Remember that terrific scene in 1989's Great Balls of Fire! where Jerry Lee Lewis was upset about having to go on before Chuck Berry, so he douses the piano with booze, sets it on fire, whips the clean-cut crowd into a frenzy, then tells Berry to "follow that" as he struts off stage? That's pretty much the opposite of what director Gavin Hood did in 2009 with his universally reviled X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Hood took one of Marvel's best-loved mutants and dumped him into a low-rent superhero flick that was just this side of watchable. (Since he's clearly an overachiever, he also screwed up Deadpool and Gambit while he was at it.) To extend the live-performance metaphor, Hood stumbled on stage, mumbled something about a hedgehog, yakked on some poor dude in the front row, and passed out. Not a tough act to follow.
So chalk it up as a pleasant surprise that James Mangold's The Wolverine isn't simply better than its predecessor; it's my favorite comic-book movie of the year so far. Even with its $100 million budget, it feels scaled back in a very good way. Since I still haven't recovered from the protracted sensory assault that was Man of Steel, it's nice to see a superhero movie where destruction isn't meted out on a global scale. The Wolverine has its share of action sequences and their attendant body count, but Mangold and writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank are more concerned with Wolvie's humanity than with city-leveling set pieces. And while the film is surprisingly violent for its PG-13 rating, it's also quite funny, and it deftly avoids the postmodern dourness that we've come to associate with superheroes.
For the uninitiated, The Wolverine is loosely based on a 1982 miniseries written by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. Comic-book fans consider it a classic storyline—the first, in fact, to send Wolverine on a solo adventure and flesh out his back story a bit. After a World War II-era prologue, the movie catches up with a present-day Wolverine, aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), who's seen better times. Still mourning the death of X-Men compatriot Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Logan is essentially a homeless drifter who beds down in the woods in order to avoid human contact.
He's lured back into civilization by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a fellow mutant who works for a wealthy Japanese tech mogul named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). Yashida, whose life Logan saved during the bombing of Nagasaki, is on his hi-tech death bed, but he's not ready to shuffle off just yet. Having found a way to transfer Logan's healing abilities to himself, Yashida offers to lift the burden of immortality from Logan's glistening deltoids, but the hero knows a bum deal when he hears it and refuses the old man's offer. After Yashida's funeral is crashed by yakuza gunmen, Logan decides to stick around Japan to protect Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). He fights a lot of ninjas and, with Yukio at his side, eventually faces off with a mutant called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and the towering, golem-like Silver Samurai.
Yep, that's right: Logan is not charged with saving the world, or even a city—just himself and his friends. The Wolverine is light on cataclysm, but that's not to say it doesn't offer plenty of thrills. There's a stunning fight scene atop a 300-mph bullet train, a brilliantly executed ninja siege, and a protracted, breathless chase through the streets of Tokyo (all of which look just fine in 2D, so skip the 3D upcharge on this one). A couple of the fight scenes are muddy and shot too close, but most of them are clean and crisp.
Mangold, who built his reputation with dramas such as Cop Land and Walk the Line, proves he can orchestrate superhero shenanigans with the best of them, while keeping the focus on the characters instead of the chaos. The Wolverine succumbs to a bit of narrative goofiness—and some wonky CGI—in its third act, but it's not enough to keep it off the list of superhero adaptations that get it resoundingly right.
Between The Wolverine and 2011's X-Men: First Class, it's safe to consider the franchise back on track.