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July 30, 2013

The Wolverine: Come On, Bub!

Let me be perfectly upfront: I don’t care for Wolverine.

I don’t necessarily hate him, but I don’t think he’s the coolest member of the X-Men.  I’ve always had a soft spot for Beast and, to some extent, Cyclops.  Yeah, I know, real shocker -- Voltech doesn’t like the surly, ultra-popular badass anti-hero!  How very unprecedented!  That is, assuming that you’ve read anything I’ve written in the past year here or elsewhere.  Among other myriad topics.  What can I say?  I love my soapbox and megaphone.

Whatever the case, even though I try my best to be impartial, you and I both know that’s impossible.  Opinions and preferences are going to bleed into anything that anyone writes when it comes to trying to offer a judgment.  GameInformer will take shots at JRPGs in previews.  Destructoid’s Jim Sterling will bring in allusions (justified allusions) to problems with the game industry if the game he’s reviewing makes a related faux pas.  MovieBob + JJ Abrams = not a good idea.  Now, I’m confident that all those people and more can set aside their preferences and offer up a clear-minded analysis.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t be trustworthy.  And if I’m going to be trustworthy in kind, I have to do the same if I decide to review something. 

…It’s a good thing this isn’t a review, then.

Spoilers -- some, but not a lot -- inbound.  So if you’re eager to see the movie, you might want to Berserker Slash your way out of here.  I’m about to Fatal Claw the rest of this post with potential threats to your viewing experience, so don’t get too crazy with your Machine Gun Claw.


All right, here’s everything you need to know about The Wolverine in about twenty seconds.  One: I think it’s better than Man of Steel.  Two: It’s still not very good, though.  Passable at best.  Three: You can skip out on this movie and not miss very much.  Four: Yes, there’s a post-credits scene that teases things to come, but the fact that you have to sit through a particularly weak movie to get even a hint of a potentially better one left me so salty I started coughing up hail-sized chunks of sodium.

So here’s the basic plot of the movie.  After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (in which Cyclops, Professor X, and Jean Grey have all bitten it, and Magneto’s lost his powers), Wolverine -- AKA Logan, AKA James Howlett -- has left behind everything he’s known to go on an aimless :quest” across the country.  Haggard in appearance and without a cause to call his own, he’s content with cutting himself off from everything and everyone…that is, until he’s called into action by a red-haired Japanese woman named Yukio.  Her mission?  To bring Wolvie over to Japan so that he can meet Yashida, a veteran-turned-businessman he saved from the nuclear fallout of World War II…and by extension, to have his healing factor removed so that he can finally have the death he’s been searching for.  But things don’t go as planned, as yakuza, ninjas, and even a few mutants get thrown into the mix -- and being the bang-up guy he is, Logan has to protect Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko from kidnap/assassination while working to unravel a conspiracy plaguing the country.

History repeats itself, it seems.  It happened with Man of Steel, and it happened here; I ended up taking a lot of heat from my brother and my buddy on the way out of the theater when I told them about my opinion.  More blasphemy.  More sacrilege.  More proof that I “don’t like anything”.  Indeed, I’d have loved to sit them down and explain my issues with the movie, but I’d have preferred to do so after getting enough time to prepare a defense.  You know, to get my thoughts in order.  If I could explain to them why I felt the way that I did, then maybe they wouldn’t be so quick to slam me just for not liking a movie because it crams in ninjas and samurai swords.

So I just gave them a super-compressed version of my thoughts -- and not much else before my brother shifted the conversation; he’s convinced that I’m the perfect candidate for a fan of the movie because lol you liek anime.  (Throwing “you like anime” in my face seems to be transforming into his one and only defense against me, it seems…keeping in mind that he’s still a Naruto fan.)  The gist of my argument was that by and large, The Wolverine is -- in my exact words -- “dull and confused”.  I stand by that.  It IS dull and confused; it builds itself up with parts that’ll move it towards an intended goal, but their construction is shaky, and there’s no connective tissue between them.  In some ways, you could call the movie schizophrenic -- but even that might be too much of a stretch, considering that the focus is on all the wrong things.

