Posted Wednesday, March 15, 2017.
The part of a killer mutant superhero with metal claws calls for a song and dance man
I’m working on my review of Logan but since it’s the sequel to The Wolverine I thought I’d re-post my review of that from December 2013 as a warm-up:
Hugh Jackman, acting with every muscle in his body, snarls, growls, slashes, claws, and dances his way through The Wolverine, an X-Men movie with more in common with Taken and The Bourne Identity than with the other X-Men movies.
When I was kid blowing what was left of my allowance and lawn mowing money, after blowing it on baseball cards, Hardy Boys books, GI Joe equipment, on comic books and deep enough into superhero legend and lore that I could spend an afternoon with my friends debating who would win in a fight, Batman or Daredevil, Aquaman or Submariner, I wasn’t much interested in spending an afternoon debating who would win in those fights or any matchup of DC and Marvel superheroes.
I couldn’t get worked up over an argument that as a staunch DC fan I felt was over before it began.
We had Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Green Lantern. Over and done.
Marvel’s best hope was in having Reed Richards on its side and I figured that proved the point. In order to have a chance Marvel would have to resort to…science? Come on. Play fair.
The kid in me still influences my thinking on this and I’d still put the odds in DC's favor in a matchup of superheroes.
But when it’s a matchup of actors who play superheroes?
Whole nother ballgame.
Of course, at this point Marvel has the super-advantage of having produced many more movies.
But you can still work up some intriguing matchups that produce decisive DC wins right off the, um, bat.
Even DC’s best, their Great Bat-Hope, Christian Bale, enters the arena a sure loser as he has to go up against Robert Downey Jr.
To be fair to Bale, Christopher Nolan fixed the fight against his own boy here by losing interest in Batman and Bruce Wayne in the last two movies and leaving Bale nothing to work with but uninspired lines of exposition that it didn’t matter Bale growled his way through unintelligibly.
But…Henry Cavill or Brandan Routh vs Chris Evans?
Ryan Reynolds vs Tobey Maguire or anyone for that matter, except Halle Berry (who can be paired off against herself and lose either way. It’ll be interesting to see Ben Affleck’s Batman opposed to his Daredevil, which in comic book fan heaven is the ideal matchup)?
Things don’t work out much better for DC in a comparison of supporting characters.
J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson vs either Frank Langella or Lawrence Fishburne as Perry White.
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman vs Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.
Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon vs Clark Gregg as Phil Coulson.
Kevin Costner as Jonathan Kent vs Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben.
But there are a couple of no-decisions:
Diane Lane as Martha Kent vs Sally Field as Aunt May.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as “John Blake” vs Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes
Michael Caine as Alfred vs Paul Bettany as Jarvis.
Kidding on the last one.
Caine wins on points.
As far as the villains go:
Michael Shannon as Zod vs Alfred Molina as Doc Ock.
Tom Hiddleston as Loki vs Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor.
Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull vs Mark Strong as Sinestro.
At any rate, there’s nothing to be gained for DC in taking this any further. Even excluding Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as the ringers they are, Marvel’s bench is just way too deep. In fact, I can think of only one pairing that DC wins going away.
Heath Ledger as the Joker vs William Dafoe as the Green Goblin.
A happier and more satisfying waste of time is to imagine matchups between the stars within the three main Marvel franchises, the Avengers, Spider-man (and for the purposes of my argument I’m treating the Maguire-Rami trilogy and the reboot with Andrew Garfield as one and the same), and X-Men.
Actually, it’s inspiring, just making a list of the great and good actors appearing throughout the Marvel movie universes who aren’t there to camp it up but to act.
The Avengers: Downey, Evans, Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Tobey Jones, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Don Cheadle, Sam Rockwell. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier they’re adding Robert Redford.
Spider-Man: Maguire, Dafoe, Field, Kirsten Dunst, Alfred Molina, Cliff Robertson, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Thomas Hayden Church, Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, and, coming up, Paul Giamatti, Jamie Foxx, and Chris Cooper.
X-Men: This was the weakest until the reboot brought in Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Kevin Bacon. It wasn’t that the acting was bad. It was just that the casts have been mostly made up of male and female starlets who’ve gone nowhere and second-tier character actors without star power of their own. Brain Cox is terrific but he’s no Tommy Lee Jones or Stanley Tucci. (Like I said, I disqualify Stewart and McKellan as ringers.) There’s been one magnificent exception and, based on the title of this post and the picture up top, you’re already ahead of me on this, aren’t you?
