Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Wolverine

Alternate Title:  Adequate at What he Does

One sentence synopsis:   Wolverine travels to Japan and becomes embroiled in a plot to steal his powers of regeneration.

Things Havoc liked:  I must confess, I never really understood all of the hate that X-men 3 received. No, it wasn't as good as the other X-men films, being both sloppily put together and involving several baffling decisions, and yet for all the sound and fury, I merely thought the movie was "okay", not great certainly, and no equal to the other fantastic movies (to say nothing of First Class), but hardly a disaster on the level of Origins. As such, while the aforementioned Origins was a titanic piece of crap, I had some hopes going into this movie that it might not suck. For one thing, the posters (yes, the posters) were astonishingly good, presenting Wolverine and other characters from the movie done up in Japanese brush-stroke style, with no explanation offered. For another thing, I simply like Hugh Jakcman as Wolverine, and always have, and for a third, this movie, unlike the last one, is actually based around a major arc from the original comics.

The arc in question is Chris Claremont and pre-insanity Frank Miller's 1982 take on the character titled simply "Wolverine", one of the best regarded in the character's history, that re-imagines the archetypical lone badass into a setting and role suited perfectly for him, that of a Japanese samurai. Why this is so is somewhat difficult to explain, particularly to those who see one comic book movie as much like another, but Wolverine as a character has always been rather difficult for some fans of the genre to take seriously. A morose, brooding badass gets tiresome quickly when all he is allowed to do is act like an asshole and otherwise smash people. This is why the best X-men movies involving Wolverine paired him up with such people as Rogue (in X-men 1), or explored his origin story in a way that gave him hard decisions to make (in X-men 2), playing down the gruff loner in favor of factors that would stretch the character. It should therefore be no surprise that the best parts of this movie are those where Wolverine dials the persona back in favor of more personal material, particularly an extended sequence in the middle of the film where (for plot reasons) the movie pulls out all the action, all the heroics, and even all the superpowers, in favor of just Wolverine and a woman named Mariko whom he winds up protecting almost accidentally. There's nothing particularly innovative about these scenes, but they're actually done surprisingly well, like something from a particularly good romantic-action film.

Frankly, when the movie is working, the above could be said over and over again. The early sequences, where Wolverine is plunged into a strange, byzantine world of complex politics and traditions he does not understand has been done before, but that doesn't make it any less effective, with a particularly good idea being the unsubtitled Japanese that most of the people around Wolverine are speaking. Action sequences in this film are not quite as spectacular as some, but that tends to help the film, grounding it in a bit more of a realistic context. One particularly good sequence on the roof of a bullet train actually provides Wolverine with nothing to fight beyond a pack of Yakuza thugs, and still manages to be reasonably tense (and fairly badass), as these sorts of things go.

Things Havoc disliked:  But all of the above only applies when the movie is working. And when it is not...

We'll forget the plot, which is insane and needlessly complicated, involving triple-switches and a badly telegraphed main villain who exists solely to provide an excuse for one of the stupidest looking interpretations of a villain I've seen since last year's Lizard, and just cut straight to the problem. The Wolverine is boring. And it is boring not because there is insufficient action, but because the action, like most of the characters and a large chunk of the plot is without purpose.

Consider Yukio, a female ninja from the original comics, who in this film has undergone a terrible anime-inspired re-invention that turns her into a pink-haired schoolgirl-uniform-wearing swordmaster who looks all of nineteen and yet who can, on multiple occasions, effortlessly defeat machine-gun-wielding triad gangsters with a large stick. This is stupid, and yet I would not have minded so much, if the movie had given her character some depth, or even a consistent motivation. She is effectively the adopted sister of Mariko, the woman Wolverine must protect, fine, but at times her actions seem motivated by some unrequited devotion to Wolverine himself, whether romantic or platonic, I can't even tell. If the film had just bothered to pick something with her and stick with it, I could have accepted it. Witty banter in the style of a buddy cop film between Wolverine and a pint-sized ninja is the sort of thing I would love to watch, regardless of how stupid it is empirically. But instead I have no idea what the film was going for with Yukio, beyond (and I fear this is the correct answer), "nerds like anime, right?"

Similarly, one of the several villains this movie sports is a marvel villain by the name of Viper, a mutant with powers over poisons and alchemical chemistry, who early on manages to suppress Wolverine's mutant healing powers (not a bad idea). Unfortunately, despite getting a large chunk of screentime, Viper is completely one-note, playing up the "ha ha ha look how much smarter than you I am" routine, even when dealing with a character she has never met before and has no reason to actually hate. Or what am I to make of Harada, a childhood friend of Mariko's and a character of some awesomeness in his own right in the comics, who in this film switches sides no fewer than five times, not once developing anything that could impersonate a motivation? By the end of the movie, when he selflessly leaps into action in defense of a man who just stabbed him against a horde of ninjas he previously commanded and a giant robot samurai with a sword made of fire, we have no idea why.

Oh, and speaking of giant robot samurais with swords made of fire, that is stupid. I know it doesn't sound like it in text, but the robot samurai exists for no reason whatsoever. I'd call it shoehorned in if there was even a shoehorn in play. As it stands, the film simply says "welp, here's a giant robot" because nerds also like those (insert Pacific Rim joke here). The robot isn't even the problem, the problem is that no element of this film exists for any reason other than the fact that the filmmakers thought it should be in the movie. For example, if you were an indestructable killing machine with claws of unbreakable steel in your hands, and ninjas fired arrows into you connected to ropes, would you perhaps cut the ropes as you made your way towards your goal? Or would you ignore them, struggling vainly onward as more and more ropes snared you, only so that you could fall dramatically to your knees in a cruciform pose while pathos-laden music played in the background? I recognize that on some level, every superhero in film is required to become Jesus once in a while (or in this case, St. Sebastian), but most of them don't go looking for opportunities to do so when the tools to avoid being captured are literally in hand.

Final thoughts:   Look, I appreciate the effort here, I really do. And it's true that this film never comes close to the depths that Origins plumbed, but the mere fact that this film is not as bad as that piece of crap does not magically transmute it into a good film. Ultimately, The Wolverine, while not unpleasant to watch, is completely pointless, with no consequences for the characters involved whatsoever beyond a handful of cosmetic alterations. The original comic was about Wolverine leaving his gruff asshole persona behind, immersing himself in a culture that was foreign and yet made complete sense to him, and finding a purpose in his immortal life that had previously eluded him. A film prepared to grow the character in that way would have been awesome (tell me you wouldn't pay to watch The Last Samurai starring Wolverine), but this movie has no ambitions beyond existing and keeping the character in the public eye prior to the big crossover throwdown to come next year.

As with most of Marvel's films, The Wolverine has a mid-credits teaser sequence, setting the wheels in motion for the next film in the series. I like this policy, by and large, but this is the first time I've ever seen the credits teaser also serve as the most exciting and interesting part of the entire movie.

Final Score:  4.5/10

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