But with all that said, this is a better movie than Man of Steel for a simple reason: it feels like there’s a better understanding of Wolverine here than Superman there.  I can buy a darker, grittier Wolverine here because it feels consistent with the character; again, even though I don’t know the ins and outs of Wolvie and his comic book history (though he’s deceptively short, apparently) I know enough about him to cry foul when certain elements of his character aren’t being represented well.  That is, I know Wolverine is a tough guy.  I know he’s brash, and always ready for a fight.  And I suspect he’s not exactly the most complex character in some portrayals; one instance of an Astonishing X-Men comic has his single thought in the middle of a fight, as compared to the rest of his comrades and their plights.  That thought?  “I like beer.”

It doesn’t feel like they had to armbar Wolverine -- this version of him, at least -- into anything too far out of his usual/expected form.  That’s a lot more than you can say about MoS Superman; he and his world have likely been done darkly before, but the expectation (fair or not) is that Supes is the Big Blue Boy Scout, flying about and being the hero in a world almost as bright as his costume.  He wasn’t suited for the kind of movie MoS was trying to be…or at least, not the way it came out.  But with The Wolverine, it feels significantly more natural.  Custom-fitted, if you will.  It makes sense to make the movie dark (or darker) and act as a meaningful exploration of what it means to be Wolverine.

It’s just a shame that they shoot themselves in the foot.  And then they shoot themselves in the other foot.  And then they throw everything below the belt into a wood chipper just to be safe.

Here’s the first inherent problem with this movie: the key thrust of the plot is that it’s about Wolverine losing his powers.  That’s a dumbass move no matter how much drama you try and wring out of it.  Everyone in the audience knows that it’s not going to last, and by the end of the movie Wolvie’s going to have everything he lost back on his person.  You can mitigate that inevitability a bit by making the loss of power (and the character development that comes with it) have some real impact, but while the movie makes some attempts at it, they don’t exactly ring true. 

Why?  Easy.  The only power Wolverine really loses throughout the movie for any extended period of time is his healing factor, meaning that he won’t recover from wounds mere seconds after getting them (so he can’t shrug off a nuclear blast like he does in the opening).  Fair enough.  But remember, there are still more tricks up Weapon X’s sleeve; this is a guy with retractable claws, an adamantium-reinforced skeleton, the strength needed to move said reinforced skeleton, the enhanced durability afforded by both his skeleton and his muscles, and I’d guess some kind of enhanced animalistic senses.  This is not a man wanting for power.

 And indeed, taking shots to the body -- arms or legs or torso -- comes off as an inconvenience for him until it’s time for the plot to demand he deal with it.  The intent behind the move is lost because of it…and gets practically thrown aside when Wolvie gets his healing factor back long before the movie’s climactic battle.  If the idea was to create tension by making Wolvie actually vulnerable for a while, then why not genuinely capitalize on it?  Why say he’s vulnerable, show him being largely invulnerable, and then make him almost invulnerable before he’s even at the bad guy HQ?

The second inherent problem with the movie is one that you might have already guessed (if you’re taking my bias into account), but for argument’s sake I’ll make clear…one…more…time.  A dark character is not automatically an interesting character; you have to put in the effort to make them worth an audience’s time.  Wolverine is not.

This isn’t even a matter of personal preference; The Wolverine starts in almost direct contradiction to the end of The Last Stand.  With three of the key X-Men dead and gone, someone has to run the Xavier Institute and make sure the kids get the best education they can.  I would have thought that one of the foremost members of that school (even if it’s only by virtue of being the character front-and-center of the movies) would stick around to give the children a chance at a better life than he had…but I guess that’s where the moviemakers and I disagree.  He’s abandoned the school, abandoned the other X-Men, and gone on his own little spirit quest -- sans the spirit…and the quest -- all while lamenting over the loss of Jean to the point where he hallucinates being in bed with her.  So basically, the character development and relationships of that trilogy have been reset and/or erased.  Riveting.

To be fair, I can see what they were going for with this movie.  Wolvie loved Jean, and the fact that he had to kill her with his own two hands -- or claws, as it were -- does seem like the sort of thing that would weigh on a guy.  And indeed, the despair that Wolvie faces throughout the better part of his journey could qualify as post-traumatic stress -- a delayed reaction to all the stuff he’s been through in his life, as a result of the professor helping to restore his memories.  There are two requirements (at a bare minimum) for the kind of character drama that The Wolverine is going for: it has to be consistent, and more importantly it has to be compelling.            

