“A Samurai without a Master”: Matt Revisits THE WOLVERINE

     May 21, 2014


[With X-Men: Days of Future Past opening on Friday, I'm taking a look back at the X-Men movie franchise.  These reviews contain spoilers.]

Personally, I like it when the X-Men work as a team.  When I first tuned in to watch the animated TV series as a kid, I didn’t know superheroes could work in more than a team of two (Batman and Robin were the limit).  And having a big team meant that I could be a part of the adventure as long as I liked one of the characters.  The X-Men were outsiders, but they were a group of outsiders, and together they could fight giant robots, talking pterodactyls, intergalactic civil war, and plenty of other problems that we all face on a daily basis.

Logan has always been the character in between two worlds—the loner who’s a valuable part of the team (and when I look across comic book covers today, he’s apparently on every team).  In his second shot at a spin-off he truly broke off from the team, and although the film was the furthest departure from the X-Men world so far, The Wolverine was still tethered to the franchise’s past; it also managed to serve as a comment on our blockbuster present.

The movie’s opening scene sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film: a super serious situation with emotional weight that is then upended by something ridiculous.  On August 9, 1945, Nagasaki is about get bombed, and Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves the life of young Japanese officer Yashida (Ken Yamamura).  He does this by covering Yashida with a piece of metal and then Wolverine gets burnt to a crisp (his hair knows precisely how long it should grow back).


The Wolverine serves as both a second spin-off and a sequel as we see what has been up to since he was forced to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand.  In short: refusing to shave, drinking (is it possible for Wolverine to get drunk?), living in caves, and being haunted by Jean’s memory.  He reluctantly travels to Japan when Yukio (Rila Fukushima) informs him that her employer, an elderly Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), wants to thank Logan for saving his life.  But it also turns out that Yashida wants to pitch Wolverine on a trade: Logan gets to live “an ordinary life” and Yashida gets Logan’s immortality.  All of this spirals out of control when Yashida “dies”, his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is bequeathed control of Yashida’s mega-corporation, which in turn pisses off her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada).  Then the Yakuza comes in and everything goes to hell.

It’s a lot of intrigue, but at least it doesn’t involve mutants outside of Yukio’s ability to see how people will die and the nefarious Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who can shed her skin and spit acidic venom.  Other than that, the word “mutant” is barely mentioned.  Instead, characters say “talents” or “your kind”.  It’s a far cry from any of the X-Men movies thus far, and in some ways, that’s for the best.  It fits in line with Wolverine’s nature to be a loner, and this is as far away as he’s ever been from the rest of the series.  In an interview with Total Film, Jackman said he considered The Wolverine to be a standalone picture rather than a sequel, “The approach to character means we won’t be overloaded with mutants and teams and the like, so it’ll be more character-based.”


The movie wrestles with how much it can remove that character from the special effects spectacle demanded by the other X-Men movies and blockbusters in general.  The movie’s heart is in its noir-western-ronin tone.  Director James Mangold lets the mood take over, and does his best to provide that “character-based” story Jackman mentioned even if it’s the same Logan we’ve seen in almost all of the X-Men movies (the reluctant hero).  Changing the setting and the vibe makes that character feel fresh again, and paired with his guilt about Jean, it lets his lack of physical healing mirror his inability to emotionally heal.

The big action scenes in the film are enjoyable, but none of them have the emotional investment of the smaller-key moments.  All of the special effects-heavy scenes are evenly lit, filled with CGI and cartoonish action.  Compare that with Wolverine fighting Shingen in the moonlight or being brought down by a slew of tethered arrows—smaller scale action that still has a punch, but keep the moody, dark tone of the overall picture.  These scenes are where Wolverine gets a movie that matches his personality—cold, brooding, and cut off from the pack—and it makes The Wolverine feel like a true spin-off as opposed to X-Men Origins, which keeps the character caged in the same visually drab, mutant-heavy mold of X-Men: The Last Stand.


In a marketplace filled with heroes trying to save cities if not the world, The Wolverine was a welcome respite where the hero was trying to save only two people: himself and the girl.  The climactic battle between the Silver Samurai and Wolverine is still fairly exciting and relatively low-stakes, although on a second viewing, I was left wondering about Yashida’s long-term plan.  Assuming he succeeded, what was he going to do?  The world thinks he’s dead, so was he going to kill Mariko (I never understood why he named her as his successor in the first place), and then have the Silver Samurai come to board meetings?  The Wolverine‘s plot is a bit undercooked, but tonally, the film is an example of how an X-Men spin-off can grow and evolve if it retains the spirit of the lead character.

