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The Best & Worst Of ‘The Wolverine’

Features
by The Playlist Staff
July 29, 2013 2:19 PM
12 Comments
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The Bad

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.

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12 Comments

  • Frank | August 14, 2013 8:14 PMReply

    I agree with JD. The cyborg samurai was pretty unnecessary, but falls in sync with the marvel movie trend of giant robot finales, so I wasn't too surprised. If anything, it introduced mega-machines as a threat to x-men universe in a way that will be hopefully better realized in Days of Future Past.

    My only other gripes were that there should have been a longer ninja fight in front of the castle and that Muriko could've apparently spared wolverine from that whole ordeal by showing him the back door.

  • Frank | August 14, 2013 8:13 PMReply

    I agree with JD. The cyborg samurai was pretty unnecessary, but falls in sync with the marvel movie trend of giant robot finales, so I wasn't too surprised. If anything, it introduced mega-machines as a threat to x-men universe in a way that will be hopefully better realized in Days of Future Past.

    My only other gripes were that there should have been a longer ninja fight in front of the castle and that Muriko could've apparently spared wolverine from that whole ordeal by showing him the back door.

  • Frank | August 14, 2013 8:13 PMReply

    I agree with JD. The cyborg samurai was pretty unnecessary, but falls in sync with the marvel movie trend of giant robot finales, so I wasn't too surprised. If anything, it introduced mega-machines as a threat to x-men universe in a way that will be hopefully better realized in Days of Future Past.

    My only other gripes were that there should have been a longer ninja fight in front of the castle and that Muriko could've apparently spared wolverine from that whole ordeal by showing him the back door.

  • JD | August 3, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    I would probably disagree with most of the above. I wasnt expecting much when I went to see this movie but I was very pleasantly surprised. I thought the train sequence was very well done. I found the romance between Wolverine & Mariko believable. I liked how the middle part of the film, once they got off the train, slowed down & was more character based. The romance was allowed to develop between them. The only thing that I didnt like & I would agree with the above assessment was the last part of the film. That robot thing wasnt interesting. It was very much like the fight between Superman & General Zod - too much special effects. I'm surprised that ye didnt bring up the scenes in which Japenesse characters sometimes spoke Japenesse to each other, then english other times. They had subtitles when they spoke in Japenesse. Would have been more believable if they continued to speak Japenesse to each other. Apart from those two issues & maybe that it took Yukio far too long to come to Wolverine's rescue at the end (why didnt she come up with him when he rode the bike up), I really liked this film.

  • Rick | August 2, 2013 12:03 PMReply

    I figured his "want to die" is not the same as "sure, take my power." Although one would facilitate the other, Wolvie who is depressed and guilt-ridden most of the movie would rather live in his own purgatory than grant his power to someone who may not be able to handle it. Sort of like Joss Whedon's Angel, a vampire cursed with a soul and would lose that soul if he ever found true happiness. Since he has the soul though and all the guilt that comes with it, he avoids true happiness so as to not become an evil creature again.

  • CJJ | July 31, 2013 6:38 AMReply

    This was a great film, one of the best superhero films I've seen, maybe my favourite X-Men film and practically all of these criticisms are bull, and I will explain why. Wolverine stuck around for the funeral and because he lost his healing ability. It's understandable for him to want to stay and find out what the hell happened to him. I don't remember the 'wanting to die' theme continuing, just him trying to find out what to live for. He was pretty vulnerable without his healing and against an adamantium enemy, he was greatly at risk. Remember how the Silver Samurai cut off his claws? This is set after The Last Stand so of course he's pretty hung up about losing the love of his life, someone whom he actually killed. I liked the romance, it was pretty well done imo. Only perhaps Viper was extraneous, other than her, there weren't too many characters, there were like six, don't know how you thought that there were too many. We didn't need to see blood gushing all over the place, I hate this complaint. Blood wasn't really necessary to see. It would've been cool but it wouldn't affect the quality of the film and would only alienate a lot of people with the upped rating. The post credits scene wasn't cheesy at all and it didn't undo anything that preceeded it. The last act was the weakest part of the film but still pretty entertaining. Wah wah about Aronofsky, that guy who made one liked film so he definitely would've made an incredible Wolverine film, that's speculative rubbish. He left long ago and Mangold did a great job. I liked the script, why would we want to see Wolverine wanting to know how he got an adamantium skeleton, we've already gone through that in the last film, it would've been boring. The existential immortality theme made the film so interesting, why would you want that taken away? Yukio was awesome, I'd love to see her in either the next Wolverine film or Days of Future Past but she did have plenty to do in this film. She was hardly sidelined for Mariko.

