THE WOLVERINE: Gritty & Gratifying; The Best Superhero Movie of the Summer [REVIEW - ★★★½]

After a flashback that shows Logan (Jackman), surviving the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki in World War II, the film picks up following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. He's become a hermit living in the wilderness who can't come to terms with killing the woman he loved (Famke Janssen's Jean Grey), even though her death saved the world. Unbeknownst to him, a young warrior named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) is tracking his movements in an effort to take him back to Japan for a reunion with his old friend Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Tensions between Yashida's family and the Yakuza mob are boiling over, and the aged industrialist fears for the safety of his empire and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto).

An unexpected death causes a chain of events which puts Logan between Mariko and the secretive, powerful forces -- including the venomous and seductive Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and Black Clan ninja leader Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee) -- who need her to achieve their succes. Physically weakened for the first time in his long life from an unknown ailment, he must choose to remain faithful to the solemn vow he made Jean and never kill again or revert back to who he once was, and who he hates most: The Wolverine.

This is the movie that made me realize 20th Century Fox is pulling out all the stops to reinvent their Marvel properties for a smarter, harder to please and hungrier audience. This is the Wolverine movie fans have been waiting for for a long time. These may seem like the over-enthusiastic statements of an apologist who really wants retribution for one of his favorite comic book characters; I assure you they are not. Out of the five X-Men films to date I've only ever truly liked Bryan Singer's sequel X-Men United and Matthew Vaughn's 2011 "soft reboot" X-Men: First Class. I've enjoyed aspects of Hugh Jackman's four previous portrayals of Wolverine but was never really a fan. This movie has made me one.

It earned my fandom through cohesive storytelling, engaging characters and gritty action. The cinematography is fantastic, especially the wide shots that let you take in the majesty of the stunning Japanese landscapes. A fair warning to the faint of heart: The Wolverine is the most adult-oriented X-Men movie yet. If the mature content in First Class was Happy Hour, this is an all night bender. Sex, bloody violence and profanity are not shied away from. Thankfully they are presented tastefully, realistically and flow perfectly with the story. Kudos to director James Mangold and his screenwriters for finding a way to blend a serious, Western-inspired allegory with a fantastical and fun cinematic world. He also gets major brownie points for having two female leads (Okamoto and Fukushima) playing characters with actual depth who don't rely on the central hero to always save the day. They are everything but one-note scene filler; quite impressive considering both are first timers to the big screen.

Take a look at the poster on this page. That was the first officially released promotional piece for this production. It quickly catches the eye of regular moviegoers while simultaneously letting fans of the longstanding franchise know something special is happening: Wolverine is back, but like you've never seen him before. That poster elegantly and accurately represents a large portion of the tone this movie captures. It's a shame most of the advertising released since is trying to sell a run-of-the-mill, style over substance action flick when The Wolverine is so much more. Don't get me wrong, there's a healthy dose of campy aesthetic. Particularly with the film's villainous Viper, whose mannerisms and outfit would be more at place in X-Men: The Last Stand than in this noir actioner. She's an absurd character in a movie that plays itself straight, which will probably turn a few people off. For me, the brilliance of the movie far outweighs the few fleeting moments that I wasn't sold on. The final product we're presented with is as good as the best X-Men movies that came before, enhanced by modernized effects and a more focused narrative. It's the antithesis to X-Men Origins, and refuels the popular hero with the same sense of purpose Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins did for The Dark Knight.

[P.S. Stay until after the credits. If you're at a 3D screening, you'll definitely want to keep your glasses on.]

3.5 Stars

Based on the celebrated comic book arc, this epic action-adventure takes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the most iconic character of the X-Men universe, to modern day Japan. Out of his depth in an unknown world, he will face a host of unexpected and deadly opponents in a life-or-death battle that will leave him forever changed. Vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his physical and emotional limits, he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality.

The Wolverine is directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) off a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Mark Bomback. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Will Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hal Yamanouchi, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Brian Tee, and Svetlana Khodchenkova. 20th Century Fox has scheduled it to hit theaters on July 26th, 2013.