Illustration: Adeline Pericart
Bam! Pow! Thwack! From masked avengers to caped crusaders, what would we do without spandex-wearing superheroes fighting crime and righting wrongs? While we mere mortals go about our daily business and sleep soundly in our beds at night, an army of superheroes are working tirelessly around the globe – but mostly in America – fighting to bring peace, justice and outside-underpants to the world.
And so, in honour of their efforts, our own band of Film Ireland superheroes assemble to dish out their own critical form of justice and wreak havok on those villians who long for a world without heroes.
Eat dust evil! Superheroes are here to stay.
‘… He bristles with the prickliness and unsociability of a reform-school inmate…’
In the great handing out of superpowers, a set of metal claws and the ability to heal seem like odd-socks, bottom-of-the-drawer leavings next to the absurd overabundance of powers bestowed on that early worm superhero Superman and the flashier attributes of other mutant members of Marvel’s X-Men series. Despite these relative disadvantages, Wolverine (A.K.A. Logan) somehow manages to stand tall amid the comic-book superheroes who have made their way into the movies.
The current cycle of comic-book-superhero films could be credited to, or blamed on, the success of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000, which removed some of the taint and anxiety surrounding the idea of translating the cheesiness of comic-book storytelling for a cinema audience. At a time when audiences were still recuperating from the day-glo assault of Joel Schumacher’s moronic Batman and Robin, X-Men offered reassurance that you didn’t have to be on Ritalin to enjoy a comic-book movie. Much of the film’s success was down to the central role of Wolverine, the ideal surrogate to lead audiences into this bizarre world of mutants fighting to coexist with or dominate mankind. In a career-making turn by Hugh Jackman, the character of Wolverine earthed the unreality of the superpowered mutants, undercutting the speechy seriousness of the cod-Malcolm-X-and-Martin-
Operating much like Han Solo in Star Wars (or Marvel’s other breakout cinematic success, Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr.), Logan is initially the sardonic voice of scepticism as we enter the larger-than-life—and annoyingly po-faced—world of comic-book superheroes. If Professor Xavier’s School for Mutants was the Ivy league for a liberal elite of goody-two-shoes A-students like Cyclops and Storm, Wolverine was a fish-out-of-water, Red State, metal-shop, average Joe fearful of where all this mushy togetherness and humanitarianism might lead. For cinema audiences unfamiliar with the Marvel comics, there was a lot of reassurance in seeing that the coolest character on screen shared your doubts about spandex, telepathy and every other fantastical part of the plot.
It wasn’t all irony and one-liners. There are facets to the character. Whereas the other X-Men are mostly as flat as the illustrated panels in comic books, Wolverine carries shades of light and dark, and some of that unknowingness that marks flesh and blood people. He has a painful past that troubles him in his sleep. He bristles with the prickliness and unsociability of a reform-school inmate. Jackman’s brooding, traumatised, yet still quippy hero is an obvious turning point marking the way back from Schumacher’s camp Batman on Ice to the gloom of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. At times, he is also reassuringly a bit of a lunkhead. He confuses “generally” and “genuinely,” and is outsmarted repeatedly by shapeshifting evil mutant Mystique, until he literally sniffs out her deceit and sinks his claws into her belly.
As is often the case in such comic-to-cinema crossovers, some details from the source material have gotten lost in translation. To the irritation of purists, Wolverine on screen isn’t the dinky five foot three inches of the comic books—Jackman is a whole foot taller—and his Canadian identity goes unmentioned as if it’s likely to drive away hordes of patriotic American cinemagoers and affect the film’s bottom line. Iconographically, we are left with his distinctive adamantium claws which shoot out at his knuckles to form foot-long blades; a haircut that is part wolfman, part Pompadour; and the most formidable set of sideburns in popular culture since Amos Brearly departed Emmerdale.
Thankfully, it’s not all about the measuring tape, Maple leaves, hair and nails. Aside from Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, no other superhero has the charisma to match Wolverine. Jackman has done a wonderful job in the role, widening the character’s popularity from a comicbook fans to the general cinema-going public: It is only well-earned audience affection that allowed him to survive the execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as idiotic a film as has ever had the misfortune to be screened publicly. Returning to the character for a tiny cameo in 2011’s X-Men First Class, he made a strong impression once again, with his one-line refusal to join young Professor X and Magneto’s nascent X-Men earning the film’s biggest laugh.
Aside from Jackman, a great deal of the credit for the successful realisation of this character onscreen must go to Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies, who forges our emotional connection to the story through the character of Wolverine. Using this device, Singer succeeds in wringing real feeling out of unreal situations. In the past few years, Singer’s reputation has suffered a little, mostly due to the perceived failure of Superman Returns, a love-letter to Richard Donner’s 1978 original. Like X-Men, Superman Returns struck a similarly tricky balance between the real and the fantastical. For some critics, the disappointment with that film centred on the lack of action and this later congealed within the fanboy community into the demand that any subsequent Superman film would need to have our hero “punch somebody,” leading directly to this summer’s woeful Man of Steel. Perhaps Zack Snyder’s blunt-force-trauma Superman movie will renew people’s appreciation for the subtleties of Bryan Singer’s talents in handling comic-book superheroes, especially Wolverine.
Though greatly burned by the unmitigated shrieking horror of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, some of us who remember the triumph of the first two X-Men films awaited this summer’s The Wolverine with cautious optimism. Even more exciting is the return of Bryan Singer to the director’s chair for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Wolverine’s mutant gift of healing has allowed the character’s appeal to survive over a decade in the harsh world of cinema, withstanding withering conditions, including the ineptitude of directors Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood and an impatient and greedy studio keen to cash in on a popular character, with scant regard for quality control. Somehow the character’s claws remain sharp. Snikt!