The Wolverine

Superhero, Interrupted

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bullets, bombs, critics—nothing can stop the Wolverine. Just four years after the press mauled his X-Men Origins story, the fast-healing mutant is back. The wounds have sealed ($179 million at the box office makes a good salve) and the purists are on board, wooed by the prospect of an adventure based on one of the character’s best-loved comic book series: Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Japan-set 1982 saga.

Director James Mangold’s take on Marvel’s head boy transplants Wolverine to Tokyo, where the billionaire head of Yashida Corp., an old friend who was with Logan at the bombing of Nagasaki, is on his deathbed. He’s offering Wolverine a chance at redemption. By passing on his healing power he can gain mortality and earn a chance to live as normal life as a man with foot-long claws and indestructible metal grafted to his skeleton could ask for. Then—wouldn’t you know it—the old man ups and dies too soon, leaving his granddaughter a fortune and the movie a reason to rattle on with Logan slicing ‘n’ dicing inheritance-hungry yakuza as her boyfriend/bodyguard.

Mangold, writer of Girl, Interrupted and director of 3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line, is more actors’ director than action man. He likes Logan more than the Wolverine. The film’s opening hour is an evenly paced gangster thriller that toys with the character as cultural export. He’s a snarling beast, adrift in a society that runs on the individual’s commitment to keeping their true nature concealed.

There’s obvious parallels with Logan’s own struggle to contain his bestial nature, at least until Mangold unsheathes the set pieces and lets the Wolverine run riot. It’s here—in the middle of the roaring and cutting that we’ve seen rejigged many, many times before—that our interest falls to pieces. The fights are predictable, the scenery disappointingly drab considering the potential in Tokyo’s neon-lit wonder-world. Wolverine’s mutant foe—a slinky, acid-spitter called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova)—slides in and out of the narrative, shedding skin and goodwill with each appearance.

Hugh Jackman—now on his sixth turn as the character—knows what the Wolverine needs of him. Yet there’s a hint of fatigue that hours in the gym and a lock-iron perma-scowl can’t fix. Wolverine’s backstory has become bigger and itchier with each film since Bryan Singer’s ensemble movies. This time around the past is represented by some truly bizarre fantasy sequences between Jackman and Famke Janssen as Jean Gray, the lover who Logan had to sacrifice in X-Men: The Last Stand. Janssen spends her screen time beckoning from the beyond in a swishy low-cut nightie. The beyond looks like a spotlessly white villa on the dull side of Ibiza. You can forgive Logan’s inclination to get up and continue fighting.

The X-Men films started promisingly, spun into a dive and seemed successfully rebooted thanks to the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. We’re now at a point where the franchise has been sliced into strands so twisted from each other that it’s getting tough to trace the genealogy. The flat hammer blows of The Wolverine bear little relation to the zing and pop of Matthew Vaughn’s colorful treatment. Inconsistency is inevitable in a world that’s constantly being dug up and done over, but it leaves us no time to fall in love with anything being flung at us. Heroes wander in, heroes wander out. Wolverine—the indestructible centerpiece of the buffet’s spread—isn’t waning, but our interest is. Here a superhero strives to be ordinary. As Marvel continues to claw the character’s mystique away, he’s starting to get his wish.

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