Fighting off Samurai and His Mortality
From a distance, The Wolverine, the latest addition to Marvel’s X-Men series, should seemingly fit into the large-scale, big budget pantheon of summer movies, if not, simply, at least in the comic book subgenre. But up close, director James Mangold (Walk The Line) has atypically examined the infamous admantium-infused superhero, swapping large-wallet effects and tag-team storylines with a more intimate and existential lens.
The film takes place sequentially after the original X-Men trilogy, and Logan, brought to new, dynamic life yet again by Hugh Jackman, is seen in flashback during World War II, saving the life of a young Japanese soldier Yashida during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. If there is one thing this comic book franchise has continuously achieved, it’s the successful conflation of fantasy and real-world history, exhibited previously in Nazi concentration camps and Cold War tensions, useful and overt metaphors for the divide between power and subservience, human and mutant races.
Our clawed protagonist living scruffy and perturbed present day in the Alaskan wilderness quickly establishes what will be his own metaphor. A Grizzly bear, whose size and mythical presence would make William Faulkner proud, lumbers past Logan’s campfire, a beast that imminently finds its death by lethal-laced arrows from meddling hunters. Logan shares a loner sensibility with the forest’s apex predator, both revered and envied, but varies in his immortal genetic makeup, an existential haunting- mostly by former lover Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen)- that only finds temporary outlets in his vigilante justice. The bear, he claims, deserved an honorable death.
But this burden and internal questioning only enhances after a fire-haired female warrior Yukio (Rila Fukushima) explains that Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the saved soldier now tech-magnate on his deathbed, requests Logan to visit his Far Eastern homeland in order to pay him a final thanks. There are of course repercussions to this and quickly Japan becomes a labyrinthine of corrupt politicians, yakuza, samurais, and power hungry leaders. The Wolverine is in unknown territory.
There’s already something so vastly foreign and distant about the Wolverine that dropping him off in Japan feels mostly like an impulse to escape the skyscraper confines of comic settings. This of course is a welcome addition and allows Mangold, along with writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, to explore its culture of honor, its seascape beauty, and maybe most importantly its strange family dynamics. Yashida is intent on finding Logan’s immortal secret, his son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) wants control of the business inheritance, while his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) appears to be his heir of choice.
Logan, aside from deciphering a new language and customs, must quickly manage to figure out this complex relational dynamic. Ninjas and samurais, led by a mysterious “Hawkeye-esque” bow-slinger Harada, pursue Mariko, switching from both a heroine and damsel frame by frame. Logan feels compelled to aid her amidst intermittent attacks and the couple goes racing through the heart of neon glowing Tokyo, weaving through a casino that plays like Lost in Translation, or fighting off baddies on top of a speeding train, a visceral, raw sequence of action. The majority of the time though is spent in quiet, sober reflection.
That’s where the film’s gravity lies, in Logan’s introspection, in his reckoning of mortality, seen in simple miscues like cutting his neck while shaving and more impactful moments such as recovering slowly from bullet wounds. And yet, for this more personal journey, the third act shifts dramatically into an erratic frenzy and lazily handled climax. Grappling with the afterlife as an ageless man of metal is unfortunately not an issue dealt with for an extended period of time. “Eternity is a curse,” Yashida tells Logan early on, but rarely do we ever experience the depth of that statement.
Along with this unevenness is a seductive mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) a curiously disparate character that exemplifies The Wolverine’s ambitious, but scattered story. Jackman continues to breath life into these films, approaching this role differently than in X-Men: Origins, and his presence here glues the relatively un-thrilling set-piece story together. A mid credit teaser- don’t leave early- incentivizes the next X-Men film, at once exciting but also dampening to a movie that begins foreign and fresh, and then becomes quite familiar. For a moment, the paradigm had nearly shifted, and I surmise that’s as close as we’ll get.