I was going to do something like this for The Wolverine closer to when it came out, but things got ahead of me. Sorry if this is too late for anyone.
The X-Men franchise, like most superhero film series, is no stranger to radically altering characters from the source material. While some of these changes work and others don't, the liberties taken with some of the characters in The Wolverine only serve to complicate matters and none of them really work out all that well.
Silver Samurai Red Herrings
More than anything, the way the film treated the Silver Samurai really bothered me. And I'm not just talking about the fact that he's a Gundam in this, but rather who the Silver Samurai is got to me. The film seems to go out of its way just to be coy about who the Silver Samurai is (because where have I seen that before?). Let's assume the audience here is made up of two different kinds of people. One kind is the group that just showed up to see a decent action movie without any real knowledge of what would happen in it or the source material. They'd probably be confused as to who the main villain is anyway - first the Yakuza, then Shingen, then Viper, only to finally see that it was the old man all along in the film's final moments.
The other group is the one that's closely followed the development of the movie and already knew the Silver Samurai was the main villain. At first, they'd expect that character to be Will Yun Lee's Harada because...well, that's the Silver Samurai in the comics so there's no reason they shouldn't. But, as development moves along and we start getting trailers and other promo material, we see Harada as just an archer (which, by the way, is probably why his first name is never mentioned in the movie since he gets that from "ken", the Japanese word for sword), and a lot more swordplay from Hiroyuki Sanada's Shingen Yashida, who, on top of that, is dressed like a Samurai. So maybe he's the Silver Samurai in this. There's a certain logic to it, after all - Shingen was the primary antagonist of the storyline the movie's based on, so streamlining Shingen and the Silver Samurai into one character makes some sense. Also because Hiroyuki Sanada is a big deal; he's the protege of Sonny Chiba, the Japanese Bruce Lee, so it wouldn't be a stretch to think he's going to pull a lot of weight when it comes to the film's fight scenes. But then we see the movie and it turns out the Silver Samurai was the old man, a character created for the film, and Shingen (and the Yakuza, for that matter) are just a third party. It's a shame that an actor of Sanada's talent and the Lord Shingen character were more or less wasted on a tertiary antagonist. Meanwhile, there's no real reason for Will Yun Lee's character to be named after the comics' Silver Samurai just to obscure who the film's version of the character is, especially when you already have Shingen doing that.
I think what makes this even more bothersome is that there's a real easy fix to this that could have been done at any point in the film's production:
Seriously, if FOX still had the rights to Daredevil, the Black Clan would be called "the Hand", and the only purpose of Will Yun Lee's character from a narrative standpoint is to give the audience a face to associate with them. He might as well just be Kirigi...again. As for Old Man Yashida, making him Shingen returns the character to his status as the story's primary antagonist, and since Shingen in the comics isn't a mutant, it provides good reason for the film's Silver Samurai not to be one. And that everyone calls him "Master Yashida" is pretty similar to Shingen's title of "Lord Shingen". In turn, Sanada's character being Keniuchio, in addition to giving him some proper swordplay, gives him a stronger motive for his actions. Being the spurned illegitimate son trying to wrestle control of the company from the legitimate if unworthy heir makes him a stronger character than just being the worst father ever, even if Sanada's talents are still a bit under-utilized.
He Dreams of Jeannie
Although Mariko's character isn't treated as poorly as the other Yashidas, there's still a huge problem with her. And it's unfortunate because it's not Tao Okamoto's fault, even though this is her first acting job, or really anything the character does. Rather, the blame for the this falls squarely on the inclusion of Jean Grey. I get that Logan's supposed to be tormented by the memory of Jean, but that he keeps seeing her in his dreams, even projecting her over Mariko right after they have sex, it's hard to ever buy into the relationship between the two. Even moreso since this Mariko and Wolverine don't have the history together that the comics' versions have. Mariko here just feels like a rebound, at best an ephemeral, heat of the moment, Bond Girl-like relationship Wolverine's going to forget about the moment he leaves Japan. Would it have been too difficult to include a scene where both Logan and the audience are expecting him to wake up next to Dream Jean but she's not there?
But at least there's a much worse female character in the movie.
It's no secret the X-Men franchise has a problem with getting its female characters right. Halle Berry's Storm is a glaring weakpoint in the original trilogy, January Jones' Emma Frost is by far the weakest part of First Class, and I'd be surprised if Rebecca Romijn has delivered more than ten lines of dialogue total in all four of her appearances as Mystique. So I don't think you could blame me when I was a bit worried by the casting of Rila Fukushima, a fashion model with zero acting experience, as Yukio (same could be said of Okamoto, by the way, but I'm picking on Fukushima for a reason). She could have very easily been the weakest part of the movie, and that she looked like a Gogo Yubari rip-off did nothing to allay my fears. Glad to say my impression was wrong. Even if her fairly useless mutant ability was tacked on, Yukio is easily one of the best parts of the movie. She proves herself a competent companion to Wolverine, and her introduction is downright bad**s. Honestly, I'd be more excited to see Fukushima's Yukio again than most of the actors reassembled for Days of Future Past.
