I mentioned to some of my friends a couple of days ago that I hoped that there would be the requisite naked Hugh Jackman in the new Wolverine movie. Longtime readers may remember that I once theorized that Hugh Jackman's naked ass was probably good for about $70 million at the global box office. I think that's probably still true. Fortunately, the new movie, titled The Wolverine (2012, directed by James Mangold), fulfills this entirely reasonable demand. That it's probably the best superhero movie of the summer is gravy.
The story here is cribbed from the classic Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine from 1982, in which Logan goes to Japan and becomes entangled in the politics of the Yashida clan. The patriarch of the Yashida family has summoned Logan to his bedside in order to repay a longstanding debt. Logan rescued Yashida from the bomb blast at Nagasaki at the end of World War II. In return, Yashida offers to grant Logan mortality. This comes as Logan is at a low ebb, consumed by guilt over the death of Jean Grey at his own hands and withdrawn from the world. When he's found by Yukio, Yashida's psychic bodyguard, Logan is living in a cave in British Columbia. The Yashidas are a dysfunctional family. Yashida's son, Shingen, is greedy and avaricious. He has arranged a political marriage for his daughter, Mariko, in order to consolidate power once the elder Yashida passes on. The elder Yashida, for his part, has surrounded himself with advanced science through the power of his company, one of the largest tech firms in Japan. He's attended by the sinister Dr. Green, who specializes in neuro-toxins. She has plans of her own. When Yashida passes away, the struggle for control of his fortune commences. This centers on Mariko, to whom Yashida has granted everything, to the uncomprehending rage of her own father, Shingen. Mariko becomes the target of assassins and yakuza, and Logan, smitten with Mariko, finds himself protecting her. But something strange is happening to Logan. His mutant healing power has malfunctioned. He's not an indestructible warrior anymore. Bullets hurt him. The running fight with yakuza thugs on the roof of a bullet train has the very real potential to kill him. Meanwhile, Logan has rediscovered his will to live...
The thing I like best about this movie is the stakes. This is not another film where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. This is a more personal superhero movie, where the stakes are Wolverine's own life and the life of a woman with whom he's falling in love. There are surprisingly few mutants in this film, too. Most of Logan's antagonists are ordinary humans, which is a threat that's commensurate with the loss of his powers. The two exceptions to this are Yukio, whose ability to see the future is entirely incidental to her ability to kick ass, and Viper, who is similarly low-powered. For all that, this is a film with a pretty high body count. Once the action starts, yakuza thugs and ninjas become cannon fodder for ever more elaborate stunt sequences. The best of these is the bullet train sequence, but the final showdown with a cadre of ninja archers is memorable too. The film's climax, in which Logan faces off against the Silver Samurai, seems like it comes from an entirely different movie, but on its own terms isn't bad. It doesn't torpedo the movie.
The principle effect of this film's de-escalation is that it's more reliant on characters and performances than other superhero films. There are special effects, sure--the bombing of Nagasaki, for instance, is amazing--but for the most part, this is a film that doesn't rely on special effects to overwhelm the audience. As a result, there's more room for old fashioned pleasures like romance and comedy and the human heart in conflict with itself. The movie's best conceit is the ghostly appearance of Jean Grey as kind of a dreamy Greek chorus. She's everything that haunts Logan: lost love unrequited, the cost of his violent nature, regrets for the life he's led. These themes make Yashida's offer credibly tempting for him. Perhaps the least palatable element of the film is the motivation of its principle villain, though all of the villains in this film have vague motives. The internecine warfare among the various factions never have comprehensible goals. This is a flaw, but not a crippling one. Certainly, the way the endgame plays out is more visceral than the climax of most superhero movies. One image in particular (that I won't spoil) is especially nasty.
Jackman has always been good as Wolverine, even when the movies themselves have been less than good. For this movie, he's bulked up more than usual, but it's not his physique that's the key to the movie (in spite of the snark at the beginning of this post). He's good at feral, which has been true since the first X-Men movie. He's also good at everything else, including the wide range of emotions this film requires of him: confusion, regret, infatuation, rage, betrayal, bemusement, toleration. It's a good performance in a film that is entirely centered upon that performance. This is a familiar kind of movie, too, for which Jackman seems well fitted: the gaijin out of water in Japan, making his way through a culture still ruled by the Bushido, forcing himself to adapt to a culture that's not his own. This is less fetishistic of Japan than other films of its type. That's globalization for you, I guess.
The other standout performers are Tao Okamoto as Mariko and Rila Fukashima as Yukio. Okamoto has the difficult task of humanizing her corporate princess. It takes her a while: she has to be thrown in with Logan first and put into awkward situations like the "love hotel" where they wind up going to ground. Once the two begin to bond, the movie becomes unexpectedly sweet. Fukashima, by contrast, is everyone's favorite annoying little sister, an anime character come to life with candy apple red hair and a lethal Lolita fashion sense. I wish that she had more to do, but she gets a pretty good fight scene near the end as Logan attempts some impromptu surgery on himself. In some respects, I wish the villains had been more human. Viper seems out of place in this movie, at least once she transforms from evil scientist to outright supervillain (complete with comics-appropriate attire). Svetlana Khodchenkova certainly looks the part, but the filmmakers go so far to match her outfit with her comic book counterpart that I wonder why they made her blond and icy. I kind of miss her green hair. The Silver Samurai is beautifully realized, but, as I've already noted, his action scenes are not of a piece with the more earthbound action aesthetic of the rest of the movie. Still, I'm happy enough to see the filmmakers respect the comics enough to group Viper and the Silver Samurai together. I'm surprised they even had access to Viper, truth to tell, given that she's more closely tied to S.H.I.E.L.D. than she is to the X-universe, but that's neither here nor there. Surprisingly, this is a very female-centric film. Almost none of the male supporting cast makes much of an impact. This wouldn't be a movie one would expect to pass the Bechdel test, but it does so with ease.
One of my twitter contacts speculates that Fox played a long game with this movie, because there was nowhere to go but up after X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This film couldn't help but be an improvement, and it is. It's a terrific film on its own terms, the best film in the franchise since X-Men 2. There's a lesson to be learned here: most superhero sequels provide bigger and bigger spectacles. This one dials back and says: "Wait a minute. Who are these characters and why should we care about them." That's something to be treasured in a summer where movie after movie wrecks the world. Size isn't everything.