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