The Wolverine vs Wolverine: Different Eras

Last month saw the release of the much-hyped The Wolverine, the latest in 20th Century Fox’s ongoing attempts to create an X-Men movie franchise. There’ve been lots of ups and downs in the last, what, thirteen years (?) as far as that’s concerned. The first X-Men movie was a great movie that did a lot to help establish Marvel characters within Hollywood, but the subsequent productions, despite their varying success levels, haven’t exactly been on par. The X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie was a ridiculous attempt at a prequel to the trilogy and though I kind of do love the film because of all the action-goodness in it, it was low on plot and low on character development. The most recent movie, X-Men: First Class, a reboot of the entire franchise, went back into the Cold War era to kickstart the global mutant-hate and was an attempt to tell a prequel with a much different tone and one that would establish the divisions between Professor X and Magneto. Of course, it doesn’t help that First Class officially retconned the Origins movie and that together, all three movies are a continuity mess, when taken together.

And into this mix is The Wolverine, which is seemingly set after the events of X-Men 3 and will ultimately tie into next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which will continue on with the X-Men team established by Professor X in First Class and is also a sequel to X-Men 3 at the same time. Which just makes things really confusing.

Either way, this review isn’t really a review of the usual type. I’m taking a look at the new movie and comparing it against its direct source material, Wolverine Volume 1 by Chris Claremont, which is where the story for the movie has been adapted from. In a nutshell, I think the movie is a fairly good adaptation and it is not a straight lifting of plot points or character development, but is something different. All things considered, I think this is one of the best such adaptations I’ve seen.

Note: spoilers for the final act of the movie and the comic will be discussed towards the end of the review.

Wolverine posterThe movie is quite different to the 4-issue mini-series by Claremont in a lot of ways. First off, the plot is broadly similar, but there are a lot of details that are completely different. For one, the comic starts in present time somewhere in the Canadian Rockies where Wolverine is living a loner’s life all by himself. There is an extended scene here where he hunts down a wild bear and puts it down, ultimately figuring out that the animal had been shot by a poisoned arrow which didn’t kill him, just left him enraged and on a killing spree. The scene is reflected in the movie but it proves to be a much more emotional experience than it is in the comic, since the grizzly is crippled and dying and Logan basically has to put it out of its misery.

I loved both approaches. Claremont’s approach works in that it also plays up on Wolverine’s skills and abilities, and shows off his badassery. I do believe that this was the character’s first solo book, so that’s essential to establishing him. With the movie, we already know who Wolverine is. Heck, Hugh Jackman has been playing the character for straight 13 years now, across 5 movies already. We don’t need that kind of exposition anymore.

So both media are off to a great start. However, it bears mentioning that the movie actually starts at a much different point: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War. For an unknown reason, Wolverine is locked up by Japanese forces in a pit at an army camp in Nagasaki when the bombs fall and he ends up saving the life of an Imperial army soldier, suffering from intense radiation burns in the process which were, visually, one of the most striking scenes in the entire movie. Director James Mangold lingers on for quite while on this scene as Wolverine first suffers and then, painfully and agonizingly, recovers. And after that we head to the Canadian Rockies and the bear hunt.

From there on, we see Wolverine travel on to Japan. In the comic, this is because his letters to the woman he loves, Mariko, are returned unopened and he is stonewalled by all avenues of inquiry. In the movie, Mariko’s grandfather requests his presence. He is the same soldier that Logan saved all those years ago in Nagasaki and since the old man is now dying, he wants to see Wolverine for one last time, to say thank you, and give him a gift.

That’s where the movie starts to distance itself from the comic, and does it quite successfully, establishing itself as a new story with frequent enough callbacks to the original, and without dissing on any of it, as most adaptations often do.

The story of Logan’s visit to Japan is told different in the movie when compared to the comic. For one, he is not in love with Mariko, doesn’t even know about her. Second, the character of Yukio, a samurai/ninja trained by Mariko’s father Shingen in the comic, turns out to be a street waif taken in by Mariko’s grandfather as a playmate for Mariko and grows up to become one of his closest aides. Yukio is also a mutant in the video, her power being that she can see people’s deaths.

Yukio vs ShingenShingen actually plays a very small role in the movie compared to the comic, and that sat ill with me. I read the comic after watching the movie, but still, the character was largely wasted on screen. To top it off, Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the finest Japanese actors I’ve seen onscreen, was wasted in the role as well. He fit the look perfectly, but the script doesn’t give him much to work with and his performance is therefore wooden and unexciting, very unlike his performances in Lost, The Last Samurai, and The White Countess. I’m particularly looking forward to 47 Ronin, which will be released this year in Christmas and stars Keanu Reeves.

The entire arc with Shingen is much more powerful in the comic than it is in the movie because the character has much more agency in the comic than he does in the movie. He is, in fact, the primary antagonist in the former, whereas the movie relegates him to a side role and a callback/homage to the comic is played out in the pre-final act of the movie. Claremont wrote the character really well, and I would have loved to see his take in the movie, in retrospect. In the movie, he was just kind of… annoying and irritating, sadly.

But still, the movie makes up for it in other ways.

For one, the entire romantic arc between Logan and Mariko is handled much better in the movie. In the comic, Logan acts as a typical Western male in that he can’t accept the cultural nuances that restrict Mariko’s choices with respect to her family and her marriage. He acts as the knight in shining armour, wanting to rescue Mariko from the evils of her life, without a care for what she thinks and what she wants. In the movie, the two are equals, and it helps that they start off as strangers and that their relationship is slowly built upon. Played by Tao Okamoto, the movie version of Mariko I found to be really well-done, both in terms of the script and the acting. And Jackman’s been doing this for ages already, so he is as natural as to it all as you can get. The chemistry between them is also well-built and well-executed, which is no small feat.

