Warning: This is a critique of the new film “The Wolverine” and it includes spoilers.
In 1982, as an 11-year old, I bought my first X-Men comic. It was issue #161, published in September of that year. Not long after my introduction to the X-Men Chris Claremont and Frank Miller collaborated on the 4-issue limited series, simply called “Wolverine.” That short window at the end of 1982 represented a pivotal time in my love affair with comic books and superheroes. Until I encountered Claremont’s work with X-Men, I’d been a child. I’d fallen in love with the witty, uber-responsible Peter Parker and his web-slinging Spiderman. I knew the campy Batman of Adam West and the colorful and patriotic Wonder Woman of Lynda Carter…the Superman of Christopher Reeve.
X-Men was something altogether different. Yes, there were the colorful costumes made popular in the comic genre when colored ink was first made possible. Yes, there were familiar plot lines of good versus evil. Yes, the arc of the stories still moved towards justice. The key difference in X-Men was the complexity of the characters. They were more nuanced, more flawed, more human. Their powers often prevented them from fitting into mainstream society. Even the most goody-two-shoed of the team, Cyclops, couldn’t live without his special visor, lest he unleash terrible destruction on the ones he loved most. This was his recurring fear. Nightcrawler looked like a demon and was forced into hiding after being hunted, literally with torches and pitchforks. And then there was Wolverine.
When Wolverine was first introduced to the world, in fact, the character was called Weapon X, a Canadian secret agent. It wasn’t long after the character was introduced that Claremont got his hands on him as a member of a new team of X-Men, introduced in 1975. As the story goes, Wolverine was a background character and some discussion was had about eliminating him altogether. As the popularity of the new X-Men grew, so too did interest in the character. It wasn’t until the 1982 limited series, however, that the character began its full realization. In might be said that the Claremont-Miller collaboration made Wolverine, and propelled him onto the comic book stage as a marquee character.
Now, what Claremont knew was that Wolverine was an interesting lead because he represented the struggle between animal and man. The ordered and dutiful life of a secret agent and a superhero, familiar to comic book audiences, could be challenged by the berserker in Wolverine, the animal that could emerge as vicious and unforgiving and brutal. The duality of our humanity in its rawest form came out in the Wolverine story line. It’s worth noting that the Nightcrawler character also played on the duality of his demonic appearance and the deeply Christian character inside the body.
The Claremont-Miller limited series is a masterpiece of storytelling because it’s about good vs. evil on the surface…a hero against a villain…but it’s really about the thin line between man and animal. It’s about the thin line between civilization and chaos, represented in a complex plot line about Japan. It’s a story about duty and honor in conflict with freedom and self-actualization. For the adolescent, in particular, this is a powerful struggle. On the surface, the reader is confronted with beliefs about right and wrong, good and evil, and justice…the old hero story. It’s about overcoming all odds to restore order from chaos. Beneath the surface, the story is about the conflict in all of us. It’s Id vs. Superego. The human capacity for destruction and vengeance and bloodlust is pitted against the thin veneer of control that keeps us from murder when confronted with conflict or injustice. What is that line? When would you cross it? If you won’t, do you long for someone who will on your behalf?
This tension is at the heart of the Frank Miller revival of Batman as the Dark Knight some years later. It’s at the heart of the anti-heroes represented in Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano. What is it you admire in the vigilante? What part of the mob boss satisfies your thirst for order at whatever cost?
When I sat for “The Wolverine” I had some trepidation about whether a big budget superhero film would deal with complexity or fall into the trap of the simpler and less interesting story arc. Would the film follow Claremont’s lead and challenge the audience to love Wolverine despite his brutality? Would the tension between the order of Japanese culture and its historical brutality play as the backdrop for the story? In fact, this is where the film fails at its worst.
“The Wolverine” is a film about a claw-wielding superhero who kills without shedding blood and turns off the animal at the moment it’s no longer needed. He’s troubled and haunted by his past, but he never really broods. He wakes up from vivid nightmares every night, often with claws protracted, but the audience learns to see it as normal, as apparently does Wolverine.
The chief villain in the film is the grandfather patriarch of the Clan Yashida, who Wolverine saved from the atomic blast at Nagasaki. As a prisoner of war, Wolverine witnessed the blast from up close and helped his captor, Yashida, hide in the well in which he was kept prisoner. Despite this intimate relationship with Japan, somehow modern day Wolverine can’t speak a word of Japanese and plays as a sort of gruff Bill Murray from “Lost in Translation” as he fumbles his way around many things Japanese. The Claremont-Miller series wisely makes Wolverine fluent in Japanese and expert in Japanese culture, adding incredible depth and interest in the character and his relationship to the backdrop of the story. They are one in the same. The film relies on Japan as a sort of exotic seasoning to the thrill-fueled spectacle of the superhero story.
There was purpose behind this character point, as Claremont describes in an excellent interview with Sean Howe appearing in “Vulture“:
[T]he samurai culture embodied all the conflicts that made Wolverine what he was. The struggle chronicled in Chushingura, and in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. In this movie, I kept waiting for Logan to start spouting perfect Japanese. He’s been to Japan before, and he’s a warrior. The first thing you do is learn the landscape and the language. In the comic, he spoke Japanese like a native — it had nothing to do with him being brilliant, but with him blending in. It also would have taken him another step away from the traditional superhero.
