This article was first published on Damaris's Culturewatch website.
© Tony Watkins, 2009
Hugh Jackman’s return to the role which transformed him into a superstar is a shrewd way of continuing the X-Men franchise. His portrayal of the rage-filled mutant was a key factor in the success of the earlier trilogy of films, so going back to look at the origins of his character is a sure-fire way of creating a film with huge appeal for X-Men fans. Jackman is a fine actor who takes all his roles seriously, but none more so than that of Wolverine. For this film, Jackman also became one of the producers and insisted that they should exceed all expectations. He certainly threw himself into very strenuous physical preparation. ‘I wanted Logan to look animalistic, veins popping out, and coiled like a spring,’ he says. ‘I wanted audiences to say, “Okay, this guy is frightening; this guy could easily rip someone’s head off.”’
To create a truly compelling film, however, requires more than a strong lead; it also needs a good plot and a good director. Wolverine scores well on both counts. It’s an emotionally engaging story of Logan’s violent past, his attempt to discover solace in love and his quest for revenge after experiencing immense tragedy. All of which is put together extremely well by South African director Gavin Hood, who made his name with the brilliant, Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005). It was seeing this film that convinced Jackman that Hood was the right man for the job, because ‘The character Tsotsi was at war with himself, just like Wolverine is. I got carried away by Tsotsi’s story, and by Gavin’s instinct for character and story.’ Hood uses the same metaphor when he talks about the heart of Wolverine: ‘The core idea of the film is that it’s about someone who is not comfortable with who he is, who’s at war with his own nature. That’s an interesting character to explore. The theme of being at war with one’s own nature, fuels and energizes the film so it becomes more than just action for its own sake.’
We first meet Wolverine as a young boy, James, in 1845. When the man he believes to be his father is shot, his grief and anger trigger the first appearance of his amazing retracting claws. He hurls himself at the murderer and drives the claws deep into his chest, but with his last words the man tells James that he is his real father. James flees into the night, but is quickly caught by Victor, who James now realises is his older half-brother. Victor, who is also a mutant, tells James that, ‘He deserved it,’ and that the two of them should keep on running and not look back.
The two brothers never do look back, but stay together and go on to fight side by side in the American Civil War, both World Wars and Vietnam. By now, Victor (Liev Schreiber) has developed a blood lust, which leads to both men facing a firing squad. But the brothers are near indestructible, and a short time later they are visited by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston) who asks them ‘Are you boys tired of running? Tired of denying your true nature?’ He offers them the chance to join a special unit and ‘really serve’ their country. The unit is composed of mutants under the command of Stryker. But before long, James (now also known as Logan) has had enough of Stryker’s methods and Victor’s bloodlust, and he leaves the unit, later settling in a remote part of Canada with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Eventually his past catches up with him, and he exchanges tranquility for trauma, romance for rage – and his bone skeleton for one of adamantium in Stryker’s hideous ‘Weapon X’ experiment.
Central to the character of Logan/Wolverine is, as Hugh Jackman and Gavin Hood say, the ‘war within his own nature’. His past is a violent one, from the time he killed his father and on through four major wars, and the early part of the film shows him beginning to struggle with this. After some years of being settled with Kayla Stryker turns up unexpectedly. Kayla asks Logan why Stryker has found him after so long. ‘I’m the best at what I do,’ he replies. ‘But what I do isn’t very nice.’ Kayla insists, ‘You’re not an animal, Logan. What you have is a gift.’ Violence is an integral part of him, but he’s not comfortable with it. It’s not a gift he wants because of what it leads to. ‘You can give a gift back,’ he complains, but Kayla seems to believe he can choose how he uses it. Jackman remarks, ‘She leads him to think differently about the conflict of being human and being a mutant. Their relationship leads him to try and heal old wounds, and experience the consequences and risks of love.’
