We wished the new superhero movie The Wolverine—full of ninjas and samurais—to be an outstanding movie but alas, it's a bad one. As Charlie Jane Anders tells in her io9 review, it's not much better than the first Wolverine, which was really bad. Mr. Jackman, life needs more cheerful musicals, less raging fury.
There's a meme going around about The Wolverine that says it's not that good, but at least it's way better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the previous solo vehicle for the indestructible tough guy with the metal skeleton and claws. But sadly, it's not that much better.
Minor spoilers ahead...
It's certainly true that Origins lowered the bar to the point where a movie about Wolverine bob-sledding for two hours would be an improvement. "I'm going bob-sledding, bub!"
But in fact, this new movie feels very much like a companion piece to Origins. The first movie is a personal story about Wolverine getting over his war trauma and making peace with his animalistic rage, through the lens of his relationship with his brother Sabretooth. The new movie is a personal story about Wolverine getting over the death of Jean Grey and making peace with being a killer, through the lens of his relationship with a Japanese woman he just met.
There are a few main differences between these films:
1) The new Wolverine movie is much slower and dwells on Wolverine's angst a lot more
, which is both a blessing and a curse. It gives Hugh Jackman a chance to show some of the character's grief and remorse, and Jackman is a good actor. But it's also really clunky and one-note, and there are a lot of scenes where Logan talks to the ghost of Jean Grey and it becomes painfully obvious Jackman has zero chemistry with Famke Janssen. Plus this movie has to shoehorn in a dozen bland villains (see below), so it feels both slow and rushed at the same time. Also, this movie spends a lot of time on Wolverine's remorse, but the actual story isn't about Wolverine at all — it's about this messed-up Japanese family, with Wolverine just getting mixed up in their kooky antics.
2) The action sequences in X-Men Origins Wolverine were slightly better.
Emphasis on "slightly." In the first movie, he blows up a helicopter by throwing a motorcycle at it, and his mutant strike team takes out an army in Africa early on in the film. In this film, there are two types of action sequences: CG-heavy ones (like the standout Bullet Train fight) which look so fake, they're not fun to watch. And then practical fight/chase scenes, some of which have too much shaky-cam for me early on in the film. Shaky-cam plus 3-D = ow my head. There are a few great claws-vs-sword moments.
Most disappointingly, there aren't really any great Wolverine/ninja fights. All I really wanted from this film was to watch Wolverine kill 100 ninjas. He does not do that. I was seriously bummed. In fact, the ninjas in this movie are seriously feeble. Logan does kill some yakuza mobsters here and there, in a mostly tactical fashion when they're chasing him around. I'd say there's better chase scenes than fight scenes in this movie.
3) This movie has some better ideas, and shows more restraint.
There are some really cool ideas for how to make Wolverine more interesting, and how to make him vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. The film totally fails to follow through on these ideas, but it has them. Also, this movie avoids the "mutant cameo palooza" feeling of the first Wolverine, although it still has plenty of clutter and muddle.
So yeah, this movie is definitely a rental. Watch it back to back with Origins, and they form sort of bookends at either end of the original X-Men trilogy. (Actually, the best scene in this entire movie happens during the end credits, and ties it more directly into the X-Men series.)
So that's basically it, but there are two points I wanted to make about why this film feels like such a waste of potential. These will require a slightly higher level of spoilerage, so here's your second spoiler warning:
Slightly more spoilers ahead...
This movie actually had the makings of a great story
The first half hour of this film is actually superb, including a beautifully shot World War II-era flashback where Logan saves a Japanese man, Yashida, from the bombing at Nagisaki. The movie has a sureness of purpose and an intentness of storytelling in its first act that it completely abandons in its second.
The first act does a fantastic job of establishing the theme of death: both the inevitability of death, and whether it's better to choose death sometimes. In the Nagisaki flashback, we see Yashida's Japanese army comrades lining up on the beach to commit seppuku together, when it's clear the Japanese are beaten. And Yashida is tempted to join them, but decides not to — and then Wolverine shields him from the nuclear blast, inside a hole where Wolverine was previously imprisoned.
