In many ways, the Wolverine presented by 20th Century Fox's recent X-Men movies has been the Rambo of the modern age. He's a perfect mix of old-school soldier tropes (tall, strong, veins bulging and visible from space, monosyllabic grunts, protects young defenseless women, etc.) and early 2000 superhero style (cool leather jackets, catch-phrases, and metal claws that extend out from between his knuckles). Never mind that Fox's Wolverine is almost a foot taller than his comic book counterpart, and ten thousand percent handsomer and more charming---though that last caveat is due entirely to the acting of fan-favorite Hugh Jackman, whose upcoming seventh turn as Wolverine in X-Men: Days of Future Past will set a new record for the number of times one actor has played a superhero in the movies.
Wolverine (neé James Howlett, but going by Logan) marched through his previous films in a blur of pecs-flexing and violence; in the first X-Men movie, he became team leader almost immediately (and fell in love with the original leader's wife, to boot). In X2, he saved the entire X-Men team from destruction, but even that pales in comparison to his world-saving feats in the critically-panned X-Men: The Last Stand (the third film in that franchise). In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Logan epitomizes himself by saying: "If I come with you, I'm coming for blood. No law, no code of conduct. You point me in the right direction, you get the hell out of my way."
However, the more any single film has been about Wolverine-as-Rambo-surrogate, the more it has been critically panned—and, perhaps ironically, the more it has been commercially successful. Excluding the out-and-out terrible Origins, as a general rule, the more of Wolverine an X-Men movie has, the more money it will make, and the less likely it is that critically conscious viewers will like it.
In this newest installment, The Wolverine, after an old friend brings Logan to Japan for a favor, Logan quickly becomes embroiled in the family's drama—specifically tasked with protecting his friend's grand-daughter Mariko (the heretofore unknown Tao Okamoto). The movie does nothing interesting with the change of scenery besides use it as an excuse to feature modern-day ninjas, which I guess is interesting for the audience's resident ten-year-olds. But there's no depth provided by the film's new setting, nothing beyond Mariko's insistence that Logan can't understand a tradition "because he's not Japanese," which seems pretty reductive.
But The Wolverine earns its reboot-like title by reversing direction for the character as we know him—and while normally, dramatic character shifts five films into a franchise aren't a great thing, director James Mangold's decision to open the film with Logan pledging a vow of non-violence is a brave decision in the face of a fan base that has rewarded higher body counts with higher grosses. Obviously, the vow doesn't stick—goals or no, this is a Hollywood movie about a man who has knives that jump out of his hands—but it shows a desire on the creator's part for the movie to be less Rambo, more Die Hard, which I hope will make sense in a minute.
See, Logan spends only about 10 or 15 minutes of the film fully powered up—the rest of it he spends in an inhibited state, which causes his powers of infinite self-healing to go away. In his past movies, Wolverine progresses like an unstoppable juggernaut, shrugging off gunfire like air-soft pellets. In The Wolverine, though, with his healing properties stunted, Logan has to go to a doctor to be healed, and has to sew up his wounds himself, and is staggered by gunfire, and incapacitated by repeated baseball bat strikes to the skull. A de-powered Logan is actually less durable than many of the Bourne-alikes we see in modern Hollywood thrillers.
It's a shift that will feel familiar to moviegoers who paid attention during 1988, when movies like Rambo and Predator and Commando were marginalized overnight by the action hero mold set by Die Hard. As Matt Zoller Seitz points out in his excellent Die Hard piece for RogerEbert.com, "Audiences dug the flesh-and-blood struggles of NYPD cop John McClane (Willis), trudging on glass-slashed feet to save his wife from terrorists." McClane was less Achilles, more Ulysses, using his wit and cleverness as a shield to protect his vulnerability, rather than being practically invulnerable. And audiences responded—following a period where movie after movie heralded in another muscle-bound uber-mensch like Schwarzenegger, Van-Damme, Stallone, and anyone else who gets a cameo in The Expendables, it was refreshing to watch a movie whose hero seemed more like you and me than Randy Savage. (Yes, Bruce Willis is also in The Expendables, but he was there more on the strength of the Rambo-esque Die Harder and A Good Day To Die Hard, less on the value of the original McClane character.)
