Character, character, character. You don’t fill up 40 years of comic books without it. Sure, show us all the cool fights and eye-popping visuals you want, but people won’t buy your title if they don’t care what your hero does next. Even at its worst, the 2009 Wolverine movie understood that. Now, with the X-Men film franchise enjoying a much-needed second wind, The Wolverine takes that understanding to an infinitely more complex level. It’s quieter than most superhero movies these days. More thoughtful. More internal. And yet it doesn’t feel cheap or second-rate. Indeed, it’s easily the best comic book adaptation this year, thanks to another awesome rendition of Marvel’s beloved berserker from Hugh Jackman.
The only real bumps come early on, with some dodgy CGI and an opening that doesn’t quite put the pieces together. That’s ironic because the first twenty minutes stick close to the seminal Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries on which this movie is based. The remainder is more homage than adaptation, keenly aware of the essence of the story, but willing to put its own stamp on how it unfolds. We find Jackman’s beloved Canucklehead living in the wilderness, more animal than man. The death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, never better) continues to haunt him, and he’s responded by checking out on civilization. Enter Yukio (Rila Fukushima), martial arts bad-ass and all-around mystery woman, who admonishes Logan to return with her to Japan. Her boss, a powerful electronics magnate (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), is dying. Long ago, Logan saved his life, and now he wishes to repay the debt with a uniquely chilling offer of his own.
The ninja factor quickly cranks up as our hero finds himself bereft of powers while trying to protect the old man’s beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from various clandestine villains. Comic fans will recognize the threads of the Claremont miniseries, though the movie increases the mutant count by giving Yukio mild cognitive powers and adding the deadly Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) to the mix. It’s awfully busy, but director James Mangold keeps the scorecard clear, while adding some seriously cool set pieces to keep the energy levels up. The topper comes fairly early, as Wolvie battles a gaggle of Yakuza thugs on top of a bullet train, but Mangold’s bag of tricks extends pretty much from opening credits to close. Though modest in scale, they hold that special kick that comes from practical effects, and while the green screen pops up every now and again, it’s a garnish for the stuntwork instead of the other way around.
And all that sound and fury serves a real purpose. With Jackman to lead us, we dive full-bore into the hero’s troubled soul: charting his slow road out of darkness and towards something resembling peace. The Wolverine borrows heavily from its source on this front, with the intricate civilization of Japan (both and ancient and modern) balanced against this unquiet interloper’s rage. Mangold throws in a few visual cues as a nod to Frank Miller’s art, and his free-form riffs feel organic even when they differ from the printed page.
Frankly, I have no idea how non-Wolvie fans will respond to this. It’s rich and yet accessible, quiet and yet exciting, grim and yet full of light touches. Those contrasts are totally in keeping with the miniseries, and do right by it even while opening the story to complete newcomers. (You could watch this without knowing anything about the X-Men.) Bryan Singer is apparently pulling out all the stops for Days of Future Past next year, and if Fox is going to capitalize on that momentum, they need this to serve as a palate cleanser more than a heavy meal. It succeeds gloriously in this task, and in so doing climbs far higher than many of its bigger and louder brethren. For me, it was a further reminder of why I love this character so much, and how much Jackman’s performance has honored him. We’re going to miss the actor when he steps down, a reality that The Wolverine makes abundantly clear.