“The Wolverine” Movie Review: Logan as a Ronin

In a recent interview, Hugh Jackman was asked how excited he was for the release of The Wolverine and he replied by doing this. And that’s exactly what you should do too when expressing your excitement for the film. After the pseudo-disaster that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine by Gavin Hood, we finally have the Wolverine-centric movie we’ve always wanted. The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, takes us to the Japan of a very near future where Logan has to face his greatest threat to date: his own mortality. Science has finally surpassed mutant evolution and – through the machinations of a few more nefarious characters – Logan’s famed healing factor malfunctions just as he finds himself caught up in a Japanese family feud involving ninjas, the Yakuza, and a bullet train fight sequence. Having Logan’s powers in jeopardy adds a necessary feeling of consequence and drama that was completely lacking in Wolverine’s Origin story. How do you create conflict when your character can heal from anything and there’s really no sense of threat? James Mangold answers this by humanizing Logan, stripping him down to his bare, adamantium bones so we can finally explore what the character is really about. At any moment during a viewing of this film, you might find yourself leaning forward on the end of your seat, sweating profusely and thinking, “Oh my God. Is Logan going to actually die? Is that even possible?” Believe it or not, it is.

I don’t know who the heck marketed this movie but they did an amazing job at it.

While Logan was arguably the main character in every other X-Men movie (with First Class being the obvious exception), he was merely used as a vehicle to move the plot along. Even his Origin story only lazily delved into any considerable character development while a different story developed. Never did we really engage with the complex emotions at work in Logan’s psyche. We always just scratched the surface of simple revenge or brotherly competitiveness. But in The Wolverine, we have a version of Logan who has lost everything and is questioning the nature of his existence, eventually coming to determine what it means to be the Wolverine and what his principles are. All of his friends have died with Jean Grey’s ghost haunting him every night in his sleep. It’s easy for Logan to heal from physical wounds, but the psychological scars he’s endured over the past centuries have taken their toll. He responds to these psychic injuries like any animal would try to heal: he hides in a den in the Canadian wilderness.

In this opening section, Mangold neatly establishes the duality to Logan’s character as both wild creature and noble warrior. He coexists peacefully in the woods near a giant grizzly bear, trying to pretend that he isn’t deserving of a “human” life. Both mutant and bear mark their territory, knowing full well that the other is a fearsome predator. A group of drunken hunters take the bear down with a single poisoned arrow (an act both highly illegal and worse: incredibly dishonorable) and Wolverine is forced to put the bear out of its misery. Note: the predator as the hunted sets up a nice bit of foreshadowing here, along with the motif of poison. Immediately, Logan attacks one of the hunters in a local bar as revenge for the bear. Despite feigned apathy, Logan respects and identifies with the bear as both warrior and beast and deems it more worthy of respect than the human hunter (even though it mauled and killed several men before being taken down). Logan’s primal sense of honor sets him up as a complicated character whose animosity is offset, or perhaps enhanced, by his valor. He is simultaneously wild beast and noble soldier.

Before Logan can draw too much attention to himself in the bar fight, a mysterious Japanese girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) whisks him away to Japan to reconnect with her employer, Master Yashida, who is dying. In 1945, Logan had saved Yashida from the A-Bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki to conclude World War II. As an immortal, Logan no doubt looked upon the encounter as a small event in an existence that spans hundreds of years, but for Yashida, it shaped the rest of his life during which he became the most wealthy and powerful man in Japan. On his death bed, Yashida offers Logan a chance to transfer his healing powers so that he can continue living and Logan can finally have the death he has so longed for. Logan refuses outright and what began as a simple goodbye to a man he once met soon turns into all out war in which Logan is caught in the middle. When both he and Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), become targets and flee to the shores of Japan to go into hiding, they inevitably fall into each other’s arms. Through love they are both transformed. Each had been living a meaningless life and lacked something to care about. So not only do we get Logan at his most vulnerable in The Wolverine, but we have him at his most powerful, because after so long lost to the world, he once again regains his will to live and even more importantly: something worth protecting. Protect he does.

Srsly who marketed this movie?

