How does a script regularly cited as among the best, if not the best, the superhero genre had to offer end up as a movie so… run-of-the-mill? The answer must, in no small part, lie with director James Mangold. The Wolverine was to have be a Darren Aronofosky film, written by Christopher McQuarrie. The brainsmith who directed The Fountain teaming with the writer of The Usual Suspects. It was a fresh and enticing proposition, particularly if it reinvigorated a character who had already spent a decade on the big screen and whose prior solo outing had been savagely mauled by critics, fans and audiences alike.
Predictably, an arthouse sensibility melded to a superhero franchise ended up stalling. Aronofosky cited the lengthy production period in Japan, away from his family, but who knows if real cause wasn’t the notoriously creatively-challenged Fox was pushing for something more safe and pedestrian. And Mangold is about the safest pair of hands you can find. He doesn’t have a terrible film on his resume but neither does he have a great one. He’s an above par journeyman, and since the X-Men franchise flourished under just such a non-auteur (Bryan Singer), his engagment makes a lot of sense. This isn’t a series striving to deliver the best of the best in comic book movies (whatever Hugh Jackman’s aspirations for his character may be); Fox just needs to make enough money to keep the series viable and ensure the rights don’t revert to Disney/Marvel.
I am a bit disappointed; not overly so as my expectations for the series over the course of six films have fluctuated. But I though First Class was wonderful, right up there with the very best of its genre. Most of that was down to Matthew Vaughn, who for whatever reason (did he want Bond, did he want Star Wars? He ended up getting The Secret Service, which doesn’t fill me with anticipation) absconded from the forthcoming Days of Future Past, so the series looks set to remain agreeably unremarkable. But better than that rocky patch when Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood had a bash.
Given the buzz surrounding the script, perhaps it was inevitable that Mangold would come in and decided it needed tuning to his own unique sensibility, to prove he’s nobody’s gun-for-hire (that’s how ego works, isn’t it?) So in came Mark Bomback (the Total Recall remake!) and Scott Frank (some very good scripts, to be fair) to rework it. I can just about understand the decision not to make it another prequel (they suck); less so the apparent dilution of any elements that would have made it stand out. We end up with copious villains, far more than the plot needs, set pieces shoehorned in because you should never be far from a grand action beat, and a banal love interest; because isn’t that how it works?
In all fairness, the movie is thrilling and intriguing for the first hour. Jackman’s Logan answers a summons from the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), whom he saved many years before. The carrot of a normal, mortal life is dangled before Wolverine, just as he becomes aware of conflicts within Yashida’s business empire. So Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) is entirely mercenary, and has arranged marriage between his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto, who looks a little like a Japanese Jennifer Connolly but with even less presence) and the Justice Minister, Noburo (Brian Tee). When Mariko’s life is threatened, she and Wolverine go on the run. It’s at about this point that the latter discovers his healing abilities aren’t what they once were.
There’s a fairly neat dividing line in terms of quality; thumbs up until, and including, the set piece atop a bullet train (crazy, but breathlessly thrilling). I’ll even include Wolvie’s slightly surprising affinity for a poorly special effects bear in the good stuff, since it leads to a jolly decent bar scene. Then, as flight shifts to romancing the insipid Mariko, lethargy sets into both the drama and the viewer’s eyelids. Maybe with a different actress or a different director the love plot wouldn't come across as standard filler, but Okamoto has absolutely no presence and her character is thin as they come. The scenes where she and Logan hang about at her cabin are banal. Wolverine helps chop up a log fallen across the road, just to illustrate what we already know (he gets tired!) and happen across the well he hid in 70 years ago (well fancy that!)
Instead of a storyline that uncovers new facets of the character, or pushes him in directions we haven’t seen before, Wolverine is given a somewhat dopey stew of corporate intrigue to sift through (not all that intriguing as it turns out, with a signposted twist; Iron Man Three, which this has a couple of thematic links to, made business world villainy much more involving) and has a fling with a standard Bond girl. There’s zero passion here, and even less motivation; the effect is to standardise Wolverine. He becomes just like any other protagonist. Sure, he gets a bit temperamental at times and has some pointy claws but it’s nothing to get worked up about. He has a fling with Mariko because she’s there, not because he’s captivated with her; yeah, he’s really exuding that Ronin thing. Indeed, the only aspect that stands out is his version of 007’s Tracy (Bond’s one great love) is haunting his dreams. It’s not really a spoiler, since she appears in the trailers, but the return of Famke Jansen as Jean Grey is well judged, even if it’s entirely unnecessary (and serves to accentuate how wet his current emotional entanglement is). Bond may not have been consciously on Mangold’s mind for the love interest (who wants to admit to engineering a shallow romance?) but elsewhere he directly quotes the series; the Diamonds are Forever swimming pool scene, anyone?
