By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 29, 2013 at 2:19PM
Are American audiences starting to get bored with superhero movies? While 20th Century Fox’s “The Wolverine” did solid business overseas this weekend, the James Mangold-directed picture failed to outperform the routinely loathed “X-Men Origins: The Wolverine” stateside, making for the 2nd lowest grossing opening weekend of any X-Men movie so far (though on par with “X-Men: First Class,” and just slightly higher than the original “X-Men”). Was a lack of “X-Men” in Wolverine’s personal story to blame? The movie itself seemed to do favorably, considering its "A-" Cinemascore for those that actually paid to see it, but clearly American audiences didn’t come out in droves.
It probably wasn’t the reviews either (it’s certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), that were mostly positive. Well, if you go by our review, it definitely was the movie itself, but it's highly doubtful we made any difference. Regardless, we thought we’d take a closer look and do a post-mortem on “The Wolverine,” a movie that some of us liked, some of nearly hated, but almost all of us agreed was a bit of a frustrating, at-odds-with-itself effort; a dark character story that also wanted to be a slam-bam, thank you man, superhero movie.
“The Wolverine” is easy to enjoy superficially, but its dark, existential themes and soul-searching belie the underbelly of problems that run counter to all its surface texture. Anyhow, without further ado, here's the best and worst of “The Wolverine.” Suffice to say spoilers abound, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie, we suggest you wait or proceed at your own risk.
Until the third act, when everything goes awry, "The Wolverine" is admirable for creating and then sustaining a consistent and palpable mood of a kind of forlorn loneliness and isolation, where the sins of the past make themselves known (violently) in the present, that hangs over the movie like a thick Japanese fog. It starts with the quiet, nearly silent opening shot that traces a World War II bomber (the World War II bomber) over the skies above Nagasaki and concludes with an elegant two shot of Wolverine and his newfound "bodyguard" (Rila Fukushima), sitting silently in an airplane, bound for parts unknown, and in between, a singularly somber and heavy mood permeates. It's not suffocating or oppressive, like the angst found in "Man of Steel," since it's broken up with moments of levity and surprising sexuality, but it adds just the right amount of weight to something whose inherent silliness could have caused it to blow off the movie screen altogether. It's nice to see a superhero movie with a premium being placed on atmosphere instead of on how many spaceships they can send careening through the streets of New York City, even if that mood admittedly doesn’t last.
This is, if you count his cameo appearance in the swinging '60s reboot/whatever "X-Men: First Class," Hugh Jackman's sixth appearance as the metallically clawed mutant. And he's still superb in the role. Besides a slight webbing of wrinkles around his eyes, Jackman doesn't look a day older than when he first put on the claws 13 years ago (which is perfect for the character) and unlike someone like Johnny Depp, who seems to be bleeding his "Pirates of the Caribbean" character dry, it’s really sort of admirable to see Jackman sticking by the role that made him famous out of what seems to be a genuine love for the character. He knows that the audience hadn’t gotten the Wolverine movie they had wanted from him and he’s sticking around trying his damndest to make that happen. It’d be easy for him to move onto more prestige projects and leave his Comic-Con day job behind, but he seems hell bent on repaying his debt to the geeks who made his career by really trying to do right by the role. Jackman seems just as plugged in and stimulated by the character as when this all began, and it shows in every vein-bulging scene.
