Movies like The Wolverine are a bit tough to review, especially when the studio behind it has created far better movies that feature the character (X-Men 2) in addition to dramatic muppety disasters (X-Men Origins). In comparison, The Wolverine is just kind of…there. It’s coherent, watchable, and often exciting, but it’s not showing you anything you haven’t already seen from the character.
It’s obvious that The Wolverine is an attempt to distill the character back down to what makes him so appealing, but how did that become necessary in the first place? Considering how straightforward the appeal of Wolverine is, why is it so hard to make a good Wolverine movie?
The Wolverine’s approach to the character is promising. Following the utter insanity of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan has hightailed it into the woods and lives out his days beating up hunters and apologizing to Jean Grey in his dreams. He’s pretty tired of being the best there is at what he does, since what he does isn’t very nice. (And no, they don’t use this line in the movie.)
He’s eventually located by show-stealing lady ninja precog Yukio and shuttled to Japan, where he’s offered the chance to become mortal. It’s an intriguing challenge to the character, would Wolverine still be Wolverine if he didn’t have his healing factor? Would he still feel the need to defend the weak or would newfound considerations of self-preservation sway his judgment? A huge amount of Wolverine’s appeal is that he doesn’t have to compromise his beliefs. If he sees you doing something wrong, he will tear through half the Yakuza/your batty Phoenix powers/anything at all to stop you, even if he loves you.
The film plays with this concept but gets scared of it fairly quickly. Wolverine gets his powers diminished but he also gets his confidence back in short order, and the two desires don’t mesh very well. You want to see those thrilling, empowering moments when someone confronts him without knowing what he can do. (Remember when Xavier’s school is invaded in X-Men 2 by Stryker’s team? That sequence still amazes me.) The Wolverine wants to give that to you right alongside the explorations of his character, but can’t quite commit to either approach, so here are some cool bow-using ninjas, Yakuza, and Japanese industry mogul intrigue to pass the time.
Because of its soft commitment to its own story, the character of Wolverine ends up taking a back seat to the plot, and that is grimly underscored in a sequence before the final showdown where you’re literally waiting for Logan to get there so that the movie can end.
It’s also in this sequence that the movie seems to forget another key aspect to the character of Wolverine: he’s a veritable cigar-chomping force of nature when he wants to be, so if he loses a fight there needs to be a damn good reason. At this point, Logan has his healing factor back and you’re really anxious to see him rip into some ninjas, even if you’re feeling somewhat sympathetic towards those ninjas. That doesn’t happen and, in fact, he pretty much loses every battle from that point on in the film. It’s a baffling choice, and yet another dodge of one of Wolverine’s most appealing traits. Sure, that huge indestructible robot looks undefeatable, but that’ll just make it all the more thrilling once Wolverine figures out how to defeat it! Right? Movie? Hello?
Logan is pretty much back to his old self by the end of the film, with Yukio in tow. (Which, YAY. Seriously, Yukio is pretty great and should cameo in X-Men: Days of Future Past please.) And we’re left with a Wolverine movie that was just kind of okay. If you need an X-Men fix before next year’s movie, you should go see it. It’s better than X-Men: The Last Stand and Origins, and the post-credits scene is all kinds of wonderful.
But as a film that makes us excited about Wolverine? I guess we’ll have to keep waiting. The question remains…why?
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and took on some of his more charming traits.