“The Wolverine,” the now sixth movie starring, featuring or creating background for the comic book character by the same name, clearly began with some good ideas.

The disgruntled hero whose healing superpower makes him immune to both old age and death saves a man’s life during World War II, only to have the same man become obsessed with Wolverine’s immortality. When promised the opportunity to die a natural death after centuries of a painful and often traumatic existence, Wolverine must decide whether his unnaturally long life is a blessing or curse.

Kudos to the filmmakers for beginning with an intriguing character study and philosophical question.

“Your mistake was to believe a life without end has no meaning,” Wolverine is told. “It’s the only life that can.”

Regardless of whether that’s the hero or the villain talking, it’s an interesting premise.

“The Wolverine” also includes an exhilarating fight atop a Japanese bullet train, hurtling through urban areas at 300 miles per hour, and casts the charismatic and capable Hugh Jackman in the iconic role of Wolverine.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers, in my opinion, started off well and then got lazy. In the effort to put together a summer sequel – instead of a great movie in its own right – “The Wolverine” starts with this solid recipe and then seems to only half bake it.

Instead of filling out the film with a powerful script, compelling secondary characters and a thoughtful plot, the rest of the movie is hit and miss. Rila Fukushima as Yukio is a hit – a fresh face and an intriguing character. But the story’s climactic end is neither climactic nor particularly satisfying, a definite miss.

Other characters and concepts only sort of work, leaving “The Wolverine” little more than an entertaining but forgettable action film that could have been special … but wasn’t.

Part of the blame, I suspect, is that the filmmakers had this great premise of life, death, purpose and eternity … and didn’t know what to do with it. There are questions aplenty, but no truth upon which to build the answers.

For example, Wolverine dreams relentlessly of Jean Gray, his former love whose power drove her mad and forced Wolverine to actually kill her. She enters his dreams and literally invites him to join her in the peace of death.

But is her place of death actually peaceful? Toward the end of the film, it’s revealed she’s lonely where she is. But wait. Where is she?

Raising questions like these without actually seeking the answers is only pseudo-profundity at best, sophomoric at worst. How about actually exploring these questions and having the guts to wrestle with them, filmmakers? Instead, they pretend just raising the question is somehow meaningful. In the end, it’s not.

In another example, Wolverine must find a reason to stay, a reason to live, even facing the brutal reality that everyone he loves does and will die, while his endless life drones on and on. When offered a chance to end it all, what purpose will drive his desire to live?

Great question.

The movie, however, doesn’t exactly give us a clear picture of what his answer is. His crisis moment is never really portrayed as a crisis, so in the pivotal moment, it’s either the desire to help others … or to have sex. Not really sure at the time.

Later, of course, we see a redemptive nobility appear in the savage Wolverine, and that sort of clarifies it. It also makes for a nice frosting.

Unfortunately, as I’ve said before, the frosting is covering a cake that was only half baked.

P.S. – If you do see this film, stay for the cut scene after the credits. It’s worth it, especially for superhero-movie fans.

Content advisory:

  • “The Wolverine,” rated PG-13, contains roughly 15 obscenities and profanities, a few strong.
  • The film features actor Hugh Jackman shirtless in several scenes, as well as some revealing shots of him in the bathtub (but no frontal nudity). Actress Famke Janssen appears in a handful of scenes, each time flashing cleavage in a nightgown. A female villain kisses several people seductively as a way of killing them and occasionally wears form-fitting clothing. There’s a few references to prostitution and a “love hotel,” a few kisses and implied sex between Wolverine and his love interest, though nothing explicit is seen.
  • Violence in the film is significant and frequently bloody, including a character charred by nuclear radiation, open-heart surgery on a conscious patient, acid burns, bullet wounds and several characters stabbed, shot or killed in various ways.
  • The film contains several tattoos, carvings of dragons and various Japanese writings, though it’s unclear if any of these have any religious or occult meaning. Mutation is referred to as “God’s mistake.” A Japanese woman offers a brief moment of gratitude (prayer?) before a meal, and a dead character is depicted in a bright, “lonely” afterlife, the details or whereabouts left intentionally vague.

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