I finally grabbed a copy of Wolverine and watched it tonight (the end credits still haven't rolled as I'm typing this).
I had zero expectations for this movie, so none of this is because it didn't live up to what I hoped.
What Was Wrong
For most of the movie, I was "meh". The initial scene was a great premise for a set-up, but it really went nowhere. We say Yashida for all of 60 seconds—not nearly enough time to become invested in the character. It would have been so simple to extend the initial scenes just a little bit to show that Yashida was a kind, but conflicted soldier. Why did he release the prisoners when the bombers were coming? That made absolutely no sense. There was no "history" to justify his actions.
As I watched the rest of the movie, it quickly became apparent that I shouldn't spend any time getting interested in any of the characters. They were all just stereotypes put in place to justify big CGI action scenes. And when those final CGI action scenes came... I didn't care. I had not been given any reason to care about anyone—not even Wolverine. "Wolverine: Origins"—abomination that it was—actually gave me much more reason to be invested in the character. And, I'm sorry to say, I lay a lot of this on the shoulders of Hugh Jackman. The man is a great actor with an exceptional range. His performance in this movie, however, was pretty close to one-dimensional.
I could write a very long post explaining all the specific points where the movie got things wrong, but that's all irrelevant. What they got wrong was the idea.
While there are many things that can be nit-picked about the movies produced under the Marvel Studios umbrella, the one thing they got right is that all of their movies are about the characters, and our connection to them. Marvel has said that they aren't making "superhero movies", they're making movies that have superheroes in them.
This is where Fox failed with Wolverine. The original story by Frank Miller was not a "superhero story". It was a combination of romance and political intrigue—with some ninjas thrown in. At its heart, it was a tragic romance—a story of love, obligation, deception, betrayal, intrigue, loyalty, and the clash of cultures. It's a timeless story that instantly resonates with the reader.
Why didn't Fox use that? Why were they so short-sighted?
The original Miller story could have been adapted to the screen with minimal changes. And that story could have been marketed to women as a love story, and to men as a ninja movie. The original story was filled with romance, sneaking about, and political and family intrigue.
What should Fox have done?
Build a stronger connection between Logan and Yashida. That would instantly translate to a strong connection with Mariko. Emphasize the love between Mariko and Harada. Turn this into a classic triangle; it sets up a confrontation between Harada (as the Silver Samurai) and Logan—one which everyone in the audience will instantly understand.
Keep the Yakuza/ninjas as an external threat. That sets up a wonderful conflict: Logan and Harada are competitors for the love of Mariko, but are both protecting her from the Yakunijas.
Develop and reinforce the relationships. Robot samurai only keep us interested for the moment. If you only want to put butts in seats for this one movie, that's fine. If you want to build a following, however—put buts in seats over and over again—you need more. This is where Marvel Studios has nailed it; they understand that audience empathy translates into audience loyalty—and greater sales across the board.
As an example: I currently live in China. All the superhero movies play over here. Chinese consumers love pop culture—especially American pop culture. Social networks promote and sell "stickers" for Marvel (Marvel Studios) properties. People buy Captain America T-shirts. They love Thor and the Avengers.
While the movies of Fox and Sony play here, I have yet to see a single T-shirt, WeChat "sticker" or other product promoting Spider-Man, X-Men, or Wolverine.
I used Wolverine as an example. However, the idea applies to all "tent-pole" movies. Too often, the producers are focused on the immediate gains. They want "butts in seats" and "highest profit tie-ins". Those translate very well into immediate profits. They do not, however, translate into longevity. And longevity is where the real money lies.
Wolverine could have been an incredible movie that crossed genre lines and brought in money from multiple demographics. Instead, it pandered to the least common denominator.
That's not only bad storytelling, it's bad business.