By now, just about everyone with taste and judgment and a sense of fun who loves movies outside the Hollywood award-giving community and a few of the more effete of the elite film critics takes it as a given that a part in a comic book movie is a respectable gig and that it’s possible for the actors in one to deliver performances that are as nuanced, convincing, and true to life as in any reverent biopic, sentimental foreign import, or Scorsese-directed or influenced cinematic opera.
Christopher Reeve set the standard, but I’d make the case that it was Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, with an assist from Bruce Willis as John McClane in the first Die Hard, who showed that that comic book heroes or what are essentially comic book heroes could be played as grownups, by grownups, for grownups.
The travesty that devolved from Tim Burton’s Batman could have derailed the trend. Thankfully, Marvel decided that DC’s failures had nothing to do with them and along came X-Men.
There was some necessary cheating for respectability with the casting of Stewart and McKellan seeming like a doubling of what George Lucas managed to pull off having Alec Guinness in the original Star Wars, as if Lucas had also managed to sign Lawrence Olivier for the part of Grand Moff Tarkin. But, also like Star Wars, zippy storytelling and the director’s faith in the material carried the movie. But, also again like Star Wars, the movie was made even better by the fortuitous casting of a charismatic and savvy actor as a secondary character who used the part the way Harrison Ford used Han Solo to turn himself into a star.
Hugh Jackman became to the X-Men franchise what Ford was to Star Wars. And, still following Ford’s example, this time as Indiana Jones, Jackman showed that playing a live-action cartoon character wasn’t just a launching pad to stardom. It was a job for a star.
A star who could and did act.
As Wolverine, Jackman set the scene for Tobey Maguire, Christian Bale, and, ultimately, Robert Downey Jr.
With that, you could say Jackman’s work here was done.
If you bothered with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you’re probably thinking, Too bad Jackman and Marvel didn’t see it that way and leave well enough alone.
You can also understand, though, why four years later they’d want to try again with The Wolverine.
And if you’re a fan, you’ll be glad they did.
But here’s the real news. You don’t have to be a fan---of Wolverine, of Marvel, of superhero or comic book movies in general---to enjoy The Wolverine. I’m assuming you’re a Hugh Jackman fan because who isn’t, but you don’t have to be a fan of him either. The Wolverine might make you one, but you don’t have to be.
The Wolverine is only technically a superhero movie. It’s only nominally connected to the previous X-Men movies and there’s little in it to connect it with next summer’s Days of Future Past. In style, tone, narrative structure, and overall effect, it has little in common with any superhero movie that’s come before it and a lot in common with simpler, more straightforward, and---these things being relative---realistic action-adventure movies like Taken and The Bourne Identity. In fact, it’s very much like those two films. A lone hero with a very special set of skills has to stay alive and save the girl while running a gantlet of bad guys. The difference is Wolverine doesn’t have to find weapons or improvise them as he goes. He is the weapon.
The fate of humankind isn’t at stake. There’s no cackling supervillain bent on world domination or destruction. Backstory is minimal which means so’s exposition. The story’s told mainly through visuals, character development is done on the fly, and our rooting interest in the hero depends on his being played by a star who can carry the plot and convey everything we need to know about what the character’s thinking and feeling while implying depth and emotion the script doesn’t actually provide without having to say very much. In a way, these movies require a dancer in the lead role, and while you might not think of Liam Neeson or Matt Damon as dancers, Hugh Jackman is one. A song and dance man, at any rate, and his Wolverine is as athletic and balletic as Gene Kelly.
Somewhat less cheerful, of course.
Here’s all you need to know about Wolverine going in. Logan, the name he’s known by to friends and his more intimate enemies---I can’t recall if he’s ever referred to as Wolverine in The Wolverine---is a mutant, a human being with abilities that are essentially magic powers explained away by genetics, the next step in evolution, yadda yadda, science. Logan is superstrong, super-agile, superquick and has the ability to heal from just about any wounds almost instaneously. Shoot him, stab him, beat him, pin-cushion him with arrows or burn him up in a nuclear firestorm and you’ll slow him down for a second or two while the holes you put in him close up, the bruises fade, and the burnt skin sloughs off, then he’ll come back at you again.
Time’s passage is a continual wound or series of wounds but Logan regenerates and rejuvenates without pause, so he’s pretty much immortal as well as close to invulnerable.
He also has a pair of retractable claws that shoot out of the knuckles on the backs of his hands and are made of metal not bone. Don’t worry about it.
Once you accept that his claws are like other action-adventure heroes’ guns and his ability to take a bullet like their ability to dodge one, the superhero aspect is practically ignorable.
