WARNING: the following interview contains SPOILERS
Last week, Hugh Jackman returned as the eternal ronin Logan for an unprecedented sixth time as The Wolverine clawed its way into theatres. In a year that saw Iron Man 3 emerge as one of the highest grossest movies of all time and Superman return to theatres to mixed – albeit very profitable – results in Man of Steel, many wondered how The Wolverine and its relatively stripped-down approach would fare against the comic book movie titans of the year.
Thankfully, it fared incredibly well. Critics have hailed The Wolverine as grand character work that is also the best comic book movie of the year and a return to form for the X-Men franchise that began the superhero film trend that has dominated Hollywood for over a decade.
Perhaps more importantly for fans however is Jackman’s performance, which finally gave audiences the Wolverine they crave and deserve – visceral, uncaged, redemptive and honourable.
Many factors play into this, from James Mangold’s inspired direction to Jackman’s undeniable prowess as an actor. But undoubtedly, one of the main reasons for The Wolverine’s triumph is the simple fact that it is grounded in a fantastic story and script.
The story, as you likely know, is based on Chris Claremont’s seminal 1982 limited series simply titled Wolverine. Much like how The Wolverine strays from the traditional conventions of the comic book movie, Claremont’s Wolverine series – with art from the equally legendary Frank Miller - was very much an anti-superhero story, more akin to a Jacobean tragedy or a Samurai tale woven by Akira Kurosawa than a traditional superhero vs. super-villain slug-fest.
Chris Claremont is revered not only for defining the modern Wolverine character, but for revitalizing the entire X-Men comic book franchise. When he was given the reigns over the X-Men in 1975, the book was a struggling title on the verge of cancellation. But over the course of a legendary 17 year stint as the writer of the Uncanny X-Men and many of its affiliate titles, Claremont turned the team into Marvel’s flagship franchise – and in the process created some of Marvel’s most enduring characters and wrote some of the greatest stories in the history of comic books.
And that is not hyperbole.
From haunting God Loves, Man Kills to the dystopia of Days of Future Past, to the galactic tragedy of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Claremont’s canon reads like a list of Marvel’s greatest works. And it has not only lasted the test of time on the page, but has transcended onto the screen as well, with X2, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine all adapting his stories to film.
The trend will continue next year with the release of the hotly anticipated X-Men: Days of Future Past, a direct adaptation of one of Claremont’s most celebrated stories.
As The Wolverine was released to theatres, I had the chance to chat with Chris Claremont about the new film and his enduring work with Logan and The X-Men.
So, how is everything going?
Good. I’m actually just staring at a picture of Karen Gillan taking off her wig at San Diego. If only Matt Whats-his-face had been there, we could have had a perfect Dr. Who-Amy Pond moment.
That would’ve been perfect.
Ah well, such is life.
So the big movie that’s on everyone’s mind right now is The Wolverine – what did you think of the film?
…..Not bad. I found myself looking at the film as a totally independent and original concept, because there’s no mention or acknowledgement of any pre-existing material relating to this movie. It is presented as all original concept from the director and screen-writers. Hugh Jackman has always acknowledged the precedents though – he’s has been and always is a class act when it comes to these sorts of things. But as far as the movie goes that’s just the movie business.
Viewing it as an original concept then, how well do you think the film tackled the character of Wolverine?
I think they tackled the character of Wolverine quite well. I think the first two acts were totally in tune with what the original concept of the story was, as was Jackman’s portrayal of Logan. Even the events of all the preceding films in the context of Jean’s death and his sense of being shattered and trying to bring himself back to the point where he can re-enter the world and return to being a hero or solider, it captured that.
For me the last minute and a half of the film with him and Yukio on the plane reached back to the film’s first two acts and tied up the whole concept in a really cool bow. I got to the end and my first reaction was “Okay, what happens next?” And I think for any audience – but especially an audience you attract to a superhero film or one with continuing adventures, like a Bond film or a Jason Bourne film – when you get to the end and you’re reaction is “Okay, what happens next?”, that’s when you achieve the pay off you need. I think that last moment with the characters validated all the promise of the first two acts.
Absolutely – for me, that feeling was high after the tease in the end.
There was a tease at the end? That’s just me being very Seguin and uncommitted about it, but the question I had about it is okay, we now have a two year gap in Logan’s life and the pick-up with Charlie and Magneto. As an audience I’m asking myself: okay, where’s Yukio? Where’s Mariko? What’s the story?
