Half Action Movie, Half Art Film, The Wolverine Delivers

The Wolverine has everything fans require. It’s got lots of great actions sequences, culminating in a big showdown. But it’s also got some art-film DNA in the mix. It’s an action film that also works as a meditation on death, grief, and otherness.

Before we continue, it’s important to note that this review contains spoilers.

The Wolverine (2013) poster

It’s long been no secret that the film occurs mostly in Japan and borrows from the first Wolverine mini-series (1982), written by Chris Claremont with art by Frank Miller and Joe Rubinstein. Claremont became fond of treating Wolverine as a ronin, a masterless samurai following his own warrior code but lacking direction. Trailers for the movie have wisely played up the Japanese angle, perhaps as a way to make this film seem unique, especially from 2009′s critically panned X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Still, it’s hard to express just how much the film owes to its Japanese setting. If you’re a fan of samurai films, you’re either going to love all the references or resent their appropriation by an American super-hero movie.

This appropriation is more sensitive to the source material than, say, Quentin Tarrantino’s Kill Bill, which you’ll either love or hate. The goal in Kill Bill was to recast these elements into a new postmodern patchwork that aggressively borrows from everywhere. The goal in The Wolverine seems very much to make a samurai movie, at least in spirit.

At first, The Wolverine uses its Japanese setting as a way to put Wolverine into a fresh, new environment. And there’s certainly a lot of mystery to the situation in which he suddenly finds himself, immersed into the intrigue of the powerful Yashida family. We know there’s a lot going on that we don’t yet understand.

Perhaps there’s a lot going on that we can’t understand. In the Yashida family, personal interests blend with the corporate, with the governmental, and with the world of organized crime. The familiar boundaries between these just don’t exist.

At times, all of this intrigue is simply an exotic backdrop, the way it might be used in a James Bond movie. There are all the familiar Japanese cliches: ninja, samurai, Yakuza, a bullet train, a love hotel, a big robot-like suit of armor — even the Nagasaki explosion. (No geisha, mercifully.)

Mostly, it’s all done really well. There’s a lot of Japanese spoken in the film, some of it untranslated. The bullet train sequence is as exciting as the trailer makes it out to be (even if it strains credibility, like a lot of action movies, with people without super-powers acting a bit too much like they must possess them, in order to do what they do). The love hotel is another good example: it’s explicitly chosen because it’s off the beaten path, where no one will look for Wolverine and Mariko, and the humor of the situation quickly turns to pathos.

And it’s delightful to see a super-hero movie that, while it certainly doesn’t lack action sequences, isn’t a globe-spanning adventure. This is a small, closeted story in many ways — the kind we often celebrate in super-hero comics but rarely see in super-hero movies. There’s no global-annihilation machine, no alien invasion, and not a single threat to New York City or Metropolis or Gotham.

Instead, there’s a corporate family drama, spurred by a wealthy man who wants to live forever and who, in a universe with mutants in it, seeks out Wolverine instead of esoteric cancer treatments in faraway lands.

It’s here that the main, super-hero plot overlaps with the subplot. The Wolverine occurs roughly in the present, after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and it’s the first X-Men film to do so. This is actually key to the film, because the Wolverine we encounter in this film is a broken man, haunted by having had to kill Jean Grey during the events of The Last Stand. It’s a brave choice, not only because The Last Stand was seven years ago but because it isn’t that fondly remembered.

In this way, The Wolverine feels very much like Iron Man 3, in which Tony Stark struggled psychologically in the aftermath of The Avengers. Iron Man 3 was celebrated for being a smaller movie and not trying to duplicate the frenetic world-devastating stakes of The Avengers. But The Wolverine is an even smaller, braver, and more focused story.

In the case of The Wolverine, Logan’s not as explicitly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Rather, he’s dealing with grief. He loved Jean, and he killed her. As we’ve seen before (especially in X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Logan’s love interests have a bad habit of getting killed — usually by Wolverine’s villains. Jean is special, however, in that Logan himself had to kill her. He was the only one who could, but it’s left him heartbroken and weary. He doesn’t want to be the Wolverine anymore. In fact, he quite explicitly seems ready to accept death.

Logan’s called to Japan by an old acquaintance, whom he helped survive the Nagasaki detonation and who is trying, in old age, to continue surviving. Meanwhile, Logan’s a haunted man who craves death. Death and grief subtly pervade everything in The Wolverine. Over the course of the film, Wolverine finds himself almost instinctively protecting Mariko, without really knowing why, then finally lets go of Jean and comes to accept himself as a “soldier.”

The Jean sequences are particularly notable. They apparently occur in dreams, but there’s some ambiguity here. In the comics, Jean Grey was possessed by the Phoenix Force, who made her evil. In The Last Stand, this quasi-supernatural explanation is removed, and it’s simply Jean’s psychic powers — and the psychological result of Professor X repressing them — that cause Jean’s breakdown. Still, given the nature and extent of Jean’s powers, it’s possible that the Jean Logan sees is some remnant of the actual Jean. It’s just one example of how The Wolverine, despite being an action movie about a guy who screams a lot and stabs people with his claws, actually embraces a kind of subtlety and ambiguity usually found in far more meditative films.