In The Wolverine, Logan is no Ulysses—his only moments of cleverness are in the humorless lines he quips before finishing off an enemy. But for most of the film, he needs to be careful, because he can be hurt. And the movie's insistence on earning your trust on questions of his vulnerability (which I can't mention because of spoilers, but there are some truly unexpected moments) makes this one of the few thrilling movies I've seen lately, certainly more so than the faux-violence and ensured safety of popcorn-flick The Avengers. And that's because you don't know if he's going to get hurt, or if he's going to make it.
Rather than reassuring you that things will go the way you expect them to (which is the value of movies like Pacific Rim or Independence Day, which tell you a story you already know in a very pretty way with pretty pictures, without ever missing a beat), there are moments when it's uncertain exactly what's going to happen. For a big-budget Hollywood movie, that's rare—and for a superhero story, it's almost unheard of.
It's rare because we as an audience rarely want to hear a truly thrilling story, unless the "thrill" of unexpectedness is the hook itself (hence the widespread author-inclusionary Game of Thrones pandemonium). We want our heroes to be invincible, because we're not, and binging on what is the entertainment equivalent of comfort-food makes us feel better, especially after our own failures, and considering our own inability to be all-conquering. This is especially true of the Modern Male Power Fantasy like the Bourne movies, The Expendables, and perhaps worst of all, The Boondock Saints. I mean, Robert Downey, Jr.'s biggest contribution to film (via Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes) has been legitimatizing the idea that some people will just be smarter/better/richer than others, and that you should root for them.
But watching too many movies like that, including some of Marvel's recent output (to which The Wolverine is, because of studio complexities, only tangentially related), movies that can all be grouped in the faux-genre Strong People Get Their Way, is like binging on candy. Not only is it escapism, but it's a-pedagogical escapism, which depending on your viewpoint will either teach us nothing valuable at all, or maybe worse, teach us the wrong kinds of things about how the world works.
The Wolverine has plenty of eye-rolling moments of stupidity. And good wins, and evil doesn't triumph, so on and so forth. But there's something special about the way The Wolverine allows you to forget you know that that's how it's going to be, convinces you that maybe things won't end well, which makes it all the sweeter when they do. It's not the best movie of the summer, and maybe not the most memorable, but for being another superhero movie in a long line of superhero movies, it's certainly unique.
(Also: there is a roof-of-a-train fight sequence that tops almost any other roof-of-a-train fight sequence I've ever seen. It's great and really exciting, and even if you don't plan on watching this movie in theaters, or even like superhero movies at all, just rent it and then skip forward to this scene, watch it, and turn it off afterward. It's that good.)
Logan has recurring nightmares of a past violent act he committed that feature unseen gore and visible blood. When Logan is injured, we see his blood, but in the moment the violence is almost entirely bloodless. Several people are stabbed with swords. Logan uses the f-word once, in a quip, almost exactly like he did during his cameo in X-Men: First Class, which is just another McClane-ey thing about him. A couple wakes up in bed next together, but no activity is shown (in what is perhaps the least sex that I've ever seen occur on-screen). A Japanese playboy frolics around his apartment with some girls (potentially call girls), all in their underwear. One character's poison powers cause facial disfigurement, and could be disconcerting to younger viewers. She also peels all of her skin off of her body at one point (like a snake shedding skin), which is pretty gross. Logan is bathed by older Japanese ladies, and his upper butt is visible at one point, but it's non-sexual, and I don't hear anyone complaining, do you?
Jackson Cuidon is a writer in New York City. He enjoys movies with explosions and music with loud guitars.