… surprise- won’t be found in the latest movie!
A few days ago, I saw The Wolverine with my two comrades-in-geekdom. As I mentioned a while back, I had high hopes for this movie. From an early perspective, it looked like the newest movie’s story was based on a four issue mini-series published by Marvel Comics in 1982 written by Chris Claremont and pencilled by Frank Miller. These two guys are geniuses. Chris Claremont wrote X-Men for 17 years. Seriously. “Days of Future Past”- the storyline that the newest X-men movie is based on- that’s his, among a bunch of other equally epic ones. (The Brood, anyone?) Frank Miller was one of the artists that brought the pre-Giuliani grit of New York City to comics. Along the way, he also redefined Daredevil, cemented Batman’s eternal coolness in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and brought to life the epic last stand at Thermopylae in 300.
Sadly, the movie only skims the surface of the 1982 mini-series. It takes some characters and scenes but ignores the theme of the story. It is that theme that makes the story epic and the topic of this post. This is not a review of The Wolverine. A few moments on Google will find you a boatload of those reviews. Instead, let’s take a look at what Hollywood chose to ignore in that 1982 mini-series.
Fair warning- some minor SPOILERS for the movie below.
Wolverine is arguably the most successful X-Men character ever written. His comic book debut didn’t really give us a clue of the legendary status that was to come. He first appeared in a Hulk story (The Incredible Hulk #181, November 1974) as an agent of the Canadian government (really!) attempting to protect the pristine Canadian wilderness from the emerald goliath’s rampage. Shortly after, he was brought into the X-Men clan but it would really be this 1982 mini-series that would bring a new depth to the scrappy Canuck.
The mini-series takes us to modern day Japan as Wolverine investigates the sudden break in communications with Mariko, his true love. (Like many other points, the movie will swipe something from the mini-series but use it only superficially. Mariko as a love-interest is probably the deepest any of the book’s elements will go in the movie.) Wolverine finds Mariko trapped in a situation which her honor and obligation to her family will not allow her escape. Logan, compelled to act by his love for Mariko, finds himself in a duel with her father to prove his worthiness of her love. The duel with Lord Shingen Yashida (also echoed but not equalled in the movie ) ends with Wolverine soundly defeated at the hand of a non-superhuman opponent and, even worse, displayed as nothing more than an honorless beast, unworthy of Mariko’s love. Here’s the essential conflict of the story and Wolverine’s journey as a character.
Is he man or beast?
This is the defining question of Wolverine- Logan- that the movie ignores and, in doing so, does an injustice to the source material. The movie asks a powerful question of its own- how does one define value in a life that may be endless? Interesting question, and big enough to frame a king-sized story- but that’s not the theme of the story that provided all of the set-pieces for the movie. The conscience-less Hollywood adaptation strikes again.
Along the path of Logan’s arc of redemption, the mini-series follows his descent into the criminal underworld of Japan. Yakuza elements, the appearance of the powerful Hand clan of lethal ninja, Logan’s partnership with the assassin Yukio, and, finally, a path that leads him back to conflict with the immensely corrupt Shingen- now revealed to be the head of the criminal empire.
Yukio is another example of Hollywood’s poor aim. The comic character Yukio’s nihilistic abandon represents one path for Logan- acceptance of his savage nature- which sits in direct opposition to the pursuit of Mariko- who displays such a sense of honor and duty that Logan knows himself to be unworthy of her. Yukio- the movie character- is interesting but not as compelling as her comic book version. But the “man or beast” question isn’t the theme of The Wolverine– so Hollywood grabs the name and superficial elements while leaving all of the beautiful complexity behind. <sigh>
Along the way, the movie will also tap characters and plot points but shamelessly redefine or alter them. The Hand- seemingly without reason- is renamed the Black clan in the movie. The epic closing second duel of Logan and Lord Shingen becomes just another plot point on the movie’s own story. (Which is a shame- in the mini-series, that duel is powerful.) The movie shows us yet another poor-movie-version of a villain; this time it’s the Silver Samurai who gets a sub-par movie appearance. This is a recurring theme in Hollywood comic book adaptations: start with a wonderfully complex and rich character and lose the best parts. Take a look at the movie versions of Doom, Kingpin, Deadpool, Mandarin (oh my god! Mandarin!), and Viper.
I don’t object to Hollywood wanting to tell its own stories- but don’t take the elements from the classic comics and shamelessly repurpose them. Again, the question that the movie asks is worth telling and consistent with Logan as a character. But if that’s the question that Hollywood wanted to explore, why take so much of the mini-series? Invent a new story consistent with the character. This casual take-what-you-want-without-respecting-the-source-material just feels like laziness.
In the end, I’d hold the mini-series as perfect example of “comic books as literature”. Now 30 years old, it stills holds its own. If you’ve read it before- take another look. You’ll be glad you revisted it. If you’re too young to have read it the first time around, check it out. Logan finds the answer to this question- is he man or beast- in a supremely satisfying conclusion.
It might be the greatest Wolverine story that Hollywood never told.