We’ve brought the Bechdel Test up a lot lately, but in a summer movie season that offers so little screen representation for women, can you blame us? A refresher, if you’ve forgotten: As coined by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a movie passes the Bechdel Test if it has at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man. It seems like a simple test to ace, and yet it’s more than summer movies like The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Monsters University could manage, which makes last weekend’s The Wolverine a rare bright spot: Here’s a big action movie that passes the Bechdel Test early and often, with four lead roles for women. “It’s startling to me because the test is so easy to pass,” notes The Wolverine director James Mangold, who says of his movie’s women, “They all have missions. They all have jobs to do other then be the object of affection.”
The Wolverine picks up where X-Men: The Last Stand left off, as Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is so bereft at the loss of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that he forsakes his comic-book code name, going simply by Logan and living off the wilderness. Eventually, he’s lured to Japan, where the claws come out in a story line centering around three women: Mariko (Tao Okamoto), a young woman poised to inherit her grandfather’s megabusiness; the fierce Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a lightning-fast fighter and Logan’s self-appointed boydguard; and the villainous Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who plots to remove Logan’s self-healing powers. All the while, Logan sees visions of the departed Jean; though dead, she’s still a principal character here.
“Logan is retreating from all intimacy and is grieving for the death of the great woman in his life, so the idea of surrounding him with an incredibly interesting spectrum of strong females — this idea that almost everyone besides him in the film is female — was a real inspiration for this movie,” says Mangold. “I love the idea that structurally, this is Logan’s 8 1/2. It’s a very strong tableau of women — women with dark agendas, women with self-destructive agendas, women with protective agendas, dead women, alive women — who each are playing a different role.”
Aside from Jean, who appears only to Logan, the other three women interact with each other, too: Mariko and Yukio are childhood friends who share a special, specific bond, while Viper and Yukio duke it out in one of the movie’s biggest fight scenes. (Yukio crosses swords with plenty of men, too.) Even near the end of the movie, when the biggest bad guys each get their comeuppance, the finishing blow is most often delivered by a woman.
“I think that the role of a woman in action pictures as an object of jeopardy is a little worn out,” says Mangold. “If anything, it’s Logan in the movie that is a little more in jeopardy than anyone else.”
That said, Mangold does concede that Okamoto’s Mariko is something of a damsel in distress — though with a twist. “If anyone teeters closer to being the Grace Kelly of the movie, it would be Tao in this role, as she does play a figure of attraction for Logan, but I also wanted that to come from mystery and darkness as much as just beauty,” says the director. Even when abducted, Mariko physically fights back against her captors, and Mangold notes, “In Mariko I agree that we gave her fight, but we also gave her a sense of darkness, a sense of a shadow in her life. One of the things I really love about Tao’s performance in the movie is that there is a kind of unfolding. She starts almost like an objectified female in the movie, or a woman in distress, and as Logan travels with her, she keeps unfolding. I love that the audience starts to find more and more inside this guarded personality as the movie goes on. There is a toughness to her and there is also a femininity in her.”
According to Mangold, that darkness is something he had to fight to keep. “One of the notes I got early on for this script that I pretty much ignored was about Mariko, because she is kind of aloof at the front end of the movie,” he says. “There was an anxiety about ‘Why is Logan going to help her?’ But I don’t think she has to show a certain kind of classical niceness to warrant her life being saved by Logan. I think Logan awards us a special opportunity, because he is so gruff himself that he may be more attracted to a person who is profoundly guarded than a person who is wearing it all on their sleeve.”
Continues Mangold, “I think the trickiest thing is the idea of ‘likability,’ which is a very interesting and often-used industry parlance about a character. I think that there is sometimes an anxiety on the part of studio executives that a female character has to pass a higher threshold of likability than the men do. That, I think, is a reflection of our real world: Aggressive men are thought of as ‘agenda-oriented,’ and aggressive women can be labeled ‘bitches.’ On the studio side, there is a concern that if there is too much darkness in your female characters, or a kind of mixed agenda, the audience may reject them. It’s something that is a double standard in our society still. It’s a challenge for people making narratives of any kind to push against.”
Mangold credits comic-book writer Chris Claremont with introducing most of his movie’s female characters — “Yukio, Mariko, and Viper are all present in the comic books” — but allows that the other comic books mined for summer-movie source material aren’t always as advanced. “The giant superhero brands that exist in this world have emerged from a world of comic books that were written mainly for men about men,” he says. “Most of the golden age heroes of both Marvel and DC are guys, and I think that goes all the way back to King Arthur and Prince Valiant. That’s true of Westerns, too, or samurai films. I think as you go back to these forms and make a new superhero film or a new Western, it dawns on you that this is one of the very important ways you can update the narrative. You become aware that the architecture of these universes was created at a time when the female characters were more objectified and made less demands on the narrative with their own objectives, their own needs, their own lives — and that was the style in that day.”
Ultimately, Mangold says that including more women in summer movies is a win-win: Not only does it reflect the real world, but the presence of women can make the male characters more dynamic, too. “Hugh will always say that Logan’s weakness and strength is women, but I also think that innately, the questions his character always asks are about masculinity,” says Mangold. “Those questions about rage, about strength, about right and wrong, about when we fight, about when we withdraw, about the willingness to love … all of these questions are embodied within that character, and giving him strong people to play off of that and make demands on him? It makes things much more interesting.”