As the embers of romance fade to mortgages and leccy bills… When you’re too old to be The #Wolverine #review

Wolverine (comic book)
Wolverine (comic book) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wolverine — the latest installment in 20 Century Fox’s X-Men series — is a particularly unusual film. What happens when an essential attribute of a character is removed?

My favourite superhero comic is Superman: Red Son. It shows us what would happen if we took an iconic American hero and made him Soviet. By stripping Superman of his American aspect, we discover something new about the character. Meanwhile, stories that strip Superman of his powers are universally awful. Invariably, all they reveal is that if Superman didn’t have superpowers, we could count the number of funks we care about him on no hands.

The Wolverine takes Marvel Comics’ Wolverine and strips him of his superpower: his immortality. When Hugh Jackman first played the role 13 years ago, he was 32. Now, at the grand old age of 45, it’s more difficult to suspend the disbelief he is portraying a guy who isn’t ageing. Thus, when Wolverine is stripped of his regenerative ability and he is left hobbling around the action scenes, we begin to wonder why anybody would want to see a film about Old Man Wolverine and his voyage to the nursing home.

With three prologues, The Wolverine takes forever to get going. During World War II, a 45-year old Wolverine was a prisoner of war in Japan. As the Americans drop a nuke a half mile away and his gaolers start committing seppuku, Wolverine heroically saves one of his gaolers who was too cowardly to die with dignity. The cowardly gaoler was none other than Yashida — the heir to a noble Japanese clan. Yashida is in awe of the courageous mutant and declares a lifelong friendship with him.

Skip forward to the year 2013. Wolverine has become so disillusioned that he’s grown a beard (cf. The Dark Knight Rises) and lives as a PeTA rep in a North American forest. He is haunted by nightmares, often starring the now deceased Jean Grey (why isn’t Famke Janssen in more films? Her portrayal of the fantasy-qua-nightmare is sublime). Meanwhile, Yashida is dying. Remembering Wolverine’s courage for which Yashida would forever be grateful, Yashida invites Wolverine to Japan and makes him an offer that Wolverine can’t refuse: Yashida has the technology to take away Wolverine’s immortality.

When Wolverine refuses this offer, Yashida decides to have him stripped of the power anyway. He’s that grateful for saving him in WWII.

All of this takes up about forty of the 126 minute running time. By this point, we should have a clear idea of who the villains will be and what the driving motivations of the plot are. Instead, the film pulls a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on us. The Yashida Clan are amid an interesting political intrigue involving the Japanese Government and various powerful families. We see glimpses of this storyline as the film keeps our attention on the altogether more boring subplot: Wolverine losing his superpowers.

Indeed, the plot involving the political intrigue has all the great characters in it, not least the story of Mariko (granddaughter of Yashida, played by Tao Okamoto — this is her first IMDB credit) and her adopted mutant sister, Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima — who herself only has one other IMDB credit, a ‘short’ in 2010). These two characters easily steal the movie away from the decrepit Wolverine. Indeed they are so good that they create quite the absurdity in the plot.

Imagine that Mario reaches the castle at the end of the Super Mario level and finds Toad saying: ‘I’m sorry, Mario, but your princess is in another castle. Plus, does this smell like chloroform to you?’ Then you have to play as Princess Peach who has to rescue the guy who came to save her but instead became a hostage himself.

Not only would that be kind of a cool game, but it would also be a pretty good analogy to The Wolverine‘s plot. Mariko is attacked by Yakuza, so Wolverine goes to her aid… but Wolverine is old and injured. Fortunately, Mariko is some sort of ninja with mad keen knife skills. Thus, she fights off the Yakuza and rescues Wolverine. Mariko flees the scene, but Wolverine feels the need to explain that she’s not safe (Okamoto gives an excellent ‘No shit, Sherlock’ expression to just about all of Jackman’s dialogue). Wolverine tries to show what a bad ass he is by standing watch in the rain… only to bleed out and require Mariko to devise some kind of awesome solution.

This exact situation plays out a few times. Yukio is similarly awesome with her sword-fighting skills. When she begins referring to herself as Wolverine’s bodyguard, it both makes perfect sense and lays bare the power dynamics of the plot. The Wolverine is the dainty princess placeholder of The Wolverine.

Because Wolverine is not the hero of The Wolverine, it makes it particularly difficult to work out why anything is happening in the plot. The Wolverine has been weakened so that he is easier to capture… so why wasn’t he captured at the moment of his disempowerment? The shadowy antagonist of the film wishes to capture the disempowered Wolverine. Thus, they never try to capture Wolverine, preferring instead to attempt a kidnapping so they’ll have bait to lure the Wolverine to them…

If it sounds insane, it’s because it is. This is a film from the perspective of the McGuffin… and it’s not clear why the film is from his perspective. This film has everything except a solid story and that’s quite disappointing.

