wolverine left. In fact, it might very well be the best of the bunch. Mangold’s never been more suited to a project, getting to be gritty, intelligent and fun all at the same time, and that translates into a movie that for the very first time, genuinely feels like an X-Men comic on screen. As good as a Wolverine movie was ever going to get.