By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 29, 2013 at 2:19PM
The Motivation Problem
Logan is summoned by a mysterious stranger with ninja skills to collect on a debt owed from a man he saved during WWII in Japan. When he gets there, the now elderly and dying friend offers to give Logan the gift of mortality, which our superhero pretty much rejects flat out. So why does he want to stick around in Japan? Well, it turns out the comely granddaughter of his dying pal is pretty attractive and has a couple of factions trying to prevent her from cashing in on her inheritance—the old man’s company. That’s it? In previous X-Men movies, Logan could barely be bothered at all to care about his fellow mutants, not to mention the lives of randomly affiliated strangers. But now, stuck in a country he didn’t want to be in for more than 24 hours, he feels compelled to act? Why? Aside from having a clear adamantium boner for the young woman he (suddenly) must protect... It’s never really certain why he’s so invested, aside from a very vaguely defined sense of honor. It’s certainly not to collect on the “gift” from his friend, and you would think that getting involved in the power grab for a Japanese corporation is the last thing Logan gives a shit about. More importantly, from an audience perspective, it’s dull. Attention Hollywood screenwriters: blockbusters based around corporate maneuvering are boring. (Please see “The Lone Ranger” for more evidence from this summer). No one sits down to watch a superhero movie that ultimately finds our hero making sure the right person heads a major corporation—where’s the fun in that? It speaks to the villain problem the movie also faces (which we’ll dig into) in that there isn’t really one, but a few, and they’re not that well-developed. Combine that with a story that gives little motivation for Wolverine to act and you wonder what he’s doing in Japan at all.
The Theme That Wolverine Wants To Die Is Debunked Early On, Yet The Film Continues With This Idea
As an adjunct to its motivation problem, the fascinatingly bungled immortality theme of “The Wolverine” is killed early on. Through nightmares and dreams of characters that are no longer alive (Jean Grey), “The Wolverine” tries to tell us Logan is in a very low and horrible place mentally. He’s suffering from the loss of Jean Grey, he’s living in the woods in Northern Canada and he’s shut off from everything. An old Japanese millionaire who met him 60 years prior for about a day seems to know that he is deeply suffering inside and offers to restore Logan’s mortality so his pain will end (how does he know Wolverine is feeling so shitty? Did he read his TMI blog?). And just as the movie offers up an interesting existential quandary—Wolverine could simply be mortal and live life like a normal person—Logan shoots it down immediately. Sorry, bub. I don’t want to be mortal and I’ll take my chances which effectively tells the audience, “Yes, I’m down, but not out and I don’t want to die.” THE END. He never says that he wants to be mortal, but everyone just assumes it (including the ghostly Jean Grey, who seems to want him to commit suicide so he can be with her in the lingerie-heavy afterlife), and when the proposition is offered to him he flatly refuses. Since we never get to see Logan wish for mortality or flirt with his own suicidal tendencies, like Mel Gibson in the first "Lethal Weapon" (for example), and there is no thematic dimension to any of the stuff people are saying on screen. In the end, it all amounts to empty lip service, in search of something deeper and more meaningful. This is what we mean when we call "The Wolverine" maddeningly frustrating. It brings up an incredible interesting tone and texture, closes the door on it and yet continues with the idea as if the audience hadn’t just watched the previous scene. It’s borderline insulting.
Good Scenes Killed by Bad Execution
The film’s train sequence is exhilarating, but imagine how good it would be if its CG execution lived up to the action. Our suspension of disbelief is already present (the film’s about an immortal mutant with adamantium claws, after all), but it can only take us so far. We can believe our hero survives a fight on a bullet train, but the visuals do nothing to convince us of this. The train speeds through Tokyo as Wolverine battles his attackers, but the city doesn’t look remotely real. This is a challenging scene to create with the struggle between balancing the men fighting on top of the train with the backgrounds city, but we wish there were a bit more time and money put into the sequence to make the surrounding visuals match the epic leaps and fights. The bear sequences are even worse; they’re a moving series of moments, connecting Logan with an enormous grizzly and then making him put the animal out of its misery. However, the bear looks roughly as lifelike as the animatronics at Chuck E. Cheese, taking the audience out of what should be a revealing look into Wolverine’s psyche.
The Invulnerable Invulnerability
There are a couple of problems with the thematic concerns of Wolverine's immortality. Firstly, there are the halfhearted attempts at making him slightly more "human"—he's slipped a supernatural-ish mickey and all of a sudden is sort of mortal, even though he keeps getting shot every five seconds and the only real effect it has is making him grumpier. When he figures out what the mickey is—some kind of weird robo-spider—he just cuts himself open and, voila, he's back to his old, invincible self again, in a sequence that heavily borrows from "Prometheus." (Fox, for some reason, is big on self-surgeries and wealthy old men chasing immortality.) And so there are never really any stakes for “The Wolverine,” which lowers the drama considerably. He goes from totally invulnerable (no one can kill him), to being semi-invulnerable (things sting, he’s in more pain than usual, but nothing really stops him) and before any kind of “mortality” can actually creep up on him, he’s pulled the MacGuffin spider-whats-it out of his chest and he’s back to normal.
