This Friday, Wolverine’s time on movie screens comes to an end. For now. You can’t keep a good franchise down, and coating one in adamantium and unleashing its berserker fury pretty much guarantees a return for some version of everyone’s favourite grumpy Canadian at some point in the next couple of decades.
But not this version of him. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart, two of the anchors of the labyrinthine network of X-Men movies, are both stepping down with Logan. Early word is that it’s a fantastic, and very fitting, swan song, too—but, in order to get my head in the right place for it, I thought it would be best to re-trace James “Logan” Howlett’s cinematic steps through his solo. Here’s what I found.
2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine is as busy as its title. In the space of 107 minutes, it attempts the following:
- Establishing a shared origin story for Wolverine and archenemy Sabretooth
- Introducing the Weapon X program
- Introducing characters like Wraith, the younger version of Col. William Stryker, and the Blob
- Introducing Gambit, with an eye to giving him his own movie
- Introducing Deadpool and doing…just…MYSTIFYINGLY terrible things to him
- Introducing Cyclops and, presumably, Emma Frost
- Providing an alternate explanation for the Three Mile Island incident
It definitely manages to accomplish some of these things. The opening half hour or so, tracking James and Victor from their shared, adulterous past through every war up to Vietnam, is really very good. The opening credits in particular—a balletic montage of violence that shows us the two men’s diverging paths—constitute a piece of storytelling more elegant than anything that follows them.
Likewise, a lot of the stuff dealing with Stryker’s deniable ops team is great. Ryan Reynolds is so good as Deadpool that it’s somewhat amazing that the studio left him hanging for almost a decade before giving him a movie of his own. Dominic Monaghan does wonders with only half a dozen lines as Bradley/Bolt, the team’s living battery. Almost silent, he’s charming and kind and clearly has no idea how to live with or around people. Likewise, the always reliable Kevin Durand plays the Blob as a sweet, naïve powerhouse and even Will.i.am does impressive work as John Wraith. Likewise Daniel Henney, as Agent Zero. They feel like a fractious, interesting unit—one that you’re going to be spending some time with over the course of the film.
Not as much as you’d think, though. And that’s the first problem.
Origins plays like three movies wrapped into one, and only one (plus a few bits here and there) is actually good. The opening act is great, and what follows is never less than interesting. Jackman’s take on Wolverine has always been at its best in quieter moments, and the act that he spends chopping wood in the Canadian Rockies is surprisingly good. A lot of that comes down to how fundamentally watchable Jackman and Lynn Collins as Kayla Silverfox are—they’ve got an easy chemistry, and together they make Logan’s half hour or so of peace feel earned and genuine.
And that’s the other problem. Because it’s not. The film drags Logan back into the fold in one of the stupidest ways it possibly could: by faking Kayla’s murder at the claws of his brother. The revenge angle makes sense, but the execution? Not so much. The movie asks us to buy that a man with massively enhanced senses is fooled by some fake blood, a complete lack of wounds, and a suppressed heartbeat. What the hell were they going to do if he buried her?
But no, vengeance—or rather “VENGEAAAAAAAANCE!”—is all-consuming, and off Logan runs to fail to kick Victor’s ass and then back to Stryker, who whisks him away to Alkali Lake to get his metal skeleton and new name. The film tries to hide the massively rushed pace behind the thrill of comics nostalgia: We’re going to see the adamantium in action! He’s finally going to go all Barry Windsor-Smith! ON SCREEN!
And he does. And it’s genuinely impressive for the five minutes it takes Logan to wake up, realize he’s about to be lobotomized, attack the structure Wolvie Berserk-style, and leap out into the lake.
Then? Everything goes to hell. A mystifying cameo from what seems to be a thinly-veiled version of Superman’s Ma and Pa Kent leads to an impressive (if bloodless) action sequence and visits to the various members of the old gang in the interest of further VENGEAAAAAAANCE!
This plotline involves some gratuitous fat shaming, shoddy wire work, and a bit of exposition to justify giving Kevin Durand the full-size blob suit. That, in turn, leads to a visit to New Orleans to see Gambit, and another basically pointless, if fun, fight sequence. If there’s a true victim of this movie’s lack of attention span, it’s pretty clearly Taylor Kitsch. Hollywood’s unluckiest leading man is actually pretty good as Remy Lebeau—his accent fluctuates, sure, but he has the charm and physicality down, and those can’t be taught by a dialogue coach.
One meaningful exchange of blows later, Wraith is dead at Victor’s hand, and Gambit and Logan are flying to Stryker’s secret headquarters on Three Mile Island. This is the point where the movie pretty much gives up the ghost. When Kayla reveals her deception, things are clearly getting bad. When Wade shows up, mouth sewn shut and with multiple other mutant’s abilities implanted in his body, things get worse. When Logan is shot with lobotomizing adamantium bullets? That’s as bad as it gets.
