Since opening with X-Men in 2000, the X-Men franchise has become one of the most durable and versatile comic-book cinematic universes. It’s always been willing to take its characters out of their comfort zones — be those in terms of time, place, or style. Rather than making its characters adapt, the at-times convoluted X-Men universe changes tone from movie to movie.
At its best, the franchise has delivered films like 2013’s The Wolverine. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Ford vs. Ferrari), the sixth movie in the X-Men franchise is the second to focus solely on Hugh Jackman’s immortal hack-and-slash machine, Logan. In a surprising twist, The Wolverine decides that the best way to build out the universe around its adamantium-clawed protagonist is by leaving it almost entirely. Instead, Logan goes to Japan.
Now that The Wolverine is streaming on HBO Max, here’s why it’s a must-watch superhero movie.
The Wolverine opens up in 1945, only a year after the starting point of another X-Men movie: Days of Future Past. The Wolverine establishes, more or less, what history already tells us: that WWII changed everything in human civilization, yet humans remained very much the same. Trapped in a Japanese POW camp, Logan witnesses the bombing of Nagasaki, which would eventually kill over 74,000 people through both its immediate blast and longtime radiation poisoning.
While The Wolverine doesn’t spend as much time with this tragedy as Days of Future Past spends with the Holocaust, it is the rare American movie that shows a Japanese perspective on the nuclear attack. Alongside Logan is Ichirō Yashida (played in his youth by Ken Yamamura), a Japanese guard who lets prisoners free while risking his own life.
Diving into a hole with Logan, Ichirō is kept safe when his super-healing friend shields him from the radioactive blast. This is a comic book movie, after all. But when the two emerge from their hiding place, Ichirō looks out in horror at his utterly decimated city.
Logan wakes up from this memory to his present-day life, where he resides off-the-grid in rural Alaska. Some XCU history is worth remembering here, mainly that Logan’s once-lost memory was recovered in 2009’s Origins, and that he was forced to kill Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey in 2006’s X:Men: The Last Stand. But Logan isn’t really focused on any of that now; his best friend is a bear, and that’s good enough for him.
A fight with hunters gets broken up by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has come to the frozen north to tell Logan that Ichirō Yashida, who has grown impossibly rich, is now dying (of cancer, although this is never directly linked to Hiroshima). He wants to say goodbye to Logan, and it’s this request that gets Wolverine sucked into the complexities of the Yashida dynasty.
Asked about the challenges that a rapidly healing character like Wolverine presents from a storytelling perspective, Mangold told Newsday “there's only one way to create stakes or jeopardy, and that's to put people he cares about in harm's way.” Wolverine quickly becomes a background player in the Yashida saga, which erupts into a familial war.
There’s the dying Ichirō (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), his single-minded son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada, most recently seen as Scorpion in Mortal Kombat), and his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Yashida has thrown the family into chaos in his dying days, making sure his will gives the company over to Mariko, which is something that she has never wanted.
But that’s not the only surprise Yashida has in store. In league with his oncologist Dr. Green (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who is pretty mysterious for a doctor, Yashida thinks there is a way he could transfer Logan’s healing and immortality abilities to himself. Logan doesn’t want immortality, and he does — why not kill two birds with one stone? Logan doesn’t quite see it like that, and Yashida dies the next day.
There’s an appeal in taking superheroes far away from their home turf. Dr. Green, who turns out to be the lizard-like Viper, eventually inserts a device into Logan which tampers his abilities in a crucial way — which further makes this a Wolverine story unlike any other.
As fitting for such a self-contained tale, Mangold keeps the action grounded. The Nagasaki blast at the beginning of the movie is its biggest explosion, and the rest of the action takes place up close and personal, where adamantium claws can do the most damage. The fights showcase a few settings and scenarios that strongly evoke Japan, like bullet trains, temples, and endless yakuza ninjas. These might not be the most innovative ideas, but The Wolverine uses them in ways that feel fresh.
The Wolverine is always a good-looking movie, and its fights are occasionally beautiful. The bullet train sequence is especially balletic, with characters flying every which way. A late fight scene allows Mangold to pay homage to Akira Kurosawa’s legendary Throne of Blood, with Wolverine running through the snow with arrow-after-arrow in his back.
Mangold, whose previous credits included the 3:10 To Yuma remake, wanted to create an “Eastern Western,” or a Ramen Western, with The Wolverine. He succeeded, using the X-Men cinematic universe as a side entrance into another world of family drama. A mid-credits sequence brings viewers back to the larger X-Men universe, but The Wolverine stands on its own.
The Wolverine is now streaming on HBO Max.