When readers were first introduced to the character of James Howlett, better known by the names “Logan” and “Wolverine”, it was in the pages of The Incredible Hulk. From his first full debut in issue 181 all the way back in November 1974 to him officially joining the X-Men in 1975, the character has become one of Marvel Comics’ most recognisable and enduring superheroes, regularly featuring in solo and team comics, cartoons, movies, videogames, and cand countless other merchandise and, accordingly, I’ve been dedicating every Sunday of November to celebrating Marvel’s most popular Mutant.
Released: July 2013
Director: James Mangold
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $100 to 132 million
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, and Famke Janssen
Haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Jansssen), Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) is called back to Japan by the dying wish of an old friend, Ichirō Yashida (Yamanouchi), who offers to end Logan’s immortality. However, when Yashida dies, his granddaughter, Mariko (Okamoto) is targeted by assassins, and Logan’s healing factor is compromised, Logan is begrudgingly forced to protect her and uncover a conspiracy with Yashida’s vast corporation.
20th Century Fox had vastly profited from their X-Men movies, the first three of which earned them over $600 million. Though X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009) was met with mixed reviews, the film grossed over $300 million against a $150 million budget and Hugh Jackman’s popularity as the character all-but ensured that some kind of sequel would be put into production. After deciding to draw upon elements from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s work on the character’s time in Japan, famed director Darren Aronofsky was brought on to direct; Aronofsky was responsible not only for the film’s blunt and unimaginative title but also restructuring the film as a standalone spin-off rather than a straight-up sequel to X-Men Origins.
By 2011, however, Aronofsky had exited the project due to vast amount of overseas shooting the film would require and James Mangold was brought in as a replacement. Produced on a smaller budget than X-Men Origins, The Wolverine had a somewhat shaky box office; it’s currently the seventh-highest grossing film in the franchise, earning less in worldwide revenue than the much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) but still more than the much-lauded X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003). Critically, however, the film fared far better than its predecessor, with the general consensus being that it was a far more accurate portrayal of the character. Personally, I have to admit that I missed the more recognisable X-characters of the previous film and the chance to shed more light on Wolverine’s complex and storied history but I did appreciate the film’s more brutal nature and grittier, more focused direction.
In keeping with the theme of the previous X-Men movies, The Wolverine opens with a particularly gruelling and thrilling scene that sets the tone for the film to follow. In this case, we find Logan being held in an armour-plated well as a prison of war in Nagaski mere moments before the fateful atomic bomb is about to drop. Understandably panicked by the incoming wall of fiery death, young Japanese soldier Ichirō Yashida (Ken Wamamura) is too afraid to commit ritual seppuku but, having seen how Yashida risked his life to free prisons and give them a chance to escape, and fully aware of what’s to come, Logan manages to escape from his prison and shield Yashida from harm at the bottom of the well.
Surprisingly, rather than continue this narrative and fill in a large missing chunk from Wolverine’s early life, the film then jumps ahead to a few years after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Although Wolverine has not only recovered his missing memories, this is both a blessing and a curse as not only is he now (conveniently for this film’s plot) haunted by memories of Nagasaki, he’s also haunted by dreams of Jean Grey (Janssen). In them, he and Jean are happy and content in the afterlife; however, this perfect illusion is continually shattered by the brutal remind of how he skewered the love of his life and his desire to be with her in death. It seems that, despite appearing content and well-adjusted at the end of The Last Stand, Logan was unable to cope with what he did to another man’s wife that he decided, after minimal interactions with, that he loved and walked away not only from the X-Men but also the name of the Wolverine, vowing never to kill or endanger others again.
However, Logan is soon approached by Yukio (Fukushima), a Mutant with limited pre-cognitive powers who tracks him down to not only offer him Yashida’s blade but also accompany Logan to Tokyo so that Yashida can pass along his thanks before he succumbs to the caner that is eating away at his body. Initially resistant, Logan is eventually convinced to tag along for one day and is horrified to find that Yashida is offering to somehow remove his superhuman healing factor so that others can benefit from it and he can finally live out a normal, mortal life.
