Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Wolverine (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Donners' Company, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the DVD edition of the latest X-Men movie, The Wolverine — a flawed but surprisingly interesting and almost tragic superhero movie which was released earlier this year as a summer blockbuster but didn’t do well at the box office. One can readily see why; it’s true that Marvel Comics, which introduced the X-Men characters in 1963 (I hadn’t realized it was that early until I saw the recent PBS documentary on the history of superheroes), really began the whole idea of the angst-ridden superhero — the being with superpowers who also longed for a normal life, to the point of thinking and sometimes even asking the universe to take this cup from their lips. But they’ve rarely taken it so far as they did here, or been so relentless about it. The premise of the X-Men movies is that a certain number of people are born with superhero mutations — though Wolverine seems to have acquired his via an accident in which his body was injected with a metal called adamantium, which has made him immortal, given him the power to heal just about any injury he suffers, and also has allowed him to grow three fearsome metal blades that sprout from his knuckles (not his fingernails) and make him an incredibly effective combat weapon, since the super-strong metal can slice through walls and other metal objects as well as the bodies of his attackers.

The group X-Men movies have centered around the uncertain affiliations between these mutants — some of whom have reacted by becoming antisocial villains and others by becoming good guys who try to fight them — but Wolverine’s solo movies (of which this is at least the second — the first was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a clunky title but also quite a good film) have cast him as an angst-ridden version of the Lone Ranger who travels the world over looking for a place where he can feel at home and a woman he can love. Of course, despite his success in fighting evil he never really accomplishes either of those tasks. The Wolverine is set mostly in Japan, and casts Logan (Hugh Jackman in his sixth appearance in the role), Wolverine’s non-hero alternate identity, as a U.S. servicemember in World War II who’s taken prisoner by the enemy and held in a prison camp in Nagasaki. When the city is bombarded by an atomic attack — the genuine one that took place August 9, 1945, three days after the better-known one on Hiroshima — three junior Japanese officers in charge of the camp commit suicide rather than face dishonor, but the commandant, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), is rescued by Logan. The two survive the attack by hiding at the bottom of a long pipe in the ground that apparently serves as the only entrance and egress to Logan’s cell — and then the film flashes forward from 1945 to 2013, where Logan is wandering aimlessly around Alaska following the death of his girlfriend, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) — an event depicted in the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, so far the only one in the cycle Charles and I haven’t seen. He’s met by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a red-haired female martial artist and an emissary of Yashida’s company — since the war he’s become a billionaire and owns a high-tech corporation — who tells him that Yashida (played in the modern footage by Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is about to die of natural causes and wants to say goodbye to his old friend Logan before he croaks. Only what he really wants is to steal Logan’s superpowers and make himself immortal.

He’s got help in doing that from another mutant, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose superpower is being able to absorb every poisonous substance in the world into her own body and then breathe or otherwise transfer them out again to anyone else, thereby either killing or incapacitating them. He’s also got the assistance of Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Noburo (Brian Tee) — the latter is Japan’s attorney general but, like a lot of real-life politicians, is looking to be in the good graces of a 1-percenter so he’ll have a lucrative career when he leaves (or gets thrown out of) office. What Yashida doesn’t reckon with is his own granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who inherits the company when Yashida dies and falls in love with Logan. It turns out, this being a superhero movie, that Yashida isn’t dead; his body has been kept alive artificially, partly by the share of Logan’s superpowers that Viper has been able to extract from him and insert into Yashida’s corpse to revive him, and partly due to the Silver Samurai, a huge robot made of adamantium which Yashida operates from inside, and which since it’s made of the same stuff that gave Logan his powers can off him once and for all. The plot leaves a lot of room for the typical, highly baroque and elaborate action scenes you expect in a comic-book movie — all of which are set in high-tech environments looking nothing like anything you or I are likely to encounter in our own lives — but there’s also some real emotional conflict here. Logan begins the movie in full death-wish mode, lamenting the curse of his own immortality and sounding an awful lot like a cross between Jesus Christ and Wagner’s Wotan, but no sooner has he realized that Yashida wants to take over his immortality than Logan decides he wants to live after all, even if that means that at the end of the film he abandons Mariko and hits the road again, Lone Ranger-style — and in one of the post-credits sequences Marvel movies have become famous for, he’s greeted at the airport by Professor X (Anthony Hopkins) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), setting up a couple of upcoming new entries in the group version of the X-Men cycle, Days of Future Past (2014) and Apocalypse (2016).

I’m not sure stretching the cycle that far is all that good an idea, and I’m not sure including Wolverine in the group movies is that good an idea either — he’s really much more powerful as a solo character — but The Wolverine, as much as it sometimes seems on the verge of collapsing from its weight and darkness, is really a surprisingly intense and moving film, especially for a genre that really doesn’t truck much with sophisticated human emotions. It probably helps that the script was written by only two people (Mark Bomback and Scott Frank) and also that the director, James Mangold, is not a superhero specialist; his best-known previous credits are Girl, Interrupted (about a mentally ill teenager), the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the recent remake of the 1950’s Western 3:10 to Yuma — which means he isn’t burned out on the genre and instead could look at it with fresh eyes (literally and figuratively). Though the relentless past-is-brown, present-is-brown, everything-is-brown cinematography of Ross Emery makes the film wearing at times, and a few of the action set-pieces (including an otherwise exciting fight-to-the-finish on top of a speeding bullet train) suffer from the obvious digitization of the images, The Wolverine is actually a quite impressive superhero movie and a worthy entry in a cycle whose central premise (mutants living in the “normal” world and having to cope with the often deadly prejudices against them) has been analogized to both the African-American and Queer civil-rights struggles; apparently much of the original fan base for the X-Men comic magazine was 1960’s and 1970’s Queer people identifying with the mutants’ dilemma: stay in the closet or come out?