Everybody Hurts: How Wolverine’s Pain Makes Him Human
We're celebrating Logan's release (buy your tickets here!) with a week of articles celebrating our favorite savage mutant.
A lonely stretch of Canadian highway. An RV cuts through the snow banks, its destination unknown. Two passengers: a young girl, an older man. She is covered from head to toe except for a curious face watching the man with big doe eyes. He is weary, disheveled, the years showing in his stare.
She takes off her gloves, rubbing hands together for warmth. He reaches out, encouraging her to put her hands on the heater, but she flinches.
“I’m not going to hurt you, kid.”
“It’s nothing personal,” she explains. “It’s just that...when people touch my skin, something happens.”
“I don’t know...they just get hurt.”
The scene is framed within the cabin of the RV. The color grading is filtered blue and chrome, flavoring the terse dialogue with an underlying tinge of melancholy. This is a dark world. Close-ups on faces and hands, we’re there with them.
Tight on the girl’s face. A hand descends into the frame, her eyeline settling on his knuckles. The score subtly builds, Michael Kamen’s strings hinting at an ever-present danger. Shallow focus, the hand gripping a cigar coming into stark detail. “When they come out,” the focus switches back to the girl, fearful but fascinated, “does it hurt?”
“Every time,” he whispers.
This is Wolverine. But more importantly, as revealed in this exchange with Rogue in the first X-Men movie, his name is Logan. And those two whispered words are the key to understanding the character’s appeal. They’re also something, however, the comics had long strayed from by the time the movie was released in July of 2000.
In Wolverine’s early days it was established he could take a beating, and dish one out, but that he has limitations. For instance, in 1980’s X-Men #133, one of writer Chris Claremont’s most iconic moments finds the ol’ Canucklehead alone against the Hellfire Club. After being shot in the stomach he is momentarily stunned, collapsing into a pile of stacked boxes. Although he gets the upper hand with bravado, claiming, “Well, bub, Wolverine is virtually unkillable,” his thought bubble divulges vulnerability: “That was close – almost too close. If I hadn’t spun away when this guy fired, his burst would’a cut me in two ‘stead o’ simply creasin’ my side!” This is reinforced by the simple but effective inclusion in John Byrne’s artwork of a hole not just in the front but also the back of the super hero’s costume.
Compare that to Wolverine #153, released concurrently with X-Men. The third part of the “Blood Debt” storyline from writer/artist Steve Skroce, who worked on the storyboards for The Matrix trilogy, “Blood Debt” sees Wolverine return to Japan, a former stomping ground. While protecting Amiko, daughter of the fiancée he was forced to kill years before, he gets caught in a blood feud between two warring clans and encounters countless gun-toting and sword-wielding gangsters. In #153 alone he’s riddled with dozens of bullets that don’t even phase him. This is capped off in the next issue when, in the final pages, Wolverine survives an explosion that leaves his skin smoldering and adamantium-laced bone exposed. But he brushes this off, telling Amiko, “I’ll b-be fine. Let’s just…go home.”
What got lost in that 20 years between X-Men #133 and “Blood Debt” is not just a sense of danger, but of pain. The audience knows that Wolverine is a badass, but what keeps him relatable is how he deals with the damage. Not all scars are physical, and gunshot wounds and fire have to weigh on his psyche.
Grant Morrison, the mad Scotsman, understood this when he started his run on New X-Men. The first arc, “E for Extinction”, published in 2001, saw the team battling Professor Xavier’s evil twin Cassandra Nova. Among many carryovers from the first movie, including black leather costumes, is an emphasis on Wolverine’s emotional state. During a battle with Nova in #116 the skin is blasted from his arm, and although it heals by the end of the issue it takes a toll on the man. In the next issue he’s retreated into the woods, meditating for days on the injury.
Unfortunately, the movies had a similar escalation as the comics. Director Bryan Singer maintained a degree of verisimilitude with his sophomore effort X2: X-Men United (2003) by having Wolverine knocked unconscious for several minutes after being shot in the head. But by X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), he’s shrugging off the Phoenix’s telekinetic attacks that flay the skin from his bones. In The Wolverine (2013) he’s walking off atomic blasts, with the plot consequently centering on his healing abilities being severely reduced.
But again, it’s not the damage, it’s the attitude. Singer’s return with X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) sees the one-time James Howlett shot several times point blank, causing him to freeze in place as the bullets agonizingly push their way out. He tenses up, riding the moment, and then understandably lashes out in rage at his attackers. Singer may have his faults with this franchise, but he understands what makes Wolverine compelling.
He has honor. He has a tragic love story with Jean Grey, amplified by Jackman’s sex appeal. And in terms of traditional masculine role models, there is none better. But why he’s endured so long is the torturous, only hinted-at pain that he buries deep down.
Wolverine is the best there is at what he does, and what he does isn’t very nice. But the brutal irony is that in order to do so he has to let six knives stab their way out of his hands. And it hurts.