Predictably, one of the places where the movie stumbles is in the romance element -- because of course there’s a romance element.  Once he’s in Japan, Wolvie takes charge in protecting Mariko from pursuers and malcontents, and as such it’s not long before the two of them are in bed together and sharing kisses (and before that, meaningful looks -- the siren song of any romantic interest).  The intent here is that Wolverine is trying to move on from Jean, I suppose, and I can understand what they went for…but like a lot of other things in this movie, it doesn’t really work. 

The way the movie plays it, Wolvie is so broken and haunted by the loss of Jean that his life has pretty much come to a stop -- and yet he’s barely reconciled his own problems before not only trying to get entangled with someone else’s, but bedding her in spite of being volatile enough to stab anything nearby in his sleep.  Even Jean calls him out on this, superimposing herself on top of Mariko while she and Wolvie are in bed together.  The order of this sequence feels lost -- and even if it wasn’t, like most movies you have to question how a man and a woman can go from strangers to bunk buddies in the span of a few days.  I guess this is one of those “true love can bloom on the battlefield” situations.

Actually, that does bring up a point I’ve been mulling over.  If not for the presence of Mariko and the expected bedding (well, there’s no guarantee that Wolvie showed her his sharpened wakizashi, but even if they didn’t they shared a few kisses), Wolvie’s character arc and development would never have been completed…or arguably, even started.  So that makes me wonder -- with any story, but let’s focus on the context of this movie for now.  If Mariko had been a man, would Wolverine have been able to change?

I mean, think about it.  Mariko is quickly established -- but only vaguely proven -- to be a tough customer in her own right, and as such spends a good deal of the movie being Wolvie’s emotional support.  Because she’s quiet, calm, nurturing, and compassionate, she’s able to almost literally soothe the savage beast.  (The kissing and implied sex probably helped.)  Now think about what would have happened if Mariko had been a man, either in the movie or the comic series the movie draws inspiration from.  How would that change things?  Would it change things?  Presumably it’d mean that Wolvie wouldn’t be able to get too intimate with Man-riko, and given that Wolvie’s shown begrudging tolerance of other male characters at best -- in this movie especially -- one can’t help but wonder.  So is the implication here that only women can restore the fractured heart of a rough-and-tumble anti-hero?  Is that their dedicated role?  Is it a natural occurrence?  Is it a believable occurrence?

This may seem like a bit of a tangent, but actually, I’d say it’s something vital.  Remember, the second part of the character drama equation -- and arguably for anti-heroes in general, which I’ll get to in a moment -- is that it has to be compelling.  And I can’t say I found The Wolverine to be compelling because in a lot of ways, the beats of this story have been done before.  Regrettably, my mind ends up snapping back to playing DmC; main character Dante Donte was a self-serving rebel without a cause, whose character development into…the same person, more or less was sparked by meeting up with and getting to know Kat.  It’s safe to say that outside of a few token attempts at trying to be relevant, her only reason for being in the plot is teaching Donte how to be less of an asshole.  Shame he's in remedial class for that one.

They don’t do anything too intimate -- which is admittedly on a short list of positives story-wise -- but the intent there is the same as the intent in The Wolverine.  Anti-hero spits on society at large; anti-hero meets girl by way of forced circumstances; anti-hero comes to respect and harbor feelings for girl; girl teaches anti-hero about the positives in the world and helps fill his dark soul with light (or offers a bit of physical therapy); anti-hero becomes a slightly better person.  DmC and The Wolverine aren’t the only examples of this, but I have a hunch they won’t be the last.

But that makes me want to make a bit of a bold claim, and argue further against The Wolverine: honestly, I’m convinced that the anti-hero model is broken.  Bear in mind that this is coming from a Captain America fan, so take this with a barge-load of salt; I think somewhere along the line, the collective understanding of anti-heroes has gotten a bit muddled.  I’m the kind of guy that likes squeaky-clean Boy Scout characters, but it’s not just because they’re NOT anti-heroes.  It’s because frankly, I was convinced for the longest time that they’re tougher to write, but more rewarding as a result.  Making a character with no morals, no boundaries, and no rules is (theoretically) simple enough, but a character that acts within set boundaries -- actual or self-imposed -- offers up something more for the story, the character, and the audience.  For example: just think about what kind of character Batman would be if he DID kill people whenever he wanted; he’d be crossing the line between hero and villain with reckless abandon.  And remember that Batman’s a character that HATES using guns; just look at what happens when he’s finally forced to break his personal code. 

