Just a few months ago, while laying out some of the mission statement for his upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, director James Mangold said this about his title hero's place in the world as he ages out of history: "I'm always interested in this idea of a hero at sunset. What does the hero do when the world no longer has a place for him? I find it really interesting to try to look at classical heroes through the prism of our jaundiced contemporary attitudes."
It's a statement that definitely applies to this particular iteration of Indiana Jones, but longtime Mangold fans will note that it also applies to his time with another character: Wolverine, the legendary Marvel Comics hero played on the big-screen for two decades by Hugh Jackman. Thanks to Jackman's lengthy (and, courtesy of Deadpool 3, continuing) tenure with the character, we've seen the man called Logan go through many different incarnations and take on many different struggles, but by the time Mangold got to him, "sunset" was a key theme. Wolverine (and Jackman) was aging, looking back on a life of loss and regret and violence with little stomach for superheroics anymore. That meant a chance to look inward, to get darker while never sacrificing the action movie goods, and that meant arguably the finest hours of Wolverine's movie career so far.
Before Indiana Jones, Mangold tackled Logan
Which brings us to The Wolverine, the first of two Mangold/Jackman collaborations on the character, now streaming on Peacock. Based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's Wolverine miniseries exploring the character's time and connections in Japan, the film is a sometimes sprawling, setpiece-packed journey full of major action sequences, great details from Japanese culture, and of course, memorable supervillains who create a big third-act fight scene. But as we look forward to Mangold's work on Indiana Jones at sunset, it's also worth reflecting on The Wolverine as a portrait of a hero at dusk, caught between two worlds and unsure which direction to go. That makes it a fascinating stepping stone in Mangold's career, as well as a solid superhero film that set the stage for something even better.
Mangold, and screenwriters Scott Frank and Mark Bomback, pick up on Logan in the wake of the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, in which he was forced to murder Jean Grey in order to save the world. The guilt of that act, and the trauma it continues to cause him, are ever-present in Logan's life, so much so that he's essentially taken a vow against fighting, against the kinds of heroic behavior that so defined him for so long. He's back to his drifter ways, keeping to himself this time, living out in the wilderness with the bears to keep him company. That all changes when a woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down and asks him to come to Japan to meet with an old friend, a man he saved during the atomic bomb attacks that ended World War II. That man, Ichiro Yashida, is now a super-wealthy industrialist on his deathbed, and he's ready to make an offer to Logan: Give up his healing factor, which renders him nearly impossible to kill and extremely slow to age, so that he may finally live out the rest of his life as a mortal and die in peace. Yashida will live longer, and Logan will finally be able to be free of decades of pain.
Hugh Jackman says longstanding tenure as Wolverine took a major toll on his voice
This offer, and the machinations eventually revealed behind Yashida's larger plot, forms the hinge upon which the rest of the movie pivots, as Logan is forced to confront not just his own mortality, but the idea that his inherently self-destructive way could finally pay off. He's spent years fighting, enduring wounds, drinking as much whiskey and beer as he can get his hands on, and yet he's still in a perpetual limbo, a state of decline that never seems to progress. He doesn't want the life he has anymore, but when he's offered the chance to abandon it, what does that mean in terms of the life he could have depending on the choice he makes?
To make things more interesting, Mangold and company pepper in a love story, Japanese codes of honor and duty, and a ton of superhero action, giving the film the flair and flash of a blockbuster while never losing sight of this essential choice at the core of Logan's being, and what it does to his psyche. When the film begins, he's been at the sunset of his heroic life for a long time, and he's content to keep it that way, but what happens when he's suddenly confronted with the night? Where does that leave him in terms of not just whether or not he's willing to keep fighting, but what he's willing to fight for?
These are questions that Mangold and Jackman would explore more deeply, and to greater effect, in Logan just a few years later. That film, a much more pronounced look at a declining hero truly facing mortality, is a true sunset for the character, while The Wolverine is more like a pinkening pre-dusk sky, with all the long shadows and cooler temperatures that go with that. It doesn't quite have the same emotional impact, or the same intimate approach to the character, as the film that followed it, but when viewed as part of a larger story The Wolverine is an even more rewarding journey. In the context of Logan's journey, and of Mangold's career, it's a fascinating turning point, proof of bigger things to come, and of the potential to tell more stories of heroes at sunset.
The Wolverine is now streaming on Peacock.