The Jean Gray Framing Device
As filming began on “The Wolverine,” there was a certain amount of buzz and speculation around the not-so-guarded secret that Famke Janssen would be reprising her role as Jean Gray in the film. As fans know, she was killed by Wolverine in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” a painful decision he had to make as her Phoenix personality grew out of control. The decision was so painful, in fact, that it still haunts him (LITERALLY) throughout “The Wolverine” to a degree that often grinds the movie to a halt. A device used to underscore Wolverine’s tortured mindset and his inability to forgive himself and move on, presumably to the very hot Japanese woman he’s trying to save, Mangold’s film doesn’t just lean on Jean Gray once or twice, but multiple times throughout the picture. Wolverine wakes up panicked from so many dreams featuring Jean Gray, that you wonder if his side mission in the film is just to get a decent night’s sleep. Like many other elements of the film, “The Wolverine” favors explicit explanation over subtle character moments, and the Jean Gray sequences are heavy-handed scenes that over elaborate what the audience can figure out right from the start. For a standalone film, “The Wolverine” certainly clings heavily in this regard to ‘The Last Stand,’ and in a manner that prevents Logan as a character, from moving in any interesting new directions.
The Romance is Total Bunk
As we’ve established, “The Wolverine” has myriad motivation problems, and one of the central issues is the romance in the film between Logan and Mariko. The problem is the movie never establishes why these two people actually love each other than physical attraction which is definitely not enough. Sure, Logan sees her slapped by her father and senses something is amiss and he “sort of” saves her from jumping off the cliff of her grandfather’s house, but that’s hardly any reason for love. Moreover, Mariko seems to be completely uninterested in Logan other than his looks. When the two get together in Nagasaki, while the moment is kind of admirably tender and quiet, the film still has barely established why these two are hot for one another. Maybe it’s because Logan is still in love with Jean Grey? Wait... or maybe she’s giving it up because he’s been so chivalrous in saving her from all the baddies in the movie? The right moment in the film to start establishing some rapport and connection on the film should have been the train sequence, the first moment when the story takes a breather for a second, but instead, Mangold, Fox and the writers use that brief pause as a launching pad to one of the movie’s most ridiculous action setpieces. It might be more excusable in a film that’s not even pretending to care, but “The Wolverine” seems invested about every emotional texture it houses, but the follow-through is half-hearted.
Too Many Characters, Too Many Conflicts, Too Many Bad Guys.
An interesting story gone awry, “The Wolverine” has a great premise, great themes and great emotional conflicts, but instead of following through, the movie just decides to go with the bigger is better maxim, which feels completely antithetical to the story they’re trying to tell. Part of this is because “The Wolverine” wants its cake and to eat it too, and so the movie pours on the bad guys: yakuzas, samurais, ninjas, gigantic robot samurais, sexy mutants, corrupt politicians, a dream shadow presence... We get it, Logan will face a lot of obstacles. It doesn’t help that on top of that there are tons of characters to deal with too: the grandfather, his son, his daughter (Mariko), the man she’s supposed to marry, her companion/bodyguard (Yukio), the friend from the past who’s now a ninja, a doctor who’s a mutant... No, this doesn’t add layers of mystery and intrigue that we’re trying to figure out, it just makes for a clutter of people, many whose motivations are murky at best, while their justification for actually being in the movie is hazy.
It’s An R-Rated Story, That Doesn’t Even Use Its PG-13 Rating In Any Smart Way
Despite all the toys and the marketing (and the kids packing the theaters), Wolverine is not a superhero for children. And neither is his movie. Wolverine makes Tony Stark look like a Boy Scout. He’s a badass who has good intentions, but he has no problem killing a lot of people. Fanboys are up in arms when Superman kills someone, but the body count here is about as high as the Man of Steel can fly and no one thinks twice. There’s no question of “Should I kill this person?” and no moral conflict for Logan between killing someone and knocking them out. But despite all the deaths, “The Wolverine” pulls its punches and doesn’t actually show much blood. From the Japanese soldiers committing seppuku in the first scene to Wolverine’s claws slicing through more people than we could count, the camera takes an angle that doesn’t actually show anything. Not that you need blood to depict violence, Christopher Nolan pushed the edges of PG-13 without showing a lick of gruesome material, but “The Wolverine” is different. The character slices and dices characters to death instantly, but there’s zero emotional, dramatic or spiritual weight to any of it. It’s like Logan’s just swatting flies and if these deaths were intense and meaningful, you could make them impactful in the same way Nolan did without showing blood. But “The Wolverine” isn’t interested in that. Instead, it seems more interested in showing how many gnats Logan can cut down within one scene. Occasionally, the film edges toward an R rating, allowing Jackman to say “fuck” and have (off-screen) sex with Mariko, but that’s as close as it gets. Sticking to a PG-13 theoretically gets more box office, but it doesn’t feel true to the character or the film at its heart.
The Post-Credits Scene
Now if you’re a fan of the “X-Men” movies you likely cheered with utter elation when (spoiler alert), Wolverine was seen on screen once more with Professor X (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen). But there’s something insidious about the scene given that “The Wolverine” aims to be “dark, character piece.” It’s as if 20th Century Fox and the filmmakers are saying, “Ok, kids, thanks for tolerating our detour into the darkness of this characters soul, but now, back to our regularly scheduled program!” Even if “The Wolverine” ultimately kind of sucks and falls apart, at least it’s trying to do something different in a superhero movie and this post-credit scene just feels like it’s all for naught. Don’t worry, true believers, we won’t have Logan struggle about existential ideas any longer, soon he’ll be back with the X-Men and another sooper dooper team-up film! *Facepalm* The irony is director James Mangold does not like post-credit sequences for this very reason. “Because I was trying to make a more serious film, I didn’t want to make an end sting or an Easter Egg in the tail that somehow took the piss out of the movie,” he told Empire. “Sometimes I think they border on being on the edge of outtake-y silly and something about that always seems wrong to me. You’ve worked for a year and a half creating a reality, and now you’re just going to do a Saturday Night Live sketch at the end of it?” Congratulations on your own SNL moment, James.