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The Wolverine: Pain is For Chumps, Bub

If nothing else, The Wolverine is the first superhero movie released this summer that actually seems proud of its comic book origins. Shane Black's Iron Man 3 snarkily tweaked the genre's conventionsā€¦ at least until the final act, when it became a traditional punch-punch-boom-boom affair, while Zack Snyder's Man of Steel plugged its hero into an alien invasion scenario that was more in the vein of Independence Day (minus that movie's good humor) than a Superman comic. If those directors seemed intent on running away from the source material, Wolverine helmer James Mangold is all too eager to embrace it. Freely adapted from a 1982 miniseries written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller, The Wolverine could almost be released in print form as an arc in the character's ongoing solo title. Mangold's frames frequently resemble comic book panels and the story neatly unfolds in 22-minute chunks, each containing a mixture of intrigue and action and almost always ending on a cliffhanger setting up the next issue.

The fact that The Wolverine has a discernable narrative throughline at all instantly vaults it into the ranks of the best X-Men movies, well ahead of its unfortunate predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as well as X-Men: The Last Stand, to which it functions as a semi-sequel. (Make sure to stick around for a fun post-credits sequence that directly connects the film to next summer's all-star X-travaganza, Days of Future Past.) Set an unspecified amount of time after the events of Stand, the film finds Logan having returned to the wild, living like an animal in the woods and being visited in his dreams every night by the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) whom, as you may recall (if you can bring yourself to recall that Brett Ratner-directed travesty), he was compelled to kill lest her Phoenix persona kill everyone else first. It's in this near-feral state that he's visited by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a representative for a wealthy Japanese businessman, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whom Wolverine saved from certain death during World War II and has carried the memory of that encounter around with him ever sinceā€¦ specifically the part about Logan being able to live forever. Now that he's on his death bed, Yashida would love to relieve Logan of the burden of immortality, a deal that the mutant can't bring himself to make, as fed up with the world as he might currently be.

Intending to depart immediately after rejecting Yashida's offer, Logan winds up sticking around Japan a little longer in order to protect the tycoon's daughter and designated heir, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from being offed by goons hired by someone from within her own family. But he'll have to defend her without his all-important healing factor, which has been temporarily disabled by Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a reptilian-like mutant in his host's employ. Though he's still able to take more of a beating than the average person, this development leaves Logan feeling more mortal than he has in decades, which may also be why he allows himself to lower his emotional barriers and eventually act on his attraction to Mariko. And while his ability to self-heal kicks back in eventually, this adventure does leave him with a few lasting scars that puts the character in an interesting place for Future Past, as well as any additional solo adventures beyond that.

I realize that I may be sounding much higher on The Wolverine than I actually am. More than anything, I think I was relieved that the movie wasn't another Origins-style mess of half-conceived plot points and random cameos by other well-known X-mutants as lame attempts at fan service. Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (an early draft was written by Christopher McQuarrie, who goes uncredited in the finished product) have crafted an actual arc for the title character this time around, one that takes him from being a man ready to die to a soldier ready for the next fight. And even if the details of the larger plot are sometimes nebulous (the assassination storyline in particular doesn't make a lot of sense and the romance between Jackman and Okamoto couldn't feel any more obligatory), Logan's personal journey at least stays consistent. "Consistent" is also a good description for the direction. A skilled technician as opposed to a master artist, Mangold's chief selling point as a filmmaker is his adaptability to different genres. Over the course of his career, he's made everything from biopics (Walk the Line) to Westerns (3:10 to Yuma) to caper films (the underrated Knight and Day) and in each case, he closely studies the conventions of the genre in question to craft a well-made -- if sometimes a little too square -- piece of mainstream studio entertainment that gives audiences what they want, plus a little extra, be that a particular performance (like Joaquin Phoenix's lived-in turn as Johnny Cash) or a resonant moment (Russell Crowe turning himself in at the end of Yuma).

In the case of The Wolverine, that "little extra" is the Japanese backdrop, which is more exotic than standard comic book fare. (Although it should be noted that the film wasn't shot entirely on location in Japan, with Australia often doubling for various locations.) Mangold uses the setting well, staging the film's single best action sequence aboard one of the country's high-speed bullet trains with Wolverine having to dig his claws into the roof to avoid flying off, while also ducking and/or leaping over various obstacles, and employing all the usual cultural iconography (ninja, samurai, even love hotels) in ways that, while not exactly original, do test Logan's mettle in ways we haven't seen before. The Wolverine is good enough that I kept wishing it were better -- that there was another layer to the story or another wrinkle to a character's motivation or a truly spectacular set-piece that lent the proceedings some extra oomph. As problematic as I found Man of Steel and, to a lesser extent, Iron Man 3, those films did have isolated moments that were terrifically realized and that I carried with me out of the theater. The Wolverine is more consistent, but also less bold; it's like the middle run of a comic book title that's marking time until a Grant Morrison-style status quo shake-up.

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