What kind of man calls himself the Wolverine? Is he a hero? A mercenary? A psychopath? Is he a diamond in the rough—or do his sins run deep enough that, once his external trappings are removed, the world’s favorite X-man is revealed to be nothing more than an animalistic killer in a hero’s clothes?
These are the questions asked by the surprisingly existential 2013 comic book film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma). Putting aside much of the futuristic, superpower-heavy, highflying theatrics of previous X-Men films—aside from a new noteworthy action scenes and a sci-fi heavy finale—The Wolverine is, at its core, a character study of its title character. It’s a film that sets out with the ambitious task of showing us who Logan is, explaining who Logan was, and redefining what Logan can become.
Unlike X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film isn’t really an X-Men movie; hell, it’s almost a stretch to even call it a superhero movie, and that’s exactly what makes it so intriguing.
Art by Frank Miller.
Taking inspiration from the classic 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller limited series—often described by fans as “the Japan storyline”—The Wolverine largely moves away from the mutants vs. humans, segregation and anti-prejudice themes that have dominated the X-Men up until this point. Instead of trying to win the audience with cool mutant cameos, The Wolverine instead puts its focus squarely on Logan. The film places us in the role of an Anubis, weighing an ostrich feather against Logan’s heavy, heavy heart; it forces us to judge the soul of the man we’ve spent so many movies rooting for, to decide whether this animalistic killer with adamantium claws is really the damaged hero we hope he is—or whether he is a lost cause.
The comic books have often tackled the issue of Wolverine’s morality, most recently in Jason Aaron and Renato Guedes’s Wolverine Goes to Hell. In fact, it was the aforementioned Claremont/Miller series that first revealed a deeper side to the character. Before then, the depth of Wolverine’s inner torment—the idea of him being a failed samurai, instead of just a scrappy antihero—had never been fully examined. However, The Wolverine marks the first time that this issue has been explored on film, other than occasional hints of it in X2: X-Men United.
Who is Logan? Does he have any honor? What drives him? What defines him?
Art by John Cassaday.
Over the course of the last decade, Wolverine has become one of the most popular comic book characters of all time—and this has resulted in a certain level of overexposure, which in turn has led to him often being written incorrectly. To understand the complexity of Wolverine’s character—to grasp what turned this feral wild man into the breakout star of the X-Men franchise—it’s important to get away from any misinterpretations and go back to the beginning. The first thing to understand about Wolverine is that he’s not in any way the archetypical action hero that his critics might try to pin him as. He’s also not the stereotypical gruff, angry badass with a heart of gold, who always has a plan, and always gets the job done.
No, at his core, what makes Logan so interesting is that he’s a failure.
The original teaser poster for X-Men (2000).
Yes, a failure. This is a man who, in a lifetime that spans over a hundred years, has failed at essentially everything he’s ever set out to do. Almost every woman he’s ever loved, from Rose to Silver Fox to Jean, has died a violent death. He’s a man who desperately needs to have a purpose, a man who has a clear idea of the noble figure he wants to become, but who is continually overwhelmed by his base urges. He’s a man who wants to escape from the senseless violence that has always defined his life, but whose bestial instincts are so powerful that he’s never been able to overcome them, no matter how hard he tries. Wolverine can never quite expel his violent tendencies, he can only direct them at the right people. The Weapon X project—the terrible science experiment that turned him into a living weapon—was merely the tip of the iceberg.
This is the ultimate tragedy of the character, his terrible Achilles Heel, and the very essence of what makes us root for him. Wolverine, when written correctly, is not the unemotional, brutish, arrogant powerhouse that critics often try to portray him as—if anything, he’s exactly the opposite. Logan is a deeply vulnerable, highly passionate creature, a traumatized loner who struggles to balance the terrifying rage inside him with his deep desire to do good in the world, and to help others. He knows that he’s a failure, and his efforts to find purpose (and momentary happiness) in a harsh world form the backbone of Wolverine’s best stories.
The cage fight scene in the first X-Men movie—the sequence that introduced Hugh Jackman’s Logan to the world—is a beautiful illustration of the character’s flawed nature. In that scene, we’re shown a powerful, fiercely strong-willed man, wasting his life away in meaningless bar fights against truckers he could trounce in a heartbeat—and yet, he doesn’t pop his claws.
In The Wolverine, James Mangold displays a clear desire to go back to that Logan—to take us back to the man we saw in that cage. It’s no coincidence that one of Logan’s first scenes is, once again, a bar fight. Comparing the meaningless cage battle in X-Men with the driven, angry bar fight in The Wolverine—a fight that Logan initiates out of loyalty to a senselessly slaughtered grizzly bear—the audience is shown just how much Logan has changed since that time…but also how, even after his time in the X-Men, the same demons continue to haunt him.
