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Last Saturday, the final day of big movie panels at Comic-Con didn't so much resemble a convention as an arms race. The minute one studio stepped onstage with their own huge announcement-- Batman vs. Superman!-- another would come out with their own attempt to top it-- the entire X-Men: Days of Future Past cast united! By the time Marvel brought down the roof with the announcement of Avengers: Age of Ultron-- a story that may find the entire planet occupied by a robot menace-- the term "bigger is better" didn't even seem to apply. It was more like "bigger is the only option."
Which is why it's bizarre that the comic book adaptation to come out immediately after Comic-Con is The Wolverine, the first superhero movie in half a decade or more that actually tries to aim small. The movie was relatively expensive, with an estimated $150 million budget, and sold itself with the same things that any superhero movie trumps up-- high-speed chases, elaborate fight sequences, Hugh Jackman's insane muscles. But what set The Wolverine apart, and helped it earn significantly better reviews than the last standalone Wolverine effort, was that it was essentially a family drama dressed up as a superhero film. Logan travels to Japan and finds himself protecting Mariko, a woman targeted by the Yakuza because she's poised to inherit her grandfather's vast fortune. Every fight scene in the film is about protecting Mariko, or her sort-of sister Yukio. Every heroic decision Logan makes in the film is for the sake of someone he actually knows.
Compare that to Man of Steel, in which Clark is fighting on behalf of the entire planet (the one scene in which we see an actual character in peril is when Jenny is trapped beneath the rubble, and it's Perry White who rescues her, not Superman). Or in Iron Man 3, Tony is trying to rescue Pepper Potts from the Mandarin, but the villain's true goal is to take over the military-industrial complex and, eventually, the world. In The Dark Knight Rises an entire football stadium full of people-- and eventually an entire city-- are victims of Bane's schemes. In The Avengers blocks upon blocks of New York City get destroyed. In all of these films there are individual people in peril whom the heroes care about, but the overall stakes are infinitely higher. If the hero isn't charged with saving the world, he (well, almost always he) is at least preventing a major part of it from being destroyed.
The most tense scene in The Wolverine isn't on the bullet train or even with the fearsome Silver Samurai, but between three people-- Yukio, Logan, and a man trying to kill them both. There are no implications to this fight beyond the death of a single character, but it feels realer and more urgent than every building-blasting punch in Man of Steel. Director James Mangold realizes that, for the action to matter to us, it has to matter to Logan too, and he takes the time to build up the relationship with Yukio so that her fate matters to us more than that of 1,000 anonymous people in a Metropolis office building did (given that Clark didn't seem to care much about them, why should we?) Just because a character has the physical strength to do just about anything doesn't mean that he should, and The Wolverine proves in its series of intimate and beautifully executed set pieces that it's the smallest moments that can have the biggest impact.
This "think small" aesthetic has translated to The Wolverine's box office receipts, which at $55 million are modest but still healthy (add in the additional $86 million worldwide and it's already recouped much of its production budget). The Wolverine is in the rare position of not having to launch or continue a franchise, a standalone film between a failed origin story (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and a giant team-up (X-Men: Days of Future Past) that serves only to give us some face time with a beloved character, with no larger story building blocks to set up (aside from that brief post-credits scene). Because of that The Wolverine feels freer than any superhero film since The Dark Knight, able to tell its own story without constantly looking over its shoulder at the competition, shouting "Watch how I can do it bigger!" And if it lost out on a few opening weekend eyeballs by going its own way, the sigh of relief from fans ought to pay off every time Wolverine returns to the screen in years to come.
Will any other studio learn from The Wolverine's example and hand their characters a one-off, stylistically adventurous film? Probably not. Marvel is still busy proving that they became the biggest game in town by rigorously linking all their films together, DC is busy following suit, and studios with marquee characters are largely giving them up, allowing the big two comic houses to control their characters as they see fit. There are still handfuls of darker, weirder comics being adapted like Kick-Ass and The Crow, but the bigger characters are mostly chasing after the big money-- which The Wolverine decidedly did not make. It's a financially successful, creatively inventive take on a beloved character… and no one is likely to imitate it any time soon.