In early March, director James Mangold tweeted images from ten films he described as having influenced “The Wolverine”. The choices were intriguing: from “Black Narcissus” to “Chungking Express”, the list seemed to promise a comic book adaptation with a rare arthouse flavor. Mangold’s films to date, which have ranged from middlebrow awards magnets to slummy genre flicks, are best defined by their workmanlike qualities, and if he has a distinct visual style at all it could only be described as anonymously competent. It’s hard to imagine the director of a film as nondescript as “Knight and Day” crafting a film of much personality, and yet Mangold was boldly proclaiming his interest in Hiroshi Inagaki and Yasujiro Ozu—influences which, if accurate, would virtually guarantee the most fascinating blockbuster of the year (read our full review here).
Having now seen “The Wolverine”, I can confirm that it has about as much in common with Wong Kar-wai as “The Amazing Spider-man” has with Hou Hsiao-hsien (which is to say, not much). Mangold has once again crafted a sturdy, indistinct wisp of a film, professionally assembled but altogether weightless, and while its look benefits from its often lovely Japanese locales, the end result is simply bland. Comparisons to the likes of “Floating Weeds” are not likely forthcoming (though Film.com’s Senior Editor tweeted something dubious about how Mangold’s film thematically channels the work of Mikio Naruse).
But despite falling short of its lofty mark, “The Wolverine” has nevertheless stumbled upon something compelling in its own right: in its leanness, simplicity, and refreshingly scaled-back scope, the film veers away from the tiresomely “epic” aspirations that have dominated superhero franchise films for nearly a decade, preferring instead to tell a (relatively) modest action story in a surprisingly old-fashioned way. In so doing, “The Wolverine” recalls the rarest of trends: the classic adventure serials not much seen since the silent era.
Though Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have both famously professed their love of serials, the latter in particular citing “Flash Gordon” as an all-important formative experience, these films didn’t so much inspire the form of “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as they did their content, helping to shape their mythologies and informing their use of archetype. What was crucial about the classic serials was the sense that a hero’s adventure was ongoing: the films were installments, new episodes which brought their own close calls and daring escapes, and when they ended on a cliffhanger it was to create excitement for whatever came next. Serials never intended to tell an original story or prove the ingenuity of their style; the interest was in seeing a beloved character swept along into some new danger in some new exotic locale.
Which, of course, is as good a description of “The Wolverine” as any: the Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman, returns to play the character for the sixth time, now whisked away to a highly fantastic Japan, where danger naturally awaits. The setting is central to the sense of serialization: much as old serials would take a guy like Douglas Fairbanks, playing more or less the same character as ever, and plop him down in Morocco or Texas or Spanish California to cross swords with a black-hatted and mustachioed fiend, one gets the impression with this latest “X-Men” outing that the filmmakers have simply thrown Jackman into yet another wild adventure in a foreign land. It helps that Mangold uses Japan as an endless source of cinematic cliches: from samurai philosophy to Yakuza gunplay down to ninja acrobatics, “The Wolverine” wastes nothing of the iconography around it, transforming modern Japan into a fantasyland of ridiculous action.
Produced for $125 million, “The Wolverine” cost significantly less than the bulk of its comic book contemporaries, many of which have ran bills far in excess of $200 million. Though hardly a low-budget affair, the reduced price tag has a clear effect on the scope and tenor of the film: not only does “The Wolverine” avoid the kinds of mass explosions and metropolitan takedowns that have defined blockbuster filmmaker this summer, it actually avoids major set pieces in general, mustering up only one or two at key intervals (its most substantial, not coincidentally, feels like it belongs to a different movie). The film is still action-oriented, but it’s action of the swashbuckling variety: Jackman fends off would-be samurais and ninjas as if he were a self-styled Zorro.
Tone plays an important part, too, in establishing “The Wolverine” as a different breed of blockbuster. Nearly every recent comic book adaptation has leaned toward a tonal extreme—on the one side there’s Christopher Nolan’s tiresome portent and self-seriousness, while on the other there’s the light-touch irreverence of Joss Whedon and Shane Black—but “The Wolverine” tries for neither, and instead winds up somewhere in between. The adventure elements are meant to be genuinely exciting, the darker moments are meant to flesh out the feelings, and the jokes are clearly demarcated as comic relief—all familiar gestures that have fallen to the wayside of late.
This is all very much in the tradition of the adventure serial, of course, but it’s also not unlike how James Bond films used to be made, before Daniel Craig took over the role and turned Bond into another Nolanesque Christ figure. There was a time when each new James Bond film felt like nothing more and nothing less than the next installment in an ongoing adventure, made relatively inexpensively and without so much regard for making every film a certiable classic. This isn’t necessarily the way to make great cinema—part of the problem with lower aspirations is that the payoff is smaller by design—and how much mileage “The Wolverine” ultimately gets out of its adventure roots is debatable. But what’s great about serials is that there will always be another just around the corner even if this one doesn’t quite pan out as hoped: “The Wolverine” even ends with a mid-credits stinger that teases the next “X-Men” picture, and maybe not unsurprisingly it’s the most exciting thing in the film.