While in Japan, Logan has a tense introduction to Yashida’s son, Shingen (Sanada) and granddaughter, Mariko (Okamoto), but is nevertheless adamant about heading back home as soon as possible. However, while tormented by his nightmares, Logan is attacked by Yashida’s doctor, Viper (Khodchenkova), and wakes to find Yashida has died in the night. Receiving a frosty reception at the funeral, Logan is immediately alerted to things not being quite right and is thrust into action once more when Yakuza thugs open fire and attempt to kidnap Mariko. In the fracas, Logan receives a few gunshots (included a blast from a shotgun and point-blank range) and is confused, and shocked, to find that his healing factor is mysteriously dulled. This does little to keep him down, though, and he is able to largely shrug off gunfire long enough to get Mariko to relative safety. As a result, a large portion of The Wolverine focuses on Logan’s damaged healing factor causing him both here and there and questions regarding his perceived immortality as he both tries to reconcile his past actions and get to the bottom of a conspiracy within Yashida’s vast organisation.
As you might expect, Hugh Jackman is the unmistakable star of the show once more; now a far more tortured, broken man than we’ve seen before, this is a Logan who is visibly tired of the death and heartbreak that seems to follow him at every turn. Initially content to hide away from the world, he is forced back to Japan out of little more than the last vestiges of honour within him but is quick to do the right thing and defend Mariko when it appears her fiancé and father want her dead. Rather than being the cool, charismatic loner we’ve seen before, however, this Logan is a cynical, grouchy ex-soldier who just wants to be left alone and is desperately trying to suppress his violent urges. Honestly, it’s the version of Logan we should have gotten in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; world-weary and wanting death but not quite ready for it, he slowly comes to realise this his animalistic nature can be used for good and eventually comes to reclaim his title of the Wolverine.
Compared to every other X-Men movie that came before it, The Wolverine is a much grittier, more focused affair; the story centres entirely on Logan and his inner emotional turmoil and his reluctance to get involved in the convoluted drama and conspiracy that has infected Yashida’s company. The Japanese setting works wonderfully to visually separate it from the other films as well and much of the film is focused on Japanese traditions and mysticism; Logan is like a vagrant stranger in his world, constantly referred to as a rōnin (a “samurai without a master”) or a gaijin (a derogatory Japanese word for an outsider or foreigner), who doesn’t fit and is not welcome. The simple, open countryside’s and urban landscapes of Tokyo give the film a visual identity that is truly unique; this isn’t another bombastic X-Men movie taking place in a large, familiar urban space or a grey-coloured military lab and it really adds to the film’s appeal at aesthetic.
It also helps that a large portion of the film includes subtitles; Japanese characters routinely speak to each other, and Logan, in their native tongue, adding a coat of legitimacy to its setting. All too often, foreign characters simply speak in English all the time and having them speak in Japanese helps to add to the other-worldliness of the setting and empathise with Logan, who doesn’t understand a word of Japanese. Logan’s newfound vulnerability is also clearly meant to help us empathise with him as it means he struggles to recover from injuries and is in near-constant pain, a step slower than usual, and actually has to struggle to succeed rather than simply charging head-first into battle.
Of course, he’s not alone in his fight but rather than sharing screen time with other colourful, fan favourite Mutants, Logan spends most of his time associating with Yukio and growing closer to Mariko. The moment she is introduced, Yukio is portrayed as a bad-ass character in here own right; her pre-cognitive abilities work in conjunction with her athleticism and skill with a blade to make her a formidable opponent and ally. Mariko, on the other hand, is much more of a damsel in distress; initially, Logan sees her as little more than a pampered, self-entitled princess but she’s soon revealed to be oppressed by the desires of her father, fiancé, and her devotion to maintaining the honour of her family. She’s a damaged, conflicted character but is also able to put up a bit of a fight when needed so she isn’t just some screaming, helpless trophy to be fought over.
Up until now, we’ve seen glimpses of Logan’s vicious nature but The Wolverine goes above and beyond in portraying just how brutal and savage Wolverine can be. Initially reluctant to fight, much less kill, when Logan unsheathes his claws to fight, it’s with a fast, ruthless ferocity; every blow is designed to either kill or maim and you truly get the sense of an animal being unleashed in full force.
For the majority of the film, Logan is chopping apart nameless, faceless Yakuza goons; he faces a new test in the form of Viper, a seductive, snake-like Mutant who is able to use her toxins to dull his senses and her medical expertise to suppress his healing factor. While the two don’t really come to blows (the honour of dispatching her is left to Yukio), Logan is able to match swords with Shingen, who has garbed himself in the ceremonial armour of the Silver Samurai. It’s in this fight that Logan regains his sense of identity and honour but it’s merely the beginning of the end for the film.
