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Wolverine provides sharp contrast in a summer of duds
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Hugh Jackman appeaers in a scene from "The Wolverine." - photo by Ben Rothstein

The Wolverine

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Brian Tee, Will Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada

Rated: PG-13, for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language

Runtime: 2 hours, 6 minutes

Bottom line: A Wolverine movie worthy of the character

“The Wolverine” is probably the best blockbuster of the summer season, but that isn’t necessarily saying much.

For American cinema, 2013 is destined to be known as the Year of the Implosion.

Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently predicted that Hollywood studios are heading toward an implosion caused by their insistence on making bloated-budget blockbusters despite steadily falling revenues.

Their statements came on the heels of Steven Soderbergh’s “State of the Cinema” address at the San Francisco Film Festival, which has since gone viral. Soderbergh decried the disappearance of art from American cinema and the Hollywood trend toward making big-budget films for the foreign market.

The three legendary directors seem to have accurately pegged Hollywood’s problems, and they certainly captured the mindset (and malaise) of film lovers.

Their predictions are coming true right before our eyes, as each week the newest Hollywood megapic fails at the box office and among critics, leading to write-downs for the studios.

Into this context comes “The Wolverine,” a Marvel/Fox property founded on a character with an extremely devoted fanbase. This movie doesn’t have to be great to be considered the best tentpole release of 2013.

It isn’t, in fact, a great movie, but it is worthy of its title character, unlike “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” with which it shares almost nothing.

“The Wolverine” does not continue the storyline begun in that 2009 yawner. Instead, this movie creates a bridge between “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) and the current X-Men series.

Not that we see much of the other X-Men characters. The X-Men have disbanded, and Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living a reclusive life as he copes with his guilt over the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Only at the end do the filmmakers directly tie this movie into the broader X-Men universe.

In a refreshing display of storytelling fundamentals, this movie actually wants us to know some things about its characters and to care about them.

Director James Mangold has built a career on creating complex characters, as we’ve seen in “Cop Land,” Girl, Interrupted,” and “Walk the Line.” Just as Sam Mendes did with “Skyfall,” Mangold brings a more sophisticated sense of character to a franchise that badly needed it.

“The Wolverine” should serve as a reminder that the entire universe doesn’t have to be in peril for a movie to create dramatic effect. In fact, the story has more impact if the stakes are personal.

Mangold and his writers wisely reduce the scope of the film to Logan’s internal battle, his struggle to honor an old allegiance and his fight to protect the innocent, beautiful Mariko (Tao Okamoto).

Drawing on Wolverine’s Japan saga in the comic series, the movie takes place mostly in Japan and features a great deal of martial arts action. It wouldn’t compare well to any first rate kung fu movie, but the fight scenes are well-executed and at least offer something we haven’t seen every other week of the season.

Odd as it sounds, it now seems fresh to see live action humans battle rather than computer-generated superheroes, monsters or robots.

The movie’s flaws don’t rear their ugly heads until the third act. We are forced to wait for a big reveal, but most people are going to figure it out well before the climax. And it’s a rather silly twist, both the concept and the way it appears on screen.

The filmmakers’ freedom from having to connect this movie to other X-Men movies also goes away. The ending is less than satisfying as Mangold and company must clumsily fit “The Wolverine” into the ongoing X-Men narrative.

Most fans won’t mind, though, because of two surprise cameos during the closing credits that should generate excitement for next year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”

“The Wolverine” will not be part of the implosion. It’s worth a 2-D ticket and should please fans. It’s one of the few times all year I’ve been able to recommend a Hollywood movie with a clear conscience.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.

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