When Marvel Comics first introduced Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four to the world in the 1960s, they sparked a comic book revolution. No longer were superheroes the new gods, indestructible and unfailingly heroic Others from distant planets, lands, times (see: Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America) or mysterious 1% recluses (Batman) but something closer to heightened neighbors. Your classmate or coworker or mailman might be a mutant. You might stumble into capes or spandex yourself, should you cross paths with gamma rays or a radioactive spider. The Silver Age heroes had to hold down jobs, keep secrets, and navigate angsty romances or complicated family dynamics. If superheroes were real they'd be hounded by the tabloid press and paparazzi.
In other words... "Superheroes - they're just like us!"
But some super powers are far from relatable. This summer indestructibility has raised its dull head again as the chief power of both the Man of Steel and The Wolverine. This power lacks the proxy pizazz that comes with cooler mutations like flying, telekinesis, web-slinging, flaming on, and so on. Indestructibility just isn't inherently interesting, or at least not visually rich, good only for sticking around. And Wolverine, the world's favorite furry angry Canadian sure does, loitering about the cinema and historical signposts of the ages, too. [more...]
The excruciatingly joyless movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine began with the Civil War, recontextualizing it for the mutton-chopped mutant's backstory. This one begins near the end of World War II, using the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki as its first plot point. One might say that this is nothing to get worked up about since modern superhero films are often shameless in this regard (I can't even with Man of Steel's tasteless 9/11 imagery) and that the best X-Men movie (X2) used The Holocaust as mutant backstory, too. But at least that film's heart was in the right place, using our familiarity with historical atrocity to address thematic concerns and highlight its chief allegory. The Mutants stand in for all Opressed Others. The Wolverine is selfishly brain dead in this regard, concerned not with theme but Instant (Unearned) Dramatic Angst. Its opening sequence, which finds P.O.W. Logan rescuing a Japanese soldier, effectively reduces mushroom clouds and fiery destruction to flattering backlighting for Hugh Jackman's gargantuan muscles and Wolverine's instant-healing capacity. If an atomic bomb can't kill this beast, nothing can!
After that tasteless opening we're in for a long set up which eventually brings Logan to Japan since the man he saved wants to rid him of that pesky immortality so that he himself, now an old man, can use it. Never mind that's Wolverine's power is neither The Fountain of Youth nor Immortality for the film is not concerned with consistency of detail despite the scientific babble coming from the mouths of multiple characters in high tech medical facilities. What the movies does concern itself with is harder to say.
Wolverine's character arc is woefully undernourished (something about engaging with the world again) and despite the thrilling realization that the bulk of the characters are female -- so rare in this genre -- the opportunity is squandered. Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yukio (Rila Fukushima), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) are so sketchily drawn that their personalities and relationships to each other and to Logan don't register at all beyond their Schematic Roles: Love Interest, Sidekick, Lost Love, and Evil Bitch, respectively. There are a lot of fights but apart from a high speed train sequence and a brief arresting visual of Wolverine making like Sebastian as archer's target, new helmer James Mangold doesn't demonstrate much skill at lifting action setpieces out of visual chaos and into choreographed grace. The Japanese setting too feels half-hearted with oddly muted visuals where a truly distinct looking superhero picture could have been since so few of them are set outside of Fake New York.
Even if you grew up devouring X-Men comics voraciously (I did) there's just little to care about or relate to in their screen transfers anymore. The franchise has brought us six movies and the only way to stay excited about the movies which, apart from the clever and exciting X-2 (2003), have ranged from decent or mediocre (X-Men, X-Men: First Class) to regular ol' abysmal (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: The Last Stand) is to pretend that the next one will be good. Thus the mandatory "tag" at the end of each superhero movie in which we get a glimpse of the next one. Spoiler Alert: This Wolvie movie ends with a warning about the Sentinels, the giant fucking robots (as if the cinema needed any more of those) which are a constant threat to mutants in the comic books and will factor heavily into X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
But I can't pretend anymore.
Wolverine Does Japan! is a marked improvement over its Origins predecessor but that bar was so low that you don't need anything like super physical powers to clear it. And while it's nowhere near as terrible as that picture its nearly as joyless. If you miss it, no biggie. There'll be another superhero movie in a few months time. Only Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films and Marvel Studios recent run (Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3) have understood that comic books are meant to be fun. Hugh Jackman doesn't seem to be having any and superheroes cannot live on angst alone.
Jackman's megawatt grinning celebrity charm doesn't even make a fleeting cameo. Not that Wolverine has ever been an ebullient character but if you watch the first two X-films Jackman once brought a wider range of feeling to this character including the ability to crack-wise. Jackman's physical exhibitionism is welcome in a genre that often forces its (always male) stars into months of brutal fitness and diet regimens only to cover them up demurely but for one errant shot of the bare torso, but why is the star hiding every emotional part of himself?
By my count he utters one line here that might be mistaken for a joke but it's really just grumpy sadism. He throws a bad guy out a hotel window but the hotel pool breaks his fall.
Mariko: How'd you know there was a pool there?
Wolverine: I didn't.
Jackman's body grows with each film (he's practically a twink in the first film by comparison) but his performance is shrinking. He's played Wolverine six times now so we might justifiably consider it his life's work. But like a sculptor who can't stop fussing, he's pared Logan down to Four Scowls, Three Grunts and Two Stares. He's been chiseling so long that he's losing all human shape. Soon they'll be nothing left but angry rubble.
Grade: D+ (C- if you remind me of the train sequence or the mild camp pleasures of Viper's LOOK AT ME I'M EVIL runway strut in shiny greed gaudiness)
Oscar Chances: Nope. AMPAS doesn't like superhero movies and even in the categories that welcome them (Sound & Visuals) they'll have better films to choose from.