That’s the kind of potential -- and payoff -- I enjoy, and something that’s not possible with the standard anti-hero…is what I might have said a week ago.  But in light of recent experiences -- Man of Steel and The Last of Us -- I’m starting to think that a re-examination of what it means to make a good dark story, and moreover a good anti-hero, is in order.  I’m starting to think that maybe I’ve been a little too overzealous.  Maybe the mindset of an anti-hero isn’t an absence of moral bounds, but a reimagining of them.  Batman’s not a squeaky-clean hero, but he has heroic elements to him as well as the will to go to extremes.  He won’t cross certain lines, but he’ll pole-vault over lines that Superman wouldn’t.  Even as a guy that’s only been “meh” toward Batman for the longest, for the most part I can understand the appeal…assuming that the creative minds behind him don’t go too overboard.

But with The Wolverine?  Ugh…it just feels like major elements have been lost.  In terms of consistency, Wolvie’s on shaky ground; I already mentioned the bit about regaining his lost healing factor, and stand by that.  If he had struggled without it -- genuinely struggled, instead of being mildly inconvenienced -- for most of the movie, and THEN gotten it back for the final moments of the final fight, then maybe it’d make for a stronger movie.  As-is, there’s not much difference between Wolverine and the much-reviled “he’s too powerful” Superman.  But it goes further than that.  Wolvie’s seeing hallucinations of Jean pretty much every time he goes to sleep, and in spite of clearly not being over her, he gets in bed with Mariko anyway.  And that’s still not enough for him to fully get over Jean, and because the morning after is the point where the movie switches from mellowed-out drama to furious blockbuster, the chances to develop the pair’s relationship stops with the sunrise. 

Even the big turning point in Wolvie’s life comes at the wrong time; he dies (albeit momentarily) on the operating table in an attempt to get back his healing factor, but it’s not until the tail end of the movie when he’s confronted by Jean beckoning him to embrace death.  Where was she when he did some impromptu heart surgery?  If she was trying to get Wolvie to embrace death and tell him he always wanted death, then why not challenge his will to live when he died the first time around?  (Side note: I like how Jean says she’s “all alone” in the “afterlife” when according to the movie canon she should have Cyclops and Professor X alongside her.  Even if she’s just a figment of Wolvie’s imagination, that’s pretty friggin’ cold.)

It feels like the tent poles of Wolvie’s evolution are all mixed up -- not just in terms of order, but in shape.  And by extension, you could say the same about the movie at large.  Yashida gives Wolvie an out from his effective immortality, asking him to pass it on to the veteran so that they can both gain what they want.  But Wolvie refuses, saying that Yashida doesn’t want what Wolvie’s had to live with since his birth.  I get it, but…it doesn’t really feel like that works.  Wolvie has some sense of justice -- otherwise he wouldn’t have saved Yashida in the first place -- but why didn’t he just hand over that power?  Granted that power could do some real harm in the wrong hands (and it nearly does), but Wolvie doesn’t strike me as the altruistic sort.  He’s kind of a selfish jackass.  That’s his thing.  So why not unload, especially if he’s essentially hit rock bottom?  It probably would have strengthened the plot in more ways than one, but the important thing is that it’d offer up a whole lot for Wolvie’s character -- moving him towards his faux-powerlessness phase a lot more efficiently.  Given his choice of haircut, it wouldn’t be the worst decision he’s ever made.

