RECAP: The Wolverine
The Wolverine (2013): James Mangold
Fox released this gem of a mutant saga in a year full of Thor, Iron Man, and Superman. News was circulating of a team-up of the original X-Men and the new cast, released a year later.
For a character who loves to be lost, his film got lost. The Wolverine is the least X-Men-like X-Men film, and its gross proved it, earning only $133 million at the domestic box office, good for dead last in the mutant series.
And that’s a shame, because this is possibly the franchise’s best movie. It’s certainly a unique one, a film devoid of world-beating stakes and the mutant game of Mexican standoff.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Wolverine, eager to be rid of the world, returns to Japan to meet an old friend…or so he thought, Dun dun DUUUUNN!
Hugh Jackman returns as Logan, aka Wolverine. Not just any Wolverine. This time he’s the definite article. THE Wolverine.
Jackman is creeping up the list of most times reprising a character on film. Christopher Lee played Dracula nine times, Jackman is at eight and counting (though two are cameos that don’t count for much).
Logan is depressed. He’s literally living in a cave, his only possessions are empty liquor bottles, a dead radio, and a picture of his beloved Jean Grey. He’s spending his nights dreaming about the time he killed her, and when not doing that, he’s dreaming about the time nuclear bombs set him aflame.
Bad times and good reasons to live in a cave, away from people. His only friend is a bear. When you live outside of human society, it can be hard to reintegrate.
One day Logan strolls into town to buy new batteries. He runs into a quartet of drunk Good Ol’ Boys about to go bow hunting. When the clerk asks Logan if he’s a hunter, he says, “Not anymore.”
That night, in the driving rain, Logan hears the screams of a human in the woods near his cave. He follows the sounds to find his bear friend laying on the ground, suffering from an arrow wound in the back of his neck. The bear growls. “Don’t make me do this,” Logan pleads. He immediately does do it, plunging his metal claws into the bear’s neck, putting out of its misery.
Logan cannot run from what he is–a killing machine. That night he walks back into town, finds the bar where the hunters tell their story of killing the bear, and offers to buy the man a drink.
Logan smashes the bear-killing arrow into the man’s hand. “Ask me where I found it,” Logan says. The man does. “Funny you should ask,” Logan says, enjoying himself for the first time in months.
Turns out the man dipped his arrow in poison, shot the bear, and the bear went crazy and attacked the hunters. Boo hoo. Logan’s eager for a fight, but he won’t get one.
Enter Yukio (Rila Fukushima). She’s watched Logan for days, tracked him for a year, and is ready to make her move. She sees a different future for Logan–an honorable death.
She diffuses a brawl by drawing her sword and slashing a beer bottle and stool legs. The hunters are drunk, but they ain’t blind. They don’t mess with the swordswoman.
Logan mentally battles two dichotomies–his survival instinct and a desire to die. Jean Grey visits him throughout The Wolverine, begging Logan to let go and join him in death. “It’s not hard to die,” she says, later, as he’s bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds. “Come to me.”
He almost does, but the need to fight for justice, to protect others, overrides longing for death. Logan collapses in Tokyo guarding Mariko (Tao Okamoto), heir to the powerful Yashida corporation.
Logan pulls a medical device from his own heart to stay alive long enough to help Yukio. When finally offered the chance to give in to death, he doesn’t get enough time to decide.
Jackman brings his patented Wolverine grimace to the role. This time, however, he seems angrier than ever. In fight scenes he delivers death blows as if he were trying to kill all the world by killing each Yakuza gangster or black clad ninja warrior.
The Wolverine‘s villain stays hidden for a long time. First we think it to be the Yakuza. They are the loudest of baddies running around Tokyo, snatching and grabbing industrial scions and impersonating Shinto priests at funerals. They have no shame.
The Yakuza prove to be the tool of more powerful string-pullers. MAJOR SPOILER ALERT: the bad guy is the founder of a massive electronics conglomerate (think Sony) named Yashida.
Haruhiku Yamanouchi plays the contemporary, aged version of Yashida, though we first meet him in a POW camp outside Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, a, let’s call it memorable, day in the history of that city.
Yashida patrols the camp one morning when he hears an air raid siren. Bombings were quite common across Japan in 1945, but this morning the US sent only one plane. Yashida didn’t yet know that, but he decided to free some of the American prisoners.