The Wolverine wants us to reexamine everything we think we know about Logan. To achieve this ambitious look into Wolverine’s core, Mangold’s film essentially puts Logan on the operating table, cuts him open, and then removes every trait we normally associate with the character. The idea here is to get at the truth of who Wolverine is, beyond the more materialistic aspects we generally identify him with.
So, what does this mean? Put it this way—in The Wolverine, Logan’s status as an X-Man is gone, past history; evidently, the end of X-Men: The Last Stand left Logan a little bit of a wreck, and he’s suffered from nightmare after nightmare of Jean Grey—the woman he loved, the woman he killed in order to save the world—ever since.
What else? Well, how about his distinctive hairstyle? That’s gone, too, replaced by long hair and a beard—though the classic hairstyle does return once he gets to Japan. His costume? Gone, and so is the familiar leather jacket that he’s worn ever since his first film appearance in 2000. But these things are minor points, overall. Where The Wolverine really finds its voice—where it really cuts into Logan’s flesh like a carving knife—is when it takes away the one thing that has, until this point, defined Wolverine more than almost anything else. The one thing that has always made Wolverine such a force to be reckoned with:
The fact that the film tackles this issue is truly commendable; in the comics of the last decade or so, Wolverine’s “advanced healing” ability has often been over-exaggerated, used as a sort of deus ex machina to get him out of any tight situation. But this film wisely steers away from that familiar course. Instead, it’s brave enough to show us the downside.
See, here’s the thing that’s easy to forget; while healing from any injury might be a neat little trick to pull out in a fight, the whole “never aging” aspect tends to make for a fairly lonely life.
Remember, Wolverine has lived for over a century. He’s watched every woman he’s ever loved die. He’s never had a steady family. He’s made a lot of enemies, fought for a lot of causes—but even when he does find a cause worth fighting for, as he did with Xavier’s X-Men, it’s only a matter of time before the battle is finished, and he has to move on once again. As the world ages around him, he stays the same.
How could this not drive a man insane?
So, in The Wolverine, Logan is given the chance to end his immortality, once and for all. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite explore this issue as much as one might hope; the dramatic situation is such that Wolverine never really has the chance to consider whether he really wants to die or not. The movie’s other big flaw lies in its conclusion—after such a compelling and down to earth first and second acts, the sudden futuristic sci-fi blowout feels a bit forced.
Still, exploring the inherent problems that Logan’s immortality causes for him is an intriguing route to take, and there’s a handful of brilliant moments. One of the best scenes in the film is a slow, tranquil sequence about halfway through, where Logan—now powerless—quietly reflects back on a time that he was offered a man’s sword at the bottom of a well. What this scene accomplishes is that, instead of telling the audience that Logan is immortal, it shows us; it captures, for the first time in this franchise, what it would really feel like to be this immortal being, filled with memories he can’t always access. It’s a character-focused moment that one would never expect in a movie like this, and scenes like this are what make The Wolverine stand high above many of its contemporaries.
Of course, a lot of the credit for this also goes to Hugh Jackman. Having played Wolverine in six movies now, it’s amazing how he continues to bring the same energy and enthusiasm to a part that, by now, he must know like the back of his hand. Really, what’s most surprising about his performance here is that it’s his best one yet; the Logan in this movie truly is the Wolverine from the comics, ripped from the page to the screen. It’s the same tortured, angry, vicious—yet surprisingly noble—character that has fascinated readers since the 1970s.
Jackman has truly embodied this character on the big screen, to the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone else ever wearing the claws; now that he’s set to make a seventh appearance as Wolverine in next years Days of Future Past extravaganza, it looks like Jackman isn’t going anywhere, and thank God for that.
So, then, we return to the same question; what kind of man calls himself “Wolverine,” and is that man a hero?
The film’s answer to this question, then, is a resounding yes—yes, Wolverine is a hero, but he’s a deeply flawed one. However, as this movie’s total deconstruction of him proves, the reason that he’s a hero has nothing to do with his external traits. Wolverine’s heroism doesn’t come from his costume, nor his adamantium skeleton, his healing factor, nor even his famous claws; no, what defines Wolverine is the fact that he’s a flawed man, a damaged man—with emotional wounds that don’t heal like his physical ones—but a man with good intentions, who fights for what he believes in. Wolverine is the sort of hero who leaves a mess in his wake, a hero who often messes up, but in the end, he’s driven by a powerful sense of nobility, a strong sense of morals, a compelling urge to fight for a good cause. That is what defines him.
Wolverine truly is a ronin—a samurai without a master. That’s who he is, and that’s why The Wolverine, even with its flaws, is finally the Wolverine movie that we’ve always wanted.
Art by John Romita, Jr.