But if there’s one thing that I have to call the movie out on, it’s the logic that pervades throughout.  By now we all know that Wolverine is a soldier, having fought in several wars and being a member of the X-Men.  Yuiko says he’s a soldier at heart early in the movie, but there’s one thing that I find really irksome about her opinion.  She says that there’s only one thing Wolvie wants, and it’s the same thing every soldier wants: “an honorable death.”  Um…no.  That’s a tangential goal, yes, but I was under the impression that what every soldier wants is to protect and serve his/her country.  To perform in a mission, and ultimately succeed if possible.  To take down whatever enemy comes their way, and defend the ideals and freedoms they hold dear.  I would have figured that above all else, a soldier’s top priority is to survive, not look for an honorable death.  True, Yuiko is part of a different culture with a different mindset, but Wolvie isn’t.  Even beyond that, isn’t that a gross misrepresentation of a field for the sake of thematic merit?  Or is it just in place to give Wolvie justification for his angst and remorse? 

I guess what I’m getting at here is that Wolverine’s plight (and Wolverine himself) isn’t very compelling.  He starts off as a guy who’s willing to effectively torture a guy to avenge the death of a bear.  By the movie’s mid-point he’s a guy willing to throw a suspect out the window -- and indeed, had every intention of killing him if not for a pool being several floors down…though that just makes me wonder if the pool was enough to cushion his fall.  By the latter quarter of the movie, he’s a guy willing to stab a guy in…something…when he doesn’t get the info he wants.  (The movie has a nasty habit of keeping Wolvie’s bloodiest attacks juuuuuuuuuuuuuust out-of-frame.)  He’s a guy that, from start to finish, will kill anything that doesn’t agree with him -- not something that I agree with, obviously, and not something that makes him particularly impressive, but those are things that I can live with.  I've been through worse.

What’s not quite as easy to live with, however, is a severe lack of charisma throughout the movie.  Wolvie’s got his moments of charm, of course, and to say the movie is humorless would mean that it’s on the same level of drab as Man of Steel (it isn’t), but it’s hard to get excited about a movie where the main character’s primary modes are “rage” and “angst”.  Worse yet, there’s no one there to effectively counterbalance it; that is, there’s not really much of a genuine villain for most of the movie.  The thrust of the conflict is trying to figure out who took Wolvie’s healing factor and why, but that’s only half the battle; there’s also a conspiracy between businessmen, the government, the yakuza, and to a lesser extent ninjas, but it’s fluff that detracts from the character drama, it doesn’t go anywhere particularly meaningful besides (poorly) establishing who Wolvie has to run through next, and the payoff for it -- i.e. the reveal of the true villain -- comes with all the impact of a wet fart.  I won’t spoil too much here (since the trailers have probably done enough already), but somehow the movie manages to make an eighth-stringer from Marvel vs. Capcom 2 even more of an afterthought.  There are other baddies, sure, but I can hardly remember their effect on the plot or their places in the conspiracy…and bear in mind that I’m typing this section here the night after seeing the movie.

With all that said -- ruminations, opinions, and more -- there are still some good things I can say about the movie.  And since I’m tired of thinking about this movie (and wouldn’t mind a session with Kirby’s Epic Yarn as virtual comfort food), I’ll go ahead and list them here.  Because people like lists.  And I’m already four thousand words into this thing.  So let’s have at it, starting with…

1) They didn’t force Wolverine to use a katana.
You don’t know how worried I was about this.  It sounds stupid, I know, but think about how much MORE stupid it would have been for a man with metal claws built into his hands to swing around a sword.  He doesn’t need to use a sword, and it would have just been silly for him to even try it.  Thankfully the moviemakers agreed with me, and outside of one justified sequence near the end there’s some restraint applied to the cantankerous Canadian.  He’ll just have to stick with his usual suite of powers and tactics -- as he should.  (He still ends up fighting ninjas, though -- many of which seem to enjoy doing pointless flips, to the point that I was hoping for a Pointless Flip Counter to appear on screen.)

2) The bullet train fight sequence is actually pretty cool.
No two ways around this one.  I’ve got my problems with the movie, but this isn’t one of them; I’ve always thought train top battles were cool as hell, and this one offers a nice twist on the proceedings.  It’s obviously not very realistic -- ah, the power of CGI -- but for what it’s worth, there’s a level of impact that’s perceivable and valuable.  Beating a baddie doesn’t just come down to Wolvie sinking his claws into him either; there’s some cleverness at play that makes for an entertaining experience.  It’s probably the best fight in the entire movie.