Yashida comes across a strange cell with a stranger prisoner–a man affixed to the wall by bones coming out of his hands. Yashida releases this prisoner, and Logan (as we know him), leads his captor-turned-liberator into a huge hole in the ground.
The second atomic bomb drops. Fire spreads across the city, flattening nearly everything, killing tens of thousands. That fire penetrates the prison ditch with Logan and Yashida. Logan uses a metal grate to protect Yashida, though a lick of the nuclear fire touches the Japanese man’s cheek. The fire engulfs the American man. No matter to Logan, who can heal even horrible radiation in seconds.
Yashida finds Logan’s powers…interesting. By interesting I mean consuming, such that Yashida will never pass a day without thinking about him.
Yashida spends his following 70 years founding and growing a technology company that makes him possibly the most powerful person in Japan. His name covers billboards across the nation. His biological granddaughter, Mariko, is engaged to a government Minister.
Yashida, late in life, dying of cancer, calls for Logan. His adoptive granddaughter Yukio labors a year to find the reclusive Wolverine, and only to give him a sword, the sword young Yashida tried to give Logan in the depths of a Nagasaki prison camp.
Logan grants the dying man’s wish and travels to Japan. Many bad things ensue, and they end in the near death of Logan at Yashida’s hands.
Yashida is an interesting character for a few reasons. One, he appears in only three scenes, yet directs all the plot. Two, he plays different roles in each scene: sidekick to Logan in Nagasaki, mentor to Logan inside the Yashida house, and antagonist during the climax.
Yashida proves that a villain need not be on screen often to pose danger to the film’s hero. It is Mariko who finds herself in mortal danger for much of the film, but Wolverine’s proximity to her endangers him as well.
Mariko’s grandfather is partly responsible, though indirectly, for her danger. Why tell her, three days before anyone else would find out about it, that inheritance of Yashida Industries will skip Yashida’s vindictive, greedy son and transfer to the demure but tough Mariko?
We watch the moment Yashida tells Mariko the good news, but from Logan’s perspective, so we can’t hear what Yashida says or see his delivery, only Mariko’s sobbing as she listens. We cannot interpret his true motivation for spilling the beans.
Let’s talk about one of my favorite action scenes of the X-Men franchise. It’s comes early in The Wolverine and it takes place at a funeral.
Logan reluctantly attends Yashida’s (fake) funeral with Yukio to help him navigate the intricacies of Japanese manners. Logan does a bad job.
He’s on guard though, because bad things are bound to happen when he’s near. And it doesn’t take long for them to. Mariko and her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) approach their patriarch’s shrine to pay last respects. Logan is the only one who notices the forearm tattoo on a Shinto priest.
I don’t know if Yakuza are covered in tattoos, and I don’t know if Logan knows, but he knows enough to know when no one else knows that he knows that something is wrong. He takes the time to inform Mariko of this, but no one wants to listen because it’s the middle of a funeral for one of Japan’s most famous persons. Can you imagine watching Princess Di’s funeral and see a poorly dressed American tourist grab Prince William and tell him that something’s not right?
But this is a movie, specifically Wolverine’s movie, thus Logan turns out to be correct. He’s immediately shot by a fake priest. Yakuza materialize everywhere and grab Mariko, running her away from the compound.
The Yashida clan won’t tolerate this, of course. They fight back. Logan goes claws out and slashes mobsters as we’ve seen him do so many times. Most of the blood shown is his, however, because this is PG-13 and too much blood makes teenagers sad.
Yukio finds a staff and gets in the action by bashing guys’ faces and blocking their trigger fingers from shooting her. Also, there is a man skulking about the temple’s roofs. He busts out a bow and unleashes arrows at gangsters wailing on Logan.
Mariko shows some martial skill, hardly in the same league as Logan and Yukio, but good for normal folk. She escapes into the streets and Logan finds her. Bow guy free runs across rooftops because, let’s face it, free running became an action stunt prerequisite since Casino Royale‘s spectacular scene opening sequence.
Logan leads Mariko through a gaming parlor because ha! Japanese play lots of games LOL. I know Mariko is scared, but shouldn’t she lead the escape? It’s her city. Logan hides them in a closet and stabs a gangster through the door. Level up.
