by Mike Hansen
They finally got the claws right.
Every X-Men film has its nitpicky moments, giving long-time comics readers like me something to complain about (in the right company). The first couple of X-Men films get a pass, because they were at the very beginning of the superhero-film wave that didn’t really get going until the first Spider-Man movie. Both of them have a lot of good visual and character moments, but watching them now reveals a lot of stuff that would make me cringe if they were made in 2013. The near-franchise killer (despite its initial box-office success) X-Men: The Last Stand is still nearly unwatchable for me, with its odd and pointless creative choices. Likewise X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which clearly owed its limited success to the last bit of goodwill fans had for the material (not to mention the rough cut’s leak, marking the beginning of the end for MegaUpload and making it really damn tough for me to complete my AC/DC bootleg collection – but I digress…).
X-Men: First Class was a big step back in the right direction, with its bold and ballsy 1960s Cold War setting and the kind of reboot no superhero franchise in any medium had seen yet: nailing down the premise’s origins in a specific time in history, despite the unofficial Marvel “ten-year rule” for its oldest characters (i.e., as of 2013, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man got their powers in 2003 – even though their first appearances were in 1961-1962). This kind of thinking has also led to creative disasters like DC’s New 52 reboot (although one of its few good ideas was Grant Morrison’s run on Action Comics featuring the early days of Superman), so it can be a fine line to walk between respecting and adapting source material, and just doing overpaid fan fiction. First Class also had that great, super-brief scene with Wolverine, one of the few times I’ve seen a scene designed as fan service really work. (Will its other choices, like an early furry Beast and using Cyclops’s brother, make sense in the long run? Time will tell…)
The Wolverine has none of the problems of previous X-Men films. It’s a tight story set (mostly) during just a handful of days, some time after the events of The Last Stand (none of which are directly referenced, other than that Wolverine killed Jean Grey and is now haunted by this). The story is mainly adapted from the original 1982 Wolverine miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller and its epilogue in Uncanny X-Men #172-173, which were among the very first X-Men comics I read as a kid and hooked me as a comics reader for life. (These stories were recently re-collected in a nice, oversized Marvel hardcover edition. I love Marvel’s oversized-hardcover format, so even though I already owned these stories I had to get this, as it’s the first time that UXM #172-173 have been reprinted at this size. (UPDATE: except, I’ve just learned from a Facebook comment, for the uber-expensive Wolverine Omnibus hardcover from 2009. Oops.))
I’ll admit that my expectations were lowered by The Last Stand and Origins; plus the trailers for The Wolverine weren’t that exciting for me (though most movie marketing is creatively bankrupt at this point, edited to make originality look safe and similar so films look just interesting enough to the most people who might buy tickets). Origins had a crappy story, weak characters (except maybe Ryan Reynolds’s too-brief moments as Deadpool), and obviously rushed and fake-looking special effects. But once The Wolverine started playing, it played very well: there are quiet moments to make the action more intense; the characters are all distinctive and interesting; and the changes in story from comic book to film all made sense and didn’t feel like a cop-out to keep Soccer Moms from walking out. Even the fight scene on top of a Japanese bullet train (which looked kinda ridiculous in the trailers) worked, taking an action-movie idea we’ve seen before and giving it a nice twist. (Some of the Wolverine shots appeared to be inspired by John Cassaday’s artwork in Astonishing X-Men, but I’d have to freeze-frame it to be sure.) And director James Mangold redesigned Wolverine’s claws, so they finally look right.
The Wolverine isn’t afraid to take risks, with much of it set in Japan, sometimes not even subtitling the Japanese dialogue. We’re shown flashbacks to the horror of the Americans dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. There are moments that show Logan’s budding romance with Mariko (in the comics, they had been an item for a while before the 1982 miniseries) that could have been really cheesy and cliched, but they are played so well that even my jaded, geeky heart jumped a few times. (I could have done without Mariko having martial-arts and knife-throwing talents, as not every Asian character needs to know martial arts, but I suppose we needed to see that she’s not a helpless victim.) Instead of being a paint-by-numbers story without heart (like Origins or Green Lantern), The Wolverine takes time to include nice little details to make it distinctive. There’s even a Japanese “love hotel” scene that is likely to horrify U.S. soccer moms…
There is a bit of silliness with the film’s presentation of the villains, especially with Viper as a superpowered blonde and the Silver Samurai as a robotic suit of armor, but their various agendas are so well layered and the actors so fully embrace their roles that I was totally along for the ride.
