Is The Wolverine the X-film we should be excited about?

The X-Men movie universe is currently in a bit of disarray, and not just because an already convoluted and contradictory continuity is about to get even more labyrinthine when First Class 2 tackles the time-travel-heavy “Days of Future Past” storyline. There’s also the matter of First Class director Matthew Vaughn abandoning the second installment of the X-prequel series that started off so promisingly under his sure hand. (I’ll feel a little better if X-Men 1 and 2 helmer Bryan Singer steps in to direct, as rumored. A little.)

Meanwhile, James Mangold’s The Wolverine, the second Wolvie solo adventure starring Hugh Jackman, had been flying largely under the radar until FOX dropped a kick-ass teaser poster that brought every film geek to half-mast this week. Here, check it out:

So, yeah … that’s pretty great. So great, in fact, I find it hard to believe it came out of FOX’s marketing department. But is a single poster enough to wash the bad taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine out of everyone’s mouth? No, of course not. A quart of bleach isn’t enough to eradicate that stench. But evidence continues to mouth that The Wolverine may be a six-quel worth getting excited about.

For starters, in a recent interview with Empire magazine, Mangold revealed that The Wolverine is set after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, making it a sequel to the original trilogy and last in line in the current X-Men timeline. This is great news. Despite the fact that First Class is pretty damn good, the biggest mistake FOX has made with these films was choosing to go the prequel route after Last Stand. That decision left the original Wolverine solo film dead in the water by forcing it to cover material that was already pretty well covered by the X-Men films — did we really need Stryker as a villain again?! — and backed the First Class series into a corner by forcing it to adhere, at least partially, to the continuity Singer established.

It never made sense not to just follow The Last Stand with X-Men 4. So some characters died. So some actor contracts were probably up. Who cares? The X-Men comic universe is one filled with a massive and diverse group of heroes and villains who could have made the jump to film as the old guard was killed off or filtered out. Wouldn’t it have been great if Gambit had been brought in as a new love interest for Rogue rather than wasted in Origins? (And, yes, I know Rogue was “cured” in The Last Stand, but that nonsense would had to have been retconned, a process that already started when Magneto sort of moved that chess piece a little.)

So the fact that The Wolverine will now serve as a de facto X-Men 4 is a good thing. Old faces can return if necessary. New characters can be introduced and possible come back for future films. The story can move forward toward an unknowable and surprising point, rather than toward events we’re already aware are coming. Who knows what havoc First Class 2 will wreak on the timeline, or which of the timelines (X-Men proper or First Class) FOX will be more interested in progressing in future films? But at least they’ll have legitimate options.

Here’s another thing The Wolverine has going for it: This may be a pretty solid pairing of material with director. Yeah, I know everyone was pissed when Darren Aronofsky jumped ship. I was too. But James Mangold is no Brett Ratner. Dude is solid, as Walk the Line and the 3:10 to Yuma remake will attest. And he has the benefit of working with the juiciest Wolverine material there is: the character’s exploits in Japan as originally chronicled by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller in the 1982 limited series comic book. How FOX didn’t go to this well with a solo Wolverine adventure immediately after The Land Stand boggles the mind. (At that point, we really, really didn’t need to know any more about Wolverine’s past nor to spend more time in the Canadian wilderness.) But at least they’re finally giving it to us now. Bring on the Silver Samurai!

I’m just going to say it: I’m jazzed for The Wolverine. Probably even more so than I am for First Class 2 (at least while the matter of who’s going to direct it is up in the air). Hugh Jackman is still the perfect guy for the part, so there’s no need to consider rebooting the character. Hopefully pairing him with Mangold and giving the two a story worth telling that’s not boxed off by being a prequel will lead to a film that jolts the franchise into exciting, forward-looking directions.

Or maybe it’ll suck like Origins did, and First Class 2 will be totally awesome and completely implode the X-film timeline, which FOX will then reboot from scratch because Michael Fassbender costs too much money. Who the hell knows with these movies? But, man, that teaser poster sure is cool, huh?