Mariko ditches Logan at the train station. For the second half, scroll to the Stunts section.
Yukio is Logan’s self-appointed bodyguard. Losing her parents early in life, Yukio roamed the streets, searching for food amongst garbage, until she was plucked from squalor by Yashida to be a friend to Mariko, who struggled to make friends.
Yukio developed into a fine martial fighter. When Logan comments that her adoptive father, Shingen, presumed heir to the Yashida company, is an excellent sword fighter, Yukio says, “He’s alright.” She’ll prove her meddle later.
Yukio became like a sister to Mariko, but, as Mariko’s father said, “You are a toy doll.” Yukio was a companion for a woman that has outgrown her.
Fukushima brings intensity to a role that demands it, but she knows her character has boundaries. Yukio could be a Wolverine-like warrior, but she seems to understand that her protective responsibilities outweigh any personal need for vengeance. This makes her a good foil and leash-holder to Logan.
Svetlana Khodchenkova portrays the most obvious henchman, a mutant named Dr. Green. Green, who wears that color later in the film, is an oncologist treating Yashida’s cancer. When not wearing a lab coat, she’s walking around spitting poison into people’s faces.
Viper, her mutant name, is immune to all poisons, a great trait when snake handling, testing food for emperors, or disposing nuclear waste. If she drank bleach as a child or ate paint chips, and what kid hasn’t, she came out unscathed.
Viper’s chief resistance, the one of most utility, is to the toxin of Man. It’s unclear if that means mankind or the male sex, but either way she’s trying to say that she’s immune to all the bullshit out there and she keeps it 100.
Viper works for Yashida. This isn’t a Mystique situation, where she might go rogue at any moment. Yashida wants Mariko alive, and Viper aims to follow his orders.
I’m pretty sure Khodchenkova was dubbed. She mouthed the words well, but I guess her accent was, like the man who played Auric Goldfinger, considered inscrutable. I wonder if producers discovered this before or after casting her.
Shingen is Yashida’s son, a man desperate to inherit the company. “It’s all he dreamed of,” Mariko says. He didn’t get it, and it made him mad.
The son, it seems, did not know of his father’s plans to reinvigorate himself with Logan’s essence (not THAT essence). The Yakuza kidnap Mariko for ransom, presumably, but it’s not clear if they know she is to be the new company head.
Most viewers knew Shingen to be a less-than-ideal father shortly into the film. I wasn’t convinced until he asks Mariko if she knew that he studied genetics in college. Seems like a thing two close family members would know about each other. Next, Shingen threatens his daughter with a sword. THEN I was convinced he was a bad dad.
Logan thinks Shingen tried to kill his own daughter. He tries to kill Logan, too, and the Wolverine doesn’t play those games. Shingen passes away with a claw through his neck.
Picking up from the where I left off earlier–the train sequence. Onboard a bullet train away from Tokyo, Logan discovers his wounds aren’t healing as normal. He stumbles into a bathroom between cars and washes off blood into the gunmetal sink.
When he exits the bathroom, into an atrium separating two train cars, he meets four Yakuza searching for Mariko. Wolverine has never been one to back down from a fight, even injured, and he doesn’t here.
Logan slashes the exterior wall and kicks a guy out of it. He knocks another out, but that guy floats onto the train’s roof. He kicks out a third gangster, and the camera tracks Logan out the side of the car as he grips the wall and a gangster holds Logan’s leg.
Logan flips onto the roof with the bad guy. Both guys stab the train roof to hold on–the train is building up to 150 miles per hour. They menace each other.
Logan uses one set of claws to pivot down the train toward the gangster. Both men slash at each other but miss. Obstructions above the train track come into play, as both men watch ahead to duck under them.
Eventually Logan decides to fly over the obstructions. He just lets his claws go, pushes off, and lands again farther down the train. The gangster does the same. Still they can’t strike each other.
Finally, Wolverine tries a trick. He faces up-train and fakes leaping like there’s something ahead. The gangster takes the cue and leaps up, smashing into a metal barrier and dying instantly.
Sick of this shit, Wolverine spots another gangster creeping toward him. Logan raises up and, claws out, flies Superman style into the goon, flipping him off the train.
This terrific scene was full of intensity and tension. While atop the train, the two men barely hit each other, but the outside dangers made every move fraught with death defiance.
