The Wolverine exists outside of time

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Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine

If X-Men: First Class worked as a Cold War-era Bond film, James Mangold’s The Wolverine feels like a mutant crossbreed of Lost in Translation and Batman Begins. The titular hero vanishes in a foreign land, finds love and comes to accept who is fated to remain the rest of his days.

Borrowing elements from comic legend Frank Miller’s much beloved take on the character, The Wolverine finds everyone’s favourite Canadian malcontent retreating in present day, again into the wilderness. Soon he is called upon to bid a dying Japanese tycoon farewell and he quickly becomes embroiled in corporate intrigue.

Like Translation or any western film set in the east, easy fish-out-of-water jokes plague the first half, though they’re quickly sidelined. Darker elements emerge, playing up on isolationist themes. Like any good comic adaptation, The Wolverine streamlines Miller’s short run, honing in on what’s important to the character. There is more Eastern mysticism to the plot than there is comic mythology. Wolverine wanders Japan as a haggard Kurosawa Ronin would.

Fortunately, also streamlined is any potential bloat in the plot. In terms of narrative, it’s exceptionally and refreshingly underwhelming.

Marvel and Mangold understand the less said about 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the better.  As a result, The Wolverine rarely feels like a sequel at all. Though some allusions are made to films previous, fitting the events into the timeline would only muddle the proceedings. Origins pushed to stay faithful to the canon. Wolverine exists outside of time.

Mangold has always been a workmanlike filmmaker, not quite a hack but a toothless carpenter whose credits include the unremarkable 3:10 to Yuma remake and the biopic-by-numbers Walk the Line. His work here is far from visionary, and though some set-pieces feel oversold with comic panel close-ups and laughable slow-motion, he does offer up one with claws. A particularly graceful fight atop a moving bullet train flows with a lyrical kineticism not found in other summer outings.

It’s a testament to The Wolverine that the post-credit sequence — a staple fanboys demand of their comic book movies these days — is entirely arbitrary. It’s a great preamble for X-Men: Days of Future Past (which had a surprise Comic Con panel last weekend), but it’s also wholly unnecessary. The Wolverine almost entirely exists in its own universe, a bold move given the complex synergetic web of mythos that will only prove to be more convoluted as the franchise juggernaut moves ahead. The economy of story on display is one of the film’s strengths, and it’s refreshing to see a comic book film that doesn’t strain itself to adhere to a strict chronology. Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank are happy to simply throw expendable Yakuza thugs and samurais at Wolvie for two hours.

It’s that lack of canonical storytelling that makes The Wolverine a satisfying, independent ride. ■

The Wolverine is in theatres now

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