There’s a really wonderful hole that almost begs a resolution of all of the questions that were raised on the tarmac at the end of The Wolverine: does he get back together with Mariko? As head of Clan Yashida – not just as the head of industrial society – does she become the head of the preeminent Yakuza clan? You know, where do we go from here?
Looking at the film as a film, I want to see the connecting points. What happens this time next year is a whole other film and a whole other reality and we’ll see that when it gets here.
Yeah, as awesome as such a gap can be the wait to fill it for the viewer sucks a little.
It’s no more or less unsettling than you’d see with James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Harry Potter. It’s like Harry Potter 8 where you fade to black with Harry at Hogwarts, and then it’s 19 years later at King’s Cross and you’re left to wonder “Well, what’s happening in between!?” Is it just everyone goes off and gets married and lives happily ever after, or does something happen? If you take that as it rides, then you can fill in the space or not, as Disney will likely be doing with Star Wars – ad nauseum.
But with Logan, the thing that this movie did right is define the core characters in specific and positively resonant terms, so that first of all you totally bond with Hugh Jackman as Logan. You also find yourself – at least I found myself thinking – “okay, Yukio is way cool, what’s she doing next?”
And Mariko as well – in the context of the film you say to yourself “this really is a woman with whom he would fall in love with after Jean”, which is what happened in the comics. But at the same time you have seen her transition from the – if you’ll pardon the expression – virginal presentation of her in those first scenes in the house to the much more serious empress of industry that she is when they say goodbye on the tarmac. He may call her princess, but she’s a lot higher than the totem pole now. Empress would be more appropriate and she’s looking the part, in a very 21st century sort of way.
For sure. If you were to write that follow-up, what would you do?
Something really cool…..writers never give away their stories.
What you do though is you go back to the kind of conversation Frank Miller and I had that set all this in motion back in the day. And that was Frank saying “I don’t want to do a story about Wolverine hacking and slashing his way through scores of villains”. That’s boring, everybody’s done that. Been there, done that – whatever. And neither did I. And that’s why the whole essence of the comic was to take him into a world we’ve never seen him in before, define him by the terms of that world, present him with a series of challenges and right off the bat have him fail every time.
The way the first issue of that series ended with Logan meeting Mariko’s father, Shingen – captain of industry and the head of the Yakuza. Just the most dangerous guy you’ll ever know. And he’s just a man, but he says to Logan “Okay, you want to be cool? Let’s fight with bokan. You’ve got claws, big deal – let’s see how good you really are.” And the father beats the living hell out of him – he’s sitting there with a wooden sword and he’s almost beating Wolverine to death – and Logan can’t handle it, because he’s not up to the challenge. Shingen knows what the reader doesn’t know at this point: there are plenty of places and plenty of ways to hit the human body that doesn’t go near bone, and they can do tremendous damage. And if you do it fast enough and hard enough the healing factor doesn’t have the chance to kick in.
So in that fight it finally it gets to the point that out desperation the survival instinct kicks in, Logan pops the claws, and the old man just nails him. And all of that is done so Shingen can say “See, you gaijin, you couldn’t beat me as a man – you had to cheat. I’m not afraid of you because you’re not as good as me. I’m an ordinary man and I just beat the living crap out of you.” To me as a writer, and I hope to Frank as an artist, that was the seminal moment that defines the whole course of that story – it’s pitching Logan off a cliff, smashing him into the ground, dropping a Road Runner sized boulder on top of him as if he was Wile E. Coyote and waiting to see what happens next. Will he claw himself back out and find a way to save the day?
The relationships in the story were also key. The idea behind them are that Yukio is the person who accepts him as he is – much like Sabretooth is always trying to do, just get him to be the animal – while Mariko is the ideal of what he wants to be. He is a ronin at the crossroads, forced to ask himself if he has it in him to be a samurai – an honorable man worthy of the sword? Or is he just another schlep with a little talent, who’s not as good as he thinks he is? To me that was the defining element of the story, what gave it the heart on paper. That was what I was seeing in a cinematic sense for the first two acts of The Wolverine– and then it turned into an average superhero film in the third act, which was rather heartbreaking.
I’m not going to lie, I’m getting chills listening to you talk about the original Japanese saga. Where did the inspiration come from for that story? And why Japan?
I think it grew out of the fact that both Frank and I were serious fans of Kurosawa and the whole samurai esthetic. That blend of incredible violence with a culture of honor and of achievement – of finding a way to define yourself as better than you are and acknowledging that there’s always a possibility of failing, but striving none the less.
