Wolverine is easily the most prominent Marvel Comics superhero created after the 1960s “Silver Age” that produced Spider-Man, Iron Man, and most of the company’s other franchise heavyweights. He’s a deceptively complicated character, all hardness and berserker tendencies at a glance, but also given to some timely displays of honor and loyalty. Hugh Jackman’s screen version is just as vital, an incarnation whose popularity increasingly turned the original “X-Men” trilogy into a personal showcase, never mind the group dynamic or the way certain storylines had transpired on the comics page.
In short, it felt as though there was still plenty of potential when the X-franchise was spun off into “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” four years ago. Lone wolf time for old Logan at last. And then the filmmakers had to go and squander the opportunity by making things overly busy, shoehorning a whole gaggle of mutant characters into what was ostensibly a solo vehicle.
Jackman and company smartly try taking a step in a different direction with “The Wolverine.” Loosely adapted from an essential 1980s comics storyline co-created by artist and sometime filmmaker Frank Miller (“Sin City”), the movie dispatches the hero to Japan to grapple with a sinister criminal element and his own virtual immortality. For the uninitiated, the scene shift is surprising — and an effective way of dramatizing and accentuating the hero’s dual nature.
Building on the previous installment’s glimpse of Wolverine as a combatant in many wars, the story opens on an eerie flashback to WWII Nagasaki, where he’s a POW who saves a Japanese soldier from the bomb. Cut to the present-day Yukon, where Logan is now a headcase with a mountain man’s beard and lingering visions of lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the X-Men teammate he was forced to put down. Not that this deters Yukio (Rila Fukushima, all cheekbones and spritely edginess), an emissary sent by that selfsame soldier, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), now a dying industrial tycoon longing to see his rescuer one final time.
Arriving in Japan, Logan learns that Yashida has something else on his mind as well: an offer to relieve him of his mutant healing factor — and his exhausting eternity of struggle — through a high-tech transfer process. Logan declines, and the dominoes begin toppling: Yashida dies. His granddaughter and heir, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), is targeted by the Japanese mob and others in a vicious power struggle. Logan is mysteriously robbed of some of his power anyway. Logan and Mariko go on the run.
As directed by versatile James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “Cop Land”), these developments feel remarkably grounded — almost as much of a leap beyond “X-Men,” in this respect, as “X-Men” was in comparison to its genre predecessors. A sequence with Wolverine battling Yakuza gangsters atop a speeding Shinkansen bullet train is a stunner, and a tender moment with Mariko schooling him on polite chopsticks form is nicely handled.
That confounding pile-on instinct does resurface in a muddled final act. Mangold and the writers jumble unconvincing ninjas, a toxin-spewing villainess named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and Silver Samurai, an armored behemoth made of adamantium, like Wolverine’s claws.
But Jackman spends enough time compellingly playing stranger in a strange land that you’ll put up with a few unwanted doses of the old familiar.