'The Wolverine': New film cuts deep into Hugh Jackman hero
Maybe you can’t kill Wolverine, but you can certainly make him suffer.
Hugh Jackman’s return as Logan the adamantium-clawed hero in The Wolverine (due July 26) takes place in Japan. And it follows the cues of a beloved comics series from 1982, created by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, which explored the invincible hero’s tangled loyalties and alliances.
If Logan does have a weak spot to explore, it may be his heart. The story involves complicated relationships between him and Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a female ninja who works for crime boss Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who … happens to be the father of Wolverine’s other love, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Also in the mix is Viper (rumored to be played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), a female villain who has another love-hate relationship with Wolverine.
Director James Mangold talked with EW’s CapeTown about fidelity to the beloved source material, and trying to find a way to turn Wolverine’s invincibility against him.
How closely do you follow the Claremont/Miller comic book series that inspired this movie? Sampling the vibe and some images?
It’s definitely more. A lot of that story and a lot of beats from that saga are in there — and a lot of characters. Without being religious about it, I think it’s a very admiring adaptation. Obviously when you’re adapting anything you make some changes. But all the characters are there – Yukio, Viper, Mariko, Shingen, and Logan obviously. The whole cast of characters that exist in that world exists in our film.
Chronologically, this follows all the other movies featuring Wolverine. But the sense I’m getting is that you’re trying to reboot the character a little.
It’s set after X-Men 3, but I wouldn’t call it a sequel to X-Men 3. You have a choice the second you enter a world like this with a huge amount of comic books, backstories, three movies, a Wolverine origins movie … You have decide where you’re going to exist in relation to all these other things, particularly if you’re working with an actor who actually played the character in other films.
So why did you choose to set yours after all those others?
Because of some of the themes in the Claremont/Miller saga. I felt it was really important to find Logan at a moment where he was stripped clean of his duties to the X-Men, his other allegiances, and even stripped clean of his own sense of purpose. I was fascinated with the idea of portraying Logan as a ronin – the definition of which is a samurai without a master, without a purpose. Kind of a soldier who is cut loose. War is over. What does he do? What does he face? What does he believe anymore? Who are his friends? What is his reason for being here anymore? I think those questions are especially interesting when you’re dealing with a character who is essentially immortal.
Then it was important for him to have that baggage from the previous movies?
It was only to my advantage to set it after the X-Men films because the X-Men had effectively ended at that point. A lot of the key characters had died. There was a sense if I’m locating this film not five minutes after the other movie, but a period of time after that last X-Men movie, I can find a Logan who is living separate from the world. He is no longer a member of some superhero team.
There’s also less certainty about how things turn out for him, which is something you don’t get when a film is a prequel.
I felt the most liberating thing about coming after the other movies is you don’t have to hand it off or end it in some way that meets up with a previous film. For creative freedom, I didn’t want to have to, essentially, land this film in Wichita because that’s where the next one takes off from. It helped me to be really free, and in some ways be more loyal to Claremont/Miller, without having to be tied to other films.
Your other credits include Walk the Line, Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted. You’ve done action in movies like 3:10 to Yuma and Knight & Day, but you’re not known as a fantasy filmmaker. What got you the job of directing The Wolverine when Darren Aronofsky dropped out?
I couldn’t tell you why they hired me, but I can tell you why I wanted it. I have a long friendship with Hugh Jackman. [They made the 2001 romantic comedy Kate & Leopold together.] And I’m a huge comic book collector. When I was a kid, I had both Marvel and DC. I was my own librarian. I made card files. I had origin stories of all the characters, and cross-referenced when they appeared in other comic books. I was full on.
So you’ve just been waiting for your chance?
For me, watching this decade of superhero films and having not participated while I was making other movies, what was interesting to me – and it had not been done, with a few exceptions – was to be free to tell a real story of an immortal character. Too often these films are burdened with origin stories that produce a very unwieldy script, because you spend half the film creating the character and then you only have half the film to then tell a story about the character. When stepping into a franchise, one of the scary things – for a person in my position – is that it’s like directing the fourth episode of a TV series, and everything is on autopilot. They’re doing what they’re going to do, and what are you really going to bring to it?
