The blessing and the curse of adapting a film from the X-Men universe is the breadth of material. They have been featured in Marvel comics since their creation in 1963. There are hundreds of mutants, thousands of stories, and endless possibilities to adapt for the big screen. Do you tell one story? Many stories? Focus on one character? All the characters? Go political? Go sci-fi? Go topical? The Wolverine fuses together a mismatched batch of characters and stories connected to the Wolverine Japanese Saga and the Silver Samurai. In a nutshell, we discover that Wolverine saved a Japanese general during World War II from being evaporated during the bombing of Nagasaki. In the present day, a skilled mutant/ninja/assassin named Yukio is sent to America to bring Wolverine face to face with the man he saved. That man is now the leader of a multi-billion dollar corporation and promises that he can make Wolverine a mortal man again.
That story is the problem with The Wolverine. Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's 1982 Wolverine comic is a fantastic story about Wolverine escaping to Japan, falling in love, and training in all different facets of martial arts to protect his new girlfriend from the crime family she was born into. The Wolverine turns this into a story of isolation and anger over money-hungry corporate climbers taking advantage of a dying man's weakness. A lot of the ideas work---Yukio as a tragic mutant rather than just a ninja is a boon for the film--but they don't work as a story about Wolverine.
Wolverine is secondary to the interests of every other character in the film. From Venom, tasked with researching Adamantium (the metal fused to Wolverine's skeleton) and regeneration, to a giant family business strangely staffed with weapons experts and ninjas, the only time Wolverine has any bearing on their lives is when he's wooing them or stabbing them. This story could easily exist as a metaphorical look at modern corporate culture at odds with tradition in Japan thanks to globalization without a self-healing mutant with metal claws. The camera rarely leaves Wolverine's side but it's just not his story.
It's a shame because Mark Bomback and Scott Frank's screenplay does a lot to make up for the flaws of X-Men: The Last Stand. Jean Grey appears in Wolverine's psyche as his inner critic and anti-Jiminy Cricket character, encouraging him to find a way to kill himself for all the sins he's committed. Wolverine also regains a sense of honor and duty by removing himself from society and fully embracing his animalistic instincts. The ideas are finally in place for a good film about Wolverine but Wolverine himself is totally irrelevant to the film he's in.
The Wolverine is a disappointment because of missed opportunities. It's not poorly made. The mostly bilingual cast (most making their English-language debuts) are fine. It looks good. The fights are clever. The Wolverine just manages to push the title character out of any important role in his own story.
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