For some reason, Marvel and Fox cannot make a Wolverine-centric movie work. X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a stupid title that betrayed the stupid movie lurking within. But it was harmless; flashy characters and lazy storytelling, it felt cooked up in a lab to sell action figures and keep the X-Men brand in the public consciousness.
The Wolverine is different, though. Or it should be. This is a (supposedly) standalone story, based one of the most famous arcs in comic book history, that's being sold as sort of the auteur's Wolverine film: "It was almost made by Darren Aronofsky!"
But a quick visit to your local cineplex will reveal the truth; it's the same as the others, maybe worse. Aronofsky left The Wolverine in the dust for all the usual reasons: the script is a joke and the characters are utterly forgettable. Nothing is revealed about Logan's inner psyche that you didn't already know; it could also be called That Time Wolverine Went To Japan. This is a movie that feels like it was directed by the guy who made Knight and Day...and, of course, it was.
Let the record state that Hugh Jackman is a wonderful Wolverine. It's just that no one can figure out what to do with him. He's more vascular than ever, but also aware that being swole is only part of the persona. And he's a veritable master of the "wake up screaming with claws extended" scene, one that still maintains its effectiveness despite being done a dozen times over.
But Jackman's enthusiasm for the Logan character is also his downfall; he seems oddly game for all the lame ideas that screenwriters and directors have queued up for Wolverine and his mutant buddies. It's as if he signed a lifetime contract to play Wolverine and must now spend eternity slogging through a bunch of garbage, a gleaming diamond in the garbage-strewn rough.
The story progresses naturally for the first 60 minutes or so, and a high-tension fight on top of a Japanese bullet train is one of the most inspired action sequences I've seen in a while. But from there The Wolverine goes off the rails. Double crosses are executed without explanation, villains arbitrarily emerge from the shadows for reasons I still don't quite understand. Lots of things happen, and none of them really matter.
Hiroyuki Sanada (of The Last Samurai fame) is utterly blah here. Rila Fukushima plays Wolverine's "bodyguard" and has the lamest mutant power of all time: The ability to kinda see how you die. And if you feel like booing every time Svetlana Khodchenkova's Viper saunters onto the screen, you're not alone; the scene you're viewing is about to become a hundred times more tedious and incomprehensible. Also, I'm certain her character's voice was fully redubbed in post-production; the words and her mouth movements never fully sync up.
By the time Wolverine enters a wholly unnecessary battle with a giant silver robot, you might as well start packing your things. But don't leave yet! There's an interesting post-credits sequence that sets up X-Men: Days of Future Past, the massive mutant mashup that'll be released in 2014.
And that's one reason to be optimistic. No one has gotten Wolverine right except Bryan Singer, who'll be directing Future Past (and has attracted a massive cast of superstars to reprise certain key roles).
But that's also the problem with The Wolverine; it's sold as an outside-the-universe tale, but it's actually just the catalyst to get Logan back on the playing field for the next movie. It's Iron Man 3 or Thor 2, another cog in the endless Marvel machine. That isn't always a bad thing, but they could've done so much more. And it shows on screen.