3) I still kind of like Yuiko and Mariko.
Wolvie might not do it for me, but his lady friends are a lot more interesting if you ask me.  Yuiko was a loner picked up from off the streets as a child, and as such has loyalty to the family (Yashida) that rescued her.  By the same token, Mariko -- a Yashida by blood -- has a duty to uphold, and bears both that burden and a mindset of her own creation…though when she tries to explain it to Wolvie and he doesn’t quite get it, she dismisses him for not being able to understand a Japanese concept.  (Hint: it’s not a Japanese concept; it’s just a concept that’s not for assholes.)  In any cse, these two are interesting characters not because of their ability to fight -- and they both have that, no question -- but by the nature of their characters.  There’s some good stuff in there. 

4) The theme of death is made constant throughout.
I’ll say upfront that the symbolism threatens to be a little heavy at times, but merely the fact that it’s in there in the first place has to stand for something.  One of the first scenes in the movie is in Nagasaki, showing Japanese soldiers committing suicide in the face of impending death by bombing.  Wolvie meets a bear, and minutes later he has to put the bear out of its misery when some hunters make some life-ruining shots.  Yashida is aware of his mortality, Yuiko and Mariko understand it intimately, and Wolvie has to come to terms with it.  (Sort of.)  Some real thought went into this movie, and I appreciate that.  And by extension…

5) They at least tried to make the movie more than just another action film. 
I like superhero movies, but I have to agree with others when they say that the superhero movie genre is oversaturated right now (though I’m thankful there’s even a superhero movie genre in the first place).  You can bet your bippy that I’m hyped for Captain America: Winter Soldier, but I think we’d all do well to take a step back and give the genre a break for a little while.  Buuuuuuuuuuuut I guess Hollywood ain’t havin’ that, so we’re getting more of them quickly.

So the only alternative is to do something different with the genre.  And The Wolverine is one of the more notable entries to do so.  It’s just that it doesn’t work.  They tried to play it both ways, fusing a slow-burning drama and introspective piece with the frenetic fury of a summer action movie.  But those parts aren’t reconciled very well, and taken separately they’re far from the strongest in their field (even with a few outstanding moments).  The movie -- like The Avengers and Pacific Rim before it -- front-loads all the drama and quiet segments into the first half, but without the energy and deftness needed to create something truly compelling, it goes from a slow burn to a cold stop and barely manages to pick up the pace.  When the action starts in earnest, it completely divorces itself from the meditative elements of the drama; Wolvie’s plight, fears, and weaknesses aren’t given the prominence they need because they’re getting overshadowed by Hugh Jackman’s mutton chops.  The baddies (such as they are) fall flat, the hero falls flat, and somehow both the drama and the action end up feeling like filler on a regular basis.  There’s something wrong with a movie if I’m waiting for the drama to end to get back to the action, and then waiting for the action to end so I can get back to the drama.

And that’s about all I can say, really.  Is The Wolverine a good movie?  In my eyes, not particularly.  But seeing it won’t kill you.  Bore you, maybe, but not kill you.  Would I recommend it?  Well…I would if you’re a die-hard fan of the character, no question.  But for everyone else?  Eh…yeah, but it’d be a very tentative, very shaky recommendation.  Subtracting my biases, I’d say that it could easily qualify as a passable movie.  Good enough.  Not exceeding expectations, but hopefully not betraying them.  Even beyond that, you -- as always -- owe it to yourself to look into the movie further, in spite of my post.  Form your own opinions.  Come to your own conclusions.  Decide if Wolvie is just the hero you need, or if he’s the one the garbage bin deserves.

As for me?  Well, I think it’s time I place this thing on my SmartChart™ -- and I’ll put it right about HERE: 

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaand I guess that’ll do it for now.  The Wolverine -- not the greatest movie, but it’s still better than X-Men Origins.  Take that as you will.  As for me, I think I need a palate cleanser.  Let’s see here.  What other movies can I have a look at?  Actually, I’ve got a couple of DVDs lying around; maybe I’ll start looking at those one of these days.  Come to think of it, I’ve got The Godfather trilogy right next to me as I type this.  Maybe it’s time I expose myself to some real high quality movies.  Or barring that, I could see what’s on TV and hope for the be-


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