If there’s a prime architect responsible for the success of the X-Men franchise, it’s not Hugh Jackman, whose sixth go-round as the character opened last weekend. No, it’s Chris Claremont, who wrote the monthly Uncanny X-Men comic (along with many, many spinoffs) from 1975 to 1991. Claremont didn’t technically create Wolverine — that credit goes to writer Len Wein and artist John Romita — but he did, with artists like Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, flesh out a stock tough guy into a contradiction-filled man of mystery. Claremont drew up a full backstory for the character, and then meted out the slow reveals over the course of a decade and a half: Wolverine’s first name was Logan; his skeleton was laced with an indestructible metal; he had a mutant healing power; he’d fought in World War II; his father was the savage assassin Sabretooth. The new movie, The Wolverine, is based on his 1982 four-issue spinoff series that sent Logan to Japan, for which Claremont drafted then-rising-superstar artist Frank Miller. Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, asked Claremont for his thoughts on the film (for which he had no creative input or financial remuneration), and the character’s general treatment in the Fox X-Men franchise. (Spoilers follow for those who haven’t seen the film.)
How did the original Wolverine series come about?
After the San Diego Comic-Con, I had a rental car, and I was giving people a lift up to Los Angeles. Frank [Miller] foolishly came with me, and we got stuck in a tailback on I-5. I had three and a half hours to pitch him. So I did — there were other people in the car, but tough. Frank had no interest in doing Wolverine just hacking and stabbing. It’s boring, and, frankly, I had no interest in doing that because I was already doing it in The X-Men. We wanted to show an aspect of him hadn’t been seen before, and that was built around the relationship between Logan and Mariko.
The way I always describe Wolverine is, if you walked into Logan’s room at the X-Mansion, you’d be immediately struck that the room would be split almost literally in half. One would be a total shithole: clothes on the couch, beer cans wherever. This is a guy who doesn’t give a damn about anything; he just tosses it. There’s nothing sophisticated, nothing respectful; it’s altogether creepy. And then there’s the other half of the room, which is pristine, elegant, down to the bare essentials of what, for him, is life: a samurai short sword sitting on a desk, and maybe a few precious other items. You’d look at that side of the room and be instantly struck by the balance, the sensitivity. That’s the two sides of Logan. There’s the side that Sabretooth is always reaching out to and saying, “There’s no one like you except me. We should be pillaging the world because we’re predators. Why are you wasting all your time with these wimps?” And then there is the Ronin side, which wants to find a purpose greater than himself that will make him whole. And originally it was with Jean Grey, but she was spoken for. So he turned to Mariko. And that turned out to be doomed. But for me, the fun was the struggle. Logan is trying to find a better way, a way that validates the love of Jean or Mariko. A way to be the man they want — ignoring the fact, of course, that maybe the wild creature is the one they want. But he wants to make himself worthy, and he always almost gets there.
So, what did you think of the movie?
The first two acts were kick-ass, and they set this up to be a really exceptional, different movie. It was like the film took this giant step forward. I liked that it focuses on the essence of who Wolverine is and what he does. Hugh Jackman is eloquent, and he owns the character at this point. It’s a surprisingly multidimensional performance. The third act wasn’t bad, per se, but it was a different tone. That moment he starts motorcycling up the 400 kilometers … he was almost riding into a different movie. It would be interesting to talk to Mangold and ask why they felt they had to go in that direction.
Maybe it was the usual Hollywood problem of too many cooks in the kitchen.
When you’re spending $100-plus million dollars, you need to give the audience what they want. The advantage of doing a comic that, over four issues, costs maybe $25,000 to produce, is you can blindside them with something that makes them say, “Holy shit.”
I feel like everyone died three times.
Well, there is that. The end sort of turned into stuff we’ve all seen before. It just started throwing superhero tropes against the wall: the Yakuza against Wolverine, the Viper imprisoning Wolverine, the Silver Samurai cutting off Wolverine’s claws. The point is not how many artful ways can he cut someone to shish kebab. There was no moment of emotional punch to match, say, Tony Stark watching what he thinks is Pepper Potts’s death in the third Iron Man. That’s a moment. There should have been one in this, but everybody was on the sidelines. There should have been more direct involvement with Mariko. The problem with that superhero silliness, I’m sitting there thinking, What’s Viper there for? And what exactly does her venom do? People go all bubbly and collapse? I wanted a moment of choice for the characters in that scene in the castle. That sort of got lost in all the running and jumping and hitting.
It’s a perfectly fine summer movie. I went into it hoping for a lot more. This is a story that [producer] Lauren Shuler Donner has wanted to tell for sixteen years, as long as I’ve known her, and that I’ve wanted to tell a lot longer. The challenge always is, when a film goes from concept to execution, it evolves depending on who is directing and who’s writing. As the creator of source material — corporate-owned source material that’s being developed by a rival corporation, no less — I have no say.
