The movies have struggled with the character of Wolverine since he appeared in front of a camera. On one clawed hand, he is a dark and troubled character who dabbles in violence and anger, and on the other he is part of a profitable franchise that is slanted towards family entertainment. All three previous X-Men films, as well as the follow-up that will not be named, have struggled with this. Wolverine has felt caged, hinting at bridled anger but never really unleashing it. So, in the latest cinematic installment, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold and written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, is this troubled character let loose, or is he held back by his PG-13 cage?
The real cheat of an answer is yes…and no. This is the darkest Logan/Wolverine we have seen on film yet, but he’s still a bit restrained. Struggling with the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand”, and his own lack of mortality, this Wolverine is not in a happy, family friendly spot. The film begins with a recluse version of Logan living in the mountains doing his darnedest to not be his violent self. This plan is derailed when especially annoying hunters do an especially stupid thing that sends Logan into an especially violent rage. During this outburst, a mysterious character named Yukio(Rila Fukushima) shows up and escorts our hero to Japan for a meeting with an old acquaintance. And so begins our small-scale, well contained plot. Wolverine in Japan.
I say small-scale in the most superlative way possible. Too often, superhero films get so lost in the mythos of their world, trying desperately to world build in a way that allows for cross-promotion with other characters in the comic universe.The result is that the narrative gets so clogged and confused it stops being a stand-alone film; it becomes a feature length commercial for the universe of the responsible comic company. In The Wolverine, it is only Logan, and it is one simple goal he must accomplish. This allows for more time with our protagonist, and, more importantly, more time for the story being told.
There is no denying that the story being told here, though, is a bit silly. The final act devolves into a large scale exhibition of excess that doesn’t seem to quite fit in with the film’s prior sequences. That acknowledged, the film as a whole is shockingly effective. While this may not be the full-scale rage version of Wolverine, it’s the closest a movie audience has been given up to this point. That emotional turmoil and darkness of Wolverine is more than enough to carry the narrative through its conclusion.
One can’t help but notice the restraints on the character that are still in place, however. Rarely does a PG-13 rating declare itself more obviously than it does in The Wolverine. There are lines that Logan walks right up to, but can never cross. One sequence that ultimately involves a swimming pool comes to mind. When that sequence finishes, the audience has been shown a glimpse of how dark this character really can be, but with the safety net of that rating system. This is even acknowledged on screen with a one-liner from Wolverine that basically says “Yeah, it’s PG-13”.
All of these very minor quibbles aside, The Wolverine is a very good entry into the canon of this beloved character, maybe even the best yet. Besides the school-raid sequence of X-2, this is the truest glimpse at what made Wolverine such a beloved property in the comic world. So, while I would have never expected The Wolverine to be the best of this season’s action blockbusters, it is late July and we find Logan standing above Iron Man, SuperMan, and the Lone Ranger with his claws drawn and that famous smirk: “Hey bub.”