There are certain reservations one can have with the storyline of “The Wolverine,” but one cannot deny that everything about it screams “comic book.” The people who make these films sometimes forget that all comic stories don’t end in a mass apocalypse or a world-threatening danger. Instead, they’re often self-contained tales, particularly in the X-Men universe, where characters aren’t necessarily heroes, as tortured by their powers as they are blessed, and unable to get out of their own way. So it is with “The Wolverine,” which allows the practically Jim Lee-drawn Jackman to brood at the moon with the tragedy of his immortality. Most of “The Wolverine” draws from the character’s misadventures in the '80s, pulling from storylines that found the hero tango-ing with unstoppable ninjas and ruthless Yakuza and that too is preserved, enough to please the fans without toppling over into ridiculousness. There’s an ounce of camp in all good superhero films and “The Wolverine” knows how to revel in pulp in a manner unlike any of the po-faced films in this franchise thus far, and in a way, it shows a fidelity to the source that captures the character in all his melodramatic glory. In many ways, “The Wolverine” achieves what the Marvel films have not: those efforts too often have seen filmmakers take classic characters and try to shove them into a conventional blockbuster adventures that have less in common with Stan Lee than they do Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. But this film, for better and for worse, feels very much like picking a floppy off the rack and peeling through, eager to see the continued adventures of one of comicdom’s most soapy characters.
The Quiet, Ozu-Inspired Section
There's a moment early on in "The Wolverine" when Jackman and his charge (Tao Okamoto) are hiding out from the bad guys and they slip into a sleazy motel. She informs him demurely that the hotel is a "love hotel," one specifically designed for couples who want to get their freak on. It's a funny little bit but also startling in the sense that it's a superhero movie that is implying that two of its characters might actually have sex (and it exists in a world where other people have sex - can you imagine?). A little later, the unthinkable happens: the same two characters actually have sex. While there's little context or reason for the two to get together (the achilles heel of the forced romance in the movie), especially since Wolverine is so chewed up over what happened to his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), but it's a sweet, tender moment in a movie mostly defined by our lead character hacking people to death with his metal claws. The Nagasaki Ozu-inspired sequences where Logan and Mariko hide away from the yakuza mob and everyone out to get her is an admirable and quiet section of the movie shot in a kind of romanticized haze, in the sense that it showed you the kind of emotional complexity that could be attempted (if not necessarily completely achieved) in this kind of movie. And it's a testament to the general mood and pace of the movie that a sequence like this, delicate and serene, could be dropped into a superhero movie without adversely affecting the pacing or structure. You generally don’t see this kind of detour in a blockbuster flick and it’s a shame that the romance in the movie isn’t established earlier in the picture because this portion could have been actually affecting.
The Nagasaki Opening
Of all the ways to start a tangential "X-Men" spin-off, a somber shot of a World War II bomber, about to deliver the devastating payload to Nagasaki, Japan, as it glides across the horizon, isn't the most conventional. The sequence that follows—in which several Japanese soldiers commit hari kari before the nuclear blast engulfs them, and one, who attempts to free a mysteriously imprisoned Logan, is then saved by our nearly-invincible hero—is one of almost unbearable tension and suspense. But like a lot of things about "The Wolverine," it almost undoes itself as it goes along. The scene where Wolverine shields the young soldier from the blast is affecting, but Wolverine starts to regenerate seconds later. The nuclear burns that he suffers, turning him into a largely hairless cinder, is undone almost immediately. It would have been nice to see something of that magnitude at least slow him down. It would have added an element of danger and upped the stakes considerably. Instead, he's back up and running mere moments later. It's a wonderful way to kick things off, one that could have really set the stage for the rest of the movie, but instead it becomes evocative of the rest of the movie's highlights and low points, all in a single opening sequence.
It’s Ambitious At Least
This summer, superhero movies have gotten bigger and more explosive than ever, basking in destruction and levelling entire cities. By contrast, "The Wolverine," is a much more contained piece, with maybe a dozen characters (though even that many poses a problem, as you'll see), an emphasis on the hero's existential dread, some delicate emotional underpinnings, and a climax that seems relatively small in comparison to these other movies. Mangold, too, tried for a more sophisticated look for the movie, tipping his hat to a number of influences from both the east and west (including Japanese filmmakers like Hiroshi Inagaki and Kenji Mizoguchi), which results in an elegantly pronounced style. But as we shall learn, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and as often as "The Wolverine" tries, it just as often fails...