Logan will forever be the master of adaptive fighting. Historically speaking, he’s been able to defeat enemies more powerful and much larger than himself mainly because his healing factor allows him to be both reckless and reactionary. It was a very nice touch to have Logan quickly change his fighting style as soon as he figured out that his he wasn’t healing correctly. Almost immediately he began using bodies as cover and evading the attacks and gunfire of his enemies more than he ever has before. Despite his innate adaptability, Logan is quickly out of his element, not knowing what it’s like to feel tired or run-down, let alone injured. At one point, after having his wounds tended to by a timid veterinarian in training (a situation poignant and ironic in its own right) he says aloud to Mariko, “I’ve never needed this before.” She replies, “What? Help?” Not only is Logan foreign to the need for medical care, but he’s always been a loner who never asks anybody for help. Heck, he’s been known to run out on the X-Men frequently when he gets a random hankering to go do one of his personal missions simply because he could. But seeing a Logan who has to rely on other people reveals a whole different side to the character, a side that has to become more self-critical.

Throughout The Wolverine, Logan is consistently being told who and what he is without asking himself who he wants to be. Myth. Warrior. Soldier. Mutant. Monster. Freak. Warrior. Savior. Frankly, Logan doesn’t give a shit. He’s always just done what he wants without over-thinking it. Eliminate threats. Drink whiskey. Smoke cigars. Ride motorcycle. Sometimes, he’s just that simple, but during his period of depressed isolation, Logan refused to grapple with the terms of his existence. Only when he’s forced into the Yashida family conflict and reacts against people’s judgments and physical assaults does he finally grapple with those questions. His own frailty becoming a factor only enhances the personal evolution, particularly when he’s being continuously judged by those around him. Perhaps the best instance of Logan being labeled by other characters is when Master Yashida calls him a Ronin, a samurai warrior with no master and therefore no purpose. To be a warrior with no purpose is to live a meaningless life. Logan will forever be a soldier, and a soldier without a war to fight is nothing. Japan proves the perfect setting for Logan’s character arc: his inner conflict of the animalistic and the human is paralleled by Japanese culture’s penchant for deep honor amidst violence, particularly in his status as a Ronin. Superficially, Logan struggles to grasp the cultural norms and customs of Japan, but he relates to the way of the warrior. In adapting to it, he is able to fully realize who he’s been all along and who he will forever be.

The Wolverine thrives in portraying this character arc that our titular character has always deserved, simultaneously grappling with themes of immortality and human frailty all in one. Despite being able to heal from anything, he can’t heal from the self-inflicted wounds that his life of violence has wrought. The loss felt over several lifetimes is too much for him to bear and he views his tendency towards violence as the quality that transforms him into a monstrosity. For this very reason, a majority of the people he interacts with come to fear him. Particularly in Japan where Logan is foreigner, mutant myth, and all-around freak of nature, he’s only further isolated and disengaged from acquiring meaningful relationships. It’s only when he encounters characters like Yukio and Mariko, people that understand his conflicted nature, that Logan can rekindle his sense of purpose. Mariko and Logan do this for one another, something that is only reinforced by their budding romance. It therefore becomes more important for Logan to risk death and fight for something on a decidedly human level rather than fight a meaningless war for all eternity.

Overall, the film has a little bit of everything to go around. There’s a number of splendid action sequences of varying scope and scale. Despite the motif of poison throughout the the development of a weakened Wolverine, the movie does not sacrifice badassery for theme so we still get our fair share of Logan kicking ass. The developing companionship between Logan and Yukio is at times more enjoyable than the budding romance between Mariko and Logan, but the trifecta winds up being effective (triffective?), with both women being badasses in their own right. In fact, I almost would have preferred no romance at all in The Wolverine. A lack of romance did wonders in Pacific Rim, and I can’t help but wonder how a similar tactic could have worked in The Wolverine. Fatherly protector rather than lover could have made for a more interesting, albeit less marketable relationship. Anyway, a refreshing amount of levity is interspersed throughout the film, whether in the form of Logan’s crass responses to both friend and foe or the scene where two servants wash and groom all the Canadian dirt off of him. Much of the film’s comedy comes between Logan’s endless “Bub!”s and swear words, particularly in his gross irreverence towards both Japanese custom and basic human respect.

All in all, The Wolverine falls within the upper echelon of X-Men movies and will likely make any viewer very excited to see where they take the mutant-centered franchise next. Check it out!