Not only is The Wolverine the best comic book film to come out this year, it’s also one of the best summer flicks of the year. After a year of bloated blockbuster films, filled with excessive special effects and stories designed to set up each subsequent action set piece, it’s refreshing to watch a comic book film that is smaller and more restrained. Contrary to many blockbuster films released thus far, The Wolverine focuses more on the characters, allowing the action to naturally progress instead of driving the film.
The Wolverine was originally going to see director Darren Aronofsky team up again with Hugh Jackman, but Aronofsky had to bow out upon the realization that he would be spending over a year in Japan filming. However, the darker, more personal story they had in mind was still moving forward, and soon James Mangold was on board to replace Aronofsky (who also previously worked with Hugh Jackman in Kate and Leopold).
It’s the emphasis on story that makes The Wolverine a success. The film focuses on Logan (Wolverine), who has decided to live isolated from society to ensure he doesn’t harm anyone ever again. Every night he’s haunted in his dreams by Jean Grey, whose death he’s responsible for, the weight of which he can’t let go. With the ability (and to some, a curse) to heal himself, Logan is essentially immortal, left to suffer for eternity, dwelling on the pain he’s caused. Thus when he’s given the opportunity to give up his healing powers (by transferring them to a dying Japanese tycoon whose life he saved many years ago), it is surprising that Logan refuses, instead opting to return home to dwell in his misery. But before Logan can leave Japan, he becomes caught up in an assassination attempt; abandoning his promise to avoid violence and instead resorting to his powers to do everything he can to keep Mariko alive.
While not taking itself too seriously, The Wolverine was able to dwell in a more grounded universe, where character’s action have consequences and action scenes strive for a more balanced and realistic nature. The writers wisely chose not to proliferate the film with mutants, instead using only three, whose powers aren’t nearly as flashy as many other X-Men characters. This allows the actions of the characters to be the focus, not the powers of the mutants. And with a setting in Japan, the film has a very unique, yet beautiful quality, that only adds the atmosphere of the film. Hugh Jackman essentially embodies the role of Wolverine, convincingly balancing the quieter moments of the film with the hack-and-slash fight scenes that spring up throughout. His relationship with Mariko natural evolves, never feeling forced or contrived. The shining moments of the film, however, are Logan’s interactions with Yukio, a kick-ass, sword wielding mutant. Their scenes are the most genuine- equally funny and poignant.
After success with more intimate dramas like Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line, James Mangold proved capable of handling action films as well, with the wonderful 3:10 to Yuma and underrated Knight and Day. The Wolverine may be Mangold’s best example, however, of balancing action with story, providing an excellent example that not all comic book films have to be big and bombastic to be both entertaining and well made.