During the film, Logan finds himself losing his powers (a fact included prominently in the trailers). But this isn’t simply a plot twist, the way the cure plot was in The Last Stand. It’s deeply resonant with the film’s larger meditation on mortality. As cool as Logan looks dressed in black and hopping through Japan, there’s a visual poetry to his wounds, which stubbornly refuse to heal and on which the camera lingers. This imagery is more than action-movie drama; it becomes a kind of visual shorthand for Logan’s deeper suffering. It’s almost as if, having given up on life, Wolverine’s healing powers have disappeared psychosomatically.

And amid all the super-hero violence (most of which isn’t against anyone with super-powers), there’s a remarkable amount of subtlety. After Logan has sex with Mariko, he’s again haunted by nightmares and pops his claws, almost killing her. Surprisingly, she has no discernible fear, and she speaks to him with a calm sort of trust. She treats this beast beside her as if he’s a Japanese fairy tale, told to her by her father — a wild animal in human form who, despite his anguish, is incapable of truly doing wrong.

Hugh Jackman in the Wolverine (2013)

And it’s in this B-plot, in which The Wolverine is more an art film than an action movie, that the Japanese setting works best. Just when all the lush shots of Japan, both rural and urban, feel most like window dressing, this exotic setting abruptly shifts to something far more cultural and intricate. And we’re suddenly reminded that Japan is a very alien place, perhaps as alien as Wolverine feels from the rest of humanity.

One of the most impressive scenes occurs when Logan and Mariko wander through Nagasaki, and Wolverine sees the spot where he sheltered Mariko’s grandfather from the atomic horror above them. You wouldn’t know, seeing Nagasaki today, what had happened there, and the shelter is reduced to what might be confused for a manhole cover, its significance invisible to anyone passing by. The camera pauses on the stone, and we can’t help but think of the nuclear blast wave that once engulfed it, though it bares no trace.

Overhead, a passenger plane flies, mirroring the American planes that once brought such unimaginable horror to this place. This ubiquitous vehicle of transportation is thus transformed into a weapon of war.

All of this is supposed to represent how, if Nagasaki has healed, Logan can too. Mariko reinforces this by saying that her grandfather saw Nagasaki as an illustration of how the universe returns to a state of “peace.”

But even in this lesson, it’s hard not to see that this too is inflected by its Japanese setting. “Equilibrium” might be a more accurate word than “peace.” There’s nothing particularly peaceful about the world of the film, nor of the wider X-Men cinematic franchise. Nor can we easily imagine, as a species that has so constantly waged war in all its varieties, that “peace” is some sort of natural state, to which the universe returns. Even if Wolverine heals psychologically, he’s still a soldier — not exactly a representative of peace. As Mariko extols peace, she’s quoting a man who has apparently died (despite his wishes), and she’s in this spot because she’s being hunted.

Whatever she means by “peace” isn’t a personal peace. It’s not a Western, individual peace. It’s a kind of social peace, in which the community continues and goes on, but individuals — like her father, or Wolverine, or us — die. And if atomic fire leaves no trace, what hope do we have?

Her word “peace” is beautiful, but it’s also inscrutable. It can mean something profound, but it feels like it doesn’t translate, or like it belongs to a Japanese aphorism that takes decades of study to understand. The words, like the landscape, are seductive but alien.

It’s a wonderful sequence, but it’s more defined by poetic ambiguity than by any hammered-home message about how Logan can heal.

In the same way, we learn that the elder Yashida has willed his company to Mariko precisely because she never wanted it. It’s a fascinating paradox, in the world of corporate Japanese culture, and it echoes American commonplace that no one who wants the U.S. presidency bad enough to run for it should be given that power. But there’s no denying that Mariko feels her inheritance as a burden. The idea seems to be that perhaps it’s those who have this sense of burden who should be endowed with such immense power. Of course, this mirrors Logan’s position. But it’s also more a poetic idea the film is interested in suggesting and evoking than something forced upon its audience.

Similarly, in the juxtaposition of passenger plane to nuclear bomber, can we see a symbol for the urbanification of Japan. The bomber imposed its foreign will upon this landscape. If Nagasaki has returned to a state of “peace,” it’s not the same state that existed before. It’s one accommodated to the outside world. The passenger plane is arguably as much of an invader as the bomber. Japan has changed, as the world has changed. Nagasaki might be largely rural, but we’ve already see the Japan of crowded Tokyo streets and bullet trains.

And while the movie isn’t about this process, it can’t avoid evoking it. Perhaps the passenger plane is “supposed” to only represent how Logan’s traumatic response is unwarranted — there’s no bomber overhead, just a peaceful passenger jet. But because the movie doesn’t tell us how to interpret this juxtaposition, it opens up all kinds of poetic possibilities.

And while the movie’s a meditation upon death and otherness, it’s hard not to see a subtler theme at work: the failing of our fathers. Yashida survived the Nagasaki bombing and amassed a corporate fortune, but he’s squandered it in vain attempts to try to live forever. He’s also corrupted Mariko’s father Shingen so thoroughly that the father’s willing to kill his own daughter in the name of corporate power.