The Bond comparisons don’t end there; Wolverine may be sampling Japanese culture, but the setting has no more substance than your average globetrotting 007 tourist destination. The terrain isn’t negotiated as shamelessly as in The Last Samurai, but every cliché and stereotype is present and correct; yakuza, hara-kiri, samurais, technological virtuosity (Yashida’s firm not only delivers cutting edge science, but everyone wanders around in traditional garb; it’s every westerner’s dream of the country!) Nevertheless, the WWII prologue is thrilling even if it's an over-obvious reference point. Flirting with major historical tragedies can seem rather bad taste, but X-Men has taken in concentration camps so why not Hiroshima? The problem is throughout that, while the film has muscle, it has no dramatic weight. When Wolverine is called a Ronin, the reference is as superficial as any western movie take on the Land of the Rising Sun; conjuring the word doesn’t make it so. Jackman is straining his hardest but the results that are merely aesthetically more pleasing than his Origins; they’re not the giant leap they needed to be.
The aspect of the movie that seemed most rote at first glance turns out to work surprisingly well. As far back as Superman II, depriving the hero of his powers has been used as a means of reintroducing threat to an unstoppable force. More recently we saw it in Spider-man 2. Earlier this summer Tony Stark had to make do without his suit for an entire act. So I expected Wolverine’s inability to heal would be a desperate retread of this standard superhero trope, one that would cast a weary shadow over the entire movie. Unlike Shane Black, Bomback and Frank don’t have anywhere really interesting to take their steadily bleeding hero, and there is a point where you start thinking “Enough already!” But the choice does up the stakes a bit, and by opting to merely slow him down rather than make him fully mortal they pull back from a taking the pedestrian route. It still feels too familiar, though; anything that made this different in the first place has been committee-managed back into conformity. And on a nit-picking level, I’m not clear why Wolverine’s knuckles don’t turn to a bloody pulp whenever he gets his claws out. Shouldn’t they take just as long to heal as his bullet wounds?
As mentioned there are too many bad guys; you don’t need five villains if you can make just one compelling. In two instances the willingness of the bad guys to do anything to reach their goal doesn’t compute given who they're willing to sacrifice; they do these things just because evil types shoud behave that way (come the climax even one of the protagonists is at it, laying down some ultra-violence without the bat of an eye – and you’re left asking why the writers thought they could get away with it). There's another character that flip-flops all over the good-but-misguided line and ends up being used in a "tedious antagonist one moment, hero the next" manner.
What might have been taut and streamlined becomes too much, which sums up the third act. Wolverine has to battle a standard CGI baddie because that’s what you have to do in third acts. If the love story started to unravel a promising tale, the big fight finishes things off. It’s been devised on autopilot, even with a late stage reveal that is both unsurprising and kind of seals the deal on the shift from a vaguely real-world setting to a pixelated one. The effects are pretty good until this characters shows up. Marco Beltrami’s score was probably “okay”, but I can’t recall a single note (can anyone remember any of his soundtracks?)
Aside from Okamoto, the performances are solid, just without strong characterisations to make them memorable; Rila Fukushima, with her quirky angular features, makes the strongest impression as Wolverine's feisty sidekick. The only bad thing I can say about Svetlana Khondchenkova’s Viper is that the she seems to have strayed from a full-blown X-Men movie; you can almost hear a producer demanding “more mutants!” Jackman ripples with more man beef than he's ever sported before, but it feels like there’s left to do with this character solo. At least, not if you don’t have a really good story.
The end credits coda that is quite fun (Fox shamelessly stealing from actual Marvel movies there), and one has to assume that a certain physical alteration our hero undergoes will become a significant plot point in Days of Future Past. But is anyone really getting excited for it? I doubt that even the lure of a movie chock full of nigh on everyone who’s ever acted in the X-verse will substantially lift the box office. Fox had their fresh start with First Class but have chosen to reheat yesterday’s dinner. Like The Wolverine, it is sure to be entirely competent but sadly non-awesome.