The great part about the "X-Men" films, since the debut of the series in 2000, is that the stories have primarily focused on character, rather than the crash-boom-bang mentality that tends to surround most offerings during the summer movie season.
Despite the rich history of the franchise, director James Mangold wanted to up the ante for the new film "The Wolverine," which in collaboration with star Hugh Jackman, delves deeper into Logan/Wolverine's soul than we've ever seen before.
In fact, the film could better be described as an action drama with some bits of comedy that happens to feature a superhero rather than a superhero film that contains action, dramatic and comedic elements. Either way, it's a far cry from what we're used to seeing in a summer movie release.
"I feel what has happened, particularly more recently, there's an arms race of scale going on between the summer pictures," Mangold told me in an interview Wednesday. "But there's a diminishing sense of returns in terms of entering that arms race, particularly when you're the guy with the least amount of money to spend compared to the other summer pictures."
Having a smaller budget doesn't necessarily bother Mangold, who has directed such character-driven films as "Copland," "Girl Interrupted," "3:10 to Yuma" and "Walk the Line."
"Big budget films just aren't my style," Mangold said. "They're not what I'm focused on -- as opposed to cutting between seven different story phases and destroying cities and planets, and traveling to space and back again."
"The Wolverine" does do some traveling -- over to Japan, where fans of the comic book's Japanese storyline are finally getting to see an adaptation of the character's arc involving the Silver Samurai. It's a setting that helped Mangold create a superhero film from a new perspective.
"Coming in at the tail end of a huge period of comic adaptations, I was wondering what I could do that was fresh," Mangold recalled. "Going to Japan helps on a surface level, giving me a new backdrop, a new set of rules and a great, new set of characters to come into contact with Logan -- but I still was wondering how I could change the architecture of the movie to make it different."
The solution, he said, was a decision that will be embraced by some people and missed by others.
"There is no villain in the picture, which is essentially the difference in a character's story and your standard superhero plot," Mangold explained. "The goal here was to take a through-line -- like a great Western through-line like in '3:10 to Yuma,' where you find Russell Crowe as a stagecoach robber, but he's not a bad guy. The strength of movies like that is that they don't operate on this simple 'I'm here to destroy the human race' kind of thing."
Mangold said there's nothing wrong with movies like that, but "it's just been done and done, and done and done."
"It promotes the same visuals, the same crises and the same integral cheat, which is that you essentially puts the audience at risk," Mangold said. "You're telling the people in the crowd, 'If this hero doesn't defeat the villain, you're dead.'"
Instead, Mangold said he "wanted to take the training wheels off the bike and have the people experience something that has no impact on their lives."
"Just like audiences watching Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown,' Gene Hackman in 'The French Connection' or Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, I just wanted people with 'The Wolverine' to be invested in the stakes of the person they're watching," Mangold said.
The choice works beautifully into the plot of "The Wolverine," since the battle Logan faces that's more terrifying than anything is torment of his immortality. He's suffered through the pain of loving and losing people, particularly Jean Grey, who he was forced to sacrifice at the conclusion of "X-Men: The Last Stand."
While Janssen plays a small supporting role, it's very much a pivotal one, Mangold said.
"What happened was miraculous. She was on-set for about a week to shoot the scenes, but those scenes cast an incredible shadow over the whole film," Mangold enthused. "You're always learning making a film, and in this case I learned about Famke's power as an actress and the power of her history with Hugh on film."
See the trailer for "The Wolverine" below.
Old and Hugh
Opening in theaters Friday in 2D and 3D theaters and on IMAX screens nationwide, "The Wolverine" marks the first time Mangold has worked with Jackman since the 2001 romantic comedy "Kate & Leopold." Jackman starred opposite Meg Ryan in the film as an 19th century English aristocrat who finds his way into the 21st century though a time portal.
Mangold said the great part about this time out was seeing a completely different side of the actor, yet bring maintain the same sort of emotional vulnerability.
"In 'Kate & Leopold' he wears his more refined and sensitive side of the character on the outside and keeps the strength and masculinity on the inside," Mangold observed. "In 'The Wolverine,' it's almost a diametrical flip, where he has the gruff exterior and the intensity on the outside, but you still see the heart deep in him.
"I think that so critical to why audiences have reacted so profoundly to his portrayal Logan. No matter how gruff he is and who he puts his blades through, they love him," Mangold added. "It's almost as if they have this feeling deep inside that 'He'll never hurt me, but he might hurt them. He will never hurt me because deep inside he's good.' Like Eastwood, there's an intensity and darkness, but there's also this incredible integrity."
Of course, Mangold loves the fact that Jackman resembles a young Eastwood, which makes the comparison resonate even more.
"He's much younger, but he's becoming Clint," Mangold said with a laugh. "I felt like I was making a movie with a young Clint."
With any luck, Mangold hopes to work with Jackman again, but in the meantime, he's already made a valuable contribution with the end credits scene in "The Wolverine" -- which serves as a gateway to Jackman's role in his next mutant adventure, "X-Men: Days of Future Past," due in theaters May 23, 2014.
The director implores that audiences stick around at the end of the film, because unlike other after-credits scenes, the one in "The Wolverine" has significant meaning.
"The one thing I didn't want to do was make a joke scene at the end," said Mangold, who coordinated the scene with "Days of Future Past" director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg.
"I wanted to take the narrative a bit more seriously instead of making it a quip fest. So Simon, Bryan and I talked about what he should do to kick things off for the next picture," Mangold said. "It's actually like a real scene that could be cut into the next picture."
Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he also reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11.” As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.