Editor’s Note: As a site founded on the idea that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is good, actually, it seemed fitting to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its sequel. Thanks to Ryan for stepping up to the task and reevaluating this second standalone Wolvie outing. For those craving more Wolverine film goodness, we’ve got you covered.
When talking about Wolverine movies, the first movies that comes to mind are the Oscar Nominated smash-hit Logan, or the infamously derided X-Men: Origins: Wolverine. The first child and the last child are often the most notable, but forgotten and dismissed is the middle child The Wolverine. Released ten years ago to mixed reviews, but solid box office, James Mangold’s The Wolverine is in many ways a flawed film, but is both an important first try at Logan, and a valuable film in it’s own right. The Wolverine isn’t a standout in superhero history, but it has value and is worth re-examining.
Unlike Origins, which was set up as a prequel and exists as it’s own entity in the X-Men canon, The Wolverine is a direct follow up to the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. The film finds Wolverine on his own, hiding in the wilderness, mourning the loss of Jean Grey. The opening is grim, and quite sad, finding Logan sinking into depression and hiding away from the mutant community. This despondent intro presages the destitute state Mangold would once again put Wolverine in for Logan. The Wolverine’s opening isn’t as bleak as Logan’s, but the idea of putting Logan in a bad way and having him fight out of a hole is present.
The self-isolation doesn’t last long though, as Logan is whisked away to Japan, and towards the main selling point of the film. The Wolverine was heavily marketed as “Logan goes to Japan”, and Hugh Jackman spoke of his love of the Japan set 1980s Chris Claremont-Frank Miller comic run. It’s impressive that the film largely delivers on that promise, with Japan taking up the vast majority of the film’s runtime. Most scenes without Logan in them are filmed in Japanese with subtitles, which creates a sense of dedication and immersion. A lazier film would just put the dialogue in English, but Mangold and his writers committed to authenticity.
Formally, the setting of Japan doesn’t add a whole lot of substance. Whereas Logan draws on the rich history of American Westerns, The Wolverine doesn’t seem to draw on the equally rich history of Japanese Samurai films. There are some platitudes about Logan being a “ronin” aka a “masterless samurai”, but thematically it doesn’t bear too much fruit. The brief involvement of Ninjas and the Silver Samurai is indeed cool, but they aren’t executed well, and feel forcefully shoved into the plot. Japan makes for good scenery, and the bullet train works as a great location for a fight, but besides the locations and the language, it doesn’t add up to much more than window dressing.
Unfortunately, something that doesn’t work at all is Logan’s younger, Japanese love interest, Mariko. This love story takes inspiration from the comics, but the way it is depicted on screen isn’t quite palatable. The modern age gap discourse would not look kindly upon Logan’s relationship with Mariko, who looks to be about nineteen. The chemistry just isn’t there between them, and Logan being one of her grandfather’s old friends adds an extra level of ick to their relationship.
The relationship with Mariko is put in an especially bad light when it’s contrasted with the movie most emotional and powerful aspect, Logan wrestling with the guilt of killing his lover. Logan has several visions of Jean in a few scenes which are wonderfully acted by Famke Jannsen and Hugh Jackman. The pain Logan feels at having to kill his lover is more excruciating than any physical violence ever visited on him, and it’s moving watching him grapple with it. Watching the scenes with Jean, the themes of loss and guilt that would form the backbone for Logan really come together, and James Mangold’s vision of Wolverine as a tortured hero becomes clear. This plotline is very emotionally mature for a superhero film.
Mangold likewise attempts for maturity with the violence, which strains against the restrictive PG-13 rating. As Wolverine carves his way through gangsters and thugs, he slices and dices with extreme ferocity. The action is well choreographed, and brutal, but watching it now, it really feels as if it’s missing that extra edge. Mangold clearly yearned for the freedom he would later have with Logan’s R-Rating. Indeed, there was a Blu-Ray release of special “unleashed” edition of The Wolverine, with added blood and some F-bombs for good measure. It’s clear that Fox was testing the waters, but they wouldn’t give Mangold full reign until after the success of Deadpool.
Much of the criticism of the film upon its release centered around the final act, and it’s introduction of a giant armored samurai. Revisiting it years later, the sequence doesn’t feel entirely necessary, but it’s not as egregious as it felt upon first viewing. Now that a more serious, definitively dark Wolverine film exists in the form of Logan, The Wolverine’s descent into a pulpy superhero final battle is kind of fun. The action itself is well crafted, and the effects hold up. All in all, it’s a fun fight.
The Wolverine itself can be well summed up the same way. Taken as a whole, it’s a clearly flawed but entertaining film. The building blocks that would become Logan can be clearly felt, while the film also does enough to distinguish itself from the rest of the X-films. The Wolverine has great action, a unique setting, and some very strong drama. It isn’t near the greatness of Logan by a mile, but it’s a worthy entry in the X-men canon.