There’s something to be said about an economical summer blockbuster. Many tent-pole movies rely too much on wanton destruction — scientists estimate that the damage in Man of Steel’s climax would cost more than 9/11 — and the action suffers for it. When a director’s vision expands to the leveling of a city, he or she sacrifices spatial coherence for it. With The Wolverine, director James Mangold eschews spectacle in favor of taut, stylized violence. His approach applies to more than the action scenes: this a self-contained story built around character moments, vulnerability, and the meaning of death. Mangold does not quite veer the iconic hero toward meaning — the character is simply too ridiculous for that — yet his foray into X-Men is mildly satisfying in an old-fashioned way.
Nowadays Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), lives like a caveman. His loneliness is so complete that he can barely sustain a conversation, and when he does speak, a beating soon follows. Logan is about to fuck up some hunters in the Yukon when he’s stopped by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a pixie-ish Japanese woman who’s deadly with her sword. Yukio works for Harada (Will Yun Lee), an industrialist at death’s door. Harada knows Logan — with his ability to self-heal, Logan was able to protect Harada during the bombing of Nagasaki — and wants to repay the favor. Frail and obsessed with prolonged life, he says he has the ability to take away Logan’s self-healing ability, thus making him mortal.
Logan does not believe him, of course, but that does not stop himself from ingratiating himself into Harada’s family. He stops Harada’s grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from killing herself, and later witnesses several moments of cross-generational family drama (he’s always within earshot). Logan can’t quite put his finger on it, but there’s something off about Harada’s personal physician (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Her name is Viper, and she’s a mutant who can breathe poison. She does something to Logan while he’s asleep, so when he’s shot the following day, he keeps bleeding. Bullets cannot stop Logan, only slow him down, so he’s still able to save Mariko from yakuza kidnappers. She’s the key to solving the mystery of Logan’s lost ability, and naturally he develops feelings for her. Poor lug can only love what he wants to protect.
The Wolverine is a superhero movie, yet the action does not contain the mutant-on-mutant action that defined the three X-Men films. Martial arts interest Mangold more: he films fight sequences so that the audience (mostly) understands how, precisely, he uses his claws to defeat his enemies. Aside from Nagasaki, there are no explosions, so Mangold harkens back to kung fu movies from the 1970s (honor and strength are core themes here). That does not mean, however, that the action lacks ambition or creativity. In the movie’s best scene, Logan fights several yakuza atop a bullet train. He buries his claws in the roof of the train, only to fly through the air seconds later. The practical physics of the sequence slow the action down, so there is time to appreciate Logan’s strategy before he dispatches yet another bad guy.
When Logan isn’t a one-man army, Mangold and his screenwriters have quieter moments in which their hero is slow to reveal his vulnerability. This is familiar territory — this is the fifth time we’ve seen this character begrudgingly expose his soul — but the acting is good enough so that it works. Jackman could play the role in his sleep, yet there are small touches that show he’s still capable of nuance. There are several dream sequences with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who Logan was forced to kill, and he sounds genuinely heartbroken. After Logan realizes he won’t self-heal, he gets scared and his movements are more reckless. Jackman’s eyes change, too: he looks terrified, which only makes him angrier. None of the other characters are as interesting, although Mangold has the decency so that even Mariko is more than a delicate flower (she knows how to fight, too).
Generally, a superhero movie is only as interesting as its villain, and that’s where The Wolverine gets into trouble. Mangold constantly shifts our attention from one bad guy to another, and their motivations are always murky. One character fights to protect Mariko, and it’s later revealed that he’s actually working for Viper (she’s an awful villain, more creepy than menacing). It turns out all these bad guys are a smokescreen for the third act-reveal, one that makes thematic sense but lacks any visceral punch. All these secondary characters are catalysts for Logan, who experiences significant change throughout The Wolverine. He seems cleansed by the time it’s over; he’s ready for another X-Men movie, really.