From a visual standpoint it was the ultimate fish out of water story. With Logan you want to put him in a place you’ve never seen him before. For me it’s one of the things I had wished they had done in the film a little more. If I were writing it I would have done the first third of the film with everyone just treating him like the ultimate gaijin and have him just standing there walking through it, watching, listening, observing. Have Shingen make cracks at him, let the guards make fun – because if he doesn’t speak Japanese, what’s he going to do, right? And then as he and Mariko are fleeing, and they’re checking into the love hotel and he’s asking for a room in English – my moment there would be they come in and she goes up to explain to the owner what they need and he kind of leans in and in perfect Japanese beats her to it and says we need a room. It’s a kind of throw-back to that classic Wolverine moment in Uncanny where he pops his claws for the first time and Jean looks at him with surprise and says “The claws are actually a part of you?” And he just says “yup…you never asked.” The idea is he doesn’t volunteer anything at all – you make the first move and maybe he’ll tell you. But it also says maybe there are depths and secrets to him. I mean, the idea of him speaking Japanese would hark back to that tag scene in Origins, where he’s speaking Japanese to the bar girl. He knows the language, he knows the culture. He wasn’t just stuck in a pit in Nagasaki for nothing. For Logan there should always be one more level that makes you go “Wow, what does he have up his sleeve?” For me that was another thing they missed. But the thing with the original mini-series was that it was much more intimate and personal confrontation. It was organic to the character, organic to the concept and a far more satisfying way to go than the way they went in the film. But, it’s not my $150 million.
You’ve spent decades of your life dedicated to this character. And obviously while there were many great stories, what always stood out to me about your work was the characterization. How do you get into the mode of creating, developing and re-defining characters, like you did with Logan?
Imagine a person, make that person as three-dimensional as possible and – in terms of telling a comic book story - find a way to define them as much as possible by the events of the story and the way the person will interact with those around them. The idea again going back to Logan is part of what makes him scary is the hair-trigger, but the other half is that he really isn’t a nice guy.
The example I find myself using is the whole arc of issues around Uncanny X-Men 250, where he gets crucified by The Reavers and company in Australia. And he pulls himself free, but he’s so hurt by what’s happened that he needs help. Well, Jubilee was there – but she was a kid. She was in fact younger than Kitty [Pryde] was when she got drafted into the team. But he reaches out and pulls her in – knowing that he was about to change her life forever. And knowing he would have to take responsibility for what happens to her; good, bad, or indifferent, because this is his fault. And in the overall total scheme of things what he’s doing to her is a total son-of-a-bitch thing. It’s like he’s addicting her to the superhero life – and once you’re in you can’t get out – so he has to take responsibility for whatever may happen to her down the line, up to and including her apparent transformation into a vampire, god forbid.
The point is anyone objective looking at that from the team would say “Holy, that is a horrible thing.” He knows it’s a bad thing, but he has no choice, or at least he feels he has no choice because he has to survive to warn the team of what’s coming. For me that was a defining moment – he is a hero, but that doesn’t mean he’s nice. He’s not the guy you want living next door. He’s the guy you want around when giant monsters start walking out of the pacific and are tearing the city apart. But only as a commuter. That gives you an on-going sense of conflict that will sustain a character through a host of other circumstances.
At the same time, the person he bonds to – his best friend on the team – is the most physically repulsive but the most fundamentally human of that original X-Men team: Kurt [Nightcrawler]. The only true, Christian soul on the team. For me that was always the fun dichotomy, because Wolverine was a good looking guy, but deep inside had the potential for being a monster. Kurt looked like a monster, but he was the most decent of the whole bunch. And they played off each other really well. That’s the advantage you have with Logan, he gives you a nicely grounded foundation on which to bounce off all these equally or more cool protagonists and antagonists; friends and enemies.
So next year Fox will be releasing another film based on one of your most popular stories: Days of Future Past – which is personally one of my all time favorite stories. Time travel has become a pretty common theme in science fiction, but you wrote this story before The Terminator and Back to the Future popularized it. Where did the idea for Days of Future Past come from?
