Calling The Wolverine the best superhero movie of the summer is to damn it with the faintest of praise. I may be saying this because it’s the only superhero movie this summer for which I had absolutely no expectations. Iron Man 3 was better than Iron Man 2, but it still wasn’t good. And Man of Steel… don’t get me started on that one.
If I’m being perfectly honest, I really didn’t want to see The Wolverine. 2009’s X Men Origins: Wolverine was so bad, it almost turned me off of X Men altogether. I never really found the X Men movies to be all that event-worthy to begin with; they’re at best in the second tier of the current Marvel movie crop. The only one of the movies I really enjoyed was X Men: First Class (the first two from Bryan Singer were entertaining but forgettable; the third one from Brett Ratner… again, the less said, the better).
When I first heard they were making a second stand-alone Wolverine movie, I thought, WHY? But when Darren Aronofsky signed on to direct it, it suddenly moved up from why bother to must see. Marvel has done a fine job of pairing directors you wouldn’t necessarily think of for this kind of material (Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (which I actually thought was a stroke of genius at the time, with his Darkman being the best comic book movie not actually based on a comic book I’ve ever seen!) Ang Lee with Hulk, Kenneth Branagh with Thor, Jon Favreau with Iron Man.) And yes, some have been more successful that others. But with pairing Aronofsky with Wolverine, I was thinking he would really take the superhero movie to some uncomfortable places that mainstream audiences wouldn’t be ready for, and the contrarian in me couldn’t wait!
And then Aronofsky bowed out of the project…. And James Mangold, whose work I respect but really can’t get all that enthused about (though I think Identity is a twisted little gem) took over, and my heart sank. I was sure we’d get another dull retread of a character who’s actually a lot less interesting than he’s made out to be.
Well, I was wrong… sort of. It’s passably entertaining. It strips down the superhero aspect of the character and sort of becomes an old-fashioned film noir about a scarred loner; still in love with woman he murdered and approached by a figure from his past with intentions that may not be so pure. Hugh Jackman does a fine job of glowering and looking eternally pissed-off (even without the cigar and even with that still-goofy haircut… it may work in an illustration, but in real life, he looks like one of the Little Rascals roided up and gone bad.) If the Wolverine comic was around in the 1950s, Robert Mitchum would have made a wonderful Logan.
The problem is the movie never really commits itself to one idea, and it doesn’t do a good job of mashing those ideas up and creating something interesting. It’s sort of a film noir, but it doesn’t want to delve too deeply into character. It then becomes Wolverine versus the Yakuza, which could have been an amazingly kick-ass movie, but it wants to keeps its family friendly PG-13 rating and therefore not allowed to get into the more brutal aspects of Yakuza culture (why it’s still PG-13 is beyond me, considering the number of people Wolverine disembowles with those claws of his.) And it all ends up with a big confrontation in a secret warehouse between Wolverine and really big CGI robot.
But still, a couple of the action scenes were well staged (a sequence atop a speeding bullet train is exemplary and a moment in the third act where Wolverine almost resembles a comic book Saint Sebastian is pretty cool) and Mangold manages to move the story along at a decent-enough pace to keep things from getting dull.
But after a summer movie season of general mediocrity, especially the comic book movies, is a movie being “not as bad as I thought it’d be” acceptable? Perhaps we were spoiled by the two superhero movies of note that 2012 gave us, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Both gave us the spectacle we want from a summer movie and the depth of character that leaves the longest impression. And both movies knew what they were; The Avengers being the bright, pop-art Mozart that is Marvel and The Dark Knight Rises being a fitting conclusion to the Wagnerian Sturm und Drang that Nolan had successfully fused onto the Batman legacy (and failed to fit onto Superman.)
The Wolverine rises above expectations by being just okay. But if that’s all we’re looking for in a mega-budget summer movie, then what a sad and sorry state we live.Follow @filmbyfelix