The most admirable thing about the comic-book movie The Wolverine is that it dares to drift away from the trappings of the X-Men franchise and go somewhere new.
This is a surprisingly difficult thing for superhero movies, or most science-fiction franchises, for that matter. The movies are so often just variations of old origin stories. Man of Steel was a mash-up remake of Superman and Superman II. The Amazing Spider-Man was a rework of Spider-Man with a different villain. (Star Trek Into Darkness was the last best example of a movie franchise that refused to boldly go to strange new worlds and instead merely put a retread on old canon.)
The vast majority of actual comic books are new adventures, but movies always tend to get stuck in the fertile but familiar mud of origin stories.
In an adaptation of an '80s X-Men story by Frank Miller and Chris Claremont, The Wolverine actually takes the most demon-plagued X-Men character out of his sub-Arctic stomping ground to Japan. During the Second World War, we see in flashback, the indestructible and apparently immortal soldier Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese officer from the atomic blast of Nagasaki.
That soldier, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), becomes an industrialist and one of the most powerful men in Japan. On his high-tech death bed, he sends his sword-wielding emissary, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), for Logan, exiled in the north and tormented over his role in the death of his beloved X-person/crush Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) -- as seen in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Logan agrees to go to Tokyo, ostensibly to say goodbye.
But Yashida has another agenda, one that involves his empire and the inevitable clash that will come when he skips over his power-hungry son to bequeath it all to his lovely granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto).
This agenda will involve legions of Yakuza gangsters and ninja assassins, as well as a lovely mutant (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who, when she isn't practising medicine on the dying magnate, practises serpentine evildoing under the moniker of Viper.
Director James Mangold is a man who has done heavy drama (Girl, Interrupted), light comedy (Kate & Leopold) and action (3:10 to Yuma) and in one capacity or another, all those facets serve here. A duel with assassins on a high-speed bullet train is an early action highlight. On the dramatic front, Logan's torment over his lost love parallels a loss of the mutant healing powers that typically allow him to shake off bullet/knife/samurai sword wounds.
Yes, that's right, The Wolverine is, on two different dramatic arcs, a story about healing.
Mangold doesn't get too heavy-handed about all that. It would have been interesting to see what Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky would have done with the material when it fell, for a time, into his hands. Mangold's treatment is undoubtedly more grounded, but it is not without its rewards.
Aronofsky's version would doubtless have been more trippy, but in Mangold's version, it is sufficient that a superhero goes on a trip at all.
As in The Avengers' cycle, stay in your seat for a surprising mid-closing-credits stinger in advance of next year's X-Men movie, Days of Future Past.