John [Byrne], Weezie [Louise Simonson] and I were just kind of synergizing, and I think the way it evolved was simply by defining a moment, throwing a challenge to the X-Men in the present day, but being totally unable to know whether it worked or not – at least not until Rachel [Summers] came back years later. The whole point in that era of the series was to get on, tell your story, get off and move to the next story. There were no 5-issue arcs designed for trade paperbacking, because a) we never imagined we would have a re-print, barring a miracle that is, and b) the idea of a two-part story, a three-part if you’re pushing it…well, let’s be honest, if Stan [Lee] could tell The Coming of Galactus in two and a half issues, and have the back-half of the climactic issue be Johnny Storm going off to college, then none of the rest of us had any excuse to take any more time than that.
But the practical side of it, which was what Archie Goodwin used to tell us, was if you hit a fubar – if you come up with a story that’s a total dud – you could survive an issue or two and nobody’s going to get that bored. If it’s a five issue arc or longer, well, then you’re in trouble. So you tell your story, you have your impact, you leave your audience desperately wanting more, and you move on. That was the attitude then.
And the fun of it was with Uncanny X-Men in those days, we ended up with a circumstance where kids would queuing up in front of comic book stores the day the books were due because they didn’t want to wait the extra 24 hours out of fear that the book will sell out. When you get people lining up to buy comics, that’s the mother-load. And that was the excitement we enjoyed back in the day, and that was the commercial idea underlying both Days of Future Past and Wolverine – give them something that’s so cool, something they wouldn’t normally see, or wouldn’t expect to see in the average run of the book, and have them desperately wanting to say what happens next.
The timing of the original Days of Future Past always struck me, because it was coming off the heels of The Dark Phoenix Saga – where you killed off an original member of the X-Men [Jean Grey].
The idea is when you have a moment like that you give everyone a lucid pause to catch their breath – which for us was that two-part Wendigo story – and then give them another grand slam. My goal – my perfectly ruthless commercial goal – at the time was to tell the readers “You cannot take this book for granted. You think Dark Phoenix was a dinger? Wait ‘til you see what comes three issues down the line.” It was about keeping people interested and excited and coming back for more. And for the best and most right of reasons: they are hopefully cool stories about really great characters with whose lives the readers have bonded. If you could pull that off, you could just go to town and have a good time – which we proceeded to do for the next 15 years.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past film?
I haven’t read the screenplay or anything so I’m not making any assumptions. But Bryan Singer has a track record with the X-Men. And you’ve got one of the most power-house casts anyone could imagine in the modern era. When you think about it you have two actresses that have won a best actress Oscar, you’ve got a best supporting actress Oscar, a best supporting actor Oscar, an Olivier best actor winner, Emmy winners galore. Just in terms of powerhouse performers you can run down the list of protagonists and antagonists and you just have to say holy cow, this is a film more than worth looking forward to with enthusiasm. I don’t base my presumptions on internet rumours, primarily because I’ve seen many of them blow up in your face. From what little I know in terms of what Bryan’s doing and what Laura Schumer Donner has brought on the project I would suspect that the film is going to be really really really cool. You’ve got Sir Ian McKellen, but you’ve also got Michael Fassbender playing both hands of Magneto – that’s not so bad. You’ve got both hands of Charlie, young and old. You’ve got a really cool Mystique. And you’ll see Sentinels galore. Like I said, we’ll know this time next year.
They had a big presentation with the cast at the San Diego Comicon, and I suspect there might be something in New York in October. The only quibble I would have made – but I would suspect it would confuse far too many people – would be that if they’re working on the premise that was hinted at the end of X3, where Moira was working in her lab and this comatose figure calls out to her and says “Moira its Charles”, I was thinking if he’s got a new body that conspicuously looks like Patrick Stewart, maybe he could walk now? That would’ve been fun if Logan turns around, sees Magneto and Magneto looks up while he realizes everyone is frozen and he turns around and in walks Charlie, or he’s just standing there. Is he a physical person or a mental image? For me that would’ve been a cool got ya. But that’s just me.
Well, yours is an informed opinion.
Eh, not really. Not when it comes to movies. I’m just another guy sitting in the cheap seats like everyone else. But for me the cool thing would’ve been how do you confound expectation? Again, stepping back to The Wolverine – the way I found it working…what I found was so enticing about it watching the first two acts was the whole fish out of water sense, where Logan finds himself in a world that is defined by rules totally different by what he’s been used to, and realities that are different and having to cope. Again, very much the fish out of water – and what will happen as a result. And to me that’s the essence of drama – that’s what makes everything work and everything cool. But again, we’ll see in a year.
This article was first posted on July 28, 2013