Though I sometimes tire of the sufferings of superheroes, I have a permanent soft spot for the Wolverine, the Marvel mutant whose indestructibility causes him endless physical and existential pain. As played by Hugh Jackman through six “X-Men” features (including one about the Wolverine’s origins), he is a shaggy, soulful, perpetually roughed-up character, and a bit of a misfit even among his peers.
The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) and written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, is also something of an anomaly in the current, unstoppable wave of comic-book-based movies. It has all the requisite special effects and big-ticket action sequences - including a fight on a moving train and a climactic punch-out between the hero and a villain in an oversize metal suit - but it also has an unusually intimate, small-scale feel. Inspired by a series published by Marvel in the 1980s, it has more old-style comic-book atmosphere than Man of Steel or Iron Man 3. Instead of expounding a tedious origin story or staging an epic battle for apocalyptic stakes, The Wolverine focuses on a specific and self-contained adventure in a richly imagined place.
That would be Japan, where Logan (as the bewhiskered berserker is also known) witnesses the bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The destruction of cities is of course a staple of action moviemaking, and it is usually saved for the end and shown in crashing, flaming detail. Mangold defies cliché by dramatizing the actual devastation of a city from a discreet distance early in the film. The atomic bomb casts its shadow over the rest of the movie - much as the Holocaust did in X-Men: First Class - in a sober, tactful way, a sign that the filmmaker is not simply stirring reality into fantasy but rather trying to think about the relationship between them.
After a detour into present-day Alaska, where he proves himself a friend to grizzly bears and an enemy of hunters and personal grooming, Logan is spirited back to Japan. There he finds himself embroiled in a complicated family crisis involving yakuza, samurai, corporate bosses and corrupt politicians. To ensure that no Japanese cultural archetype goes unexploited, Logan’s guide and self-appointed bodyguard is a J-Pop warrior pixie named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who brings a bright splash of anime color and energy to the movie.
Yukio works for the dysfunctional and powerful Yashida clan, whose patriarch (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) Logan rescued from the radiation in Nagasaki. Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) serves as both damsel in distress - everyone in Japan wants to kidnap her, it seems - and Logan’s love interest. Because he is technically ageless, this is almost not creepy, but also not entirely convincing.
I will leave the plot to spoil itself, pausing to take note of Svetlana Khodchenkova’s slinky femme fatale turn as the Viper and Famke Janssen’s ghostly appearance as Jean Grey, the long-dead love of Logan’s very long life. She appears in his dreams to remind him and the audience that within that adamantium skeleton beats a soft and sensitive heart.
And Jackman, for all his growling, flexing and macho wisecracking, keeps our attention focused on Logan’s feelings. So does Mangold, even as he obeys the imperatives of the action-franchise machine. A modest superhero picture may sound like a contradiction in terms, but really it is a welcome respite. A short one, to be sure. An end-credits teaser - stay in your seat! - promises a planet-threatening spectacle to come, probably next summer. No wonder the Wolverine looks tired.