The decision to dull Logan’s healing factor didn’t sit right with me at the time as I was more interested in seeing a nigh-invincible Wolverine cutting down foes and being emotionally vulnerable rather than physically but it actually does work quite well in the film. That is until the revelation that it’s not some toxic or Mutant suppressant keeping his powers dulled but a weird little spider robot thing attached to his heart. Quite how that works is beyond me but it makes for a tense scene where Logan, having already been told by Yukio that he would die holding his heart in his hand, is forced to cut himself open and remove the device. It’s been suggested that Yukio’s vision actually foreshadowed Logan’s eventual, dramatic death in Logan (Mangold, 2017) but I don’t actually agree with that; Yukio specifically says that he saw Logan lying on the operating table with his lifeless heart in his hand but Logan is clearly impaled on a tree in a forest holding the very-much-alive hand of his “daughter” in Logan so I think this is a bit of a stretch, to say the least.
After spending most of its runtime being almost the exact opposite of X-Men Origins (gritty and introspective, brutal and reflective rather than loud and bombastic), The Wolverine ends with a massive, knock-down brawl between Logan and a huge mech suit of armour. This true Silver Samurai is not only made from the same indestructible Adamantium that coast Logan’s bones but also wields two gigantic blades that are able to cut off Logan’s claws! Revealed to be Yashida, who faked his death and orchestrated everything just to forcibly extract Logan’s healing ability from the marrow of his bone claws, this finale is notably at odds with the tone of the rest of the film but is, nevertheless, quite the exciting end to the film. You really get the sense at Logan is in actual danger thanks to the Silver Samurai’s ability to actually hurt him, which is good for raising the stakes for the finale, but I wasn’t a fan of how Wolverine leaves the film with his entire Adamantium skeleton intact exact for his claws. The bone claws are a fun addition to his character and backstory but are pretty lame by themselves and I would have liked to see him just dip them into some Adamantium to recoat them or something.
Simultaneously, though, I wasn’t a fan of how the next film simply gave him back the Adamantium claws without any explanation. Speaking of which, The Wolverine’s mid-credits sequence sees the inexplicable return of the fully repowered Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who seek to recruit Wolverine to face an impending threat. A tantalising scene that raises a lot of interesting questions, this scene, and all the character development and story potential of The Wolverine’s finale, would be either swept away or forgotten completely in subsequent films. What happened to Yukio, for example, who ends the film as Logan’s self-appointed bodyguard? What happened in the two years between the final scene and the mid-credits scene? Why did Fox cut a scene in which Logan receives his traditional costume? Well…okay, I can kind of understand that last one but, thanks to the mess Fox made of the X-Men timeline and their complete disregarding of continuity, The Wolverine ends up being this really good, really engaging partially standalone story that exists in a weird bubble where it’s not really canon, but kind of is, but nothing that happens in it factors into Logan’s next appearances in any way.
Ever since Wolverine’s introduction in the first X-Men movie, I was waiting for a movie, and a depiction of the character, like The Wolverine. Far darker, grittier, and more brutal than his previous depictions, this is the first X-Men film to truly delve into the meat of the character’s complexities. As much as I enjoy, and apologise for, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, there’s no denying that The Wolverine, despite its bland title and tonally contradictory finale, surpasses its predecessor in every way. The oriental setting really adds to the film, as does Jackman’s bulkier (and yet more streamlined) look. Showing Logan as being constantly torn by his actions, haunted by his memories, and struggling with the dichotomy of being a weary immortal soldier who is tired of life but not quite ready die is a fascinating dive into the character’s nuances and psyche. Punctuated by fight scenes that cast a wider light on just how vicious the character can be and let down only by the fact that subsequent sequels failed to really expand upon where The Wolverine leaves the character, The Wolverine is easily one of the best X-Men movies, perhaps surpassed only by the even bleaker and grittier Logan.
What did you think about The Wolverine? Do you find that it’s a far better portrayal of the character compared to X-Men Origins: Wolverine or do you, perhaps, feel that it’s a bit over-rated? How did you feel about Wolverine’s healing factor being suppressed and the inclusion of the Silver Samurai? Which Wolverine story arc from the comics was your favourite? How would you like to see Wolverine re-introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Whatever your thoughts about Wolverine and the X-Men, feel free to leave a comment and check in next Sunday for the last instalment of Wolverine Month.