Believe it or not, Fox's X-Men franchise is now 13 years old. And in those 13 years they've cranked out six movies that've run the qualitative gamut from X-cellent to X-crement. The first one in 2000 got things off to a solid, if unremarkable, start, and for awhile there 2003's X2 was one of the best comic book flicks ever made (until Marvel Studios showed up and ran the tables with their various Avengers-related entries). The wheels came off the wagon shortly thereafter though, both with 2006's unfortunate trilogy-capper X-Men: The Last Stand, and even more so with X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009.
While I was ready to write the whole thing off at that point and bid adieu to the franchise, I had my mind suitably blown by the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class that there was renewed reason to think that perhaps its minders over at Twentieth had finally figured out how to run this particular railroad. And so it is that we arrive at The Wolverine, the sixth X-flick overall, and the second go at giving series star Hugh Jackman a spotlight project all his own (though, to be fair, the '09 Wolverine wasn't really much of a "solo" effort given how many other mutant characters they tried to cram in).
As it happens, I analyzed Wolverine's enduring appeal for Geek Wisdom in 2011, specifically looking at his famous catchphrase, "I'm the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn't very nice." That quote originated with famed X-Men comic writer Chris Claremont via the 1982 Wolverine comic miniseries (which this film draws liberally from for its characters, setting, and general framework), and it neatly encapsulates for us why Wolverine, ever the anti-hero, ever the outsider looking in, remains such a fan-favorite both in comics and on the screen. Here's some of what I said there:
They [anti-heroes] do what we wish we could do and say what we wish we could say. In fiction, if not life, anti-heroes offer a release for the frustration we feel from the bonds of polite society, and we tacitly accept that while they may not conform to our notions of civil justice or polite discourse, their personal codes are no less "pure."
And that purity of character is readily on display here. Picking up some time after we last saw Wolvie, a.k.a. Logan (chronologically) in The Last Stand, The Wolverine finds the hirsute hero living in the woods, tormented by memories of the horrific acts of violence he's both committed and endured in his unnaturally long life. Things change suddenly when he's summoned to Japan by dying billionaire Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who wishes to divest Logan of his mutant healing factor, which renders him virtually impervious to wounds, to prolong his own life.
Before long, Logan, a gaijin in a strange land, is caught up in an intrafamily squabble involving the Yakuza, the billionaire's beautiful granddaughter (Tao Okamoto), her jealous father (Hiroyuki Sanada), and one really big cyborg samurai. What's interesting about The Wolverine is how deliberately it's been constructed to both continue the X-Men brand while also standing at arm's length from much of what that series is all about. Thus, we have a genuine attempt at a more introspective story, with a focus on Wolverine's inner turmoil, that was clearly key to getting director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) onboard after original helmer Darren Aronofsky bailed.
While the jury remains out on how Aronofsky would have handled things, the problem for Mangold is that he can't quite find the right mix of "deep thinky" and "big explodey" to go with, leading to a third act climax that sort of collapses in on itself. The showdown with over-the-top villainess Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) in the baddies' mountaintop fortress feels like it belongs in another movie entirely, and after the more sedate, grounded earlier goings (and yes, I know I'm using the word "grounded" to talk about a guy who extrudes Ginsu knives from his knuckles), the tonal shift is the equivalent of setting the finale of 2006"s Casino Royale on the space station from Moonraker.
The broader problem is that there's a going-through-the-motions feeling to things, from Mark Bomback's script to Marco Beltrami's ho-hum score, that's partly the result of Fox needing to keep cranking these things out lest the rights to the whole Marvel Mutant treasure trove revert to Disney/Marvel. They can't let that happen, so we get stuff like The Wolverine, which feels more like a well-made placeholder than anything else. Yes, we follow Logan as he goes from detached loner to engaged team member, but given that was also his arc in the first X-Men in '00, one could be forgiven for feeling like we're treading water a little bit.
That said (and as I've said repeatedly over the years), Hugh Jackman remains the absolute MVP of this series. With five star turns, one cameo, and a sixth movie on the way, the actor now holds the distance record for most times playing a superhero on the big screen, and part of the effectiveness of The Wolverine is simply getting the chance to see the star once again be this character he so clearly loves playing. The sheer power of Jackman's presence, his charisma coupled with the audience's investment, gives us a degree of interest in the proceedings I have a feeling we wouldn't otherwise have.
Then again, that's one huge advantage of longform franchise filmmaking like this in general. You don't always have to score a touchdown. Sometimes you just have to keep the ball in play. And The Wolverine succeeds on that score. It's competently executed, mostly engaging, and, via a mid-credits sequence that's sure to have fanboys (and girls) on tenterhooks, nicely sets us up for the big X-Men jam pick Days of Future Past that's due to hit theaters next summer. In the grand scheme of this particular franchise, The Wolverine isn't necessarily the best there is, but what it does is nice enough. B-