The first standalone Wolverine film committed the most cardinal of superhero movie sins: it was decidedly mediocre. Forgettable characters, a paint-by-numbers plot and occasionally wonky special effects all conspired to make it one of the worst Marvel comic book movies to date. I was subsequently a bit leery of this belated follow-up. Would we be getting an epic blockbuster worthy of fandom's favourite Canuck? Or another toothless disappointment?
This review contains mild spoilers.
As it turns out, the answer is somewhere in-between. The Wolverine is a much stronger film than its predecessor in almost every regard. However, when judged within the pantheon of great superhero movies (think The Dark Knight, Spiderman 2 and Iron Man), it fails to make the grade by a significant margin.
Set sometime after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, the film follows an emotionally broken Logan (AKA Wolverine) who is living as a hermit following the death of his unrequited love, Jean Grey. Despite excising 'X-Men' from its title, The Wolverine is very much a direct sequel to the previous movies, to the point of causing confusion for newcomers.
If you've never heard of Dark Phoenix and have no idea what adamantium is, we suggest boning up on your X-Men lore before hitting the cinemas.
Hugh Jackman is pushing fifty, you know. This is your cue to feel bad about yourself.
The X-Men movies are known for having powerfully punchy openings. The first film depicted the origin of Magneto during the Holocaust (a sequence so effective they lifted it wholesale for X-Men: First Class). X-Men 2 had Night Crawler's jaw-dropping attack on the White House which was easily the best part of the movie. Hell, even X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a great introductory montage.
The Wolverine continues this fine tradition via a tense and surprisingly poignant bombing of a Japanese city towards the end of World War 2 (it's not clear whether this is supposed to be the bomb that hit Nagasaki, but the implications are obvious). The only survivors are Logan and one of his Japanese captors who our hero saves from incineration.
This neatly sets up the rest of the movie which has more in common with a Yakuza crime opera than a superhero flick, with some samurai tropes thrown in for good measure. The plot is essentially a power struggle between crime lords, politicians, CEOs and assassins as Logan struggles to keep himself and his token love-interest in one piece.
For once, the world and/or universe aren't at stake and the only thing in danger are the protagonists' necks. It's certainly a refreshing take on the superhero genre -- we can't recall the last time we saw so many subtitles in a Hollywood movie, let alone one aimed at comic book fans.
But ultimately, this sense of worldly gravitas fails to lift the film above its cartoony core: it's still a bunch of good guys punching bad guys, albeit with some pretty Japanese backdrops.
None of the characters are particularly memorable either and some of the acting is flat-out woeful. The worst offenders are Rila Fukushima who plays Wolverine's sidekick Yukio and Svetlana Khodchenkova as the chief villain, Viper. Jackman's gruff, tortured take on Wolverine is getting a bit old hat too, but maybe that's just me.
New villain Viper, in one of her least plasticky scenes.
That said, the main reason to watch a movie like this is the action. In this regard, The Wolverine is competent but never amazing. The two major set-pieces in the movie have significant issues: the CGI-heavy bullet train sequence rarely convinces while the climactic showdown seems to involve Wolverine falling over a never-ending series of laboratory railings to the point of becoming comical.
It's also hard not to feel cheated by the low-scale fisticuffs after the ridiculous city-leveling smackdowns seen in recent superhero flicks like The Avengers and Man Of Steel. We realise this is a different kind of movie, but at the end of the day, the main reason you're buying a ticket is to see lots of action -- The Wolverine never really wows.
All in all, The Wolverine is still worth checking out at cinemas, but only if you're a fan of the character and the other X-Men movies. Also be sure to stick around for the inevitable post-credits tease: it's easily the best one in any Marvel movie to date.
The Wolverine opens nationally on 25 July, 2013.