The Wolverine Director James Mangold Says It Does Right By Women. Is He Right?
Other summer filmmakers have awkwardly shoved sex appeal into their movies by nonsensically having female characters strip while on the job, like Lady Jaye in G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Dr. Carol Marcus in Star Trek Into Darkness. (For more on this issue, I highly suggest reading Angie Han’s insightful essay.) But Mangold refuses to leer at his female leads through lingering shots of legs, ass or breasts. As to their costumes—be it Jean’s silk slip, Mariko’s conservative kimono, or Mariko’s bright red blunt cut—all are clearly intended to tell us about their characters, not used as a means to amp up the movie’s sex appeal. But there is one female character whose look screams sex. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
The fourth and final female of The Wolverine is Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who oozes sex and villainy from the moment she surfaces as the Mariko’s dying grandfather’s doctor, decked out in clothing too tight and revealing to be considered appropriate for just about any medical job short of naughty nurse. Where the other women’s sexuality is a minor element of their character (or in Yukio’s case nonexistent), Viper is a cartoonish femme fatale for whom sex is her weapon of choice. It actually feels jarring considering how reserved the rest of the movie is that Viper is so out-and-out in her sexiness and villainy, stepping up both with skimpier and more outrageous costumes with each new scene. Her look grows more and more comic book crazy, and Viper feels two-dimensional. We get it: she’s sexy and evil! What we dont really learn is why.
Sure, she meets Mangold’s charge that she’s different from the other female characters, and as one of the film’s major antagonists she’s shown to be a strong fighter and strategist. But she’s a decidedly one-note femme fatale defined solely by her wickedness and wantonness. She serves as an unwelcome reminder of how women’s sexuality can be perceived as dangerous. It’s an unfortunate contrast that makes the other females’ lack of strong sexual identities an unexpected double-edged sword, suggesting that “good” women aren’t sexually aggressive. (But come on, who didn’t love it when Jean came onto Logan?) This demonization of female lust makes for a disappointing message in a movie that otherwise has so many positives in its representation of women.
To his credit, Mangold succeeds in producing four distinct female characters in The Wolverine. And as he spromised, each is strong in either the strength of their drives or fighting skills. But when it comes to making “full-blooded” three-dimensional characters, things get sticky. He thoughtfully builds on the legacy of Jean Grey, representing her as a mix of the good Jean and the wild Phoenix. He presents a fiery and thrilling new mutant in Yukio, who can battle with the best of them while looking enviably cute. But Mariko never really evolves beyond her function as romantic interest/damsel in distress. And Viper is never fleshed out beyond being a baddie with a body. Mangold himself has commented on how it was crucial to give the film space from the franchise’s other mutants so that they could carve out a story just for Logan. Unfortunately, while Mangold offers a solid adventure for his title character and two complex female characters for this journey, he didn’t leave enough space to carve worthwhile definition into his virgin and vamp.
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