I’ll admit it’s a bit odd to do a retrospective piece on a movie that came out only ten months ago.  It’s also not quite fitting to end an X-Men retrospective on a film that’s consciously trying to get away from the X-Men franchise so it can be its own animal.  If my look back at the X-Men comes together, it will be with the franchise’s next movie.  To quote Yukio: “One eye on the past, and the other on the future.”

Rating: B-

[Tomorrow: My review of X-Men: Days of Future Past]

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  • blade

    please lord, please, let x-men dofp be the greatest x-men movie of all time, pleaseeee!!!

    • The Flobbit

      It certainly has that potential: Bryan Singer (best director) is back directing the best X-Men saga with the (two) best casts, and the best reviews.

      Can’t wait to see it.

      • DAve

        I saw it tonight (at Vienna’s midnight release … still don’t know why we (Europeans) suddenly get the big blockbusters a little earlier, but whatever, I like it :-)
        Anyway: it was great!
        I can’t say if it’s the best entry in the series thus far and it definitely requires a second viewing until I can give my final judgement, but in my opinion it’s definitely en par with X-2. The action is by far the best of all X-Men movies so far (opening battle and the stadion piece were great), and I thought especially Fassbender’s performance was once again breathtaking and Quicksilver was a more than pleasant surprise (best superspeed sequence ever seen on the silver screen). The rest of the cast ranged from ground-solid to very good, but I saw no one else sticking out (altough it really felt good to see Stewart and McKellen once again in these roles).
        I think more could have been made of Dincklage (altough that might be due to the German dub).

        All in all a really great movie experience with some nice surprises for the fans down the road!

        Have fun!

      • The Flobbit

        I’m happy to hear that. I can’t wait to see it.

      • the king of comedy

        same here in south america, we saw it a few days earlier, and I loved the movie, I`m not sure wich one is better X2 or X-Men: Days of Future Past, but I`m glad to say the movie lived up to my expectations, Fassbender was great as usual.

      • LEM

        Bryan Singer works best with Marvel properties.

      • The Flobbit

        Tell that to The Usual Suspects.

      • Aquartertoseven

        Such an overrated film, I like it, I’ve got the dvd, it has a great ending, but as a film it’s just ‘pretty good’. Nothing more.

      • JBug

        I couldn’t agree more. It’s solid, but not close to a timeless must-see. Movies since have had better endings without being slow in the first 2 acts.

      • The Flobbit

        I have to firmly disagree. It’s brilliantly crafted, impeccably acted, edited, and shot. It’s a labyrinthine web of clues, deceits, red-herrings, and violence. It’s a masterpiece of the mystery thriller.

      • Aquartertoseven

        And despite all of that, it’s still only pretty good.

      • The Flobbit

        Again, I just have to disagree with you on that point.

      • LEM

        In the superhero genre…not as a director.

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  • Drake

    I liked this one. Minus the goofy final battle, I thought it was a pretty solid movie. Leagues ahead of Origins: Wolverine.

    • Johnny_Mook

      How great it would’ve been, if that moonlight fight was against Yashida with healing factor (with cut away for decapitation). It seems such a fiiting finale with Logan accepting his Wolverine identity, it probably was an original ending, initially.

  • Doug_101

    The Wolverine definitely had its problems, but that poster is so sweet.

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  • World’s Finest Comments

    For the first hour this was essentially the most character driven superhero film ever, but that last hour or so is just too goofy and filled with too many plot conveniences. A B- is fair.

  • Person

    Curious for your thoughts on the Unrated version included on the 3D Blu-ray set. I found it to be much richer and truer to the Wolverine from the comics. More graphic violence and even a few f-bombs don’t really hurt, either. The same structural and narrative flaws remains, mainly that the middle feels needlessly protracted and the silliness of the finale is at odds with the more somber tone of the rest of the movie, but I’d put The Wolverine just below X2 and First Class overall.

  • Bloost

    Not a fan of Mangold after he butchered Cash’s legacy.

  • Bloost

    Not a fan of Mangold after he butchered Cash’s legacy.

  • Lance

    There’s a lot to like about The Wolverine. I especially appreciated the movie went for smaller stakes than the usual comic blockbuster. Every now and then you gotta get away from the “You’ve been chosen by destiny to save the world” theme.

