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.