‘Wolverine’: Why the Lowest-Opening Superhero Movie of the Summer Is Also the Best

REARVIEW: Variety critics take a second look at the weekend's most talked-about movies.

Given its largely favorable reviews, its sturdy “X-Men” fanbase and the reliable draw of Hugh Jackman plus claws and effects, “The Wolverine” surprised more than a few onlookers by not exactly setting the box office on fire this past weekend. Fox’s respectable-but-not-remarkable $55 million domestic take is the sort of inconclusive figure that can prompt a certain amount of industry overreaction: Are audiences finally expressing their latent comicbook-movie fatigue? Are we seeing, at last, their impatience with a franchise-based industry that recycles everything and risks nothing in deference to the bottom line?

SEE ALSO: Box Office: ‘Wolverine’ Soft Stateside With $55 Mil, But Boffo O’seas With $86 Mil

I’d happily answer yes to these questions, if I didn’t more or less believe what H.L. Mencken once said about the taste of the American public. And then there’s the minor complication that “The Wolverine” — not a reboot but, mercifully, a rethink of the whole franchise — is easily the best superhero extravaganza in a summer dominated by the bigger, noisier likes of “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel.” A model of crafty, unpretentious, less-is-more genre filmmaking, it’s that increasingly rare example of a comicbook movie done right, even as it shows there’s more than one right way to do a comicbook movie.

From a qualitative standpoint, it means nothing that the latest incarnation of Logan won’t come within raking distance of Clark Kent or Tony Stark commercially, just as it means nothing that it drew about $30 million less than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s” $85.1 million opening four years ago. As my colleague Peter Debruge aptly pointed out in his review, that dunderheaded 2009 film may well explain why even loyal X-Men fans, myself included, were less excited to see Wolverine’s next cinematic mutation.

And yet, from the opening frame of “The Wolverine” — a calm, distanced shot of Nagasaki Harbor so still and serene it wouldn’t look entirely out of place in James Benning’s “13 Lakes” — it’s clear that director James Mangold and scribes Scott Frank and Mark Bomback are up to something more than boom-boom business as usual. Mangold may be a helmer-for-hire here, but he understands the value of reserve: In a genre prone to overkill, no effect is more special than a story with a proper sense of flow and proportion. And he knows the power of Jackman’s Wolverine persona enough to trust us to follow the character into fresh geographical and mythological terrain.

In adapting a popular 1982 storyline by comicbook writers Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the filmmakers have taken the sort of creative risks — setting the action almost entirely in Japan and casting relatively unknown Japanese actors in substantive dramatic roles — that honor the devotion of fans and respect the intelligence of the audience. (It’s also unlikely to harm the film’s prospects overseas, where it’s grossed a robust $86.1 million so far — and it hasn’t even hit Japan yet.) Rather than merely exploiting one exotic destination after another in the manner of so many globe-trotting actioners, “The Wolverine” patiently immerses us in the codes and tensions of a foreign culture. (There’s a marvelous intimacy and specificity to the details here: When someone tells Logan not to plant his chopsticks upright in his rice bowl, an omen of death in many Asian cultures, I couldn’t help but flash back to a similar warning from my mother to my 8-year-old self.)

It’s not just that the film makes adroit use of Japan’s urban topography by staging a crackling action sequence atop a high-speed train; on a thematic level, the setting serves only to reinforce Logan’s sense of dislocation, his profound alienation from his fellow man as well as his fellow mutant. Granted, there are few of the latter besides Wolverine in “The Wolverine” (true to its “X”-free title), and the most prominent one, the poison-tongued Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), feels like one of the film’s few unnecessary concessions to franchise convention. She may be an improvement on Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, but that’s not something this particular movie needs.

In that respect, it’s tempting to consider what an earlier, even less compromised version of “The Wolverine” — the one slated to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky from a script by Christopher McQuarrie — might have looked like. In an earlier interview with Screen Rant, McQuarrie described the lost film as a decidedly unconventional venture, a lone-mutant saga with an Eastern-Western sensibility redolent of Kurosawa and Leone. Still, Mangold’s film retains enough of those soulful influences to qualify as something no less distinctive: a movie that might just be too good for mass acceptance.

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  1. Mimi says:

    I’ve never liked the character much. He is redundant & kind of redneck. All I’ve seen is he’s arrogant, smokes cigars, growls, whips out his claws & beats up people, including women >:(. Not much of a superhero to me. He also makes fun of people, which all of that is sending a bad message to kids, and promoting abuse against women.

