Sunday, September 22, 2013

BOP Reviews... The Wolverine

It's appropriate that the first time we see Hugh Jackman's Wolverine way back in the first X-Men film, is during a vicious cage fight where the announcer introduces him as "The Wolverine". And now, over ten years later, a film titled THE WOLVERINE has given us a definitive portrayal of the character, both from Hugh Jackman (who continues to carve himself into the role more than even any James Bond actor has been able to manage), and from a story that attacks the core of who Logan is. Comic fans, and the movie going public hasn't grown tired of seeing Wolverine quip and slice his way through the bad guys for the greater good. After all, he's the best at what he does, and what he does isn't very nice. But after those he's loved have died, after suffering through wars, and fighting the good fight like any soldier would... what if Logan has grown tired of being Wolverine? 

The Wolverine is a film that tackles Logan's immortality more so than any comic story has, really. Of course, the movie is loosely based on the classic Chris Claremont/Frank Miller "Japan Saga" arc, which told the story of Logan returning to Japan to help his old love Mariko, deal with the Yakuza, fight ninjas, and figure out if he's truly a man or an animal masquerading as a man.

The film covers much of the same ground at it's core, but has recast a lot of events. Gone is Logan's previous love and adoption of Japanese culture. He's been there before, sure, but only during the war, or perhaps some travel here and there. Other than that, he's not adept at the language, or the culture. In this version of the story, we see Wolverine adopt the mantle of a Samurai, and learn that he's a Ronin. For this particular journey, it works wonderfully, when in most other instances it would have been unfaithful to the character. Wolverine adopting this new culture, thriving in it, and being reborn is all part of his arc. So, recasting Logan as a stranger in a strange land only adds to it. And that's what the film really does with the comic arc it's based on, adds on top of it. There's only a few instances where I feel there are things taken away, but the core of what that story was to the character is still intact, along with a story of an immortal searching for a good death. I warn you now, this review is filled with spoilers.
The film opens in a similar manner to the comic(after a short but important WWII flashback), but this time Logan is a hermit living in the mountains of Canada, completely secluding himself from the outside world. At night he's haunted by dreams of war, and by the apparition of Jean Grey. Last we saw of her, Wolverine gutted her in X-Men: The Last Stand after she went all Dark Phoenix on us. Funny enough, I feel like the story of guilt and self hatred that Logan goes through, and the way they play Jean as a ghostly vision of death, beckoning him to join her on the other side to end his pain, actually... well it doesn't make up for any of the massive missteps of X-3, but it does make Wolverine killing Jean with Cyclops out of the equation work better by proxy. 

Logan is soon forced to confront a bear he had seen previously(in a great little bit where the two animals go about their business). This time though, the bear has gone crazy from a poison tipped arrow, illegally used by some idiot hunters. In a scene that I feel is superior to the comic version, the bear writhes on the ground as Logan has no choice but to put the bear out of it's misery. It's a harsh scene, that I was surprised by. I figured it was coming due to the comic, but Director James Mangold doesn't show the bear die easily with a quick off screen SNIKT. All Logan can do is end the bear slightly quicker, and we watch it die, hear it roar in pain and fall limp. This really sets the audience up for the kind of film this is going to be -- and that is very much not a superhero movie.

It's then Wolverine heads to a bar to confront the hunters and exact revenge. He extends his claws and whispers, "I'm sorry, Jean" -- in Logan's mind, a soldier who has cast aside killing and promised he never will again, he feels in this moment he can't escape it and has to kill the hunters. And besides the fact they deserve to die... to him, this is his nature, it's all he's good for. Even though this scene has Logan acting like his comic book counterpart more than any of the other films, it's actually a pretty low moment for the character. He's angry, he doesn't care, and he's going to break his vow just for the hell of it. In most other cases, Logan would have beaten them senseless and turned them in. Not slaughtered them. Just as he's about to do the deed, he's stopped by Yukio. She expertly intimidates the hunters and tells Logan not to worry about them -- they'll die soon anyway. 
This version of Yukio differs GREATLY from the Yukio of the comics. Not just look wise, but this version is even a mutant, with the ability to see a person's coming death. Which should be silly and eye rolling, but is actually used subtly and to decent effect, and at one point used to only enhance Yukio's backstory as we learn she watched her own parents die long before they did. This version of Yukio isn't quick to change sides, isn't an adrenaline junkie or assassin. She's more Mariko's bodyguard and friend. She is highly trained and can dispatch and kill if need be, but she's not morally ambiguous. Also, one other thing I loved about the movie was there was no forced love story between her and Logan, which I was glad to see. Worked in the story of the comic, would have been tacked on in the film. No tension between the two is found, and Rila Fukushima plays her amazingly, for this being her first feature film(and one of her first acting roles).

