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The Wolverine (2013)

The Last Stand-Alone

In honor of Hostess products returning to grocery store shelves everywhere, allow me to bust out a sweet snack-food analogy: The Wolverine is like a Twinkie. It attracts consumers with bright colors and brand recognition, only to leave them feeling queasy and kind of ashamed for indulging in a poor substitute for real food.

Hugh Jackman has lobbied hard for more than a decade to give the titular Marvel Comics character the respect he thinks he deserves, opting to play the brooding, metal-boned mutant in a whopping six films. But it's time to give up the fight and face facts: Wolverine is a supporting character at best, the rogue, bitchy conscience of bona fide, goody-two-shoes superheroes. The importance of that role in a team dynamic can't be understated. But between this film and the nigh-unwatchable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it should be apparent to everyone who's outgrown their grade-school persecution fantasies that tough-guy dialogue and effects-heavy combat scenes alone don't equate to quality filmmaking.*

That doesn't stop Jackman and director James Mangold from trying, though. In an effort to, I guess, humanize the rough-and-tumble immortal, the filmmakers set Wolverine down in modern-day Japan and give him a love story to half-navigate. As the movie opens, we find "Logan"--as he's called when out of costume--in self-imposed exile. He's taken a vow against killing, in the wake of offing would-be-girlfriend-turned-humanoid-supernova Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. Since he can't kill anything, he figures, the best use of his extraordinary gifts is pouting in the Canadian wilderness and gulping hobo chilli.

Along comes psychic samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the sexy, lethal enforcer of dying Japanese billionaire Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). In his last days, the old man wants to repay Logan for having saved his life during the bombing of Nagasaki--by offering him the gift of death. Yashida believes that Wolverine's adamantium skeleton holds the key to immortality, but Logan thinks better of afflicting anyone else with his curse.

Fast forward an hour-and-a-half to the climax wherein Logan fights a twelve-foot-tall adamantium samurai who turns out to be (SPOILER) piloted by the presumed-dead Yashida. I'd love to explain the fire-sword-wielding metal sentinel, but I can't. That would involve trekking back through the bulk of the movie and unraveling a dull Japanese soap opera, which Wolverine just happened to walk into. There's some business about Yoshida's son (Hiroyuki Sanada) taking over the family's tech empire, and his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), getting caught up with a would-be boyfriend/assassin (Will Yun Lee)--who's sworn to protect the family but gets tricked into kidnapping the love of his life at the behest of an evil, poison-spitting mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova)...

And in the interest of preventing another nosebleed, I'm just not wiling to go there.

The central problem with The Wolverine is that it serves three awful masters. Its first responsibility is to bridge the gap between the smart and surprising fun X-Men: First Class and its direct sequel, the forthcoming Days of Future Past. In essence, Mangold and company are brand managers, keeping Jackman/Wolverine in the public consciousness to remind audiences that The Avengers and its spin-offs aren't the only game in town (it's a rabbit hole of studio/IP rights that you're free to explore on your own time). The Wolverine isn't so much a movie as an hour-and-a-half promo for its own end-credits teaser, which sets up the next X-Men picture.**

The second reason this movie exists is the most cynical and disappointing, and it also has to do with business. As you may know, international revenue has all but superseded American box office dollars in importance with regards to how movies make their money back (or don't). That's why you hear about special China-friendly edits of major movies; why more and more films take place overseas (how many times have we seen London blow up this summer?); and why summer tent poles are gradually introducing more ethnic characters in their casts.

Don't misunderstand where I'm going with this: I take no issue with diversity in filmmaking; in fact, I crave it. But there's a gross calculation at play here, a pandering that has, so far, proven to be detrimental to movies that are being shoehorned into entertainment models, rather than being allowed to flourish organically under a singular artistic vision. Case in point: The Wolverine. 90 percent of the movie takes place in Japan; large stretches of its dialogue are in Japanese, with only occasional subtitles, and the Asian actors' accents are often so thick as to be indecipherable. This may be catnip to audiences outside the US, but as someone who just wanted to watch an X-Men spinoff in peace, the bizarre business politics bled through the screen as surely as the acid spewed by that Viper chick.

And, yes, I'm aware that the source material for this particular story is a thirty-year-old comics miniseries. But, true or not, the decision to go this route smacks of cold, corporate calculation, rather than the need to tell an important story about the character. Like almost every one of his other appearances in the X-Men series, The Wolverine finds Logan getting pulled out of retirement, forming reluctant relationships with people, and then quitting after everyone he loves ends up dead. The only difference here is a gross, pointless Eastern fetishism and an inexplicable abandoning of his new girlfriend at the end.

Speaking of which, I'm positive there are attractive actors out there fully capable of performing in accented English--without the result sounding like a series of dialect-coach-led screen tests. I have no idea what kind of performers Okamoto and Fukushima are because all they did in this movie was get their lines out (sort of) while simmering and/or crying. Just as I wouldn't trust, say, Larry the Cable Guy to play the second lead in a Japanese-language blockbuster, I don't appreciate studios forcing not-ready-for-prime-time actors down my throat, simply because they look enough like Anime maquettes to sell tickets.

The Wolverine's third master is its least important--and that's the character's collective fanbase. Unfortunately for them, this master is totally schizo. If Mangold, Jackman, and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank's goal was to give depth to Logan, they needed to do a hell of a lot more than recycle the hero-gives-up/loses-their-powers storyline we've seen a hundred times before in these movies. They should have also avoided all visual allusions to The Matrix; not stolen Iron Man's climax; and paid more attention to the drinking games they unwittingly created during the editing process. It's a little known fact, but this film's working titles were Knowing Glances: The Movie and Waking Up from Dreams: The Movie.

I guarantee everyone involved thought that, by dialing back the pace to practically zero and upping the high-school-poetry-class cheese to fifteen, they would somehow elevate the material. But all the breezy curtains, monotone professions of love and regret, and solemn speeches about honor (or whatever they were; I nodded off quite a bit during this thing) don't equal "interesting" by default. You will learn nothing of the character Wolverine by watching The Wolverine that you hadn't already gleaned from his other appearances.

I take that back. This movie officially cements the character's new catch-phrase: "Go fuck yourself"--a call-back to First Class and a great takeaway for the PG-13 audience, don'tcha think?

The only way to appreciate this movie is to turn off your brain. Sure, the filmmakers want you to think that the opposite is true, but if you're even half-way engaged in what's going on, the plot-holes, poorly staged CGI battles, and nonsensical character dynamics will likely infuriate you. It's like biting into what you've been told is a gourmet, medium-rare steak, and then confusedly wiping sugary cream filling off your chin instead of blood.

*Sorry, I'll stop bashing Pacific Rim now.

**Which, if you follow pop news or have seen the other films in the series, carries absolutely no surprise or dramatic weight. Magneto and Professor X catch up with Logan at the airport, and recruit him for the Avengers initiative. I kid, of course, but only a little. Rather than looking sufficiently bad-ass, Ian McKellan looks bloated and ill, and Patrick Stewart appears to have had several rounds of digital-smoothing surgery in between films.

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