  2. Uncle Morty says:

    MORE SCOTT FRANK (dir. The Lookout – excellent, writer – Out of Sight et. al.)

    LESS MARK BOMBACK (writer – Total Recall (2012), Live Free or Die Hard)

    Dir. Mr. James “3:10 To Yuma” Mangold

    Uncle Morty expected Fox not to screw this one up but, too much exposition – it was only saved by Msrs Mangold & Frank – Msr Bomback is to blame imho.

    More Mangold & Frank next time

    Uncle Morty Recommends: “Wolverine: Logan” by Mr. Brian K. Vaughn

  3. Uncle Morty says:

    You. Can’t. Kill. Wolverine.

    The best there is…at what he does.

  4. The Kingslayer says:

    It’s more to do with Origins being a complete stinker and American’s bizarre taste in movies. I stil can’t believe more went to see Grown Ups 2 instead of Pacific Rim smh.

  5. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a coworker who was doing a little homework on this. And he in fact bought me breakfast because I found it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this issue here on your web page.

  6. Don says:

    Great review Mr. Chang. Apparently the American audience is made up almost entirely of nerds who can not distinguish between a good movie like The Wolverine and a video game for lobotomized by excessive technology.

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  8. Lin Qiu says:

    I would like to make two points. 1.) You get made points for knowing who James Benning is. 2.) I don’t think he would have panned during that opening shot :)

  9. Joe Smart says:

    I just saw The Wolverine and I really wish I could agree with this article, but I can’t. While the movie is certainly better than the previous Wolverine outing, it doesn’t measure up to any of the better X Men movies (basically any of them other than part 3). The first extended action sequence, which starts out at a funeral and ends atop a bullet train is excellent. After that, unfortunately, The Wolverine is rarely inspired or exciting. What little entertainment value The Wolverine manages to eek out beyond that one stunning sequence is largely due to the two Japanese leading ladies rather than the title character. Maybe The Wolverine character just isn’t interesting enough on his own to carry a movie and needs to be part of a bigger ensemble but the new movie wasn’t as much of an improvement over the first Wolverine outing as I had expected or hoped. I really wanted to like it like I really wanted to like Man of Steel but it just wasn’t all that good.

  10. CRISS says:

    THIS WAS A PLESURE TO READ, BEAUTIFUL !

  11. harry georgatos says:

    The first hour of THE WOLVERINE was good but in the second half the film succumbs to a brain-dead formula that’s obvious. James Mangold can be a good director with COPLAND, GIRL, INTERRUPTED, WALK THE LINE, IDENTITY and 3:10 TO YUMA. KNIGHT AND DAY with THE WOLVERINE I suspect Mangold was only a director for hire and followed studio instructions. I only think what type of visionary film Darren Aronofsky would have made. The two stand-alone WOLVERINE films pale when compared to X-MEN 1, X-MEN 2 and the brilliant X-MEN FIRST CLASS.

    With the proliferation of superhero movies the one’s to stand-out critically and commercially are the one’s that have an original and distinctive voice instead of coming out of a computer with little imagination. Studio’s should stop listening to test research and trust selected and gifted writers and directors who have a genuine understanding of the core material instead of someone who’s there to do simply a job and then move on to another studio job. When audience get something as original as INCEPTION people will flock to the cinemas. Warners never thought INCEPTION would be a hit and that’s the type of development this big comic book studio films need instead of formulas and cliche’s that have been done to dead.

    • Joe Smart says:

      I agree. James Mangold did a workmanlike job of directing but he managed only one exciting sequence in the entire film (the action scene that starts off at the funeral) and there’s very little in the movie to suggest a filmmaker who is invested in any way in the material. Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men First Class both had a lot more personality than The Wolverine. I think James Mangold might be the new Richard Fleischer–a talented but essentially anonymous genre director who is incapable of elevating his material into anything more than it is.

  12. Good points here (Although I’d be tempted to say lowest opening “so far”. Surely Kick Ass 2, which I have very high hopes for, would be in dreamland if it made over $40, in its opening weekend.).

    This is a very good film indeed, with a very good progression for the character and some seriously risky, and brave story developments.

    It should also be noted that the North American box office remains hampered by the ongoing boycott of Fox’s Marvel films, by an alledgedly substantial portion of the Marvel comic book Fans who want all character back with Marvel. The great reviews for First Class didn’t stop them staying at home, and it seems the same thing may still apply here. It’s a shame because the last two Mutant films (both notably made after Brian Singer’s return, are both up there with X2 (if not better).

    The Wolverine is an excellent film and it will do very, very good business outside of North America; China and Japan especially.

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