Logan himself is handled much better in the movie than the comic. He isn’t the same gung-ho jock in the movie that he in Claremont’s script, and that was a really good change (in retrospect). I connected more with Jackman’s Wolverine, and it helps that I already enjoy him in the role, mostly because he makes Wolverine come across as a badass and an (often) emotionally vulnerable character at the same time. So props go to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplay for the movie and affected these changes. Established 13-year familiarity with the character goes a long way and both screenplay writers did a great job of furthering Logan and writing in a nuanced and believable character growth from start to finish.

Wolverine and MarikoAnd then there is Yukio herself, who was fantastic. Played by Rila Fukushima, she was the star of the movie with some great dialogue and some great action scenes. I certainly prefer the movie version of the character because she wasn’t just this typical “exotic” character who acted as a romantic interest for the main character and fell for him without really any explanation or reason. Plot reasons rather than character reasons. The movie Yukio is a much more well-rounded character without the hangers-on romantic sub plot and we also get to see some great scenes between her and Mariko that develop more of their characters and their relationship. That’s a win-win for the movie and unfortunately a lose-lose for the comic.

Just in general, quite unexpectedly, the movie takes a much more modern twist on all things and it tells a very focused story for the most part. I wasn’t certainly expecting to see that. The screenwriters and director Mangold had a particular vision for the movie and they execute that. Wolverine is not just a “rawr I am angry and want to kill” character without any kind of pathos to set him apart from other “badass” superhero characters in movies. His character comes across very positively and I enjoyed this. The same goes for Mariko and Yukio, the latter more than the former. All through to the final act, these two characters stand tall alongside Wolverine and they have as much agency as he does, and Yukio, relatively free of social constraints, shines throughout.

However, all that said, it is in the final act that the movie starts to lose itself, and where the comic comes into its own.

In the comic, the tale of revenge and betrayal that is woven in is a much stronger story than the movie because, given the medium, it has fewer characters to worry about and thus fewer complications. The comic creates a lot of characters and none of them seem particularly frivolous or tacked on for no reason. And this was my issue with the movie in its final act, because that’s where it completely lost me.

You see, putting Wolverine in Japan has some VERY obvious results. Or it should at any rate. Wolverine fighting against ninjas/samurai. This is where the comic absolutely shines because we see this again and again, especially in the final fourth issue with a really well-executed action scene between Shingen and Wolverine. It was a near-perfect ending to all the tension that Claremont had been building until then and the pay-off is great.

The movie however fails to capture any of the same excitement. For one, the fight between Shingen and Wolverine is more of a distracting starter dish rather than a main course. Mangold tries to capture the same effect as Claremont but it fails because the script doesn’t support any of the tension between the two characters. Shingen treats Wolverine with disdain in the less than handful of scenes they are in together and overall, there is very little interaction between them. Going into the fight sequence, there’s very little tension since I haven’t been able to connect with the characters like that. I really don’t care what happens in that scene.

Trumps to Claremont for that.

Wolverine vs ShingenAnd then, the last 20 minutes or so of the movie are just ridiculous. There is a brief setup where I fully expected to see Wolverine go up against an army of ninjas, but that doesn’t happen. A big reason for this is that the movie introduces an Avengers/X-Men supervillain, Madame Viper into the mix and totally wastes the character. There’s no reason at all in the movie for her to be there. She is ridiculously tacked on and appears to be there just for the hell of it. The far-too-brief fight between Wolverine and the ninjas is resolved because of her and even then it is extremely unsatisfying.

Let me repeat, in a Wolverine-centric movie set in Japan, I want action scenes where Wolverine goes claw-to-sword against ninjas (or samurai). I don’t want to see any “cheating” where the ninjas bring down the big guy by shooting him full of poison arrows. That’s completely senseless.

And the rest that follows is even most disappointing. Honestly, the movie had been really great until this point, but it lost me in those final 20 minutes. I couldn’t take it seriously and it ruined all the enjoyment I’d been having by that point.

Conversely, as I already mentioned, the payoff in Claremont’s comic is great. There is a real definitive ending to the entire arc and it is an ending that has consequences on the characters and shows how far the characters have changed over the course of the 4 issues.

And the art in the series was quite decent. For a comic from the early 80s, the art is obviously dated, but I think it has aged decently enough. After all, Frank Miller drew the comic, with assists from Josef Rubinstein as “finisher” (that’s what the comic credits him as), Glynis Wein as colourist and Tom Orzechowski as letterer. For the most part, I liked the art. It fits the general styles of the time, although I have read only a handful of comics from those days so I can’t really say with much of an experience.

Overall, another thing I’ll credit Claremont for doing is having a good amount of Japanese dialogue in the movie. There is precious few of that in the movie. Its great that Claremont went that far to create the cultural realism and it is a strategy that worked for me so kudos to him.

Overall, I think the movie and the comic are fairly matched, although the latter wins through because it has a much more satisfactory ending. Still, the ending, or epilogue rather, for The Wolverine wasn’t all that bad, and it ended with a really great line from Yukio. Very typical of her movie version. I would love to see her come back in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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Posted on August 17, 2013, in 2013 Reading Challenge, 2013 Writing Challenge, Challenges, Comics Reviews, General, Movie Reviews, Review Central and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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