August 1, 2013 Superheroes Never Die Young
Best thing to be said about The Wolverine came out of my daughter’s mouth in the parking lot afterwards: “I forgot I like superhero movies. I always think they’re going to be stupid. But that was good. I want to be a superhero!”
She’s sixteen. She also did a good parody of Hugh Jackman’s lumbering walk as we looked for our car.
My twelve-year-old son said afterwards (SPOILER ALERT!): “That was Magneto? He’s really old.” Sadly the warmest reviews praise the two-minute preview bit during the ending credits. Which can’t be that much of a surprise since there are X-Men 2015 posters all over the lobby.
The reviews also said (I skimmed a lot while deciding whether I could subject my family to yet another superhero movie this summer) the train scene was really cool. I’m apparently one of the few people in the U.S. who saw The Lone Ranger and so could live longer than the semi-immortal Wolverine and never want to watch two guys fighting on top of a train ever again. I felt that way after Skyfall as well. Hell, I felt that way after Spider-Man 2. But don’t worry, this time it’s a bullet train, which not only changes the physics in a fun way, it means the scene is short.
Even my wife (she sat through The Long Ranger too) liked the train, but not as much as the clothes. They were beautiful, she said. Except Hugh Jackman’s. He wanders the whole movie dressed like a lumberjack. Which is loads better than the leather and/or spandex outfits all other superhero movies require their leads to shimmy into at least once in the third act. It’s literally a surface change, but it says a lot about the deeper structure of the film.
With one or two gratuitous exceptions, director James Mangold allows very few superpowers room to fly. Sure, masked ninjas are kinda the same thing, but it’s okay because we’re in Japan. Since the bad guys zapped his mutant healing, Jackman spends this round closer to a garden variety martial arts pro than the Man of Adamantine. Think 007 if Q could figure out the claw-popping tech. He also apparently has a license to kill. People got quite bent about Superman snapping poor General Zod’s neck earlier this summer, but Wolverine slices up two hours worth of bloodless PG-13 bad guys without a moral shrug.
But despite such stalwart formula-bending, the film still operates wholly within superhero movie expectations. More specifically, superhero movie 2 expectations. Somewhere in Hollywood it is written that in his second film the hero will temporarily relinquish his accursed powers in an attempt to live a more human life only to learn the noble necessity of his lonely plight and renew his do-gooding mission. See the above mentioned Spider-Man 2. And Superman II. Christopher Nolan shook things up by yanking Christian Bale’s bat tights off at the start of his third movie, and the Fantastic Four franchise crammed the Thing’s arc into that unfortunate first flick. I’d call it a Last Temptation of Christ thing, but I’m on vacation and so not in the mood for the analysis of bloated superhero-as-savior imagery.
I should probably also mention that the Wolverine screenplay is based on a 1982 comic book by Chris Claremont, but I never read it. I was suffering my brief, too-cool-for-comics phase in junior high. Though I do remember seeing the cover and thinking, “Really? Wolverine gets his own series? Aren’t they milking that a little thin?” Which explains why no one in Hollywood ever phones me for advice.
If you count his cameo in X-Men: First Class, Jackman has played Wolverine in six movies, the seventh currently in production. He was 31 when X-Men premiered and 44 now. Though his anti-aging mutant powers are way way better than mine, Hugh is not that spry young thing he once was. That massive musculature looks like the product of lots and lots of effort—not the ole born-that-way mutant privilege.
And that’s true of the superhero movie in general. It’s working really really hard to maintain its supremacy, but the skin pulled over all that muscle is looking a bit grizzled. As my son would say, “He’s old.” Fortunately for every Toby Maguire there’s an Andrew Garfield, and a Henry Cavill for every Christopher Reeve. Who do you think will be playing Wolverine when my son takes his twelve-year-old to X-Men XX?