Given its largely favorable reviews, its sturdy “X-Men” fanbase and the reliable draw of Hugh Jackman plus claws and effects, “The Wolverine” surprised more than a few onlookers by not exactly setting the box office on fire this past weekend. Fox’s respectable-but-not-remarkable $55 million domestic take is the sort of inconclusive figure that can prompt a certain amount of industry overreaction: Are audiences finally expressing their latent comicbook-movie fatigue? Are we seeing, at last, their impatience with a franchise-based industry that recycles everything and risks nothing in deference to the bottom line?
I’d happily answer yes to these questions, if I didn’t more or less believe what H.L. Mencken once said about the taste of the American public. And then there’s the minor complication that “The Wolverine” — not a reboot but, mercifully, a rethink of the whole franchise — is easily the best superhero extravaganza in a summer dominated by the bigger, noisier likes of “Iron Man 3″ and “Man of Steel.” A model of crafty, unpretentious, less-is-more genre filmmaking, it’s that increasingly rare example of a comicbook movie done right, even as it shows there’s more than one right way to do a comicbook movie.
From a qualitative standpoint, it means nothing that the latest incarnation of Logan won’t come within raking distance of Clark Kent or Tony Stark commercially, just as it means nothing that it drew about $30 million less than “X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s” $85.1 million opening four years ago. As my colleague Peter Debruge aptly pointed out in his review, that dunderheaded 2009 film may well explain why even loyal X-Men fans, myself included, were less excited to see Wolverine’s next cinematic mutation.
And yet, from the opening frame of “The Wolverine” — a calm, distanced shot of Nagasaki Harbor so still and serene it wouldn’t look entirely out of place in James Benning’s “13 Lakes” — it’s clear that director James Mangold and scribes Scott Frank and Mark Bomback are up to something more than boom-boom business as usual. Mangold may be a helmer-for-hire here, but he understands the value of reserve: In a genre prone to overkill, no effect is more special than a story with a proper sense of flow and proportion. And he knows the power of Jackman’s Wolverine persona enough to trust us to follow the character into fresh geographical and mythological terrain.
In adapting a popular 1982 storyline by comicbook writers Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the filmmakers have taken the sort of creative risks — setting the action almost entirely in Japan and casting relatively unknown Japanese actors in substantive dramatic roles — that honor the devotion of fans and respect the intelligence of the audience. (It’s also unlikely to harm the film’s prospects overseas, where it’s grossed a robust $86.1 million so far — and it hasn’t even hit Japan yet.) Rather than merely exploiting one exotic destination after another in the manner of so many globe-trotting actioners, “The Wolverine” patiently immerses us in the codes and tensions of a foreign culture. (There’s a marvelous intimacy and specificity to the details here: When someone tells Logan not to plant his chopsticks upright in his rice bowl, an omen of death in many Asian cultures, I couldn’t help but flash back to a similar warning from my mother to my 8-year-old self.)
It’s not just that the film makes adroit use of Japan’s urban topography by staging a crackling action sequence atop a high-speed train; on a thematic level, the setting serves only to reinforce Logan’s sense of dislocation, his profound alienation from his fellow man as well as his fellow mutant. Granted, there are few of the latter besides Wolverine in “The Wolverine” (true to its “X”-free title), and the most prominent one, the poison-tongued Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), feels like one of the film’s few unnecessary concessions to franchise convention. She may be an improvement on Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, but that’s not something this particular movie needs.
In that respect, it’s tempting to consider what an earlier, even less compromised version of “The Wolverine” — the one slated to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky from a script by Christopher McQuarrie — might have looked like. In an earlier interview with Screen Rant, McQuarrie described the lost film as a decidedly unconventional venture, a lone-mutant saga with an Eastern-Western sensibility redolent of Kurosawa and Leone. Still, Mangold’s film retains enough of those soulful influences to qualify as something no less distinctive: a movie that might just be too good for mass acceptance.