The superhero train keeps chugging along as the summer of 2013 inches toward the finish line. “The Wolverine” has an almost impossible task in front of it: to make us forget how terrible Wolverine: Origins was. That’s a tall order. While the first standalone Wolverine movie was nowhere near the travesty of X-Men: The Last Stand, it was clear that the franchise wasn’t headed in the right direction. X-Men: First Class righted the ship, but all it did was flesh out more origin tales for well-known characters. The Wolverine brings us back to the present and continues on from, well… one of the other X-Men movies. Take your pick.
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has gone recluse again. He’s having awful dreams night after night. Specifically, he has lifelike nightmares about August 9, 1945, the fateful day when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Wolverine – at that time known only as Logan – was there that day. As a prisoner he saved one of his captors from the bombing. Even with nuclear death raining down on him, Logan’s healing abilities proved too much for the reaper. The man he saved will one day become the richest man in Japan.
Flash forward to the present. The man is dying, but Wolverine still looks the same. The man, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) feels he owes Logan something, so he hunts him down, brings him to Japan, and explains a tantalizing offer. He can make the Wolverine mortal.
It’s an interesting premise. Logan spends his days painfully aware of his own immortality. There’s a reason when we first meet him here that he’s living in a cave out in the woods. He has forever to live, but nothing to live for. Other dreams involve Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) lying next to him, beckoning him to come to the other side. There’s nothing keeping him living except for his cursed immortality.
What The Wolverine does well is it doesn’t fall for the bait of introducing a whole host of new mutants just because this is a new movie in the X-Men universe. Director James Mangold, along with his writing staff, which includes Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher), Scott Frank (Minority Report), and Mark Bomback (Unstoppable), realize that’s what really sunk X-Men: The Last Stand and to a lesser degree Wolverine: Origins. Just because there are mutants doesn’t mean that you have to introduce dozens of new ones. Sidestepping that pitfall the story instead provides a laser-like focus on Wolverine, his deep-seated motivations, his anger, resentment, and fierce loyalty to fight for something greater.
He soon takes Yashida’s granddaughter under his Adamantium-infused biceps and swears to protect her. She’s in real danger, because what would a Wolverine movie be without action scenes involving lots of growling and slicing? Wolverine certainly does plenty of both here. The key, though, is that the movie understands that the action only feels like real action when the screenplay pauses for a bit and lets us digest the life-and-death stakes these characters find themselves in.
Like so many comic book movies The Wolverine has a hard time trying to figure out how to end its story (although the after credit scene is definitely worth staying for). It sort of builds and builds and then fizzles out at the end. The creatively produced action scenes in the middle of the movie outshine anything thought up for the movie’s ultimate climax. Though, while I find myself superhero’d out at the moment, “The Wolverine” isn’t the worst comic-based blockbuster to hit theaters this summer. It’s a decent, if at times a tad underwhelming, entry into the ever-expanding, seemingly-never-ending, Marvel universe.