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When director James Mangold was selected to direct The Wolverine, I was admittedly surprised. Sure, he had action movies like Knight and Day and 3:10 to Yuma on his résumé, but he’s also the director of the bubbly rom-com Kate & Leopold and the quintessential coming-of-age drama Girl, Interrupted. He’d made gritty action movies typically targeted at men…as well as heartfelt films clearly aimed at women. It was a filmography that made it hard to predict what he might have in store for his take on the superhero genre.
After taking a close look at the summer's women in action movies, I used a recent press conference for The Wolverine as a chance to ask Mangold about his approach to representing women in the film. His answer was thoughtful and direct:
"I didn't think about representing women per say. I just thought about strong female characters, as I have in all my movies. I didn't want women to be objects just of jeopardy, but actually full-blooded characters. And I think that each one of these ladies is actually hugely different from another. I think that was hugely important as well."
Then again, at the same press event, Hugh Jackman said that women were Wolverine's “Achille’s heel.” Either way, it means that in The Wolverine women are as crucial to defining the titular character as his adamantium claws. But does that mean they're as “full-blooded” as Mangold claimed. Are the women of Wolverine more than the objects of jeopardy or objects of lust that female characters in comics so often are? Yes! But also no.
Let’s begin by considering the character Wolverine fans are most familiar with. Jean Grey (played by Famke Janssen) has appeared in three previous X-Men movies, and here the long-dead heroine returns to Logan in his dreams, sometimes as a comfort, sometimes as a curse. It’s left up to the viewer to determine whether she’s a ghost or a figment of Logan’s guilt-ridden imagination. But whether or not she’s “real” doesn’t matter, as Mangold rejects the tempting trope to make her a two-dimensional anchor around the hero’s neck. Instead, Jean is presented as a complex character made up of love and some understandable resentment. Whether she’s a ghost or his guilt, she feels like a full-blooded ex-lover, torn between her devotion to the Logan she knew yet repulsed by the way they ended things. (You know, by him stabbing her in the heart to save the world.) Theirs may not be a typical break up, but it is one to which we can relate on some level as both characters were carefully crafted here and in their previous movies.
But Wolverine’s new love interest is less well defined. Without three past films to pull from, elegant heiress Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto) falls flat onscreen. She tells us she’s a prize-winning sword fighter, and we get to witness her battle Yakuza killers a bit. Still, her main function in the film is as Wolverine’s mellow romance object/damsel in distress. Mariko’s defining characteristic is her traditional obedience to the wishes of her father (like an arranged marriage to a sleazy political figure) and her grandfather (who bequeaths her with a company she never wanted). Despite her fighting skills, she mostly comes off as a blushing flower who needs protecting from the big bad world. While she’s not solely an object of jeopardy, it is undeniably her primary function in the film with whole sequences dedicated to Wolverine keeping her away from killers.
More complex and intriguing is another new Japanese character, Yukio (Rila Fukushima). While Mariko projects elegance and submissiveness with her soft-colored clothes and demure attitude, Yukio exudes rebellion with her no-nonsense demeanor, and funky fashion. She quickly establishes herself as Logan’s equal by showing off her cryptic mutant ability—being able to predict peoples’ deaths—and proving a stupendous fight partner in a bloody bar brawl. Later, she tells Logan with a straight face she will be his bodyguard. The movie backs up her bold claim not only with a string of jaw-dropping fight scenes that have Yukio taking down foes that are bigger, brawnier and male, but also by having Logan react with surprise but not scorn to her declaration. (After all, Logan knows better than to judge someone by their appearance.) Later, after she’s saved his life, he fights for hers, screaming at a murderous enemy, “Don’t hit my friend!”
This partner dynamic mirrored that seen in countless action duos made of up males. You save my life; I save yours—because we are partners. But more striking is Logan’s use of the gender-neutral word “friend” to describe Yukio. If he had said, “Don’t hit the girl” the implication would have been Yukio was less than him. Here, it’s clear that Logan doesn’t see Yukio as some precious thing that needs protecting (like Mariko) but as an equal whose well-being he cares for. Yukio is definitely no object of jeopardy. And as her character is suggested to be similar to Logan’s—a mutant loner who was taken in by a family she grew to care for—her characterization grows with his.
But the most groundbreaking element of Yukio’s character might be that she is allowed to be portrayed as physically strong, an intimidating fighter, while still being shown as feminine, even girly. She sports thigh high striped socks, pleated skirts, bold colors and a funky dye job. It’s a look I expect will be making regular cosplay appearances at Comic Con for years to come. But her girliness is never aligned with weakness. Moreover, it’s never exploited to make her a sex object—more remarkable considering the oh-so-prevalent Japanese schoolgirl fetish.
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 don’t 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.