No, the January Jones Award for The Wolverine goes to Svetlana Khodchenkova's Viper. To quote "The Wrap"'s Alonso Duralde, everything about her is straight-to-DVD quality. The hamminess of her acting, the insincere way she delivers her lines, the campiness of her outfits, even down to the fact that she's a mutant. I could buy why you might want to make Viper a mutant for the same reason they made Deathstrike a mutant, but that's no excuse for her abilities to be so ill-defined that we're still finding new stuff she can do moments before she's killed off. First its that she can poison people, then she has a weird tongue, then it's immunity to toxins, then she has a talon, and can spit poison too, and finally, at the very end of the movie, we learn she can shed her damaged skin. That's right folks, Viper has the regenerative abilities Old Man Yashida wants in the first place. So why track down and betray the person who saved you from the ATOMIC BOMB (in effect giving Yashida ~70 years he would not have otherwise had) when he could just double cross his doctor? It's like the only reason she's in this movie is to give Yukio someone to fight in the final battle, otherwise she could have been cut out of the film entirely.
Wait...mutant with a weird tongue who spits poison. Where have I seen that before?
Wait...sexy chemist who can kill people by giving them poison kisses. Where have I seen that before?
On Second Thought, Why IS It a Giant Robot?
Film's final battle is between the hero and the villainous head of a giant tech corporation who's in a mech suit built around something stolen from the main hero. Where have I seen that before?
When I first found out that the Silver Samurai would be a mech suit rather than a mutant, I'll admit that I didn't mind it that much. At best, I thought it might be a reference to Mecha anime like Gigantor or Gundam. After all, the movie was like a checklist of cool Japanese things - Samurai, Ninja, pachinko, love hotels...the only things missing were the dreaded Gojira and a used panty machine. But, no, it's more like Iron Man is really popular so the movie needed to include some character in a mech suit to help promote it. And while making Yukio and Viper mutants may be justifiable to some degree, the reasoning for that falls apart when they make the Silver Samurai not one.
Also, Wolverine lost his memory in 1981 (which is when X-Men Origins: Wolverine thinks the Three Mile Island accident happened), so he shouldn't have any memory of Yashida, much less shielding him from the atomic bomb.
The Really, REALLY Good
Despite all its flaws, The Wolverine is exactly the movie it needs to be. And for a summer characterized by big-budget movies blowing their wad on city-destroying madness or incomprehensible villainous plots, it turns out what it needs to be is not all that much.
For one, it is a very good action movie. The movie recognizes how powerful Wolverine is as an individual, so the movie makes a point of making Logan. Take the bullet train sequence - Logan's not only lost his regenerative abilities, but the scene is as much him and the Yakuza mooks fighting the train as much as they're fighting each other. Logan's performing surgerery on himself for half the fight with Shingen, and the Silver Samurai mech declawed him (which, by the way, shows this is a franchise gearing towards its end). Yeah, it was cool when Stark called in his house party at the end of Iron Man 3, but it's hard to feel like anyone's in any real danger ('cept this guy) when there's 50 Iron Men flying around. Having Wolverine so vulnerable in each of the major action sequences highlighted his ability, not just his strength.
Not to mention making him reliant on some friends. Shingen would've killed Logan on the medical bed if Yukio wasn't there, and old man Yashida would've finished him off if Mariko hadn't stepped in. How is it that Wolverine's solo adventure shows him as a better team player than any of the X-Men films?
Speaking of which, it's good to see how far this movie distanced itself from the rest of the franchise. Not only does it lack the cast of characters we might expect out of an X-Men film (until the credits), but it even the plot makes it feel like a different kind of movie. Each of the five films that preceded it feature as its villain one of two political extremes: mutant supremacy (represented by Magneto, sharing that position with Shaw in First Class) and human supremacy (represented by William Stryker), with the X-Men (representing equality) as the only thing standing in the extremists' way. Yashida, on the other hand, isn't concerned with the relationship between mutants and humans; he's just a greedy old man who wants to live forever.
And that gets at the film's best quality. Even in terms of the villain's plot, the movie is about Wolverine. Killian could've waited until after he killed the president to coerce Stark into developing Extremis. General Zod didn't need to to let Superman in on his plan to kill all the humans by having him sink into a pile of skulls. But Yashida's plan needed Logan , and in doing so, it becomes a movie truly about Wolverine, not just one that involves him.
And that's why it's the best superhero movie to come out this summer.
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