Logan goes with her to Japan, for a soldier he saved the Nagasaki bombing is dying, and he wishes to say goodbye to this mythic figure who saved him all those years ago. He also offers Logan a "gift", a chance to end his immortality once and for all. He offers to transfer Logan's healing factor to himself, saving his life, and giving Wolverine a chance to live a normal life and die as an ordinary man, free from the burden of eternity. But this is where the expertise of Mangold and the writer's getting Wolverine so well comes into play, because a lesser movie would have Wolverine want to mull it over, consider it, or something else. But Logan isn't that, and pretty much tells the old Yashida to go to hell on his death bed. Logan isn't a man who wants the easy way out, and isn't about to pass it on to anyone else. He's also well aware that, at this point in the story anyway, a hope for a normal life and death is far behind him.


Old Man Yashida dies in the night, and very quickly things go awry as Logan finds himself thrust into a Yakuza backed conspiracy to kill Mariko, Yashida's granddaughter. Logan doesn't know Mariko in this version of the story, but did earlier stop her from committing suicide -- binding them together through a want of death. Old Man Yashida has left the massive company he owns to her, and not his son Shingen, causing Mariko's father to put a hit out on her, and in turn causing Logan to become her own personal bodyguard. Giving him purpose.
Shingen is a bit different than he is in the comics as well. Which isn't a bad thing, he practically plays the same role. The one big thing I missed was the Kendo fight between Shingen and Logan early on. In the film we see him take down an opponent, but it would have meant more to see Logan bested. Saying that, the inevitable showdown between the two in a claw vs sword battle was amazing and lived up to the fight in the comic. Surprised me it even had a very similar ending with how Shingen is dispatched.

So, through this conspiracy -- which becomes somewhat muddled by a third act reveal -- Mariko and Logan begin to fall in love. As a comic fan and a massive fan of the character and this comic, it was a joy to watch the relationship form. Mariko is arguable far more important in the scheme of who Logan is as a person than Jean ever will be. Jean is a flirtatious romance that even Logan knows has no real end -- Jean belongs with Scott. But Mariko and Logan runs deep and is a part of them both, and the movie builds this greatly considering they have no prior history. It's through Mariko that Logan finds this Japanese culture and how he fits into it. He's right at home being this mythic God from Japanese mythology who's actually walking around modern day Nagasaki. I was actually surprised at how much time their relationship building gets, and the movie in no way slows down for it. Tao Okamoto is very good as Mariko, which is really impressive considering this is her first time acting ever, having previously only been a magazine model.
While Logan finds himself again, we periodically see the villainous Viper and the ambiguous Harada plotting something. A lot has been said about Viper in this movie, and I went in fully expecting her to be stupid, act terribly, or have no point. But I ended up really enjoying her and found her quite cool -- and not like a comic book femme fatale. Which makes sense, she has little to nothing in common with any Marvel Comics Viper, besides the green outfit. No, but this Viper is one half noir femme fatale, one half James Bond villain, who can spit poison and shed her skin to heal wounds. It's through Viper that Logan's healing factor is reduced, much like it is in the comic, and makes him killable.

Harada on the other hand really in no way resembles his comic book counterpart. We're introduced to some ancient Silver Samurai armor in a scene that he first appears in, but he never dons it. Shingen dons pieces of that armor actually. And the actual robotic Silver Samurai that appears in the film later on -- and nearly brings the movie down under it's own weight -- is also not Harada. Here Harada is no longer Mariko's half brother, but an old love form her past. He's also the leader of The Black Clan, a league of ninjas who act as bodyguards to the Yashida Clan. Harada is bound by duty to do what the Elder Yashida wishes, and so he does. But he stays ambiguous, and actually gets a character arc which still blows my mind... I really wasn't expecting that. It's sad we won't get to see him return in a later film, but even if he did, with how his arc ended it wouldn't have been as the evil Silver Samurai anyway.

