In the ever growing collection of superhero movies there are plenty of classics that people will talk about, and with Dark Phoenix firmly not being one of them it’s time to look an X-Men movie that is. You’ve got the first Iron Man; you’ve got Avengers; you’ve got Logan. These films mark high points in a genre that varies widely in quality (but doesn’t lack in quantity). However, there’s one movie that’s often overlooked when we’re discussing good superhero films and that’s The Wolverine.
Now, I’m not here to argue that this film is a masterpiece, because it is flawed, mostly thanks to a clunky ending that just reeks of a studio not wanting to take risks. However, James Mangold and Hugh Jackman deliver a film that is strikingly complex for where superhero movies were at the time and there are hints at what the pair would do in the future with Logan bursting out everywhere. With a little more introspection its easy to see that The Wolverine is far more than simply another superhero movie, but one boldly trying to move in a different direction that honors the film’s that influence it while still being held back by the roped-arrows of convention.
Put into production immediately after X-Men Origins: Wolverine concluded the movie had a tough uphill climb. Origins had left the franchise in a complete and utter heap as it failed on almost every level possible aside from still having Hugh Jackman in the movie. With the stench of utter failure in mind Fox went out and got critical darling Darren Aronofsky to direct the film, but he left the project in 2011 forcing the studio to find another director. They found James Mangold, which turned out to be one hell of a good decision. Mangold had just the right mix of independent cred and action movie experience to guide the film into something more than we’d seen from superhero films, even if he was hampered by a screenplay that fought him throughout. He did this in two ways. First was by grounding the movie as a genre film, but not a superhero one.
There’s a lot of talk about how Logan is actually a Western disguised as a superhero movie, but effortlessly sliding Wolverine into a different genre should not have been a surprise to anyone who saw The Wolverine. The film is as close to a Samurai film as the screenplay would allow him. It’s easy to understand why then Mangold went Western when he dove into Logan. The Samurai movie and Western have long been interchanged, and Wolverine’s loner attitude is perfectly attuned to both. The wandering hero is a key element of both these genres, and in The Wolverine Jackman and Mangold were allowed to begin the process of actually unpacking that in incredibly interesting ways. They saw the genre below the genre and began working from that.
You can find the lone warrior trope throughout Samurai cinema. Films like Lone Wolf and Cub, Yojimbo, and even Seven Samurai depict samurai wandering the land until they have a place to save. Wolverine himself is routinely referred to as a ronin, or samurai without a master. Often the heroes of Samurai movies are ronin, who wander into a small village or town besieged by evil and, taking pity on the people despite often being disillusioned or selfish, they defeat the evil and, in some cases, win the heart of the girl. In The Wolverine these parallels are easily drawn, except that the small town is all of Japan and Wolverine is a superhero with claws and healing powers. Those facts are layered onto a Samurai film, not the driving factors.
It is not simply in the film’s story that we find the seeds of a Samurai/Western film, however. The movie itself is built on the staples of these films. Two scenes in particular stand out: the bullet train fight sequence and Wolverine’s fight through a snowy village to the villain’s “secret” base. Train fights are a staple of action cinema by now, but their genesis stems from train heist films in the Western genre. In fact, 1903’s The Great Train Heist was a landmark film in cinema that redefined how stories were told on film. The Wolverine’s high-speed train sequence is not just heart-pounding and well done, but the inevitable evolution of this traditional set piece. Much like the rest of the film, it is the super-powered equivalent of a traditional staple, stealing aspects and paying homage not just to Westerns but films as disparate as Speed, Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, and James Bond.
The second scene, Wolverine’s fight (or, to be more accurate, torture) through a snow covered village at the end of the film, is as straight up an homage to Samurai cinema as you’re ever going to find. There are the obvious stand outs like the traditional Japanese buildings, a lone warrior fighting impossible odds, and direction that feels a bit more paced than the rest of the film, but there are subtler nods as well. Wolverine being filled with arrows is a direct reference to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a film that ends with its lead bombarded by a plethora of puncturing arrows — a graphic and stunningly executed sequence. The fight is also reminiscent of snowy battles in films like Lady Snowblood, Zatoichi Challenged, and the disturbing Sword of Doom — the latter of which is inverted in The Wolverine where we see the “Samurai” brutally attacked instead of him doing the attacking.
The second tactic that Mangold took to make The Wolverine into something more was to rework the screenplay into a tale that actually tackled the character of Wolverine and not just his super powers. Maybe having learned a lesson from Origin‘s incorrect assumption that a guy with bad CGI claws was enough to carry the film, The Wolverine approaches its lead character as a deeply troubled and lonely figure. This approach, of course, is part of the Samurai/Western tradition as well. The best films in those genres are not just about the shootouts and train heists but are a deconstruction of the hero themselves. Think of movies like Shane or Yojimbo, where classic tropes of the genre, which they were in turn helping to define, were opened up by a focus on the hero themselves instead of the conflict. We see in the film Wolverine struggling with his immortality and guilt. Though this often happens through ham-fisted dream sequences featuring a cameo from Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, they scratch at the surface of what Mangold and Jackman would do later with Logan.
Unfortunately, the conventions for superhero movies at the time weigh heavily on the film as a whole. This was just as Marvel’s second phase, which is where they really started experimenting with the genre, was getting started. Fox, a company without the centralizing force of the MCU and no plan whatsoever, was far more interested in delivering a film that checked boxes than innovated. What we get is a movie often struggling against itself by continually holding back on its emotional core for action sequences and clunky exposition.
Plus we get that ending. We really do need to talk about the third act, as much as we’d all like to forget it. A film replete with iconic moments, an emotional core, and homages to the past turns into nothing more than a monster movie. What an absolute mess, and given what the duo did with Logan, it’s pretty clear that the movie devolving into a bog-standard superhero film probably had to do with studio execs sticking their noses where they shouldn’t have. Honestly, this ending has every superhero cliche there is aside from a giant beam shooting up into the sky, and if it wasn’t for Mangold’s direction and Ross Emery’s cinematography (again, that approach through the Japanese village is simply stunning) this conclusion could have ruined the entire film. It is almost like watching two different movies.
The end of the film could have fit perfectly into Mangold’s vision of a Samurai/Western too. If the Silver Samurai hadn’t been turned into a giant robot, but was instead a lone man going head to head with Wolverine, the film’s tone and themes could have easily run their course. The final showdown between the enemy and villain is another staple of the genres that The Wolverine and Mangold so clearly love. Imagine a more subdued final battle: the two adversaries dueling it out with begrudging respect on an empty town street; ideas of immortality bounced around as they talk between clashes of adamantium. A fight like this would have not only allowed for continued use of the Samurai film genre, but also created an emotional through line for Wolverine. Instead, his guilt and conflicts seem glazed over because of an ending that ignore them entirely.
The kicker is, that even with that ending The Wolverine works. It is smarter and more creative than most of the superhero movies out there, and it’s reliance on other genres that makes it so. This isn’t a film trying to define the superhero genre, but a movie trying to redefine other genres. Superheroes are the modern mythical heroes of our time so it makes sense that the genres of the mythical heroes of previous generations would work so well with them. Mangold recognized this and did all he could to deliver a movie that built on the success of the past while constructing a path to the future. This didn’t just influence Logan, but can be seen in the MCU’s eventual use of different genres like the heist film and science fiction. The Wolverine led the pack.