The first 20 minutes of "The Wolverine" hint at a shadow, a figment, a glimpse of a film that promises a fresh and compelling take on the superhero genre. Unfortunately, this initial hope is squandered, and "The Wolverine" reveals itself to be a film in desperate need of a point, in dire need of consequences and in a wandering search of any semblance of emotional weight. Instead of seeking these attributes, "The Wolverine" alternatively chooses to make itself generic, perfectly palatable and massively predictable. Three people worked on the screenplay for "The Wolverine", hacking and Frankensteining the work, and it shows because there's no life force, as if everyone took the opportunity to remove anything that reached for a modicum of ambition.
As mentioned, the good that is to be found in "The Wolverine" happens early. After a brief prologue set during the final days of World War II, the film locates Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in the wilderness, an untamed beast at home amongst the trees and snow, walking alongside a grizzly bear in the bitter cold. He confronts a hunter who is using illegal methods, all the while being watched by the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has been sent to bring him back to Japan for equally mysterious reasons. She's also the best thing about "Wolverine" by 100 miles. Half Harajuku girl (with her tall boots and huge striped socks), half prophet, and all lethal. Her dark red hair and sullen complexion hint at a female lead with depth, one with a tough exterior borne from enduring even tougher circumstances, a natural companion to Logan's (The Wolverine's name) gruff and gritty attitude. In these early scenes, flashbacks to Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) are also utilized, and any effective romance in Wolverine's life has always sprung forth from the star-crossed Logan/Jean Grey relationship. Intense themes of loyalty and honorable death are also presented. Indeed, with flashbacks that resonate and a strong new woman standing with Logan, "The Wolverine" seems to be on the right track toward being a superhero film that matters, the first in a good long while.
It's at this point the movie self-destructs, and for no reason or gain. Logan and Yukio travel to Japan, where a new female lead is introduced, and this one is of a far more explicitly romantic nature. Where Yukio was knowing smirks and dark karma, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is straight from "I'm a lady, save me!" central casting. To say she is bland is to give oatmeal a bad name, for the character of Mariko flat-out murders this film. And why does Logan even need to become embroiled in a relationship that clearly has no real substance? I can only guess groupthink and an apparent aiming for the demographic center are the culprits, as "The Wolverine" knows that in order to make this a "date night" they'll need to have romance. But did they also need the melodrama? Evidently this is a prerequisite, as Hugh Jackman and Tao Okamoto fumble their way through an onscreen relationship that has less chemistry than a liberal arts degree. Additionally, the villains here don't even rise to the level of "one-note" - they're more like half a note, or perhaps a completely dropped trumpet emitting an accidental quarter-note. One of them, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) has no motivations other than being slithering and evil, and umm … being a viper. "Snakes are the worst!" said "The Wolverine" script, hoping no one would ask a follow-up question. Whom the other villains are isn't entirely clear, so muddled are the characterizations, defying clarity at every turn. Yup, the plot points that are obvious in "The Wolverine" are dumb, while the parts with no follow-through or explanation remain largely confusing.
"The Wolverine" also presents enormous logic problems. Logan and Mariko are on the run in Japan, a country featuring one of the densest population centers on Earth, and yet they are confronted by Yakuza at every intersection. Japan is treated like a small village, and even when the outskirts of cities are used the characters are usually given labeled maps that say "next plot point here" with a giant red X. For an audience, there's nothing to figure out, nothing to consider, just bright lights and the big city, mixed with occasional fighting noises and clumsy exposition.
The other issue that arises in parallel with the "inconsequential action" angle is the romantic side of Logan. I mean, who really cares? The wolverine is presented as a fearsome character, capable of doling out (and taking) huge amounts of punishment, only he's spooning and making out with his lady as often as he's fighting, for he is the archetype of man, loving hard and playing hard too. Naturally, this comes off as preposterous and forced. Mostly because we've just met the character of Mariko, which saps the momentum of pulling for the fledgling couple, but also because the act of saving someone doesn't always have to lead to romance. Yee gods, my kingdom for an authentic and organic relationship in a Marvel film.
A "hero" used to be a hero because he or she challenged our idea of the norm. In the modern superhero narrative, this is no longer the case. They all have a little something for everyone, and a lot of nothing for all. Need a bland romantic lead? Never fear, "The Wolverine" has you covered. How about some pointless action beats? Oh yeah, look no further. What about six or seven scenes where you just know Logan has no chance, he's doomed, only they refuse to roll the end credits. What's that? He somehow survived? These story features are more in a long line of "all is lost" moments, put there not because they tell the story, but only to prolong the running time (while giving the characters something to do). Where have all the real heroes gone? Are we a movie-going public that must accept stories without edge, released into theaters only to set up the next part of the story, always promising the "good" film is right around the corner (the next battle chapter invariably teased during a vanilla post-credits stinger)? If we're to reclaim the superhero genre, we must demand that story come first, that chances are taken, and that the claws of our protagonists are sunk deeply into lush world-building.
SCORE: 3.1 / 10
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and has seen an actual wolverine in the wild.