Forty years ago the Incredible Hulk was fighting bad guys in Canada, and someone at Marvel Comics figured that Canada should have their own superhero – just for such an emergency. In a strained effort to find something distinctly Canadian that isn’t a maple leaf, the writers decided to pattern Canada’s first superhero after a species of large weasel that lives Canada. Thus Wolverine was born! It took many years of slow development for this weasel man to develop into the anti-hero that movie audiences know today. The person most responsible for fleshing out the character is Chris Claremont who wrote The Uncanny X-Men comic books for over a decade, and among Claremont’s most popular story lines was a mini-series that followed Wolverine as he adventured through Japan trying to make his feral nature fit in with refined Japanese society. That miniseries forms the basis of the latest movie outing for Wolverine, which is a substantial improvement over the last attempt at a Wolvie-centric film.
The Wolverine takes place some time after the third X-Men movie, politely pretending that the 2009 prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn’t exist. With many of his fellow X-Men dead or de-powered, Wolverine has become a feral loner who lives in the wilderness. Just like the main character, this film itself deliberately distances itself from the rest of the Marvel universe. There are few super-powered characters, only one of the other X-Men appears, and Wolverine loses his powers for a substantial portion of the story.
This makes it feel less like a superhero story and more like a blockbuster action movie with light sci-fi elements, along the lines of James Bond or Jason Bourne. Rather than fighting giant robots, or Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, The Wolverine pits its hero against ninja, Yakuza and samurai.
The comic books had dozens of issues to explain Wolverine’s backstory and introduce readers to Japanese characters like Mariko, Yukio, the Silver Samurai and clan Yashida. Despite six films, this is still the first appearance of any of these characters. In a prolog, it is revealed that Wolverine was a POW at the end of World War II, and during that time he befriended a Japanese soldier named Yashida (Played by Ken Yamamura, and in later scenes by Hal Yamanouchi). Yashida would later grow to become the head of Japan’s largest corporation.
In the present day Yashida is near death and summons Wolverine to Japan for a final farewell. Once in Japan, Wolverine promptly falls in love with Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Due to many machinations from a variety of subplots, Wolverine and Mariko find themselves being pursued by numerous factions of bad guys.
The Wolverine’s first two-thirds are a worthy use of Hugh Jackman’s talent. Always overqualified for the role, here he gets to set aside the cocky attitude of the previous films and play the underdog. Wolverine is on the run and his super powers have been suppressed by mysterious means.
On top of that he’s suddenly the only person who can protect Mariko. This need to defend a non-mutant makes him seem even more vulnerable. It takes the character back to the second X-Men film where he was stuck baby-sitting a crew of teen mutants for much of the story.
Unfortunately the final act takes a wild turn and suddenly embraces superheroics. Director James Mangold allows things like silly spandex costumes, and cyborg robosuits to enter the picture for an action-packed finale. Some audiences might have spent the whole movie waiting for The Big Super Showdown, but the story leading up to it doesn’t mesh with the arrival of a cyborg samurai, and a venom-spitting snake woman.
Some non-powered characters from the comics are needlessly given mutant abilities for this adaptation (While one mutant character is drastically reinterpreted). True, this does make the enemies more dangerous, but the comic book didn’t need to add in super powers to make Japan’s warriors menacing (In Claremont’s miniseries, Wolverine is nearly beaten to death by a man wielding a wooden sword).
Despite stumbling in the climax, The Wolverine more than makes up for Wolvie’s disastrous outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Focusing on the character’s constant struggle between his feral side and his humanity is what made the story work as comic book, and it mostly succeeds in the movie too. Dedicated fans can even catch a teaser for the upcoming X-Film Days of Future Past. The Wolverine is playing now.