When we meet up with him at the beginning of The Wolverine, Logan’s cut himself off from his superhero friends and teammates and, as for all they matter to this story, from the previous X-Men movies. He’s retreated to the great north woods to be alone with his demons and his grief. Time can’t touch him physically, but it weighs heavy on his heart and his soul. The woman who haunts his dreams is a character from the X-men (comics and films) but you don’t need to know who she is. In fact, it’s probably better you don’t know, and if you do know, try to forget because who wants to bring her back to life? What’s important is she’s the love of his life and she’s dead. He’s not trying forget the past, though. He’s avoiding his future, desperately trying to live in an eternal but imaginary present in which she is still alive. Naturally, it doesn’t take long for the past and the future to come calling together in the person of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a henna-haired female ninja who can swing a katana with as deadly effect as Logan can use his claws. She’s been sent by an old friend of Logan’s, a former Japanese soldier whose life Logan saved during the bombing of Nagasaki now an extremely rich old man dying of an intractable disease all the money in the world can’t cure. The old man wants Logan to come to Japan to say goodbye and to thank him again for his long and prosperous life by giving him the gift of the thing the old man believes Logan wants most.
The trip is a trick. The old man’s idea of a gift is selfish and perverse. Logan prepares to return home to get back to his brooding. But…there’s a girl.
And she needs saving.
Soon Logan is slashing and clawing, smashing and brawling his way up and and down the Japanese archipelago, taking on Yakuza and ninjas and leaving a trail of blood that to his amazement includes puddles of his own. Somehow his power to rejuvenate has been arrested. His wounds aren’t healing. Each new fight leaves him weaker and more demoralized.
He keeps going, of course. Having someone else to fight for gives him something to live for. This is the closest The Wolverine comes to expressing any comic book subtext. Logan doesn’t come out and say, Oh that’s right, I’m a superhero! This is my job! But we know that’s where his thinking’s headed.
It’s just a question of his living long enough to get there.
Even if Logan was inclined to talk about his feelings, he doesn’t have anybody to talk about them with, which is another way of saying that Hugh Jackman doesn’t have anybody to play off of in The Wolverine.
The most interesting supporting character---who is practically the only other character with a character. The rest are mainly attitudes, poses, and plot points---Fukishima’s Yukio keeps disappearing from the plot for long stretches at a time. Tao Okamoto, who plays Moriko, the damsel in distress, is there to center the camera and give us something calm and lovely to focus on so that we’re not too dizzied by the storms of violence and mayhem filling up the screen around her. The bad guys and their henchmen are obstacles and targets. The only real interplay between Logan and any of them is a dance on the top of a bullet train, an almost comic pas de deux in which Logan and his opponent have to take cues from one another and follow each other’s leads in order not to bet knocked off or blown off the train in between exchanges of kicks, punches, and body slams. The result is that all the acting in the movie is left to Jackman. And he delivers, despite not having a lot to work with.
On the page, Wolverine isn’t much more than a snarl, a growl, and the snick-snick sound of his claws coming out. But even if he was a more talkative type and had somebody to talk to, chase movies can’t slow down to give their characters time to soliloquize. What Jackman does, though, is give us an extended visual soliloquy, Logan’s To be or not to be expressed in movement instead of words, words, words. Like I said, it’s a dance.
Jackman puts every muscle to work. It’s not just that he has fifteen different ways to frown and a dozen more to grin menacingly. He can make a twitch of a deltoid do the work of a frown or a menacing grin and put as much expression into a bunching of his shoulders as the best Shakespearean actors can in their voices. Which, of course, is the mark of a true movie star. Movie stars know how to move. And this is why stars should play superheroes. It’s not a matter of filling out the costume and striking the right pose. Superheroes dance. This is what makes Robert Downey Jr the best of the stars playing superheroes. Sure, he’s good with the wisecracks. But when he puts Tony Stark to work at a virtual keyboard or with a sledgehammer, he’s dancing.
Jackman is dancing in The Wolverine.
You don’t have to be a fan to get caught up in The Wolverine. If you’re not, the only question that will concern you is Will Logan save the girl and in the process save himself?
If you’re a fan, there’s an added question: Does The Wolverine save the Wolverine as a character?
If you’re that kind of fan, there’s one more.
Who would win in a fight? Robert Downey’s Iron Man or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine?
The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. Starring Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, and Haruhiko Yamanouchi. Rated PG-13. 1 hour and 26 minutes. Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray and to watch instantly at Amazon.