    At the same time, I always knew the Old Man (Yashida) was going to come back somehow, and watching Wolverine fight an old guy seemed less than satisfying, even if Yashida was in a cool robot. Maybe it would have been better if Yashida had actually succeeded and became a young man again.

    Also, by the time the movie got to Yashida’s “funeral,” that’s where all the plot machinations started to get confusing, and it was getting a little hard to remember who was on who’s side, and who’s side they were _really_ on.

    Finally, this movie’s a bit guilty of the same kind of limited or lazy thinking as Last Class was. In that movie, they went with the old “black guy dies first” trope that cut against the overall message of tolerance and inclusion. The Wolverine used the old trope of “can’t trust those sneaky Asians… okay, we’ll make an exception for hot Asian babes” that Western movies have sold since the 1920s. I really don’t think there was any racism involved, but this series in particular should try to do better. X-Men’s themes speak toward intolerance of all kinds, not just intolerance toward gay people.

  • Werefon

    In the original draft written for Daren Aranofsky, he did fight Silver Samurai and Shingen at the end. No mutants, no train riding, brutal fights in Canadian bar, Brutal fight with the bear, fight with ninjas.

    Viper wasn’t mutant, she was just toxin specialist. She created poison that slowed down Wolverines healing factor. They found “Weapon X” secret box wih blue prints of skeleton and known weaknesses of Wolverine. This black box was the reason for Wolverine to go back to Japan (since he didnt remember who Yashida was).

    • milo

      Viper was a really weak part of the movie and got completely silly at the end. Would have been better if she was just a scientist.

      • Werefon

        She was better. It is interesting that Oscar winning Chris McQuarrie wrote just a one draft over weekend and its better than any thing a few other writers wrote after.

        It is as close to comic book Japanese Saga as possible (with all movie history involved, you have to change it).

        But it really feels like a samurai movie.

      • Werefon

        She was better. It is interesting that Oscar winning Chris McQuarrie wrote just a one draft over weekend and its better than any thing a few other writers wrote after.

        It is as close to comic book Japanese Saga as possible (with all movie history involved, you have to change it).

        But it really feels like a samurai movie.

  • ʝoe ßloggs

    Wolverine’s hair has muscle memory.

    • staypuffed

      Out of all the things to nitpick, Goldberg picks that.

      • ʝoe ßloggs

        He’s a detail oriented guy. :)

      • JBug

        That’s my only contention with Goldberg’s reviews. He sometimes refers to these details as plot holes. I don’t think they ever take away from a good movie. It would be distracting if these movies were vigilant in being consistent.

  • MJ

    Wrong term. He would be a Ronin — that is the definition of a masterless Samurai.

    Understand history. Or at least read Clavell’s Shogun.

    So much of the “comic book online crowd” just mixes and matches the terms Samurai, Ronin and Ninja, without understanding what they really mean.

    A lot of people say “Ninja Assassin” — but “Ninja” already means that assassination is one of the five key skills…so (pun intended) that’s asinine.

    • Snarky

      Assuming you’re referring to his use of “A Samurai without a Master” in the article title, what exactly is wrong with that? It means the same thing. Sure he could replace it with ronin but “Ronin: Matt Revisits THE WOLVERINE” doesn’t sound as good.

      • MJ

        My point is that a lot of people don’t really understand the true meaning of these terms, which is based on actual Japanese history, not modern action movies.

  • Aquartertoseven

    First 2/3s- 9/10
    Last third- 7ish/10

    Overall- a low 8/10.

  • JBug

    I really love the concept behind this movie, but I felt the execution was par to sub-par. The plot & script were mediocre at best and the pacing was a little awkward. I’d give it a solid B, but I don’t think I’d be able to sit through it again.

    • milo

      I just saw it a couple days ago and from everything I had heard about it I was expecting more. Not a bad movie and some cool sequences and ideas but it seems like it could have used another rewrite or two.

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  • http://tarek-to-verso.over-blog.com/ tarek

    I hated the robot thing. Reminds me of iron monger in Iron man 1.
    Plus, come on! Stopping wolverine with ropes! Couldn’t he just cut them with his bloody claws?
    This Wolverine looked like a good tv show for me. Never like a stand alone movie.

  • Strifeshadow

    Never minded the Manga Monger too much.

    Just wished Viper wasn’t so lame at the end. She should have been the big bad, strong enough to carry the movie herself. Plus she’s hotter than a solar flare.

    Japan itself was the best character in the movie. As Victor Hugo said, the setting is just as important as the characters themselves.

  • Matt Freeman

    How much you want to pay me to make happen? Ask yourself..


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