Is it an emotional experience, watching these characters you’ve lived with for decades on a movie screen?
Oh, it’s very emotional. It’s a unique sense, when I listen to Hugh Jackman bring some of the characters’ signature lines to life. That’s incredibly cool. I can look over all the five films and see, “That’s mine, that’s mine, and that’s mine.” I wish the “Dark Phoenix” saga had been done more effectively than it was, but that was out of my hands. That, unfortunately, was a clusterfuck from the get-go.
That was X-Men: The Last Stand?
Yeah, that was Brett Ratner coming in at the last minute because Bryan [Singer] wasn’t available, and then they got Matthew Vaughn, and then he quit.
When Darren Aronofsky was attached to this film, it looked like you were going to have more of an involvement.
Christopher McQuarrie’s draft was different in certain elements from the story that Frank and I did, but it was essentially that story. When it evolved through the production process, the hope I had, especially since Darren’s office was based in Brooklyn at the time, that I could help. The fact that they asked me in to read the first draft and do meetings down the road was a step in the right direction. But then Black Swan won Oscars, made a huge amount of money, and he decided to take some time off and work on other projects. I think once everything shifted out to the West Cast, that was that. It would have been fun to see, but that’s another dimension, so c’est la vie.
One of the big changes in the script was the addition of the Silver Samurai and the Viper, who in the comics didn’t show up until the epilogue to the miniseries. And the characters in the movie are quite a bit different.
In the comic, the Silver Samurai is the bastard son of Mariko’s father. And her father, Shingen, was the actual villain, the master of the clan. And in the movie, the Shingen character is basically separated into two people — now there’s a father and a grandfather. The original story spun on the father-daughter relationship. In the film, having the grandfather be the ruler renders the father irrelevant. In the beginning of the comic, Shingen challenges Logan to a kendo duel, to demonstrate to Logan that he’s not as hot as he thinks he is, and to Mariko that Logan is not worthy of her. Wolverine says, “Okay, bub,” and — over three brilliant Frank Miller pages of the two of them going at it — the old man beats the shit out of him. That kendo match is the seminal moment of the story, because it reveals Wolverine as vulnerable, even with his claws and his healing power. It sets up the final fight, in which Wolverine kills Shingen, the father of the woman he loves, and Mariko does something unexpected, which is that she forgives him. She loves him anyway.
Did you have an interest in Japanese culture before writing the miniseries?
Sure. When I was little, I used to have nightmares about Godzilla walking out of the Great South Bay, because we had a fire alarm out where we lived that sounded just like his feet. But the samurai culture embodied all the conflicts that made Wolverine what he was. The struggle chronicled in Chushingura, and in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. In this movie, I kept waiting for Logan to start spouting perfect Japanese. He’s been to Japan before, and he’s a warrior. The first thing you do is learn the landscape and the language. In the comic, he spoke Japanese like a native — it had nothing to do with him being brilliant, but with him blending in. It also would have taken him another step away from the traditional superhero.
You told me that even though the third act didn’t work for you, you really liked the very ending.
That last scene, on the tarmac and plane, was a recovery, bringing the film back to its center — the relationships between Logan and Mariko and Yukio. Mariko is suddenly looking very chic, like she runs the roost. But what does it mean that she now runs Clan Yashida? Well, in the comic it meant one of the biggest crime syndicates in Japan. What does it mean in the movie? I don’t know, but that last scene made me want to know what happens next. And the dynamic between Logan and Yukio is even more interesting — Wolverine with a sidekick, especially one who considers herself his guardian — how’s that going to work? That’s nothing we’ve seen before. As a writer and a member of the audience sitting there, I took that moment and immediately started to play with it, to come up with an adventure in my mind, which I guess when you’re doing a franchise like this is exactly the reaction you want. I guess you go back to the old writer’s adage that when they do your stuff in Hollywood, you smile sweetly upon your credit — if there is one — and enjoy the show.
As it turned out, you didn’t get a credit in the film — not even a “special thanks” at the end. With no credit, and not seeing any money from the adaptation of your work, is it still an overall positive feeling to watch these movies?
The thing about the credit … We did this mostly for fun. It was earning a living, but we did it for fun. There are still grace notes that make you grin. In the first Wolverine movie, when he looks at Silver Fox and says [the line I wrote], “I'm the best at what I do, but what I do best isn't very nice” — at the screening, I was sitting there going, “Yesss!” and my wife is elbowing me in the hips to stop it. Those moments are cool. Or Hugh shouting out to [comics writer] Len Wein at Comic-Con, to thank him for creating the character. On the purely human side of the equation, it’s always nice to have someone say so.