The tension he feels is expressed as a conflict between animal nature and some higher nature. The animal part is the ferocity which is unleashed when his anger is given free reign. But after some years of living in the wilderness, it is clear that he wants to embrace a life of peace. He is woken in the night by terrible memories, but he wants his savagery to be in the past. Stryker and Victor don’t think he can turn his back on it: Stryker because he wants Logan to become the indestructible Weapon X; Victor because he has so wholeheartedly embraced the brutishness of his animal nature that he believes Logan is denying his true self. ‘When are you going to figure it out?’ Victor asks his brother. ‘You’re nothing like them.’ ‘I’m nothing like you,’ Logan retorts, but Victor replies, ‘Sure you are. You just don’t know it yet.’ Later, when Logan has vowed to take revenge on Victor for destroying his happiness, Stryker tells him, ‘To beat Victor, you’re going to have to embrace the other side of you. Become the animal.’ Logan is so consumed with lust for revenge that he does exactly this, and it’s not long before he threatens Stryker with the words, ‘You wanted the animal, Colonel. You got it.’
Before he embraces the feral side of his nature, while he and Kayla are still enjoying their rural idyll, she tells him an old myth about how the moon’s lover in the spirit realm was tricked into going to earth where he was trapped. ‘When you leave the spirit world,’ she explains, ‘you can never go back.’ It seems that she is telling Logan about his own fate, not just telling a story. And indeed, it is not long before his peace is shattered forever, along with his chance for finding some redemption. This is the second explicit reference to the impossibility of going back. Certainly there is no return to an earlier state of affairs, but that is not to say that future is wholly determined by the past. The most positive characters in the film clearly believe that Logan has a choice. After escaping from Stryker’s base, Logan takes refuge in a barn where is found and helped by the farmer and his wife. ‘You like a man fixing to do a bad thing,’ says the old man. ‘You know what happens to people who go looking for blood? They find it. We all got a choice.’ ‘Yeah, well mine got taken,’ replied Logan. But he does still have a choice, and much later we see him exercise it. He is immensely strong, virtually indestructible and able to unleash astonishing violence, but he is not condemned to kill. Kayla, too, despite telling her tale about not going back, is insistent that he is not an animal, which implies he can choose how to use his abilities. Towards the end of the film, he is again told, ‘You’re not an animal,’ and at last it seems that he begins to realise that, while he cannot go back, he does not need to go on in the same way. His final words in the film are, ‘I’ll find my own way,’ perhaps suggesting that he is choosing his destiny.
We all have the same kind of choice as Logan: we can allow ourselves to become consumed with anger towards others or we can show mercy. Once we give in to violence, it begins to overpower us and consume us until, as Victor has found, the patterns of behaviour become so ingrained that escaping them is unthinkable. Physical violence is not the issue for the vast majority of us, but we still must choose how we relate to those around us. Do we respond with anger when someone hurts us, or pushes ahead of us? Do we have sharp tongues, expressing the bitterness that drives us? Or do we hold back, pursuing peace and working at harmony? By the end of the film, Logan is still far from the latter approach, but he has discovered that the first doesn’t resolve anything. Seeking revenge makes us as bad as the person who first wronged us. This is why Jesus taught the importance of turning the other cheek and going the extra mile: the way to deal with evil behaviour is not by meeting it on its own terms, but by transcending it and embracing the way of peace. Jesus, the Son of God, is the ultimate example of this, even going to his death meekly, without summoning the legions of angels who could have rescued him and wreaked vengeance on those who were out to kill him. Stryker tells Logan that, to make him an indestructible killing machine, ‘we first have to destroy you.’ It is similar, in one sense, but diametrically opposite in another, to what happened at the cross: Jesus allowed himself to be destroyed, taking on himself the destruction that his enemies (and all of us) deserved. He returned from death so that death no longer has any power over him. But not so that he could, in turn, destroy those who had used violence against him, but, in part, as a demonstration that the way of peace, his self-sacrifice, had triumphed over violence. God’s way is not the way of revenge, though there will come a day when those who persist in opposing him will face his judgment. Logan tells his friend John Wraith (Will.I.Am) that, ‘There’s no redemption where I’m going.’ By the end, there is a glimmer of hope that he could one day find it. But the death and resurrection of Jesus is precisely what makes redemption possible in the real world. Once we have embraced it, we still feel the struggle within us – if anything we feel the war between two natures in a new way – but the difference is now that God is at work within us, empowering us to choose the right and gradually transforming us to be more and more like his Son. And from that, there is no way back.