At the heart of the film is a fascinating idea: what does it mean to be immortal? There’s a repetition of the gnomic observation that Wolverine will live forever but will have no reason to live. Eternity has become a curse. With a 126 minute running time, the audience certainly begins to understand the nature of eternity…

But it is an intriguing thought which the film tries to unravel. Death and mortality are uncomfortable but common themes for theatre and philosophy. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex tells us that we can’t consider a life to have been happy until it is ended. When the man who sought immortality dies, we see the celebration of his life and the person that he was. Contrast this with Yukio’s superpower: to foresee the deaths of others. Although she is philosophical about it and seems to be content with the finality of things when it applies to strangers, it still causes her grief to be powerless in the face of her visions when they involve people for whom she cares. It’s almost as if she’s the NIMBY of mortality. Where Yukio and the villains overlap is their desire to resist the inevitability of death. In Yukio’s case, her resistance is in the form of ‘Not now.’ For the villains, the resistance is ‘Not ever.’

The film misses an opportunity to grasp Albert Camus’ understanding of finding life’s meaning in death. Because Wolverine will live forever, he can happily waste his days rotting for all time in the North American woods. He has no reason to find an end to his mourning of Jean because each individual day has an infinitesimally small value in proportion to the others. For Camus, the finality and certainty of death motivates us into action. We grasp at life because it is finite and we rebel against death because it cannot be defeated. It’s this rebellion which makes Sisyphus — a figure from Greek myth who tried to trick the gods into allowing him immortality — a hero in Camus’ eyes: ‘His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing’ (Sisyphus’ punishment was for all eternity to roll a rock to the top of a hill and watch it roll down the other side).

Wolverine is using his immortality for the purpose of ceaseless sooking. He is a man to whom the sweet salve of death will not come. The villains of this movie, on the other hand, seek immortality because they are not yet finished with life. This desire to be immortal is a kind of perversion which breaks the natural order of things, and yet so much of our technology is dedicated to staving off that finality of death.

Not enough is made of this. The motivations of the villains don’t quite ring clearly enough, and it’s not clear why Wolverine doesn’t wish to become mortal. Yet this is the key point of difference between the hero and his nemesis. What value is Wolverine’s life to himself? Why does he cling on to it?

Speaking of villains, Svetlana Khodchenkova (a Russian actress who was apparently in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a host of Eastern European shows) does quite a solid job of being the only consistent villain, Viper. Although she doesn’t have much in the script with which to work, she owns her role, providing an anchor around which the rest of the plot seems to revolve. She’s sadistic and has some sort of evil plan going on. In a film where most of the characters seem to dance in the moral greys, it’s good to touch base with at least one character who is verifiably evil.

Speaking of all the people who occupy the moral grey, Mariko’s father, Shingen (played by the superb Hiroyuki Sanada, who played Takashi’s psychic mathematician father in Ringu) is this wonderful character who doesn’t get nearly enough screentime to flesh him out completely. Indeed, apart from Hugh Jackman, all of the acting was excellent.

Because Jackman only has one real action scene (quite a fun scene fighting on top of the bullet train… even if the spatial aspect of the fight doesn’t make complete sense), the plethora of ninja fighting scenes is a lot of fun. I have a passionate hatred for archery in modern day action movies, but The Wolverine seems to have learnt from the mistakes of films like The Avengers and Snow White and the Huntsman — not a single archer leaps into a melee fight. The key archer, Hamada (played by Will Yun Lee — it took me a while to work out where I knew him: he played the bad guy in Die Another Day prior to undergoing Sinoplasty to become that evil English fencing dude), is fun to watch and follow through the film.

But the swordplay is where the film really shines. I was worried that Yukio would fall into the usual stereotype of ‘ninja female’: one key scene to show how great she is, and then the rest of the film spent as a wallflower to the protagonist. I worry too much. Her fight scenes were fantastic.

If anything, the rubbish fight scenes with Wolverine seem to reveal something which we should have spotted in earlier films. Because Wolverine has this immortal regeneration thing going on, his battle strategy was ‘Let me get hit over and over again until I can get close enough to stab them with my adamantium claws.’ Bad guy has a shotgun? Get hit by the shotgun and then stab him. Bad guy has a sword? Get stabbed and then stab him. Bad guy has a nuke? Jump down a hole on the wrong side of the protective bit of metal, then regenerate. It’s like Homer Simpson during that episode about boxing.

When Wolverine doesn’t have his regenerative ability, for some unfathomable reason he continues with this fighting style. He is mortal — stupidly mortal and he continues to fight like he’s invincible. And this is our hero?

Of course, the film doesn’t give us much in the way of character development. It’s difficult to have character development in films where the franchise must never die. Wolverine mourns the death of Jean, but becomes romantically involved with a new character. She doesn’t seem to mind the fact that he calls out Jean’s name in his sleep. Come the end of the film, Wolverine is still the same guy as he was at the start. He still can’t quite fathom that he’s not as brilliant as he delusions suggest.

Indeed, if you stay for the after credits sequence, two very familiar faces arrive on the scene and blow Jackman away. There’s a definite sense of: ‘Amateur hour — actually two hours — is over; the professionals are back’.

This is a film that — despite its horrible flaws — I would recommend people go see at the cinema. It will probably annoy the comic book purists (there is very, very little in common between this film and the characters portrayed in the comics) but the ordinary audience won’t care. Meanwhile, the spectacle of the action scenes is worth the entry price, and we should hope to see more performances by the non-Jackman cast.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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