by Brett White
I had high hopes for "The Wolverine." From early on, we knew that the cast seemed pretty gender balanced, with Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Yukio (Rila Fukushima), Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) all guaranteed to play a big part in the film—heck, they all got character posters! The ratio looked good, especially compared to pretty much every other superhero film in recent memory, which usually manages to cap off the leading lady number at two, even when the male characters skyrocket into double digits.
Plus, the storyline that inspired the film was written by Chris Claremont, the guy that made the X-Franchise incredibly progressive. All of the women in the James Mangold film were there in Claremont's original story, and that guy wrote strong women. If the film managed to not stray too far from that source material, then I knew it'd be in good shape. I knew that we'd finally get a film where women played as pivotal a role—and got as much screentime—as their male cast mates.
I'm happy to report that "The Wolverine" exceeded my expectations in a big way, turning a lot of film and superhero film conventions on their head and even improved on the source material. Here are five reasons why "The Wolverine" is the most feminist superhero film in recent memory. Also, duh, SPOILERS AHEAD.
"The Wolverine" counts four women among its principal cast and five men. Compare that to "Iron Man 3" (two women, six men), "Man of Steel" (four women, eight men), "Marvel's the Avengers" (three women, nine men), and "The Dark Knight Rises" (two women, six men). On top of that, the women in the film all play different roles, none of which are interchangeable. Mariko is the burdened heiress and love interest. Yukio is the free spirited warrior. Viper is the self-described capitalist and nihilist villain. Jean Grey's memory serves as Wolverine's personified desires. They are all different, they all serve different purposes, and none of them are there primarily as Logan's lady.
I was most worried about Mariko, as she always came across as one-note in the comics; she was the woman Wolverine loved but could never be with. Here, she's presented as the impending leader of the biggest business in Asia, and that puts her in jeopardy. She's not in danger because of her feelings towards Wolverine; she's in danger because of who she is. She does fall in love with Logan, and they form a connection, but that comes in addition to her other attributes.
Aces the Bechdel Test
A film passes the Bechdel Test if it contains two named female characters talking to each other about anything other than a man. This may seem simple, but so few films pass it. "The Avengers" didn't. "Dark Knight Rises" didn't. "Iron Man 3" does—barely—but it falls prey to a trope that I'll get to in a second. This movie takes the bold move of presenting us with four female characters, two of which are not defined by Wolverine, but by each other.
Jean Grey only appears in Wolverine's head, and Viper's whole deal as the main villain (which, by the way, having a female as the main villain? That's actually progress!) is centered around Wolverine. But Mariko and Yukio are best friends with each other. In fact, I'd say that Yukio's most important relationship in the film is the one she has with Mariko. The two of them are shown talking on three separate occasions, and all three times they talk about their friendship. The thing that drives Yukio, her turning point, comes when Shingen (Mariko's bad guy father) tells her that Mariko is done with her—that she was just a toy that Mariko has outgrown. Having her relationship with her female best friend called into question drives Yukio; she only sticks around Wolverine to protect him.
Improves on the comics
I love the comics, and I love Chris Claremont. One need look no further than this article to find out just how important the guy is. But as great as Yukio and Mariko are in the comics, the film actually improves on them.
In the comics, Yukio is introduced as one of Shingen's assassins sent to kill Wolverine. She instead finds a soulmate in him and pursues a romantic relationship with him aggressively. This reads fine in the comic, and Claremont does more with Yukio that defines her outside of her infatuation with Wolverine, but if those two elements had made it into the film, then we'd have a trope-fest on our hands. In most films, women only help men because they are in love with them. Also in most films, the bad ass new female character always turns evil (see: the biggest groan inducing moments in "Iron Man 3" and "Fast & Furious 6"). Those are two things in the comics that get left out of the movie. Yukio does not turn evil, even though she is in the employ of bad guys and surrounded by corruption. Yukio defies film stereotypes by not turning evil and—most importantly—not dying.
Mariko's defining story in the comics has to be her death. She's only important to Wolverine because she died. I was convinced the movie would go this route, and we'd get another female character killed off in order to advance the plot. That doesn't happen to Mariko, and it doesn't happen to Yukio either.
A different damsel in distress
Mariko is a damsel in distress. Yes. She is literally a damsel, and she is kidnapped and rescued multiple times throughout the film. The film made one tiny tweak to the comic book character, though, and it paid off big time. They made Mariko a skilled knife fighter. That's it. She's not a ninja and she's not a mutant, but she did learn how to fight with knives and competed in some sort of competition, as revealed in a quick line (is knife-fighting a sport in Japan?). But that explains why she is able to defend herself every single time she is attacked. Instead of having her whisked away by the Yakuza, the film definitely gives you the impression that if just one attacker was coming at her, she'd be fine. It's only because there are multiple attackers that she's overpowered.
Mariko has to be damseled to progress the plot, and that's typical. But the film did not have to give us a character that has a skill and is smart. They didn't have to give her a moment where it seems like she's going to hook up with her old flame Noburo again after finding out he's in cahoots with Viper, only to have her stab him in the leg, distracting him long enough for her to go and save Wolverine.
Yeah, in this movie, both Mariko and Yukio save Wolverine almost as much as he saves them, if not more. And Wolverine still comes across as a tough guy. Take note of this, every other movie!
So the dust has settled and our hero is ready to go on his way. Where do the two female protagonists end up? Well, they aren't evil or dead, so that's a plus and a change of pace. They have to end up with the hero, right? Live happily ever after and await their wedding day? Nope. Mariko and Logan part ways because he wants to start helping people again, and she has to go run the biggest company in all of Asia. She's there on the runway, giving him a goodbye kiss in her power suit and bad ass shades. In a perfect world, she'd have a lunch meeting with Pepper Potts so the two of them can get stuff done.
And what about Yukio? Surprise, she's going along with Wolverine... but not as his girlfriend and not as his sidekick, but as his bodyguard. And while that line is kind of played as a joke, what with him having unbreakable bones and a working healing factor, there is so much truth to that line. Yukio kept him alive when he would have certainly died at the hands of Shingen. She proved herself to be a super capable fighter and trustworthy (again, she did not turn evil!). She's not his sidekick, she's his equal. She's his bodyguard.
That's what I took away from "The Wolverine," a film that had absolutely no right to be great considering what came before it, and ended up being a fantastic superhero film. Let's hope that "The Wolverine" is the first step towards real gender equality in superhero movies (you're up next, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), and then let's get those Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel films greenlit.
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