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The Wolverine: So close, and yet so giant robot

The Wolverine is coming out on DVD tomorrow, so here are my thoughts on it...

I tried to go into The Wolverine with no expectations. But people, I love this character. My freakin' license plate is a Wolverine homage. Badly done Wolverine stories can hurt me in a way that little else in entertainment can (as writer Jason Aaron has proved in his recent comics run.) And even though I like Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the first Wolverine film, Wolverine: Origins, was SO horrible. So bad.

(If you don't believe me or you missed it, here's my review, and here's Rachel Edidin's hilarious recap/review at Wired.)

So, I was nervous. The Mariko / Yashida storyline is not one of my favorites, but there's a lot in there that could go horribly wrong - like the "Logan's more Japanese than the Japanese" racist garbage that often haunts the character development in the comics.

The good news: it was nowhere near as bad as I thought!

The first two-thirds of the movie are a solid Wolverine story. Logan's hiding out from being a hero, spending most of his time tromping around in the woods. The head of Clan Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) is dying, and he doesn't feel like dying, so he sends adopted granddaughter Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to fetch Logan hoping Logan will transfer his immortality. Meanwhile granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) stands to inherit the empire, which pisses her samurai dad off to no end... so you see how this could go badly when Logan refuses the transfer, right? Now Logan and Mariko are on the run, falling for each other, while Logan's somehow losing his healing powers. Ninjas are crawling out of the woodwork and one of them is Mariko's childhood romance Harada (Will Yun Lee). He's working with Grandpa Yashida's creepy doctor who's more than she appears. Yukio can see the future and it's not looking good...

So basically, they got the "nest of intrigue" part totally right from the comics. Jackman also hits Logan's personality on the head, as always, bringing out the mix of craving for isolation and oblivion with an unavoidable impulse to save people who need saving, regardless of the cost to himself. The film is well-paced, with plenty of action, but also enough time for some character development. The scene where Logan approaches the hidden Yashida lab for the final showdown felt like a classic comics Wolverine match-up between Logan's sheer force of will and yet slight tunnel vision on one side, and sheer force of numbers on the other side. There are other ways to write Logan as an opponent (Millar's Enemy of the State comes to mind), but the film takes a time-honored route and I'm cool with that.

What else did I like?

Yukio! In the comics, of course, Yukio is an assassin, not related to Mariko in any way, and Logan is sleeping with both women. Then Yukio ends up as Logan's mistress, raising Logan's adopted daughter Amiko for him. Very different than the film. But I love this different take, the mutant Yukio who's Logan's friend. She's resourceful, strong, funny, and she doesn't exist just to serve Logan or his plot. Her friendship with her adopted sister Mariko is a key piece of her motivation puzzle. As an action heroine, she's a treat to watch. I hope we'll see more of Fukushima in this role.

Mariko. She's not a kick-ass action heroine, but she's not a traditional damsel in distress. She does her best to defend herself given her apparent lack of training. She's a little overconfident about her chances for survival, but she's not dumb.

Logan is just a Canadian white guy. Though he's called a Ronin by some of the Japanese characters, it seemed like just a noun to me, not an implication of his inherent Japanese-ness. No one made any pronouncements about how he understands their ways better than they do. In fact, Mariko makes a point about how Logan is NOT Japanese and that's why he doesn't get it.

The death-beckons visions Logan has of Jean. I think Logan's love for Jean in the comics gets built up out of proportion from the original source material. (There, he thinks Jean's cute, but then he meets Mariko and falls head over heels in love. I know there's additional development of Logan and Jean's connection later, but folks act like Jean was always his one true love. Not so.) However, these flashback scenes rung very true with me emotionally from some of the most poignant Wolverine storylines in comics, where it's revealed how much his immortality is exhausting and physically painful, and how much he craves release.

So would I see it again? Yes, unlike the first film.

Unfortunately, there is major fail in this film as well, and it's this: the substitution of a giant robot for depth of emotion.

The Yashida storyline in Wolverine comics is about very deep themes: family, responsibility, respect, debt, love, being trapped by your past, and the crushing pain of loss. There's never a happy ending. But just like with the shallow Iron Man 3, the filmmakers decided that the public wouldn't be interested in that, and would prefer a big fight scene. Mariko never has to make a painful choice between her responsibility and her love for Logan. Logan never has to make a choice about whether to respect her radically different (from his) understanding of what's important in life, or her refusal of his assistance.

Instead, we get someone in a giant robot suit crashing around a hidden laboratory, trying to suck out Logan's bone marrow. Creepy doctor gets even more ridiculous creepy and femme fatale. Mariko stabs Harada in the leg which magically causes him to change his mind about which side he should be on. It's like the whole film suddenly gets turned up to 11 and not in a good way.

C-Man has said that 2/3 of a good Wolverine movie is better than no Wolverine movie, and I'm inclined to agree. Especially given that we already got a 3/3 bad Wolverine movie so we know how that feels. So I'm choosing to see this as progress.

At my former film blog Heroine Content, we used a 0-5 star rating system to rank films based not just on quality, but on feminist and anti-racist properties plus any other wins or fails portraying marginalized groups in society. In that system, this would be at least 3 stars (Strong Contender) because Yukio is a strong addition to the ranks of action heroines, and Mariko's presence in addition to Yukio gives us two distinct female leads, yay! The film also set Logan as an outsider to Yashida and Japan, despite heavy temptation from the comics to do otherwise. If not for the giant robot and general "more is better" explosion, it might have been 4 stars (Greatest Hits). I just hate to give our 4 stars for a missed opportunity like that.

4 Comments

I've never really read the comics or seen the Wolverine movies, but I agree that Hollywood goes for the big special effects fight scene way too much! I've always been more interested in deep character story lines rather than seeing some giant robot crash around for 10 minutes!

Skye said at December 3, 2013 2:42 PM:

And I promise it's not like the movie was lacking in action up to that point!

I had to marvel at the title of this post for a good minute or two because it's so perfect. I even read the title to Aaron, who agreed it was the perfect one-line summary of the movie.

I'm in agreement with you on nearly every point. We had different views regarding the Jean visions, but I agree the first 2/3 of the movie was fairly good with the giant robot and mega fight scene a disappointing ending.

I really liked Yukio, too, and appreciated that they cast someone who wasn't a "beauty" in the Hollywood-sense. (And yet I couldn't stop focusing on her and studying her interesting face!)

Christina, I thought Yukio's look (both her physical features and also how she dressed, her fight choreography, makeup, etc.) was a breath of fresh air. Hope they find a way to use her character again.

I still don't get quite what you found an issue in the Jean visions but I can harass you about that on chat someday! :)

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