By Cleaver Patterson.
Comic-book characters must be a Hollywood dream. A film featuring one, if a hit, is a potential goldmine—with the possibility of limitless prequels, sequels, spinoffs and merchandising opportunities, it is a virtual license to print money. Even if a film is not a success, all the studio has to do is wait for a suitable cooling off period (which in the fickle world of the teenage/Sci-fi/fantasy geek is usually no more than a couple of years), and then reinvent the superhero in a fresh (generally darker) vein.
Of all the characters available for big screen treatment—which includes a fair few if you take into account both Marvel and DC Comics’ library of bizarre individuals—Wolverine, the man with lycanthropic tendencies, has featured relatively little apart from appearing in films which star various characters under the collective grouping of the X-Men. As a result, The Wolverine, a new solo adventure for the character released by 20th Century Fox and directed by James Mangold, is interesting if for no other reason than it gives him a chance to flex his talons alone.
Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a dark and haunted individual. Plagued by nightmares of his dead girlfriend Jean (Famke Janssen) and an incident during World War II where he (as his mutant alter-ego Wolverine) saved Yashida (Ken Yamamura) a young Japanese army officer from the bombing of Nagasaki, Logan has withdrawn from society, and is living the life of a hermit in the wilds of the American outback. Only when the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima) appears claiming to have been ordered by her aged employer, the now dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), to bring Logan to him to pay his last respects, does the troubled superhero realize that he must face his destiny if he is to have any chance of living at peace with what and who he is.
Like so many films involving superheroes, the makers behind The Wolverine clearly expect viewers to know the character’s backstory. Giving no explanation as to how Logan became what he is means that the resulting film could be somewhat limited in its appeal. Taking into account that the majority of people going to watch it are probably the aforementioned teenage/geek fans, this probably would not matter greatly. The surprising thing, however, is that unlike a lot of films derived from the comic-book arena, a lack of knowledge of the central character does not actually detract from this particular film’s enjoyment. Admittedly you may get more from it if you are an avid fan of Logan and his moody alter-ego, but you’ll find it equally entertaining if you take it at face value, as a high octane, though quickly forgettable, two hour romp.
The Wolverine is not the film to watch if you are looking for an upbeat, feel good, adventure. Following the same path as fellow superheroes like Batman, Superman and The Hulk, Logan/Wolverine has a dark personality given to long bouts of introspective reflection, visualized through his imaginary communications with the dead Jean, whom he uses as a subconscious, moral sounding board. Jackman—with his swarthy, rugged looks and a gym toned body which he and the filmmakers assure us is all his own work—is perfectly suited in a role which requires the creation of an air of menace and threat more through appearance than from any great verbosity.
The rest of the cast, which consists mainly of various feisty women vying for Logan’s affections or Wolverine’s strength depending on whose side they are fighting for, are somewhat two dimensional, lacking fleshed-out personalities which might otherwise make the viewer have some degree of empathy with them. The truth is that everyone else is merely there to support the film’s namesake, and as a result are barely memorable after the closing credits.
Two of the film’s most perplexing aspects are its bloodlessness, and the apparent ‘immortality’ of Wolverine, and as a result Logan. For such a potentially violent story there is surprisingly little blood or gore—you get the impression that the set-pieces, though admittedly impressive, are simply there as an excuse for yet another samurai/ninja-esque fight. This is likely to cater for a wider audience, which the film will potentially achieve through its 12A certification. However, the resulting last minute cutaways, when the endless stream of victims are dispatched at the hands of Wolverine and his adversaries, lends the fight sequences a cartoonish approach to the violence which detracts from the underlying seriousness which Mangold is clearly trying, and otherwise manages, to convey.
As for the hero’s invulnerability, though this is a characteristic which is generally part of the superhero job-description (particularly for those of the mutant X-Men breed), it nevertheless dilutes the edginess of a character if you know that there’s probably little you can do to them that will cause any real or lasting damage. A few twists in the story allow for possible chinks in Wolverine’s armor, but in the end they amount to nothing, leading to a predictable outcome and the obligatory open end allowing for the inevitable opportunity to revisit the legend frequently in years to come.
The stars and producers of such films as The Wolverine may tout the depth and seriousness of the characters and storylines, but the truth is they are really nothing more than glossy looking, kick-ass adventures, and if taken as such should provide an evening of enjoyable, albeit untaxing, entertainment. Those, however, who are looking for something deeper, will likely feel disappointingly shortchanged.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.
The Wolverine opens in the UK on the 25th July and in the USA on the 26th July, 2013.