Back when Wolverine’s popularity first began to really soar in the comics in the early to mid-80s, Marvel, sensing what it had on its hands, did its best to have him turn up as often as possible. He headlined their new anthology series, turned up in most of their big crossover series, and regularly dropped into other books for the inevitable sales boost one of his appearances would bring. There very often wasn’t a whole lot of thought to the hows and whys of Wolverine being on hand; it was enough that he was there, and details be damned. Which is a fairly good approximation of his most recent cinematic adventure, The Wolverine. Not a lot of it makes much sense, but hey, it’s got Wolverine in it, and you like him, don’t you?
Part of the problem is that the film never really wants to decide who the main villain is, so damn near everybody gets their chance to be one. When Wolverine returns to Japan at the behest of the dying Yashida, an old friend whose life he once saved, it’s practically a roll call of possible bad guys. There’s Yashida’s doctor, Dr. Green, clearly up to no good. There’s Yashida’s son slapping around his daughter Mariko. Oh, there’s her fiance giving Wolverine some attitude. And let’s throw some Yakuza in for good measure. We’re even treated to two characters who seemed like good guys ending up on the wrong side of things by the end of the film. I complained earlier this summer about the twist of Iron Man 3 removing what was a compelling villain in the Mandarin and forcing us to suddenly invest in someone we really hadn’t given much thought to. Here, we’re never even given that much. There’s no single, clearly motivated threat for Wolverine to face off against. The film constantly shifts the goal posts, so we’re never really fully ready to root against anyone, making Wolverine seem more confused than heroic as he tries to figure out just what the hell is going on.
The film does lean pretty heavily on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s original Wolverine limited series from 1982. It even starts off with a similar scene of Logan dispatching a wounded bear and confronting the irresponsible hunter who caused the wound. We’re spared Claremont’s earnest narration (which kicked off the whole “It’s what I do. It’s what I’m best at.” meme), but relying on the series does have a drawback. In the comics, Wolverine and his love interest Mariko had met some three years before, firmly establishing their attraction and her family’s disapproval of what they saw as a savage, dishonorable man. The limited series then told the story of Wolverine redeeming himself, and finding a balance between his animalistic and human sides, ending with the long-awaited and well-earned engagement to Mariko. But the film doesn’t have the luxury of that backstory, so it has to lay all the romantic groundwork before getting into the story. And it completely drops the idea of Wolverine’s warring halves; in fact, it’s more about him embracing his warrior nature and returning to active super-hero duty. And there’s no engagement, presumably because we can’t have Mariko around gumming up X-Men: Days of Future Past. So viewed as even a loose adaptation of the comic, it doesn’t quite work.
What does work is the action. After the loony, over-the-top antics of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine feels much more grounded. Granted, you’ve still got a guy with metal claws running around, but the film is damn near realistic with regards to showing how he uses them. The undoubted highlight is an inventive fight atop a speeding bullet train, with Wolverine and his Yakuza opponent using their respective weapons to desperately cling to the roof of the train as much as to damage each other. Wolverine’s companion Yukio also has some great sword-fighting moments, and the finale against a giant robotic samurai, while a disappointing waste of the great Silver Samurai character from the comics, is suitably frenetic and engaging, even if you’ve stopped worrying about who the real villain is by that point. On that level, as a string of Wolverine-fueled set-pieces, it’s entertaining enough, if not completely captivating.
But maybe the real purpose of this film isn’t to present us with an engaging villain for Wolverine to fight, but is instead revealed by the scene that takes places just after the credits begin to roll. I won’t give anything away, but it gives the impression this film existed solely as a way to get Wolverine back into the integrated X-Men universe so his turn in Days of Future Past makes sense. In essence, it’s a rehab effort, an attempt to wash away the ill will from Origins and get the character back into our good graces so we’re ready to see him headline the next X-Men film. Given how modern comics love to kick off their big events with extraneous prologue issues that do little more than whet the appetite for what’s to come, maybe The Wolverine is a better comic adaptation than I’m giving it credit for.