Wolverine is often portrayed as little more than a civilized animal. Close-quarters is the only combat he knows, so watching a fight where he has to use his wits, and at high speed, makes for an interesting scene.
In a scene inside the Yashida home, Yukio tests her martial skill. She must face down Shingen. Logan is doing self surgery, so he’s out, and Shingen wants to kill them both. Yukio won’t let it happen.
The fight is in Yashida’s home cancer ward. Shingen, presumed dead, has donned his samurai armor and found two swords. He enters the room looking for blood.
Yukio has no sword. She must dodge Shingen’s attacks. She spins around scanning equipment, slides under tables, and flips over slashing sword blades until she can find a sword. The Yashida house is not large, but swords are everywhere. The sword/room ratio might exceed 1.0.
Yukio holds her own for a moment, but she’s not as good as Shingen, who barely pays attention to her, slapping her away with his sword at one point, eager to get to Wolverine, who is unconscious on the hospital bed after removing a robotic spider attached to his heart.
Yukio is knocked out. Shingen goes for the killing blow, but he’s blocked by the claws of the healed-now Wolverine. They fight for some time, Shingen stabbing Wolverine several times. But that hardly matters; he can heal now.
Logan drives a bike he found somewhere to Yashida’s ancestral town, one still comprised of wood shacks and clad in falling snow. The village resembles a woodcut.
Logan meets Will Yun Lee playing Harada, the bow guy from Tokyo and leader of the clan of black ninjas sworn to protect Yashida’s clan for the past 700 years. They face off, as Logan has sworn to protect Mariko. Funny, Harada swore the same thing. Don’t they know they are on the same team?
“Is that all the men you brought?” Logan asks Harada as dozens of black clansmen slink toward them on rooftops. Then, “Go fuck yourself, pretty boy.” They fight.
Mariko, ye distressed damsel, watches as Logan runs toward the tower. The ninjas fight him and shoot him with arrows. At first we think they are stupid for trying that, until the arrows with ropes strike Wolverine. They want to slow him.
Harada finishes Logan with a poison-tipped arrow (thanks Viper!). Logan awakens in a chair with his wrists bound. Viper slithers in, wearing a shiny green clothing item resembling, well, a viper. She tells Logan that she is immune to all toxins, and “the toxin that is Man.” Good line.
Logan doesn’t like this chit chat, and he extends his claws. “Now we can begin,” Viper says. She wanted those claws out.
While this transpires, Harada tries to convince Mariko that they are on the same team. The lady doesn’t buy it. She’s still trying to parcel out what Viper asked her earlier. Why did Yashida choose her to lead the company? “Is it because you’re strong, or because you’re weak?” Mariko mistrusts her own strength.
Meanwhile, Yukio has arrived, again following the bad guys in her Audi sport coupe. She calmly walks through town as if climactic battles were not raging around her.
Back with Logan, a giant adamantium samurai robot boots up. It strides to Wolverine and draws out a huge sword, also adamantium, and superheated. The samurai is about to chop off Wolverine’s claws, until Mariko runs in to absorb the blow. The samurai turns the sword and destroys Logan’s chair, freeing the beast.
Harada shoots an arrow into Viper as Wolverine helps Mariko escape. The Silver Samurai leaps down a few levels. Wolverine spear tackles him and uses his claws to block a sword strike. Fending off one sword, the samurai draws a second heated sword and slices off the claws on Wolverine’s right hand.
Viper does a skin peel and spits venom into Wolverine’s face, temporarily blinding him. Yukio arrives and attacks Viper, who does not poison her. Swords can’t block spit venom, so why not give that a shot?
Wolverine absorbs a few blows from the samurai. Eventually he’s knocked outside the tower and nearly falls, only to be saved by the samurai after he’s cut off Wolverine’s other claws.
The mask pops open to reveal…Yashida! Dead Yashida! Turns out he faked his death and kidnapped Mariko to draw Logan to his secret facility. Six drills protrude from the samurai suit and drill into Logan’s bone marrow, extracting his life-extending essence.
Yashida’s life mission stemmed from that day in Nagasaki at war’s end. He sought to live forever, and this was his plan enacted. We watch Logan age as Yashida de-ages. Suddenly, one of Logan’s claws flies into Yashida’s skull. She stabs him a second time and Logan, his bone claws regrowing, stabs him as well, throwing the old man over the ledge.
