THE BLOG
08/20/2013 10:33 am ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013

The Wolverines' Burden: Orientalism and the Superhero

The exciting but problematic new film Wolverine opens with a bang, literally, as we watch the destruction of Nagasaki by atomic bomb. The immortal Wolverine (aka Logan) is there, not only as a witness, but as a rescuer, saving Yashida, one of his prison guards, from fiery death. But when we next see Logan it is he who is in need of rescuing. Logan has become a hermit in twenty -- first century Alaska, dogged by nightmares and seemingly incapable of facing the world.

Logan's rescue comes in the unlikely form of Yukio, a striking young women with preternatural powers straight out of anime babedom. She "persuades" Logan to accompany her back to Japan so that he can say goodbye to the terminally ill Yashida, who has become one of Japan's major technologists. But what confronts Logan in Japan is more than the death of an old friend. In a breathtaking variety of action sequences Logan must take on Japanese society with all his claws out, tearing and snarling his way through the origami complexities of Japanese culture.

I use the stereotypical word "origami" purposely here because the Japan that Logan voyages through is one long unfolding scroll of Japanese clichés. No sooner does our hero arrive in Tokyo, then he is taken to a traditional villa where we see him cooling his heels next to a stunning bonsai tree while two ninja style warriors grunt loudly in the room next to him. Then he is carried off by two kimono clad ladies into -- what else? -- a Japanese bath from which he emerges fresh and ready for battle. Or rather battles since Logan takes it upon himself to protect Yashida's daughter Mariko. In helping Mariko, Logan battles a gamut of traditional and contemporary Japanese-style enemies including Yakuza, a literally serpentine Western woman, and finally a gigantic robot that appears to have snuck in from any of the last three decades of mecha anime.

One of these fights occurs in a charming old Japanese house and garden while another takes place at a historic temple. But other fights occur in more contemporary Orientalist locations, including one truly thrilling sequence atop a speeding bullet train. And the final showdown happens in the Yashidas' glittering high-tech laboratory. As a break from all this action Logan and Mariko check into a Love Hotel, in its own way as picturesquely Japanese as the more traditional temples and gardens.

So what's wrong with scattering a few visual clichés across the screen? After all, the traditional Japanese architecture and landscapes are always appealing and the ultra modern laboratory, funky love hotel and sleek bullet train provide eye candy in a more contemporary idiom.

The problem is that the film never delves beneath the clichés to produce three-dimensional Japanese characters. Let's start with the women: initially the two Japanese female leads seem promising. They are of course exquisitely beautiful but they are also tough, smart and, in the case of Yukio, independent and skilled in the martial arts.This makes her a classic heroine out of an anime or manga but an unlikely person to encounter on the street. Mariko is even more problematic. Although we are told that Mariko is the top choice to succeed her dying father as head of their technology company, we get no sense of her as a competent businesswoman. Instead, she becomes a pawn of the various men in her life and ultimately must be saved -- by Logan, of course. American masculinity to the rescue!

Throughout the film it is Japanese men who are the villains and they run a gamut that goes beyond the typical vicious Yakuza to include traitors and corrupt perverted politicians. In one memorable scene Logan finds Mariko's treacherous fiancé, who also happens to be the Minister of Justice, stripped to his briefs in a bondage encounter. Logan promptly throws him out the window.

The message is clear: it is American masculinity that keeps the Japanese woman safe. Wait -- haven't we seen this before? Yes, but about sixty years ago. In Sayonara Marlon Brando rescues a beautiful Japanese woman. But in that case it is from the clutches of Japanese tradition and the film actually shows at least one Japanese man, interestingly enough, a kabuki actor, in a complex and sympathetic light.

It would be easy to say that Wolverine is a regression to the immediate post war period. But that would be ignoring the political and economic changes of the last half century, or even the nineteenth century imperialist fantasies embodied in Kipling's poem "The White Man's Burden." Wolverine updates and plays on these fantasies in a distinctively contemporary way.

In a sense the movie is trying to solve a problem -- the destabilization of American masculine identity, a destabilization that was signaled by 9/11 and the Middle East mire but is also deeply tied to the rise of the Asian economies. Starting with the 80's and the Japanese economic juggernaut and intensifying with the continuous rise of China, Americans have felt threatened and overwhelmed by Asian cultures that seem to do all the things we used to do, except faster, cheaper and more efficiently.

So why doesn't Logan go to China and take on the Chinese male? Several possible explanations come to mind. The box office is one. Many Hollywood action films are counting on the Chinese market and don't want to offend Chinese sensibilities. Plus, smoggy Beijing lacks the visual charm of Japanese cultural landmarks.

But a deeper reason may be found in the opening scene of the destruction of Nagasaki. In that last moment of the last truly victorious war that the United States has fought, it was clearly American power that triumphed. Logan returns to that moment in his nightmares, for indeed it is a moment of horror, but it also one of national and personal success. Logan, after all, saves Yashida, thus beginning the cycle of American masculinity rescuing the grateful Japanese, a cycle that Logan perpetuates throughout the movie.

Make no mistake; this is a fun film. But it is also a wish-fulfilling fantasy that is a bit heart breaking. If only we could be immortal like Logan and return stronger and more invincible every time, reaping the gratitude of our quaking former enemies! In defeating Asian masculinity the Wolverine ultimately rescues himself but, unfortunately for the rest of us, we can't all be superheroes.