Hugh Jackman returns to the franchise that made his name for a fifth time in The Wolverine (2013), a serviceable if somewhat anaemic entry that continues to investigate the X-Men series’ chief protagonist in a more personal fashion, all the while bogging itself down in customary comic book tropes. Whereas the dire X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) looked to divulge previously alluded-to answers to Logan’s (Jackman) chequered past whilst attempting to set up a roster of fan-favourite characters, James Mangold’s The Wolverine consciously shifts the action to refreshing territory by tackling more distinctive material.
Based on the 1982 comic series of the same name by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the film is an intentional standalone venture for this now commonplace character, which picks up after the climactic finale of the substandard X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). Alone and adrift after sacrificing the life of his love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who returns to haunt him in his dreams), Logan roams the Canadian forests a shell of his previous life, continuing to seek answers to questions he is yet to comprehend. In flashback we see him held in a Japanese POW camp near Nagasaki in 1945, locked in solitary confinement before breaking free and rescuing an officer named Yashida during the destructive atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
In the present Logan is sought out by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant with precognitive abilities, on behalf of a dying Yashida wishing to repay his debt to the ageless man who saved his life. Upon arriving in Tokyo, Logan is propositioned by Yashida, who offers to transfer Logan’s healing abilities into his own body in order to preserve his own life whilst relieving the weary mutant of the burdens of immortality. Refusing such a request by maintaining that no one deserves to live a life of endless sorrow and bereavement, Logan becomes targeted by a barrage of samurai and Yakuza gangsters, as well as the deadly Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) a mutant with a penchant for poison who will stop at nothing to extract Wolverine’s powers.
The latest turn in Mangold’s erratic career, The Wolverine stands as something of a franchise anomaly: it’s not exactly a sequel, nor is it an outing that ekes out a new direction. It is instead a fully-fledged would-be analysis whose goal – as Jackman surmises in the disc’s only featurette – The Wolverine: Path of a Ronin – “was to give the best character study of this iconic superhero”. Whether Mangold, whose template was Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), and Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s screenplay manages such a feat is debatable; the seeds for a new-fangled path are planted, conceptually, through the shift to an Eastern setting, which inspires a different visual tone to that of the original X-Men canon, yet an early whiff of introspection is slowly jettisoned in favour of that standard for the genre: brash action, and lots of it.
This is all typically, impressively, rendered and choreographed, and the new characters shake up a rusty cocktail of ancillary faces (save for Khodchenkova’s Viper, who is mostly side-lined), but Logan still seems dry and atonal, his inner torture again made external as his two-sided nature – the caged beast vs. the lost, masterless ronin figure – is constantly challenged. A pity that an interesting bid for character exploration is mostly ditched in favour of interchangeable characters and action, but this could be saved for Logan’s appearance in next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Bryan Singer’s timeline-splicer.