In the same way, Logan’s been failed by his fathers. His creator, William Stryker, was a monster. The Last Stand saw the unraveling of the vision of Logan’s adoptive father, Professor X, and this led to Logan killing his love.

In contrast with these failed fathers, we have the young: Mariko, who sees her inheritance as a burden, and Yukio, the young mutant who has a limited power to see the future, especially people’s deaths. Yukio’s visions are never wrong, she tells us, until her vision of Logan’s death fails to come to pass. The future isn’t yet written, but it belongs to the young. And it’s remarkably represented, in the film, by females. If it’s the father who represents the past, and the old visions that went along with it, it’s the daughter who represents the future.

All of this works within the film, as a metaphor for Wolverine’s recovery. But it’s impossible to disassociate from the film’s setting. Japan often struggles between its desire to embrace the future, and the wider world, and its veneration of its past. In the film, this is also represented by the split between the film’s rural and urban locations. Yashida may have been a wise and accomplished man, but he literally bore the scars of Japan’s past, and he’s failed both his family and his nation. The future is Mariko’s to inherit and define.

None of this is to say that the movie doesn’t have its limited problems, especially with its action-movie A-plot. Why would Yashida make Mariko his inheritor, if he’s going to return himself? Where does the device that drains Logan’s powers come from, and why is it seen in Yashida too before he dies? These aren’t catastrophic, but they are potential holes in the plot.

And yes, the movie’s still got the same familiar structure, with the final villain reserved for the climax, but even that’s less belabored than most these days.

But even this A-plot is more one of an action movie, like a James Bond flick, than a typical super-hero one. It’s bravely limited to this Japanese family struggle, entirely to the film’s advantage. And at times, even the A-plot action pauses to indulge great visuals, such as Wolverine collapsing in the snow, a copia of arrows in his back.

Not to mention that the characters, including Logan, end the movie in a different place than they began.

It’s in the B-plot, however, that the movie lives. It’s in the film’s lingering shots. In those gasp-inducing, ambiguous sequences with Jean Grey. In those beautiful lines of dialogue with Mariko. In Logan’s bloody wounds, refusing to heal in the rain. In this constant poetic meditation upon death and grief that runs throughout the film.

And this is so unique, especially for an action movie, that any small sins may be forgiven.

Those movie posters, evocative of Japanese artwork, aren’t simply clever and different. They’re a bit of a thesis statement about what this movie is. And that’s entirely to its credit, especially in this age of big-budget conformity.

It’s a movie that’s quintessentially Wolverine. But it’s a quieter film. A more poetic film. A more artistic film. The cinematic equivalent of something published by Marvel’s Marvel Knights imprint in its heyday.

This is the sixth film in Fox’s X-Men franchise. But it feels very much like a new beginning, much as it represents for Logan.

It feels like the first film of a new phase for the X-Men franchise. And in following up on The Last Stand, it feels like a cleansing of the palate (perhaps with a little bit of ginger) before the next course.

And for a film franchise that currently stands at six films, with a seventh (X-Men: Days of Future Past) set for next year, it’s a very good sign that, at least for my money, the previous two films (including X-Men: First Class) are probably the best out of the entire bunch. Sure, Bryan Singer’s original two films hold a special place, despite their inconsistencies. But the next two films (The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) were seen as declining severely in quality. With The Wolverine, there’s no arguing that the franchise is back on track.

And maybe, just maybe, The Wolverine can point to the future of super-hero movies more generally. 2000′s X-Men helped usher in the current wave of super-hero movies, which have come to dominate so much of Hollywood. But it’s not enough to just make a decent super-hero movie anymore. Perhaps, in wedding an action movie to something more sophisticated, more poetic, The Wolverine can point a way to how the super-hero movie can continue to mutate and to evolve.

And in this way, the X-Men franchise might, like Logan in the film, reinvigorate itself and again point to the future. That future belongs to Mariko. And let us hope, to The Wolverine.

After all, everything I’ve just described about The Wolverine works as a commentary on the genre itself. For as much as The Wolverine is a mediation upon death, it’s also about the future, about negotiating between the burdens of inheritance (e.g. the continuity inherited from The Last Stand) and the need to do something different and new.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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1 Comment

  1. The Wolverine was an okay movie. Certainly an improvement over the first one. I definitely liked the artsy bits, but there were too many plot problems. And it is absolutely inexcusable to me that there wasn’t a savage sniktdown with the ninja assassins.

    I also think the movie would have been a lot better if Wolverine learned the way of the samurai to help center his emotions and deal with his loss. The most powerful scenes in the film were those with Jean Grey because they showed just how tortured Logan was after he killed the woman he loved. But I can’t adequately express how unsatisfying it was to watch Logan finally decide to let go of his pain after he defeats some kind of surgeon samurai robot. Mangold and company had an opportunity to better explore the idea of Logan as a ronin; to immerse him in Bushido as a means to help him focus and heal, while embracing his warrior spirit. But instead he just kills a Shogun Sentinel and calls it a day.

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