Film review: The Wolverine

Hugh Jackman as Logan in The Wolverine. Picture: Complimentary
Hugh Jackman as Logan in The Wolverine. Picture: Complimentary
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He’s the X-Men’s most popular outlaw, but the Wolverine suffers a serious bout of performance anxiety in this solo outing

The Wolverine (12A)

* *

Directed by: James Mangold Starring: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Rila Fukushima

One of the odd things about franchise movies is that they frequently feature scene-stealing characters who seem like they might be the lifeblood of a saga yet quickly falter when the focus shifts to them. Mystique, menace and hell, general interest in a badass character is hard to maintain when we’re with them all the time – and that’s certainly true for superhero movies.

Decades worth of spin-off comics exploring every possible facet of the genre’s most popular characters might suggest there’s enough source material to generate multiple movie franchises, but being a marquee name on the page doesn’t guarantee marquee status on the screen, and sometimes even the most iconic heroes suffer performance anxiety when pushed centre stage.

It took two failed Incredible Hulk movies, for instance, before Marvel got smart and realised he was better suited to being The Avengers’ secret weapon. Alas, over in the Fox-controlled X-Men universe the same lesson hasn’t yet been learned when it comes to Wolverine, despite the success of the franchise-rejuvenating X-Men: First Class proving that the series works best when the characters are kept together.

Still, as the X-Men’s most popular outlaw, it’s perhaps not suprising that a solo outing should prove so enticing. After all, what’s not to love about a snarling, hirsute, memory- impaired mutant of indeterminate age boasting 9in retractable steel claws, regenerative powers and a penchent for head-cracking bouts of berserker rage? This goes double when you factor in Hugh Jackman, whose gutteral, sarcastic, star-making performance in Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie back in 2000 (for which he was a last- minute replacement for Dougray Scott) almost single-handedly gave a potentially silly movie concept credibility and helped kick-start the current golden age of comic- book movies.

Alas, having already made an appearance in all four X-Men films as well as his own prequel – the turgid, tedious, cumbersomely titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine – his latest outing in The Wolverine confirms what the prequel already suggested: that when it comes to Logan, less is definitely more.

That’s too bad, because The Wolverine certainly has form. Based on a Marvel Comics saga by Frank Miller and Chris Claremont that’s always been a favourite with fanboys, not least because it relocates Logan to Japan to capitalise on his lonely, samurai-like status, it makes the bold decision to cut all ties with the previous Wolverine movie and skip ahead to a post-X-Men: Last Stand world (that was the third film, in case you’ve lost track).

Thus, after a brief Second World War-set prologue in which we see Logan surviving the nuclear blast that wiped out Nagasaki (where he’s been interned in a prisoner of war camp), we catch up with him in the forests of Canada’s Yukon territory. Here, he’s living a more atavistic existence, having lost the camaraderie of the X-Men (following the death of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X in Last Stand) and, more importantly, the love of his life, Jean Gray (Famke Janssen).

The latter continues to haunt his dreams, though. Forever present in a silky negligé to remind us that Logan always loses those he loves, Janssen’s frequent appearances also conveniently function by bringing non-X-Men-philes – especially those confused by the Wolverine’s convoluted chronology – up to speed on what exactly is going on.

During these early scenes, this amounts to Logan attempting to maintain a vow of non-violence while hunters senselessly slaughter bears. Overt symbolism duly established, the film proceeds to mistake slow pacing for thoughtful character work, with director James Mangold spending a little too long focussing on a down-beat Logan as he’s lured to Japan by his old friend, Yashida (Hal Yamanochi). The latter is a dying billionaire industrialist determined to relieve Logan of the curse of immortality by using his vast fortune to transfer Wolverine’s regenerative gene to his own body – a plot device that results in Logan becoming a protector to Yashida’s granddaughter and heir at the precise moment his heeling powers begin to fail him.

Theoretically, this twist should up the stakes for the character – and there are certainly some spectacular action set-pieces that put Wolverine through his paces. Unfortunatately, it also just makes the film seem sluggish.

It’s a shame because the definite article of the title suggest that Mangold is consciously harking back to the gritty, existential thrillers and westerns of the 1970s, which is an interesting impulse, but not one that necessarily translates to a character that can perform open-heart surgery on himself.

That said, for those au fait with the minutiae of the X-Men universe, this will likely prove more satisfying than his previous solo outing, but as a post-credits stinger setting up Bryan Singer’s forthcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past makes eminently clear: in movie terms, the Wolverine is a more sociable animal than he pretends to be.