The Wolverine feels less like a blockbuster than a well-turned piece of brand management. Everything in the film has been made with care, a certain amount of taste and intelligence, and such bland competence that what's most striking about it is how safe it is. The filmmakers have taken one of the most ferocious characters in the X-Men universe and very successfully tamed him.
Inspired by a graphic novel series from the 1980s created by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, The Wolverine is meant to show how lone-wolf Logan (Hugh Jackman) learns to let go of the past and accept his destiny as a superhero. That past is personified through a series of dream sequences where he talks with his dead love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) about his feelings, the sort of cliched storytelling device that litters the film.
Accepting an invitation to reunite with Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a soldier he saved from the Nagasaki atomic blast, the reclusive Logan travels to Japan to say goodbye to the dying man. Once he arrives, though, a mysterious doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) working for Yashida seems to steal some of his invincibility in the middle of the night, leaving him more vulnerable to attack. That's a problem, considering that he soon has to protect Yashida's beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from Yakuza thugs, who want to kill her for reasons that aren't immediately clear.
The Wolverine was directed by James Mangold, a generally uninspired filmmaker whose best movie is the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. There, his workmanlike approach was a perfect fit for the terse, tense material, but he can't really enliven this comic book movie's aspirations to be a deeper character study. Though leaving room for a love story and a mystery-thriller component, The Wolverine is mostly an action-adventure spectacle, but Mangold doesn't have much aptitude for it. There are two pretty decent sequences—one involving a fight atop a bullet train and the other a battle royal at the finale—but this isn't a film that really builds in excitement. Mostly, it lumbers along in its self-seriousness, Mangold unable to give the Japanese locales much visual pop.
For all its attempts at plumbing the depths of Logan's soul—he grapples with the emotional toll of being immortal—The Wolverine mostly seems to exist so that Fox can set the stage for more movies in the future. (It's a film you feel required to see so that you can be up-to-date when the sequels show up.) Other than being aware of Logan's past relationship with Jean, you can walk in fresh to The Wolverine and not feel lost. (You'll miss the significance of some surprise cameos during the credits, however.) This makes sense from a narrative perspective—we're busy people and don't have time to commit to memory everything that's occurred in the X-Men universe up to this point—but it also produces a rather generic superhero movie. This could be the 15th installment in the James Bond franchise for how indistinct it is. (And the movie's main baddie, Khodchenkova, vamps it up like she's waiting to torment Roger Moore at any moment.)
As always, Jackman is perfection as Logan: Buff, tough, compelling, with just the right amount of sarcastic humor. But he can only do so much to sell a movie that itself feels like a sales job. The Wolverine pushes all the required buttons, but rarely produces the desired effect. All you notice are the buttons.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.