When writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller collaborated on the four-issue Wolverine mini-series in 1982, it was more or less immediately received as the definitive Wolverine story, and in many quarters still retains that status. It took the X-Men’s runaway fan favorite and gave him new depth and vulnerability while keeping his mystique. In the story, Wolverine, or Logan, goes to Japan, where his old flame Mariko has been forced into marriage to an abusive weasel. The real villain of the tale is Mariko’s father Shingen, who gets into a teasing wooden-sword fight with a drugged Logan. About to lose the duel, Logan pops his razor-sharp adamantium claws to defend himself, and Logan’s narration explains that Shingen has manipulated this whole encounter to make Logan look cowardly in front of Mariko: “I couldn’t dishonor myself more in her eyes if I tried,” Logan mopes.
There’s nothing comparable to that painful moment in The Wolverine, which takes bits and pieces from the Claremont/Miller story — the Tokyo setting, some character names — but goes afield for a more sci-fi narrative in which Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese soldier, Yashida, from being obliterated in Nagasaki in 1945, then is summoned to visit the now-dying man decades later. Yashida has become the head of a major tech corporation, and he has been trying to cheat death; Logan, with his mutant power of instant self-healing, may be the old guy’s ticket to immortality. Mariko now becomes Yashida’s granddaughter, and there’s no love or even much affection between her and Logan. So basically Logan is pulled into the story not by his heart but by a guy who’s afraid to die.
There’s also some gibberish involving a character named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who takes away Logan’s healing powers by breathing toxic fumes on him or something, and embedding some sort of spider around his heart. The movie does bring in the assassin Yukio (Rila Fukishima), who in the comics fell in love with Logan and was jealous of his sappy attachment to Mariko, but here comes across as a sexless anime cosplayer with a bright red wig. I don’t know how you start with such a simple, effective story as the Claremont/Miller series, take out whatever’s interesting, and throw in stuff that doesn’t belong in this or any story.
The director-for-hire here is James Mangold, who started out telling small, human stories (Heavy, Girl Interrupted, Cop Land, Walk the Line) and in recent years (Knight and Day and this) just seems to have given up. In Marvel Comics’ heyday, there was a cynical maxim: “You don’t work for comics unless you work for Marvel.” Nowadays it’s more like “You don’t work for Hollywood unless you work for Marvel.” The sequence most people will point to as a highlight unfolds atop a bullet train going 300 miles an hour, with Logan and various assassins stumbling around trying to stay attached to the roof with knives or claws. It’s fun, and contains some of the rare levity in an otherwise humorless movie, but it’s just there as an action beat; it doesn’t establish or strengthen character. All that money, all those CGI techs working into the night, and it doesn’t pack a fraction of the impact of a wooden-sword battle between two men in the comic.
So instead of working Logan’s emotions, the movie seeks to make him vulnerable by sapping his powers of healing. This means he gets shot and stabbed a bunch of times, but still doesn’t die. It also means that he somehow doesn’t bleed to death every time he pops his claws, which emerge from the backs of his hands; we’re to understand that in his usual mode, the flesh heals around the claws when they’re out and seals up again when he retracts the claws. The climax involves a huge Silver Samurai also made out of adamantium, and by then the movie has abandoned pretty much any interest in making this a story about Logan, or a story about anything.
Boldly photographed (by Ross Emery) and scored (by Marco Beltrami), The Wolverine at least looks like more of a real movie than the awful previous solo Logan effort, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. By virtue of basing itself glancingly upon one of the seminal Wolverine stories instead of one of the most useless and uncalled-for Wolverine stories, the movie gets comparatively high marks, but only because it follows such a stinker. And this is yet another comic-book movie in which dozens of people are slashed and stabbed to death and we see nary a pinprick’s worth of blood. In his early days, when comics still had to abide by the violence-phobic Comics Code, Logan had to get around becoming a mass murderer by subduing his enemies in more oblique ways. But in a PG-13 movie, apparently it’s perfectly fine for Logan to shish-kebab everyone within reach, as long as you don’t show the thirteen-year-olds of America what those claws would actually do to a human being — or to the powerless Logan’s hands, for that matter.