Nearly two dozen Marvel superhero movies have been released since 1998. Few of them are as angry, confused, and savage as James Mangold's The Wolverine.
The anger and savagery are present in the film's opening scenes, wherein super-healing mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) is nearly incinerated while rescuing a Japanese soldier from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki at the close of World War II. Then the film leaps forward to "the present day" — although, given the X-Men films' fast and loose temporality, who can be sure? — where a ragged, near-feral Logan is plucked from the Canadian woods and escorted back to Japan to pay his final respects to the man he saved decades ago.
Sending Wolverine to Japan is one of the film's best ideas. For one thing, his adamantium claws now look retro-traditional in a world where people still use staffs, katanas, and poison-tipped arrows. And Logan's conversations with both his spunky female escort Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and her childhood friend Mariko (Tao Okamoto) emphasize his status as an easily translatable mythic figure; he's compared to both a ronin, or samurai without a master, and a magical protector-animal from Japanese folklore.
However, what makes this nearly indestructible soldier tick remains elusive. Five movies in, Wolverine is an unsettled and incomplete protagonist. This opacity is not entirely Hugh Jackman's fault, either. As always, he's fine, and after 13 years in the role his greatest asset is still his striking physical resemblance to the comic-book icon. But after noticing an apt allusion to Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood late in The Wolverine, I kept imagining what someone wilder and more grotesque, like the late, great Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune, would have done with such a part.
Logan's guilt and sorrow over losing X-Men's Jean Grey is emphasized through numerous dream sequences that begin promisingly but gradually lose their emotional and thematic impact. These dream sequences highlight one of the film's most tragic missed opportunities: Logan's agony over losing his one true love forces him to contemplate his own death more than ever before.
To become immortal and then to die — now that's an interesting conflict. But to Mangold and his FX/CGI team, that's hardly as interesting as The Wolverine's numerous opportunities to stage and show grievous bodily harm. The film is awash in violence without having anything to say about it. There are beheadings, impalings, vivisections, and some nauseating knuckle torture. There are also numerous examples of Wolverine's intimate, dance-like mode of killing. Because of its PG-13 rating, much of the violence is cannily cut away from, but the precise sound design makes it tough to block out the horrors unfolding out of frame.
Late-era superhero movies like The Wolverine are clearly struggling with ways to break from more conventional story patterns. While this struggle can be thrilling, these films grow uniquely exhausting when they don't work. I'll take a dinged-up Iron Man or a groggy Kal-El confronting a whale in Man of Steel over Logan padding through the woods with a grizzly bear any day.