  • JD | July 30, 2013 12:27 PMReply

    Correction: it's an adamantium ENDO-skeleton. Tony Stark's Iron Man suit is an exo-skeleton.

  • Josh | July 30, 2013 12:31 AMReply

    The Viper/Madame HYDRA thing bothered me since day one, and as expected it was a total disaster. Just another way for FOX to mess the characters up, i.e. Weapon X program not being Canadian, Cyclops, Gambit, Rogue doing nothing but whine a lot, Mystique being Charles' half sister, etc...

  • T. | July 29, 2013 8:52 PMReply

    It's hara-kiri, not "hari kari." It is the spoken term. Seppuku is the written term.

  • Marcus Silvera | July 29, 2013 6:56 PMReply

    Just wanted to say, in regards to the train sequence and the city not looking real. I worked on a few of those shots. And the city was real, it wasn't CG. So who are you to judge if you don't know the difference?

  • Jamie | July 29, 2013 4:49 PMReply

    We took all three generations of the family to see the film and in reading your analysis, I kept agreeing totally and then saying, "BUT!!". The biggest but of all being that there was something for everyone. That they tried to shoehorn it all in to one film was probably a mistake, but that a whole family could watch and enjoy most if not all and even different sections of that film while talking about it afterwards is a very good thing. Certainly something not achieved by virtually every other movie available. My personal quibble was that the romances either with Jean or Mariko just felt lame and out of context. The best was Jackman's acting talents and the believability of Logan's turmoil and his new sidekick that I hope may turn up in all her red-headed spunkiness in some future X-Men film with or without the clawed one. Now on to Days of Future Past which with any luck will finally deliver Hugh from Wolverine and into more substantial Oscar worthy roles.

  • Mike R. | July 29, 2013 3:30 PMReply

    True, The Wolverine didn't touch X-Men Origins: Wolverine's opening, BUT take a look at the X-Men openings/total grosses:

    X-Men - Opening - $54.5 Mil. / Total Worldwide Gross: $157.3 Mil.
    X2: X-Men United - Opening: $85.6 Mil. / TWG: $215 Mil.
    X-Men: The Last Stand - Opening: $103 Mil. / TWG: $234.4 Mil.
    X-Men Origins: Wolverine - Opening: $85.1 Mil. / TWG: $179.9 Mil.
    X-Men: First Class - Opening: $55.1 Mil. / TWG: $146.4
    The Wolverine - Opening: $54.5 Mil.

    So the openings and grosses peaked with X:Men - The Last Stand, simply because X2 was one of the best regarded comic sequels at the time. It was the Spider-Man 2/Dark Knight of the X-Men series. Unfortunately, X-Men: The Last Stand was a turd in the punch bowl, thus beginning the damage to the franchise that would show with X-Men Origins: Wolverine's comparably lackluster opening. That only furthered the divide, and caused First Class to revert back to X-Men '00 opening status.

    So with a lackluster X-Men sequel and a failed Spin Off on its back, The Wolverine is maintaining the status quo that First Class has re-established. With buzz starting to warm up for Days of Future Past, as well as The Wolverine already close to outgrossing X-Men Origins in the first weekend alone (thanks to a KILLER International showing), I wouldn't go lamenting the film's fate just yet. (And besides, this is a hit for Fox, considering the only other film that hit for them this Summer is The Heat.)

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