The image of Yashida watching his friends stab themselves one by one is really powerful. And it's followed by a scene where Wolverine finds a bear that's gone on a murderous rage after being shot with a poison arrow, and Wolverine has to put it out of its misery with his claws. Finally, Wolverine meets Yukio, a Japanese bodyguard/fighter who has a very limited kind of precognition: she can only see when and how someone will die.
So when we learn that Logan might want to die, in the wake of killing Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand, it feels like a natural outgrowth of the movie's themes up to this point. Yukio turns out to work for Yashida, who's dying of cancer and wants to repay Wolverine for saving his life — by helping Wolverine to give up his own immortality. He offers to make Wolverine a normal, mortal human.
And that's where the movie basically goes south. If they'd had the guts to make a movie about Wolverine struggling with whether to accept Yashida's offer, that would have been a bleak, brave movie that could have made room for lots of awesome violence along the way. Or they could have shown us Wolverine accepting Yashida's offer, and what happens as a result.
Instead, the movie lurches into being an unconvincing love story between Wolverine and Yashida's granddaughter Mariko — who has no personality, and doesn't even seem to like Wolverine, until she's suddenly in love with him. As I mentioned, the bulk of the movie isn't about Wolverine at all, but rather about the internal politics of the Yashida family, none of whose members ever becomes a memorable character. There are too many villains and too many subplots, and Yashida's offer to let Wolverine die gets basically dropped as a storyline, for most of the film. All of this leads to a horrendously terrible final act.
And meanwhile, a big subplot is that Logan's healing factor isn't working as well as usual, but we see him get shot a dozen times and keep running around, so it's clearly not that big a problem.
So what happened here? Why do the film-makers set up a strong storyline and then abandon it completely? I can only speculate, but a couple possible reasons come to mind. First, there may have been different script drafts that got squished together as different people liked different things in different drafts.
Second, they may have felt constrained to try and include as much stuff as possible from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's astonishingly great 1982 Wolverine miniseries — which they completely fail to do justice to.
The real lesson of The Wolverine is: know what story you're telling, and then tell it. Include only the elements that let you tell that story, and jettison everything else.
If you're going to be campy, then just freakin commit to it.
The Wolverine is a really campy movie, but it acts as though it's some kind of slow, navel-gazing art film.
One of the film's many villains is a snake lady who wears a fetishy green snake outfit and spits her poison in people's faces. She also spits out some of the silliest dialogue I've heard in ages. She belongs in a Joel Schumacher Batman film.
Meanwhile, a lot of the Japanese stuff in this movie is like You Only Live Twice, only slowed way down. At one point, Wolverine's new girlfriend Mariko offers him a meal of "something from the mountains, and something from the sea," and she explains to him that in Japan "everything has a meaning." It's not all that different from Lynn Collins telling Wolverine her Native American parable about the Moon in Origins.
And this film just throws Japanese shit at the screen with a "kitchen sink" attitude — there are ninjas, yakuza, love hotels, honorable swords, bullet trains, fancy baths, nuclear disasters and giant samurai armor. Anything to distract you from the fact that it's been an hour since anything blew up.
The sad thing is, this movie already has a compelling Japanese character — when we first meet Yashida, as a young man, he's a really strong identifiable character who has a reason to be connected to Logan, and it would be interesting to see the relationship between Yashida and Wolverine develop over the course of the movie. But instead, we get clutter.
You could easily have made The Wolverine without so much excessive campiness. The snake lady, in particular, does not need to be in this movie at all. The Japanese elements could have been given real weight — I would have killed for a scene where someone talks about the code of Bushido or discusses the real meaning of "Ronin," the label they assign to Wolverine a couple times in the film. You could have paid homage to the years of ninja movies, by exploring the meaning of ninjitsu.
Or if you're going to throw in so many goofy elements, and if you're building towards this film's frankly silly conclusion, then just embrace it. Don't try to make a Schumacher Batman with the tone and pacing of a Nolan Batman. Just pick one.
All in all, The Wolverine is totally worth renting or Netflixing. It's slightly better than Origins, in some respects, and definitely better than The Last Stand. The scene in the middle of the credits is great. But I wouldn't waste the 12 bucks on seeing this in the theater.