Logan gets his life back, Mariko gets the company, and Yukio gets to fly in private jets. All’s well.
In keeping with 20th Century Fox’s mandate to make mutant movies as fun as corn flakes, The Wolverine portrays a grim world for its grimmest character. When big corporations are at stake, who has time for laughter?
Jackman does his best. His funniest moments come when he’s about to kill the four hunters who killed his bear friend. He stabs that poison arrow in the guy’s hand and demands to be asked where he found it. When asked, he says, “Funny you should ask.” That’s funny because Logan made the guy–well, you get it.
When Logan confronts Noburo, Mariko’s skeezy fiance, he gives him 10 words to explain why Shingen endangered his own daughter. Noburo threatens Logan with nine words, gets punched, gets one more word, and finally is thrown out of the hotel window and into a pool Logan didn’t know was there.
Ah, Japan. Hollywood has long fetishized Japan as land strange to Western eyes and cultural tropes. I’ve never been, so my chief view of the nation comes from such films.
The Wolverine falls in line with other Hollywood films in depicting Japan. It checks many boxes: bonsai trees, paper doors, kimonos, ninjas AND samurais, referencing the A-bomb (this time at Nagasaki and not the first one at Hiroshima), and sitting on the floor to eat.
(Side note: I once went to a Japanese restaurant in London that was, like any restaurant, full of tables and chairs. However, in one special room one could eat “like in Japan.” In this room were a few tabletops inches above a floor covered with mats. Cute, I thought. I peered closer, underneath the tables were holes deep enough for legs to dangle. So, one could sit at a chair or sit on a floor mat, but sit in exactly the same manner to have the authentic Japanese eating experience.)
The movie updates Japan by adding more recent cultural additions such as the Yakuza, bullet trains, love hotels, and a brief lesson in chopsticks manners. Ask any American to name some things about Japan and they’ll probably answer most of the tropes found in The Wolverine.
Of course it’s all beautiful and well manicured, that’s what we’ve come to expect from filmed Japan. This is the same country whose fans brought their own garbage bags to the World Cup in 1998 to clean up after themselves following a match with Argentina.
What makes Japan an interesting setting is how it affects Logan. Clearly, it’s a lot. Wolverine is a guy more comfortable palling around with bears than humans, and Japanese manners and customs confound him. Yukio escorts Logan, in part, to help him navigate.
Missing from The Wolverine is the (perhaps tired) commentary endemic to other mutant films. There’s nothing here about inclusion of different people, no can’t-we-all-get-along messages.
Logan doesn’t team up with other mutants in this film, as he prefers, instead protecting non-mutants and is protected by them. Fine by me. The X-Men franchise can get bogged down repeating the same sermon of inclusiveness, if only because we don’t hear variations on the theme. That The Wolverine was a straight thriller, a mutant movie that’s not a Mutant Movie, was refreshing.
Crapping on White Savior movies is all the rage now. Sending Hugh Jackman to be culturally confused in Japan was a bold move.
Wolverine tries to be a white savior. He can’t help being white and he protects people against his better judgment, or, as Yukio puts it, fights for justice.
The Wolverine reverses the trope. Logan fights off a lot of bad guys to help Mariko escape the Yakuza, but she’s the one who escorts him to a veterinary doctor to heal his gunshot wounds.
Logan tries to save Mariko from the Silver Samurai, yet it’s Mariko who kills her grandfather as the latter drains immortality from Logan.
Wolverine believed himself a savior, but he was a victim.
- If shirtless Hugh Jackman is your thing, The Wolverine is your New Testament. Jackman was shirtless in at least five scenes.
Summary (40/68): 59%
Subdued, vulnerable, out of place–these terms don’t describe most X-Men films, but they fit The Wolverine. I enjoyed this movie because of those qualities, ones that set it apart from the apocalyptic mutant team movies comprising the franchise’s bulk.
Hugh Jackman will probably get one more turn as Logan. That will be six feature roles as the immortal mutant. Christopher Lee played Dracula six times. Roger Moore played James Bond six times. Jackman will join them.
Jackman loves playing Wolverine and we love watching him. Here’s to you.