I’m cool with the changes to Yukio as well; while making her a drunk and dangerous ninja/thief/lover worked in the comics, having her get Wolverine drunk so she can repeatedly bang him wouldn’t go over as well in a two-hour film (though making her a mutant wasn’t a necessity: her power didn’t add to the narrative tension for me). Rila Fukushima is perfectly cast in the role – it’s hard to believe this is her first movie. She’s easily the most exciting young Asian actress I’ve seen since JeeJa Yanin (Chocolate), and I hope to see her ass-kicking talents in a lot more films.
But hey, give me a big-budget movie with superpowered action heroes, ninjas, robots, and romance, and I’m interested; give me a good story to go along with it, and I’m sold. The dialogue is solid; the exposition is minimal – like the best comics, the film often lets the visuals handle the storytelling. I will say that the ending is sort of weird and has one moment that I didn’t really buy as far as how the characters should act, but I won’t spoil it just yet. For me, the film could have used just a bit more of Wolverine embracing Japanese culture, not necessarily going the full samurai Bushido honor code route like the comics, but a bit more would have been nice. Oh, well: overall, I really dug it.
Oh, and there’s a nice post-main credits scene that sets up the next X-Men movie, which could actually fix all of the story problems with the third film. I’m very, very interested to see the film version of “Days of Future Past,” one of the all-time best X-Men stories and one of my favorite time-travel stories outside of Doctor Who.
As a Marvel freelancer, I hope I don’t get into trouble for bringing this up – but as nice as it is that Wolverine co-creator Len Wein got a check for The Wolverine, there’s no reason that every writer or artist who created a character or influential story moment shouldn’t get a payment for their work – not to mention a credit or thanks in the credits roll. While it’s legally totally unnecessary, and I respect that, it’s also morally the right thing in my opinion. It’s one of the best things Paul Levitz did to show respect for DC’s creators during his tenure there, and it’s too bad that corporate comics are starting to be treated as widgets by their parent companies. Given the huge range of opportunities for creators in 2013, this will become less of a big deal over time to today’s work-for-hire creators, but the geniuses whose greatest creative work built the foundation for today’s superhero movies – in an era before “work for hire” was codified in U.S. law – deserve respect and recognition for their contributions to the modern collective imagination. It never hurts to show gratitude to those upon whose shoulders all of us in the creative community stand.
To show my respect for Len Wein, I bit the bullet and bought a copy of his Before Watchmen work: despite my HUUUUGE ethical problems with the material’s creation, it’s the quickest way I can think of to put a bit of my money in Wein’s pocket, to thank him for lighting my imagination on fire as a kid with Giant-Size X-Men #1 (which I first read in a 1982 pocket-sized paperback) and for his role in creating a character that still entertains me today.
I’ll definitely watch The Wolverine again, and it’s going to be a must-buy on Blu-Ray for me. Like Chris Columbus on the first Harry Potter films, Bryan Singer absolutely nailed the casting on his X-Men films. Hugh Jackman’s role as Wolverine looks likely to go down as one of the best superhero casting choices in history.
You sure are, Hugh. You sure are.
P.S. Below are the covers to the original comics storyline. Note how much better these are than the Photoshopped posters above…
The Wolverine miniseries was the first time Logan appeared on a cover without his mask on. It was a brave move by Frank Miller and Marvel back in 1982. Uncanny X-Men #173 was the second X-Men comic I ever owned, and remains one of the greatest: Under that amazing, iconic cover by Paul Smith was some innovative storytelling, too: it was the first time Wolverine demonstrated true honor by saving Rogue’s life at a time when she was still considered a villain; it was the first X-Men comic to feature Miller-inspired wordless fight scenes; and its conclusion – with Mariko cancelling her wedding to Logan (because she was being mind-controlled: long story) – finished with a wonderful silent panel of Wolverine shedding a tear as the X-Men left. Chris Claremont would never again show such amazing economy of dialogue and narration.
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