James Mangold deserves to be heralded as one of the best directors working today. Mangold is responsible for some of the best films of the 21st century. What’s remarkable about him is the range of projects he’s worked on; social dramas, westerns, biopics, adventure films, and comedies are all within his wheelhouse. It’s amazing to look back at what Mangold has accomplished. Ford v. Ferrari may be easily labeled as a “dad movie,” but Mangold showed that he could make the old-fashioned racing genre feel fresh again. Similarly, Walk the Line is much better than most musician biopics, and 2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is one of the few times in which the modern version ended up being better than the original. He even recently brought back Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
However, Mangold’s most acclaimed film so far has been 2017’s Logan. The R-Rated spinoff of the X-Men franchise managed to ground the character in reality and make the stakes of the franchise feel real again. While Logan is regarded as perhaps the best film in the entire X-Men franchise (and perhaps the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight), his 2013 film The Wolverine was met with more mixed responses upon its initial debut. It is hard to believe that now The Wolverine is ten years old, released in theaters on July 26, 2013. Here’s why The Wolverine is an underrated gem.
Mangold Embraces The Genre Elements
One of the primary reasons that Logan was praised was the way in which it tributed classic Westerns and even made a direct reference to Shane. Similarly, there’s a strong tie to Japanese history and cinema throughout The Wolverine. The movie was based on the Japanese Samurai arc in the comics written by Frank Miller. The film begins during a flashback to World War II, where Logan experiences the shock and terror of the nuclear bomb from the perspective of the Japanese villagers. It’s after saving the life of the Japanese soldier Ichirō Yashida (played in flashbacks by Haruhiko Yamanouchi) that Logan experiences the blast, but given his super healing, he survives intact.
This was a great way to tie in Japanese history and find a creative way to ground the film in an Eastern country. The film explores Logan’s complex feelings about his own mortality; he seeks an end to his suffering but cannot end his own life. It’s the older Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who offers him a potential way to die, setting up the context of the film’s primary location. Beyond the setting, Mangold incorporates a lot of great martial arts sequences reminiscent of classics from Japanese action cinema. If Logan felt like an extended tribute to Westerns like Unforgiven and The Shootist, then The Wolverine feels like its honoring Yojimbo or Throne of Blood.
Among its various issues (of which there are many), 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine featured terrible action sequences that relied too heavily on computer-generated imagery. It’s safe to say that Mangold appreciates the art of actual stunt work, as outside of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, his films do not feature a heavy amount of CGI. The battles between Wolverine and the yakuza gangsters pursuing him feel like they have a lot of grittiness to them; considering that Wolverine’s health is deteriorating, he’s also a more vulnerable hero than he was in any of the previous X-Men films.
Mangold finds creative ways to combine Wolverine’s claws with the weapons of the yakuza, but the film’s real standout isn’t Jackman. Tao Okamoto, in what was remarkably her feature film debut, gives an amazing physical performance as Wolverine’s new ally Mariko, Yahida’s daughter. She serves as Logan’s equal in the combat sequences. While many have cried for a spinoff film featuring Dafne Keen’s return to the role of Laura following Logan, if there’s any X-Men spinoff that is needed, it’s one featuring the return of Mariko.
An Even Better Extended Cut
It’s rather odd that The Wolverine was so divisive when it was first released, as it debuted in what was a historically terrible year for comic book movies. 2013 saw the release of the disastrously grim Superman reboot Man of Steel, the underwhelming Marvel sequel Thor: The Dark World, the Matthew Vaughn-less Kick-Ass 2, and the bloated (but at least interesting) Iron Man 3. Compared to the rest of the films released that year, The Wolverine is easily one of the better blockbusters alongside Pacific Rim and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Some Marvel fans may have been disappointed that compared to Logan, The Wolverine, was not rated R, and thus could not explore the full grittiness of the story and the gravity of Logan’s ethical dilemma. Not every comic book movie needs an R rating (as there was no need for Snyder’s R-rated version of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice), but in the case of The Wolverine, it was necessary. Mangold’s extended cut is a major improvement and earned a higher rating. Perhaps if more fans saw this version of the film, then The Wolverine would be held in the same regard as Logan.