Americans like Japanese stuff, but we seem to have weird aversion to the Japanese. It’s not that we don’t like them; we’re just uncomfortable with foreign concepts. It’s easier to ease an audience into a different culture through the filter of a thirty-to-forty-something white North American heterosexual male, or TTFSWNAHM. At least, this is what big studio producers assume about the average American audience, hence The Last Samurai and the upcoming 47 Ronin. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with presenting an unfamiliar idea through the lens of a familiar one, as long as you don’t mar, pervert, oversimplify, manipulate, or otherwise inhibit the new idea. That having been said, here are things that Hollywood likes about the Japanese: swords, ninjas, giant robots/monsters, some of their artwork, Pokémon. Here are some things that Hollywood dislikes about the Japanese: Japan, the Japanese, Japanese culture, Japanese history, samurai codes of etiquette. So how do you get the good things without the bad?
The Wolverine (2013)
The Plot: In 1945, quick-healing, ageless mutant John Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), was in Nagasaki, which, as you may recall from your middle school history classes, underwent some pretty dramatic urban displacement that year. By that, I mean that it blew up. Wolverine was a POW there and saved the life of one of his captors when the bomb went off. Fast-forward to the present and that man, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), is dying, but of course Logan isn’t. Summoned to the man’s deathbed ostensibly for a final farewell, Logan receives the offer of a lifetime: a lifetime. Yashida claims he can take away Logan’s powers, curing him of his immortality. Then Wolverine fights a bunch of dudes.
So, I don’t know about you, but I was quite looking forward to this movie. Some previous franchise installments have been truly awful, but this one had stuff going for it: Hugh Jackman, samurai, James Mangold (director of Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma), and it’s based on some of the most beloved Wolverine comics ever written. Sadly, it just didn’t live up to the hype. You may recall, probably about a minute ago, when you read the opening paragraph to this review. I was perhaps being a tiny bit extreme and a little unfair to The Wolverine. Not to 47 Ronin, though, I could give you a long, long rant about everything wrong and offensive with that trailer. The Wolverine, though, isn’t as bad with its Japanese stuff. Sure, it’s only interested in the swords and the giant robots, and sure, it only has the most superficial presence of Japanese culture, and sure, it plays heavily on stereotypes, but I think it’s self-aware. It’s a comic book movie, and in the day and age of Man of Steel, it’s refreshing to get a comic book movie that doesn’t pretend it’s something else. I don’t think the makers of The Wolverine think they’re presenting an accurate or full depiction of Japanese culture.
Yeah, so I can forgive that to an extent. The character at least seems to know his place in the foreign society. It’s not like in The Last Samurai or 47 Ronin; Logan doesn’t become more Japanese than the Japanese people. Actually, for the most part, Logan’s character development is pretty okay. Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank nicely capture the inner struggle between Logan’s desire to die and his acknowledgement that he’s an awesome badass with claws who should fight ninjas. In his review of Pacific Rim, James talks at length about heroism in contemporary blockbusters, and how true, un-ironic heroism is almost entirely out of fashion. In the case of Superman, that reluctance to save people is kind of dumb, because he has no reason to be depressed about his powers. Wolverine, though, has been alive for a couple hundred years, he has endured mind-boggling amounts of pain, and has watched everyone he’s ever loved die. He has a history of violence and about a century and a half of war-related PTS. It makes sense that he wants to stop, even though he’s driven by some inner morality to keep helping people. The first half of the movie does a nice job in developing Logan beyond just being angry.
Really, though, the whole movie does a good job for about the first half. Everything goes rapidly downhill after the forced, tired, tacked-on, unrealistic, unnecessary, and ultimately pointless romantic subplot. Not a single facet of that romance made any sense to me. I didn’t get it, and it didn’t contribute anything to the plot or the characters. It was just stupid. I hated it. Never mind.
Moving on. After that, every single plot point gets progressively dumber and dumber. Is progressively the right word? Maybe I should say regressively… no, aggressively. That’s it. Every plot point gets aggressively dumber. The stupidity of it all attacks characters and viewers alike with the unadulterated ferocity of the main protagonist. It’s frustrating to watch a movie go downhill so quickly and so absolutely. The villain, Viper (Svetiana Khodchenkova) is as poorly written and tacked-on as the romance. Character motivation gets super fuzzy, logic has a nasty accident and is unable to make an appearance, the dialogue is bad, and even the fights aren’t as good. I at least wanted consistent fight scenes.
Ultimately, The Wolverine is so much better than its predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but so are most movies. It starts off strong, claws desperately for survival, and then fails and so dies. As someone who was really hoping for a good movie, I was greatly disappointed.