How hard can it be to get a Wolverine movie right? I mean “right” as in a movie that understands what has made the character a fan favorite for the last two or three decades and seeks to synthesize his best, most compelling moments into a work of cinema that reflects them accurately and lovingly to the moviegoing audience. Or maybe one that just takes his strongest solo story ever and translates it to film without trying to cheapen it or dumb it down for mainstream moviegoers. Why is that so difficult?
I’m asking this because yesterday I watched, for the first time, a trailer for the upcoming Hugh Jackman movie, The Wolverine. This was a movie that, when Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky was attached to it, was being touted as the movie that could maybe, just maybe, get Wolverine right. The idea was that it was going to be a darker, back-to-basics approach to the character, a fresh start after the abysmal b-movie trainwreck that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Personally, I was kind of looking forward to the Wolverine version of The Dark Knight. If there’s any other super-hero who would be fit for the Nolan treatment, it’s Wolvie. Which is weird because he’s still a super-powered character and doesn’t really belong in the real world, but I guess it’s just because he is a much more introspective, psychologically broken character and I’d rather explore this particular super-hero from that angle than see him, I don’t know, jumping around on a moving train or any number of other dumb action movie cliches.
Unfortunately, now that the trailer is out, that seems to be what we’re getting. Perhaps something happened once Aronofsky left and 3:10 to Yuma director James Mangold stepped in. Looking at Mangold’s IMDB he seems to be a competent enough director, having also directed Girl, Interrupted and the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk the Line. I don’t think I’ve seen much more than bits and pieces of ‘Girl,’ but Walk the Line was pretty decent and ‘Yuma’ wasn’t half bad either.
However, they certainly lack the gritty, visceral style that Aronofsky is known for and that would have really elevated the credibility of the franchise and would’ve really been the selling point for another Wolverine movie. After he left, I was worried that the project would quickly become just another terrible Hollywood X-Men movie. It seems my concern was not entirely misplaced.
Now, I know that a lot of times it’s not cool to come out quickly with a knee-jerk reaction to a trailer and give your entire opinion of a movie before you’ve even seen the finished product. I can agree with that, and I know that there’s always the chance that the preview isn’t actually selling us the same movie that we’ll be getting, and that perhaps the best stuff hasn’t been shown to us yet. But at this point, knowing the track record for this franchise, I’d say that it’s safe to start making some educated guesses.
First of all, aesthetically it doesn’t look too bad, just from what I’ve seen. The Japan stuff all looks very pretty, and I’m a sucker for that kind of high tech Tokyo-ish stuff anyway. That pin art hospital bed that the old guy is using? Pretty cool. And like some people pointed out, it does sort of abuse the whole orange-and-teal color palette gimmick that a lot of popcorn flicks employ in order to cheaply convey intensity in a scene, which sucks because the comic that the film is allegedly based on used a very distinct warm, earthy palette that really grounded it in the land of the samurai, but whatever.
We do hit some problem areas when it comes to the story, though. The story of The Wolverine appears to be that some old Japanese guy who’s on his deathbed is offering Wolverine a chance to become a normal man in order to thank Wolvie for saving his life during World War II. Wolvie apparently goes along with this miracle procedure and then later, when the S hits the F, he’s unequipped to deal with it.
I think that could make for a decent movie. It’s a pretty comic book-y plot, something you could totally imagine coming out of the House of Ideas right now. “What happens when Wolverine is overseas and has to fight off a ton of ninjas without the use of his healing factor? What happens when Wolverine can get hurt? When he can feel pain?”
Not a bad pitch. It gives us an interesting, new angle on Wolverine to play around with. And now the movie can be more grounded because you’re making the character more vulnerable and you don’t have to relegate him to only fighting other big, strong, impervious super-types.
It does raise some small logistics questions, as some people around the web have pointed out. Questions such as, well, if his accelerated healing powers are gone, wouldn’t that mean his claws would just leave gaping, perpetually bleeding wounds between his knuckles? And wouldn’t the metal on his bones poison his blood? You kinda have to ignore this stuff for the movie to work, I guess.
The thing with a plot like that, though, is that it isn’t the movie we wanted. Supposedly, this was the Wolverine story that Jackman has always wanted to bring to the screen, meaning the story from the comics that examines the time Wolverine spent in Japan. But this isn’t really that story, is it?
If you were going to tell a Wolverine story in Japan, you would tell the story from the four-part Chris Claremont and Frank Miller Wolverine mini-series. This is the story that The Wolverine is ostensibly adapted from (Claremont and Miller are even credited as writers on the film’s IMDB page, which, by the way, has a synopsis for the film that reads like it was written by George W. Bush on a morphine drip). It was the story that set up the whole idea of Wolverine as being more than just a super-hero or a tough guy, he was a guy in perpetual conflict with himself, always trying to tame the animal inside.
But beyond that, it established Wolverine as this wandering samurai without a master. The way he was able to keep his inner nature in check was to employ the harsh, rigid discipline and structure of the samurai lifestyle that he discovered in Japan. So while it is nice to see him going up against ninjas (I guess that’s what they are, although for the most part it looks like he’s just fighting Japanese gangsters in the trailer), the essence of the story seems quite different.
The Claremont and Miller Wolverine mini was written early into Wolverine’s shelf life as a character, and therefore it’s not only one of the quintessential Wolverine stories, if not the quintessential Wolverine story, it showed the character during a more credible point in his career, back before he became the cartoon character that he is today, the beloved puppy dog leading man that he is branded as now, no matter how many gory, “mature” stories people try to write for him.
It was really the first time someone really cracked the character and looked inside and found the thing within him that made him so compelling and would eventually make him one of the coolest superheroes around, and we as fans wanted to see that that story, not just loosely adapted, but faithfully reproduced and used as a palate cleanser to wipe away the harsh taste of the goofy, Looney Tunes version of the character that has been so prevalent in the last few films.
If there was ever a story that was going to wipe the slate clean and reboot the franchise with a tougher, cooler, more faithful version of Wolverine, this would have been it. They’d already ruined their chance at adapting Barry Windsor-Smith’s phenomenal Wolverine: Weapon X story with ‘Origins,’ we were hoping they could at least get this one right. However, by the looks of it, it seems 20th Century Fox still has no idea how to handle it’s comic book properties.
To be sure, I’m reviewing a freaking trailer here. I haven’t seen the full movie, I’ve only seen a minute and a half of it, and it’s a minute and a half that’s chopped up and shown out of sequence. There’s still a chance that this movie will surprise me, and I’m still going to give it that chance, as I fully intend to catch this movie in theaters when it comes out.
But man, it’s plain to see from the trailer that this was not the Wolvie-goes-to-Japan movie that I was hoping for, and it’s obviously not going to give it the massive boost in creative credibility that it could have if they’d somehow kept Aronofsky at the helm. It could still be a fun movie, it could still be a better movie than ‘Origins,’ but I suspect it will still be a long way off from being the Wolverine flick that finally cracks the character.
And if I’m wrong, and I certainly would invite that possibility, I’ll write another 1,500 words gushing over it.
Writing from May 2014, and looking back at the X-Men franchise in its entirety, I think the real question to ask is “can we make an X-Men movie without Wolverine?”
The closest we’ve come to answering that is “X-Men: First Class,” but even that film has become a sort of anachronistic (or pre-planned) prequel for “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” providing the emotional landscape for which Wolverine can involve himself in the latter film. In fact, “The Wolverine” might also serve as a prequel-of-sorts, as it’s only permanent addition to Wolverine is its depictions of his suffering from the loss of Jean Gray – something dealt with in a very significant way in “Days of Future Past.”