The best one can say about the latest superhero movie is that so little is at stake in The Wolverine. No worlds or even cities are menaced with annihilation; no buildings are turned to powder; no visual allusions to 9/11 are made. The titular mutant hero (Hugh Jackman) is no Christ figure like Henry Cavill’s Superman — though at one point he’s posed like St. Sebastian.
But then, Wolverine’s self-healing powers and Jackman’s pectorals invite the filmmakers to lean hard on the trope of shirtless martyrdom. Also known as Logan, Wolverine is the Byronic hero of Marvel’s X-Men. In 2009, the studio made bank with his critically maligned origin story, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which he did a lot of screaming at the heavens. A solo adventure set in present day, after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), The Wolverine makes more story sense than its predecessor. But it’s still a story that will appeal primarily to fans of the character and won’t convert holdouts on the superhero genre.
The film opens with an electrifying prologue set in 1945 Nagasaki, where Logan saves a young Japanese officer from the atomic blast. Seventy-odd years later, that man, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), has become a leading tech tycoon. Meanwhile, an unaged Logan broods in Canada under a Unabomber beard, smarting from the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Enter Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a pouting, anime-inspired spitfire sent by Yashida to offer Logan a “reward” for his long-ago act of kindness. The entrepreneur can relieve Wolverine of his regenerative power, allowing him to die a natural death.
How would it feel for an immortal to die? Is Logan desperate enough for oblivion to take a bargain that would transfer his powers to Yashida, who craves them for selfish reasons? The film’s trailers play up that angle, but the movie itself contemplates Logan’s existential dilemma for all of two seconds before getting to the slashing and bashing. Our hero simply refuses the offer, leaving Yashida to expire.
The tycoon’s death creates a power vacuum that sets family factions against each other. Wolverine finds himself protecting the pallid, princessy heiress (Tao Okamoto) from waves of attacking yakuza, while a mutant supermodel named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) stands around smirking lazily at the unfolding of her evil master plan like the Joker on quaaludes.
When we eventually learn the crux of that master plan, it’s underwhelming. Meanwhile, the crumbling-dynasty plot, which might have added Shakespearean intrigue to the usual superhero formula, is undone by flat characters and uninspired dialogue. Sure, an American popcorn flick populated mostly by Japanese actors is something new — driving home how thoroughly the two pop cultures have cross-pollinated, as well as the power of the international box office. Yet nobody but Jackman, and occasionally Fukushima, gets much interesting to do.
Director James Mangold, who gave us such just-OK action flicks as Knight and Day and 3:10 to Yuma, continues in that vein here. The most creative — and physically impossible — sequence is a fight atop a moving bullet train. The other hand-to-hand combat scenes are mainly distinguished by the filmmakers’ ingenious maneuvers to show their hero gutting hundreds with his claws while maintaining a PG-13 gore level.
Wolverine does have to weather a few slings and arrows in this outing. For a while, a mysterious sapping of his healing factor renders him about as vulnerable as your average movie action hero — i.e., basically invulnerable compared with an actual human being. Given that the dude can still spring up from multiple gunshot wounds to fight the next day, it’s sort of hard to care.