What’s a roughneck, rage-prone Canadian superhero doing kicking around eminently cultured Japan? “The Wolverine” will offer some answers when it hits theaters on Friday, as Hugh Jackman returns yet again as the “X-Men” fan favorite, a.k.a. Logan. Incredibly, the Australian star is now a seven-time veteran of the role, if you include next year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and his wry, three-word cameo in “X-Men: First Class.” There’s also the obvious reasoning that if the X-franchise is getting stale — some snarked that the disappointing “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) felt like “X-Men 4” — maybe dropping the lead into a fresh setting can help. The recent Blu-ray reissue of another franchise with an Aussie pedigree reminds us how spectacularly a bold scenery change can work: Mel Gibson’s “Mad Max” exploits got a wild, post-apocalyptic makeover for “The Road Warrior,” and a global sensation was born.
The principal explanation for the new movie’s Asian fusion, though, lies with a three-decade-old comics story line that’s required reading for Wolverine obsessives, even if the studio hype machine isn’t particularly pushing the connection.
Published in 1982, Marvel Comics’ four-issue miniseries “Wolverine” marked the character’s first solo outing — and detailed Logan’s surprising affinity for Japan, where he journeys to unravel a noirish mystery involving his comics soulmate, Mariko. The series was scripted by Chris Claremont, the writer arguably most responsible for setting the X-Men on the road to eventual marquee status. The artist was Frank Miller, who’d later achieve mainstream recognition as creator of “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” “Sin City,” and “300.”
In an essay for a “Wolverine” collected edition, Claremont recalled cooking up the story with Miller during a long drive back from appearing at Comic-Con, in San Diego — still a cult-level affair back in those days. (How times change — now they could probably just hitch a ride on some studio’s private jet, and reach their destination before you could say “brainstorm.”) First introduced in 1974, Wolverine had an unfamiliar berserker edginess that made him a breakout hit with “X-Men” readers. But Claremont itched to try something different with the mutant hero: casting him as a failed samurai. For samurai, Claremont wrote, “every facet, every moment of their lives, is absolutely under control. Wolverine, however, is almost a primal life force, totally beyond control, as graceless as can be.” He’d be a walking juxtaposition, struggling to keep those adamantium claws in check and conduct himself by an ancient code of honor.
You’d imagine that Miller was doing more than just listening to this, nodding, and taking notes. The rising artist had already displayed something of a fixation on ninja mystique in his breakout work on Marvel’s “Daredevil,” establishing that the hero had been trained by a sensei, and giving him a torturous love interest in ninja-schooled Elektra. (Recall Jennifer Garner’s 2005 “Elektra” flick — or not.) Post-“Wolverine,” Miller would ramp up for “The Dark Knight Returns” with his cyberpunk series “Ronin,” about the trippy psychic link between a feudal Japanese warrior and a limbless boy in dystopian New York. And naturally, some ninja fetishizing finds its way into the freewheeling depravity of “Sin City,” including the 2005 screen adaptation and a sequel due next year, both co-directed by Miller.
This certainly isn’t the only time comic creators have forcefully molded a superhero to accommodate personal predilections. One of the top-selling Spider-Man comics in history was the 1990 debut of a series launched as a showcase for star artist Todd McFarlane — whose horror sensibility felt clumsily grafted onto the web-slinger, never mind those 2.35 million copies sold. (McFarlane would find a better fit in “Spawn,” and as a manufacturer of tie-in toys for “The Walking Dead,” among others.) In the late ’70s, Claremont and celebrated, Alberta-raised “X-Men” artist John Byrne created an entire troop of Canadian heroes as another part of Wolverine’s back story. Truth, justice, and, um, the Canadian way? But “Wolverine” is unique in how thoroughly its characterization curveball has been embraced. However unexpectedly, it’s a chapter as essential to the hero’s story as the sinister genetic experiments moviegoers saw him endure in “X2” and “Origins” (scenes adapted from another print story line, “Weapon X”).
There’s a sense that Jackman realized quite some time ago that Japan was territory he was destined to cover. In an interview for the trilogy-capping “X-Men: The Last Stand,” he recalled a conversation with a crew member eager for him to tweak the street-fighting moves he’d already spent two movies perfecting. “I looked at him like, ‘Huh? I’ve sort of worked out a style,’” Jackman said. “And [then] he showed me images from the comic of Wolverine doing all this samurai stuff.” Welcome to Nippon, Logan-san.