And how did you break that mentality and do your own thing?
Because of my bond with Hugh, because of the amount we talked about it, I very much knew what I was bringing to it, and that he was amenable, and that the gigantic change of scenery – which Japan offers – gave us a kind of license to make the tone we wanted, as opposed to continuing another tone that may have existed. For me, the tremendous advantage and attraction of this material was working with an actor I admire. I felt we could both make demands on each other and take it someplace the other hasn’t gone.
Are there any other pitfalls you feel comic book movies fall into?
A fantasy film is often improved by some kind of human reality. What makes them hard to sit through is that the modern-day tentpole film has become a lot of fast cutting and an incredible amount of money spent generating effects. What are we left with? We’re left with what we see – a kind of inundation, a head-banging barrage in which they keep turning the volume up on the mix, and flying things at you faster in the hope that it keeps you in your seat. For me, the idea of making a film with hardcore action, with physical action like I grew up reading in the comic books, but also with a heart – and this character has great heart – to me, it’s no different from making a western. Or a cop film.
Next Page: Finding the source of Wolverine’s despair …
There are a lot of rumors about possible X-Men characters turning up in this film. I’m going to let you off the hook there because we actually don’t want to spoil such surprises. But for those unfamiliar with the Claremont/Miller books, can you tell us what is in the film that brings Logan to Japan?
An old friendship. What brings him there is an old ally in Japan. We find Logan in a moment of tremendous disillusionment. We find him estranged. One of the models I used working on the film was The Outlaw Josey Wales. You find Logan and his love is gone, his mentors are gone, many of his friends are gone, his own sense of purpose – what am I doing, why do I bother – and his exhaustion is high. He has lived a long time, and he’s tired. He’s tired of the pain.
Sounds like you’re leaning hard on the despair of this character.
What I wrote on the back of the script when I first read it was “Everyone I love will die.” The story I’ve been telling, he enters it believing that. Therefore he’s living in a kind of isolation. He gets drawn to Japan by an old friendship and then finds himself in a labyrinth of deceit, caught up in the agendas of mobsters, of wealth, and other powers we come to understand.
Is there anything about the earlier Wolverine films that you want to avoid?
What I felt like I hadn’t seen as a comic book fan, was I felt I hadn’t seen Logan and his rage. That sense of darkness. Without getting into the  Wolverine movie, which is an origin story, with the X-Men movies he’s part of a team, so he gets little scenelets, but they’re essentially team movies. The liberty I have making a film like this is I can find him. I’m not cutting away to catch you up on any of the Thunderbird team members. It’s his emotional experience, his trajectory, his sense of loss, and his own ambivalence about his powers and talents.
You mentioned The Outlaw Josey Wales – one of my favorites – but I was also thinking of First Blood when you describe him alone, looking for a lost friend. The original Rambo was also a warrior who is lost, without a country.
You could say that. That sense of simplicity of story. There is a labyrinth of intrigue he enters, but the story is very simple, which is protecting those he loves from the kind of doom that seems to surround him. That’s a lot of what I’m really interested in.
You also talk a lot about his mutation – which is the power to heal instantly. That’s how it’s usually described, but you call it full-on immortality.
The thing Hugh and I try to explore in this one is the most interesting aspect of the character — the never-ending nature of his life. His immortality. The fact he can heal from anything. That is a kind of dream for us mere mortals. But it’s interesting to explore what a curse that is. Isaac Asimov did in The Bicentennial Man, a very different story, but a great story about a robot with a soul who has to watch as everyone he loves, including the woman he loves, grows up and dies – and he must go on for infinity missing her.
True, Logan can heal — but he still feels the pain.
That to me is so interesting, the pain. I mean, Wings of Desire – all sorts of great films have been made about what it is to live on the edge of humanity, watching humanity, but not being able to fully participate – because you’re forever.
For more on movies