'The Wolverine' makeover: New claws, no costume, and a less-nutty haircut

Hugh-Jackman-Wolverine.jpg

Image Credit: Fox

The clothes make the man, but in the case of Wolverine, the claws make the mutant. Hugh Jackman’s forever ferocious antihero returns to the screen July 26 with his second solo adventure, and die-hard fans will notice right away that his gleaming metal talons have gotten a makeover.

“Yes, we retooled them a little,” director James Mangold said during an interview at his offices on the Fox lot. “I found that in some of the comics illustrations that I really liked the most, they had these bevel cuts. They were faceted, that would be the best way to describe them. In the last picture, they were pretty smooth, and we decided to take it to a different direction.”

Mangold, the director of 3:10 to Yuma, Copland, and Walk the Line, was eager to bring a less theatrical appearance to the character who also goes by the name Logan. “I wanted a more real Logan,” Mangold said, “not a flashier Logan.” As part of his push, Mangold re-evaluated the arc and shape of the character’s signature weapons and went with a shape that looks more crafted for carnage.

“It’s more utilitarian,” the director said. “The cuts in the blades make them more useful, more lethal, and they also catch the light more and in interesting ways.”

The claws in the new film are the closest to the tooled look that comic book artist Frank Miller memorably used in the first solo Wolverine comic book ever published, Wolverine issue No. 1, back in September 1982. The coveted issue was the first installment of a four-issue limited series written by Chris Claremont, and it opened with Wolverine hunting a rogue bear in a frigid Canadian Rockies but soon shifts to Japan, where the loner X-Man seeks Mariko Yoshida, the woman he loves.

Those settings and characters are echoed in the new film (written by Mark Bomback and Christopher McQuarrie), although there are plenty of surprises along the way — as well as sizable additions to the plot and an expansion of character motivations. This is the sixth film to feature Jackman as Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, and he’s been filming the seventh, X-Men: Days of Future Past. That May 2014 release will tie the character with Superman, as far as number of feature film appearances, although Wolverine’s tally counts a fleeting cameo in X-Men: First Class.

Jackman’s tenure in the role is a major benefit for Mangold and allowed him to reel in the aesthetic of the character closer to the real world without risking character recognition. That’s why there’s no superhero costume for the hero and he can get away with a far tamer hairstyle than the early films. In the comics, Wolverine’s hair has at times resembled Dracula in a glam-rock phase or the black tailfins from a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado. Matching that heritage required some elaborate hairspray architecture in some previous X-Men installments, but Mangold was able to go with a shorter, less contrived version.

“I wanted to get away from that Flock of Seagulls meets the Wolfman hair,” Mangold said with a chuckle. “Hugh had worn a wig and extensions in other places and I decided that was going toward something I didn’t want. You can do things in the comics when it’s a drawing that don’t work as well on the screen in a feature film, and I wanted this movie to be Earth-bound.”

Early in the new film, the audience sees Wolverine living off the land and sharing the snowy desolation with a giant grizzly possessing dangerous claws of his own. Logan is still reeling from the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), especially the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), which left his hands covered in the blood of the woman he loved.

“Everyone is gone,” Mangold said. “They’re all dead. There’s nothing left of the academy. There’s nothing left of the X-Men. There’s nothing left of the woman he loved. He is alone. He is a guy who is unmoored and without connection. And to me, that was a really important starting point for everything.”

An unexpected message from the past takes him to Tokyo, where he meets Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto, the Ralph Lauren model, making her feature film debut) and finds a web of intrigue that pits him against hooded ninja hordes, tattooed Yakuza thugs, and a gleaming samurai of mysterious origins.

For the vast majority of the new film, there’s nothing in sight that resembles a superhero costume — not even the muted, black leather battle togs that were used in the first two Bryan Singer films (X-Men in 2000 and X2 in 2003) to sidestep the perennial Hollywood problem of putting spandex suits onscreen with more credibility than comedy.

Fans often complain about costume change to their favorite heroes but of course the “correct” version changes fan to fan depending on what era, medium and creator they consider to be the sacred standard.

Wolverine’s hair and claws — like Superman’s red “S” insignia or Batman’s cowl — have been in a state of subtle flux since their owner’s first appearance on the newsstands of America. Comic book characters are like landmark beaches with their shifting sand: They’re easily recognizable from a distance, but the closer you get, the easier it is to perceive the tidal shifts and detail flux at the granular level.

Wolverine debuted in the last panel of the last page of the September 1974 issue of The Incredible Hulk, and his retractable claws were rounded and smooth and emerged from the flat top of his fist, almost from the wrist. At the time, Wolverine’s creator, Len Wein, envisioned the claws as accessory, not anatomy — they were part of the blue gloves that the masked character wore with his yellow tights.

Marvel Comics writers and artists like Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Barry Windsor Smith, John Byrne, Larry Hama, and Bill Mantlo are among the dozens who added and subtracted key aspects to the character’s history, appearance, and personality. Those changes continue. The general legend of Wolverine’s claws as now presented: James Howlett, a.k.a. Logan, was born a mutant with heightened senses, an incredible healing ability, and (as he matured) knobby bone claws that rest in his forearm until times of distress — at which point they rip through the three fleshy gaps between his knuckles.

A secret military operation gave Logan’s claws their gleam by coating his entire skeleton with adamantium, a rare and nearly unbreakable steel alloy. It was the mutant healing factor that made the nightmarish peel-and-fuse operation possible — and thus delivered one of the more distinctive characters in superhero cinema and by far the most popular comic book character created in the past 40 years.

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