To be clear, Logan’s origin has always been a mess, but this? This feels like a greatest hits disco cover played at the wrong speed. Director Gavin Hood has a decent eye for action and the script is always at least diverting, but that’s it. Origins, ironically much like X-Men: Apocalypse, feels less like a movie and more like a checklist, embodying the worst elements of comics-based adaptation and almost none of the best. It’s still fun, especially that first hour, but the third act just falls apart.
That’s a problem the sequel shares, for subtly different reasons. Director James Mangold, who’s stuck around for Logan, first came aboard the franchise with The Wolverine and almost manages something truly brilliant. For the first two-thirds, the movie is a jet-black, blood-spattered exploration of Wolverine’s time in Japan. The opening sequence, set as the atomic bomb is dropped on Nagasaki, is flat-out brilliant, as the clever use of sound and the growing recognition of exactly where and when Logan is make for a profoundly unsettling opening that’s unlike anything else in the series.
What follows is, for the most part, pretty great, too. Logan is living wild after being forced to murder Jean Grey in order to save the world in a previous X-Men movie, 2006’s The Last Stand. He’s haunted by Jean (in a nicely understated cameo by Famke Janssen) and has no interest in engaging with the world.
That is, until Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down. She works for Mr. Yashida, a young soldier that Logan saved in the opening sequence. Now, decades later, he’s dying and wishes to repay his debt once and for all. Yashida now runs a massive technology company and believes he knows how to help Logan finally get what he wants most: to die.
Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s script is complicated, morally ambiguous, and two-thirds of a surprisingly great contemporary noir movie. Logan, mentally and emotionally wounded already, stumbles into Japan with no conception of the situation that he’s walking into. Haunted by Jean, he becomes a pawn in Yashida’s family struggles with his son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). All three members of the family want different things for Yashida and for his company, as do Kenuichio Harada (the always excellent Will Yun Lee), head of the Yashida’s personal ninja clan, and Doctor Green (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Yashida’s doctor.
Again, two-thirds of the movie work brilliantly: Jackman’s turn as a mournful, guilt-ridden Wolverine is clearly ground he’ll return to in Logan, and he’s genuinely excellent here. The moment where he realizes where he is, finding the exact spot at which he survived the bombing of Nagasaki, is extraordinarily powerful and that’s all due to Jackman’s near silent, minimal performance. He plays Logan as old, even when he doesn’t look it, and the mournfulness that comes with that powers most of the second act. It also makes his romance with Mariko feel earned; Tao Okamoto is not well served by this script but she’s excellent when not being kidnapped, and she and Logan fit perfectly. There’s shared trauma and shared peace in the relationship that gives the act they spend together a lot more impact and energy than you’d expect.
The action impresses too, especially as The Wolverine features two of the best action sequences in the entire X-Men franchise to date. The first is a fantastic run-and-gun that starts at a funeral and finishes with Logan and his assailants fighting on the outside of a speeding bullet train. It’s unique and crunchy and NASTY in a way that uses action to express character and location beautifully. It’s also the best use of this film’s MacGuffin: Logan’s mysteriously ailing healing factor.
The second impressive sequence is far smaller in scope but with a far more personal impact. Yukio protects an unconscious Logan from a demented Shingen in one of the best close-quarters fights committed to recent film. Again, there’s a clear emotional reason for everything that happens and again, character drives the action. Yukio is smaller, faster, and more agile, but trapped protecting Logan. Shingen is larger, possibly more skilled, and certainly more brutal, but can’t maneuver as well. The acrobatic game of bladed chess that ensues is a delight and feels dangerous in a way that few western action sequences do.
Unfortunately it’s also the last time the movie feels dangerous. Third-act bloat strikes again and, aside from a beautifully nasty sequence that involves Logan and way too many arrows, the final act disappoints. The out-of-left-field appearance of a massive suit of Silver Samurai power armour was, Mangold revealed recently, mandated by the studio and it shows. Yukio, Mariko, and Kenuichio are all shuffled into background for a traditional, and dull, superhero throwdown. Again, it’s still relatively fun, but it feels far more manufactured and by-the-numbers than the rest of the movie, especially as Viper (the film’s most extraneous character) is seemingly there just to give Yukio someone to fight.
But even then, the film manages to end well. Logan’s newfound peace feels justified and hard-won, and the premise of Yukio taking on the role of his “bodyguard” and travelling the world together is great fun. It’s a shame we won’t get to see those stories, but it’s impossible not to feel oddly relieved at knowing that they exist. We know Logan’s peace doesn’t last—the chronologically mystifying Days of Future Past stinger in the trailers confirms that. But it’s enough that he gets even a little respite.
That level of affection and genuine concern that we feel for this character constitutes the adamantium-laced spine of these movies. Despite everything thrown at him by mutants, humans, writers and studios, Logan gets back up. It always hurts. He always does it. I suspect Logan is about to change that forever. If it does—or even if it doesn’t and we get an actual happy ending—one thing will be clear: He’ll have earned the rest.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.