Monday, July 29, 2013

The Cinema File #226: "The Wolverine" Review

As much of a comic book fan as I am, I must admit that Wolverine and the larger X-Men universe have never really been my cup of tea. Mostly its just the fact that I didn't grow up with it as a comic like I did with Spiderman or The Fantastic Four, only coming on board with the nineties animated series and backtracking from there, but more than that, I never really understood why mutants were so intolerable in a world with so many other super beings. Why is a red, white, and blue roids junkie a national hero but a group of people with a shared genetic condition a suspect class? It always came off to me like an excuse for what amounts to social commentary too heavy handed to really be effective, and stylistically, more "cool" and "edgy" than substantively awesome. No single character embodies that style over substance better than Logan, The Wolverine, an amnesiac loner with claws and a healing factor, like Lobo or Deadpool more a loose assemblage of bad ass cliches and fan service than an actual character. Even for this comic book guy, the new film The Wolverine had a ways to go to win me over, and while it doesn't quite measure up to some of the best superhero movies in recent years, it is far from one of the worst.

The Wolverine follows Logan after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, still in mourning over the death of Jean Grey and trying to hide himself from the world, until he is brought back into the thick of things by a dying Japanese billionaire trying to repay old debts, setting off an adventure on the other side of the world. There is a point when a beloved character has been treated so shabbily in adapted media that a new film merely has to not suck in order to be a success, and whatever its merits or flaws, The Wolverine comes to us at exactly that point, after The Last Stand and X-Men: Origins gave us little reason to suspect anything good could come out of this franchise when not set in the swinging sixties.  The Wolverine doesn't suck. It's entertaining for the most part, even if it does slow down a bit in the middle, and the action is mostly solid throughout. Overall, there's very little to be too crabby about, but then not having the love for this source material as I do for some other comic books, I must admit I'm finding it harder to muster up the appropriate outrage over changes to characters as minor as The Silver Samurai.

Whenever a superhero is so powerful that they effectively cannot die, it always begs the question of just how dramatic the story can really be. Comic book stories are all about people fighting for their lives, and how can you fight for your life if you can't be killed? Recently Man of Steel answered this question by juxtaposing Superman's indestructibility with the very real human fragility of his many, many innocent victims. Thankfully, The Wolverine takes a different and less callous approach, temporally removing Logan's healing factor so that the ensuing fights actually stand a chance of taking him down. But then of course we know he isn't going to die, so the narrative cheat is completely pointless, and especially silly once you realize that the healing factor is the only thing keeping him alive at all with all that adamantium in his body (not to mention the fact that he can't heal, except for the wounds created in his hands every time his claws pop in and out). Logan doesn't need to be physically hurt for the story to work, because he can still be hurt emotionally; he doesn't have to share in the universal human experience of death, because he cares about those who do. This oversimplification wouldn't be so bad if the film didn't go so far out of its way to ignore a very significant death from this story arc in the comics that would have provided so much more dramatic pay-off than Logan wincing more often.

Not that you came all this way for logic or an engaging story, which for the record is fairly rote and predictable, but not to the point of being especially annoying. Even with all the lazy and sometimes just downright confusing attempts at misdirection, if you can't guess who the main villain is the first time he comes on screen, you should probably slap yourself at some point. As for the rest, Logan meets a girl in trouble, falls in love, and then fights a series of faceless Yakuza thugs and a cadre of second-tier Marvel bad guys. To the film's credit, it doesn't try to jam pack the narrative with too many mutants just for the sake of introducing obscure characters like X-Men: Origins did, but I think it almost goes too far in the other direction, leaving us with just two other mutants, neither of whom are actually mutants in the comics. But then most of it is just a loose framework for a series of action set pieces that are more or less fun to sit through. To say that it could have been so much more is to ignore the fact that it could have been so much worse, and as far as it goes, I'll take mindless excitement over mindless banality any day.

And then there are some moments that are just plain weird. Prepare yourselves for the great fraternal love between a man and a grizzly bear, and a third act that takes the movie from almost exclusively antiquated Japanese locales to a high tech sci-fi laboratory for no other reason than to have one of those completely arbitrary giant pits in the center of the room with very thin walkways across it. I'm taking a stand on these showing up in movies now, as they almost never make sense, but then feel free to call me a hypocrite if the movie I wrote with this very same ending ever gets made. And don't even get me started on the bullet train. I won't spoil it too much, but there is one action sequence in the movie that, while legitimately thrilling, is so over the top even by comic book standards that it completely took me out of the movie. The participants in said scene perform feats neither of them should be capable of, and while I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that the main character with mutant powers can do these things, some nameless bad guy who is never established as having superhuman strength or agility is not going to hold out as long as he does.

Still, overall, there's more to like than not here, and its a bit silly to criticize a comic book movie about mutants and giant cybernetic samurai warriors of being too weird or over the top. It doesn't do nearly everything it can with its rich setting and at least somewhat intriguing cast of characters, but what it does, it does well enough, and it doesn't go out of its way to make me hate being a comic book fan like the last one did. Leave your hurt feelings over Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool at home, come for the action and SNIKT! fueled mayhem, and make sure to stay for a fairly lengthy mid-credit sequence that puts the most squee-inducing Marvel teasers to shame, featuring some surprising or maybe not so surprising cameos foretelling big things for the next X-Men film Days Of Futures Past. This five minute capper is literally so good, it might have justified the movie even if it had been as bad as Origins, and since it isn't anywhere near as bad as Origins, you have no reason not to give The Wolverine a chance.

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