By this point in the summer, I begin to feel like my job isn’t reviewing movies. It’s comparing superheroes. Pacific Rim, The Lone Ranger, Man of Steel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Iron Man 3 all feel like superhero movies even if they aren’t all explicitly about super powered protagonists. In each of those films, one remarkable individual faces off against another remarkable individual in a CGI drenched adventure with pop-culture origins.
The Wolverine can now be added to that list. It too features a super powered hero, super powered villains, and lots of CGI window dressing, and a decades-old backstory so complex I’m required to do hours of research just to understand why this character matters and how that thing does what it does. In many ways, The Wolverine is much like everything else.
On the other hand (claw?), The Wolverine is a much quieter movie than any of the others released this summer. There are few explosions, real-world politics aren’t bandied about with the nuance of a wrecking ball, and whole civilizations aren’t threatened. The Wolverine is Logan’s story. It is focused on him and his grief over killing the woman he loved at the end of X3: The Last Stand. For that, I commend it. I enjoyed not being bludgeoned for a couple of hours.
Unfortunately, Logan isn’t the only person in this movie. The other characters and their relationships to each other and to Logan are complex, but the movie proves incapable of developing them in a way that makes them make sense. As it is, they feel tacked on to inconvenience our hero.
The Wolverine is set in Japan, and Logan’s roughness clashes with the culture’s refinement. In a better movie, Logan would have integrated into Japanese society in a way that was obviously life-changing. Perhaps this is a by-product of the urgency of the plot, but Logan isn’t in Japan long enough to be truly altered by the people and their culture. A timeline more like the one in The Last Samurai could have afforded Logan time enough to change. Here, he doesn’t even learn how to correctly use chopsticks.
While it does include a couple of rousing action sequences, The Wolverine is chiefly a mystery, albeit one in which the protagonist is only interested in answering the questions that have to do with himself and none of the ones about his foreign friends and enemies. The culture itself remains a mystery throughout. By the end, one senses the movie’s intent is to say that Logan’s experience in Japan has truly changed the course of his life. As it is, I imagine he’ll simply be hanging a souvenir katana on his wall when he gets home and living like he’s always lived.
True cross-cultural integration takes time. (And yes, it is possible to show the passing of time in a movie.) A ten day trip to a foreign land is only long enough to get tricked into thinking one knows something about a people and a place. A couple of weeks is just long enough to begin seeing the most obvious problems, but not long enough for the complexity of those problems to melt away myopic arrogance into a humble acknowledgement of the need to truly give oneself over to the new people and place, to be incarnated in that place, before even beginning to offer any kind of cultural critique.
By the end, Logan does at least return home. I think that’s the best result we can hope for from short-term trips like Logan’s. If we’re not ready to give ourselves over completely to a new culture, may our time in other places give us fresh eyes to see our native peoples and places better. Might they make us more committed to contesting for the people in the place we call home.