Review: The Wolverine, The Softer Side of Awesome

I’m going to say it. The Wolverine was my favorite X-men movie thus far (sorry, X-men First Class). Those who enjoyed the campy, super-power driven earlier movies might be disappointed though. The movie took its time, and took itself very seriously. That’s probably best for a movie that features atomic bombs and suicide.

One of the most exciting things about this movie was that, not only did it pass the Bechdel test, there was about a 50/50 split of badass ladies and guys (not counting goons). The female lead, Mariko, (Tao Okamoto) is kidnapped approximately six hundred times over the course of the movie and still gets to kick some serious ass, not to mention being directly responsible for saving the entire day. Rila Fukushima also plays a truly fantastic (and beautifully complex) Yukio, Wolverine’s ‘bodyguard.’

Most badass of all was the main villain, a cross-title villainess named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Fun fact: in one comic story line, these two were married until Wolverine blackmailed Viper into a divorce. I especially liked that she really owned her motivation. Although she was part of the overall evil plot, she had her own reasons and her own approach. In the climactic scene she was particularly sadistic, taunting Mariko and Logan – a flavor I haven’t often seen in female villains. When she finally squares off against Rila she feels dangerous, and ruthless, and the tension created in their fight is fantastic.

Viper is very independent in the comics too. She is often in a leadership position and is famous for manipulation. It was nice to see her in a strong role, instead of a sort of tortured, love-lorn follower, like Mystique or even Phoenix were in the earlier movies.

But my favorite thing about the movie was the way they moved the plot forward. My favorite X-men storylines always showed the team as people who were constantly pulled into danger by necessity. I loved the comics where Storm and Rogue and Jubilee were just trying to shop – for crying out loud – when Sentinels attack them! These are the moments when I feel for the characters, and when they most embody a cry for equal treatment.

It’s a very different feeling from superheros who get the girl, or the admiration, or… whatever. When these characters are simply trying to live, to love, to celebrate, to work, and their lives are interrupted by violence I truly feel for them and I desperately want them to win, to go back home – to be normal.

In this movie Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) repeatedly tries to maintain normalcy, actively seeks it out, only to be drawn back in because he is, after all, the good guy. In X-men storylines good guys do not have to go looking for a fight.

Speaking of classic: a classic theme in Wolverine comics is Logan doing a good deed and then paying for it decades later. In this case Logan, the soldier, rescues an enemy and chances feeling things for him. Decades later, that friend attempts to murder him to gain his power. It was fun to see this theme play out on the big screen.

I was ready for the fight scenes to drag on painfully, but they never did. That’s something I’ve noticed a lot in epic action movies lately (I’m looking at you, Pacific Rim/Man of Steel).

While both First Class and The Wolverine excelled at presenting complex, very human moments against the backdrop of outrageous super-power based plots, First Class’ fight scenes seemed clunky and constrained. They were often fought when characters were cornered and there was a great deal of shock and awe while they waited to be rescued or escape. And meanwhile, things are blown up. I get bored of fight scenes that drag on as more and more damage is done. There was an economy to the action in The Wolverine. It seemed like just enough.

I am worried that the movie crosses the line between idolizing Japanese culture and romanticizing it. Of course, it plays fast and loose with history, but it is dangerously close to doing the same thing with a culture.

Overall I was happiest with The Wolverine because it didn’t talk down to me. Early X-men movies seemed to lack faith in their audience, or perhaps were concerned that non-comic-fans wouldn’t understand what was happening. Their storylines were simple and campy, focusing on fighter jets and super-costumes.

The Wolverine, on the other hand, didn’t seem worried about my tiny attention span wandering away. For heaven’s sake, there’s an entire scene where Wolverine is helping some old folks chop down a tree while Mariko helps hand out tea! It was touching and human and I loved it.

All in all, The Wolverine wasn’t really the epic, destructive powerhouse the trailers showed. Instead it was a beautiful story of two people learning that their lives can be more beautiful and complex than they had imagined. It wove an interesting story that spanned decades and roamed half the planet. In many ways, the movie’s attempt to show power in quiet moments was more impressive than its best-choreographed fight scenes. I hope that future action movies take a lesson from The Wolverine – that good story conquers all.

Leslie Anderson

Leslie Anderson

Leslie was born and raised in Michigan. She spent a lot of her time falling off ponies and out of trees. She received a BA in Writing from Michigan State University and an MA in Writing from Ohio University. Her writing and art has appeared in Asimov’s, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and the International Journal of Comics Art. She obsessively consumes video games, comic books, speculative novels, and espresso. Her collection of poetry is forthcoming from Alliteration Ink.