Well, we've skirted around the third act enough, guess we should talk about it. After defeating Shingen, removing the device from his heart that's been nullifying his healing(and in a way, dying and being reborn) Logan and Yukio head to a very James Bond/Comic Book location(in a good way) of a Yashida compound built into the side of a mountain. Here we finally see, in live action, Wolverine battle NINJAS. NINJAS. I have to keep saying that. As comic fans, we know Logan can't go two feet without fighting ninjas, so it's nice that over ten years since Jackman first donned the claws, he finally gets to fight NINJAS. Sadly, the fight seemed pretty cut down in the theatrical cut, but we do get the most Frank Miller image ever put on film -- and I'm counting Sin City here. Wolverine with arrows and ropes coming out of his back, as ninjas repeatedly fire more, as he tries to pull his way toward saving Mariko. Then finally, Harada fires a poison tipped arrow into Logan's back. Much like the bear, remember?
Logan awakens, tied to a high tech chair. And this is where the movie stumbles a bit. I don't hate the third act, or even dislike it. It's just... out of place. The identity of the Silver Samurai is the only eye rolling thing that happens, everything else just seems random considering the previous scenes. It actually fits the comic arc in that way, in which the Shingen fight is the end to the serious character drama portion of the story, and then the Silver Samurai stuff is more a traditional X-Men story. Not intentional, but a funny coincidence. 

Here we see that Old Man Yashida is in fact still alive, being kept that way by a high tech samurai suit made out of Adamantium. Because science. This reveal is clumsy and a bit stupid. It's ultimately not necessary. Viper could have turned out to be the big villain and the Silver Samurai could have just been a robot. I don't know. It just came off very, "really?", to me. Between that and Wolverine fighting a very obviously CGI giant robot, it just felt... odd. Why did it even need to be giant? I don't really understand the choice to play these events out like this. And also, Yashida still being alive and wanting to steal Logan's immortality actually makes the conspiracy against Mariko seem strange. How these two plot lines tie together is barely explained. It's not quite a plot hole, it's just a head scratcher. But the film manages to keep it's balance, and recovers once this sequence of events are over with. But it is a very large "huh?" mark on an otherwise great and well thought out piece.
This rather lame version of the Silver Samurai comes with a sword that supercharges itself -- making it so it can cut through adamantium, and imitating comic book Harada's mutant power. This actually makes Wolverine vulnerable again, and actually more killable than he was throughout the rest of the movie. The aim here is Yashida needs to extract Logan's bone marrow to transfer the healing factor(because, once again, science). He does this by cutting off his adamantium claws. Now, it sounds like it's getting really stupid, but here is where the third act does something interesting. Instead of just doing a hero villain fight with no consequences, something ACTUALLY HAPPENS TO LOGAN. Something permanent(for now). He loses both pairs of adamantium claws, instead bringing back his bone claws, his real true animal side and using them to kill Yashida. With some help from Mariko, of course. 

Any other time, I would have said Wolvie losing his claws was an idiotic decision, and that someone would have to fix that, and it just causes more problems. But in this case, it's perfect. He should in this story, something needs to happen to him. Logan needs to be put through the ringer. This is damage that won't heal, and the story called for such a thing to happen. He's not only gone through a mental change but a physical change. I'm glad Mangold did that, and the studio allowed it to happen.

With Yashida defeated, Logan leaves "Princess" Mariko to her new company, knowing he has to get back out there -- he could stay with her, but that's not Wolverine. He's a soldier, knowing he has to get back, be it with the X-Men, or travelling, looking for a fight. So, with Yukio in tow, he goes off. He doesn't know where, but it's not back to the mountains to cut himself out of the world. There is a point to Logan's existence, a reason for him to be alive, and he now knows that.
Logan leaves Japan a Samurai, a Ronin. During the final battle with Shingen, Logan finally declared himself "The Wolverine", and in doing so, and in finally telling the apparition of Jean that he's not coming with her, that he had to kill her, that it's time to let her go... Logan has accepted who he is, what he is, and that he's more than just a killing machine. He is a man, a good man, and not an animal. He's the best at what he does.

It just so happens, that what he does, isn't very nice.

-Mike Napier