In fact, the character of Wolverine owes a lot to both of Kurosawa’s ronin films, “Sanjuro” and “Yojimbo.” Those films are masterpieces precisely because they play on the juxtaposition of the unrefined and brutal and the just and heroic. The opportunities to show this complexity in the film were squandered. Wolverine goes so far as to stab an unethical hunter in the hand with his own poisoned arrow, but chooses to walk away when convinced by a persuasive Yukio, who he’d only met for the first time. In that scene there was hope, but too often the rest of the way the audience is spared the true brutality of Wolverine’s wild side. In another scene, he interrogates a corrupt politician, punching him repeatedly in the face. He finally tosses the man out a high rise window, but the man lands safely in a pool below. The Wolverine stabs and slashes, kills and maims, with his claws. He’s confronted by tattooed Yakuza and mercilessly dispatches them, but the carnage is invisible. The audience isn’t asked to pay the price for loving The Wolverine. The audience isn’t forced to deal with the death or the viscera. In fact, his love interest, as a witness, is never forced to confront it either. It’s all too clean.
Now, one can understand that a major motion picture has to pick and choose its battles when it comes to drawing an audience. Blood and guts make Wolverine a different sort of hero for a mainstream audience. He can’t be the equal of Spiderman or Superman in the eyes of a public who’d rather put yellow ribbon bumper stickers on their cars in support of the troops than really understand the death and brutality that keeps veterans up at night. “We support you, but we don’t want to know too much.” That’s the bargain that most folks make with soldiers. Spiderman and Superman make that bargain palatable for us, which is one of the chief points of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight graphic novel. The Batman is a brutal, dirty vigilante that break bones and smashes faces. He’s a terrorist. Superman is a patriot because he lets the public believe in freedom and justice and the American way. Clean, neat, painless.
If we accept the limitations of the blockbuster summer film and forgive the cleanliness of Wolverine’s killing, there’s still plenty of room to mourn. The limited series plays Wolverine against two women, the high society Mariko, daughter of the protagonist Yashida, and the “furio” – wild child – Yukio. Wolverine loves Mariko, from whom he desperately hides the animal. She wouldn’t understand that part of him, and would most certainly reject him if she saw it. He’s the samurai to her, rigid, controlled, honorable. Yukio is an imp. She’s the enabler of Wolverine’s Id. She’s a thrill seeking woman of the streets. She rejects the formality of Japan. She’s poor and she doesn’t much care. Her poverty and her recklessness are her freedom. She uses that to her advantage in tearing Wolverine away from Mariko and for a while he likes it. The conflict between those two, very different sides of Wolverine and of Japan are compelling.
In the film, Mariko and Yukio grow up together. Yashida, the father in the comic, is the grandfather in the film. Mariko’s film father is a heartless and cruel heir to the grandfather’s crime syndicate. He’s essentially dimensionless. He confuses the plot and does very little to add depth to the other characters. Mariko is well educated and traditionally formal in many respects. Yukio is her opposite in appearance, with red hair and thigh high boots, but the film neuters one of the most important parts of the Claremont story. Yukio is adopted to the Yashida family, plucked from the streets and from poverty, as a playmate for Mariko. They’re sisters. There’s no conflict for Wolverine. One is a love interest, the other a companion and bodyguard. The animal isn’t coaxed because we never really see the animal. The missing blood and viscera and rage are measured and controlled and largely invisible. Mariko’s horror never materialized because Wolverine is simply acting as any hero would in pursuit of a damsel in distress. Yukio is similarly neutered. There is no imp. There is no Id. She’s the sister and companion to Mariko, and like Wolverine, only resorts to violence of the “Bam,” “Pow” kind as justice dictates. She doesn’t spend her days and nights playing chicken with trains or jumping off buildings for the thrill…for the escape from Japanese order. She wears both red hair and a kimono.
Instead of Claremont and Miller’s complexity, we’re asked to accept Wolverine as a “cheekier” version of our other blockbuster heroes. The naughty Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., gets to be a flashy, billionaire playboy but his alcoholism is a minor blip of a plot point in the sequel to the excellent Iron Man debut. It’s a small obstacle to overcome, rather than a potentially debilitating character flaw that adds a human dimension to the man under the armor. “The Wolverine” similarly ends up a film about a guy lost in Japan, chasing the tormenters of his love interest, aided by her adopted sister, and foiled by a dying old man with super armor and his one dimensional venom-spitting vixen. It’s a film about those things, rather than about the animal in man or the tension between order and chaos, duty and freedom.
The scholar of myth, Joseph Campbell, critiques our attachment to the surface of stories. We often get wrapped up in the specifics of the stories we learn about Christ, or Ahab, or Luke Skywalker and forget that the reason they hold so much meaning for so many is because they challenge us to experience fundamental truths about humanity that are beyond our capacity to understand or define. The eternal truths of our myths give us something to work on during this short journey through space. Great story tellers like Claremont and Miller challenge their audience to confront these things, understanding that it’s the complexity that drives our passions. It’s the challenge of the story that makes us fall in love, that makes us live deeply. Stripping away the challenge seems like the common wisdom of most pop culture producers in a commercial environment where maximizing audiences is part of the market picture. Don’t offend. Paradoxically, the opposite is true. I doubt they’ll ever figure that out though.