In a way, Roger Ebert helped make "The Wolverine."
"Why should I care about this guy?" the film critic asked in his review of 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the previous film starring Hugh Jackman as Marvel Comics' mutant hero with metal claws and a rapid self-healing ability. "He feels no pain and nothing can kill him," Ebert said, "so therefore he's essentially a story device for action sequences."
Director James Mangold ("Girl, Interrupted") took that to heart when prepping "The Wolverine," opening Friday as a sequel to that previous film and to the three "X-Men" movies made between 2000 and 2006. "Roger is a hero of mine, as well as a real supporter and a good friend over the years," Mangold says in a telephone interview. "He communicated with me, and I remember what he said about the first film. I think what he said was dead-on."
And so in this new film, in which Logan (aka Wolverine) goes to Japan to honor a dying man's last request, Mangold and his screenwriters removed most of that healing ability, courtesy of a villainous-mutant doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and an aged technology titan (Hal Yamanouchi) who covets it. If you prick him, this Wolverine bleeds. And bleeds. And bleeds.
"If you have a hero who can't be hurt, there's only one way to create stakes or jeopardy, and that's to put people he cares about in harm's way," Mangold observes. "And, not unlike the amnesia thing, that can get tired really fast."
By "the amnesia thing," Mangold's referring to a trope in initial screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie's early script - eventually revised by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank - in which Wolverine, suffering from memory loss, visits Japan in search of answers to his past. Aside from anything else, that was chronologically problematic: While the character did lose his memory at the end of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the events of that film take place before the events of the "X-Men" trilogy.
And besides, Mangold says, "I'm just tired of amnesia. I mean, characters who can't remember anything? There have been some excellent films about characters who can't remember who they are, but usually it's just a puzzle film. That's not my style, and I think there's so much to mine in Logan without robbing him of self-knowledge."
For one thing, there's his apparent immortality. (Although he does age, albeit slowly, in the comics, the movie characters might not yet realize this.) "What I wanted to present to the audience," Mangold says, "was, what is it like to feel a prisoner in a life you cannot escape? You accumulate pain and loss, and keep that with you as you keep on going."
Not unlike the endless struggle to bring this movie to screen. It was back in October 2010 that 20th Century Fox confirmed Darren Aronofsky, fresh off "Black Swan," as director. But he left the project five months later, saying he preferred not to be out of the country for "almost a year" working on the film, the bulk of which was eventually shot in Australia.
Fox spent two months narrowing his replacement to eight directors, including Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity"), Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day"), Justin Lin (several "Fast & the Furious" films), Gavin O'Connor ("Warrior") and Mangold, who was chosen in June 2011. Production, which had been set to begin March 2011, got pushed to October and then November. It finally commenced July 30, 2012, and wrapped in November.
Rila Fukushima remembers auditioning for her role as Yukio - a sword-slinging mutant who can foresee people's deaths - when Aronofsky was still attached. "I went to the very first casting in New York," she says, but what with all delays - including the 2011 earthquake in Japan, where a portion of the movie would be shot - "they canceled everything, and I thought the whole filming was not going to happen for a while. But a half-year later," she says, "James Mangold took over. I think he saw my old casting video and asked me to audition again."
It was worth the wait, she says, giggling. The first time she met Jackman, "it was the final audition, and after we finished a scene, he kept going. So I stayed in character and just reacted to what he was saying, like improvisation. It was challenging but so much fun, like almost arguing!" she says with a laugh. (The scene, which is in the film, has them in a car as Yukio reveals she's foreseen Wolverine's death.)
Wolverine, of course, doesn't laugh. He's too existentially anguished. And for all this movie's high-powered action scenes, including an amazing one atop a 300-mph bullet train, Mangold wanted to explore the why of that.
"What I was pitching (to the studio) was a very serious take on the film and a serious departure from what was already written," he says. "It wasn't a complete abandonment of what was there - I still love source material. But I wrote on the back of that script five words: 'Anyone I love will die.'"
And what came out of that isn't your typical superhero movie. Call it "Wolverine, Interrupted."
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Wolverine's still best at what he does
He debuted in the 1970s, and while Wolverine hasn't always smoked his trademark cigar, and while his costume has changed a time or two over the years, he'll always be, as the catchphrase goes, the best there is at what he does. Which is slicing up bad guys, though it also could mean minting money as one of Marvel Comics' most valuable franchises. Among the highlights:
Debut, "The Incredible Hulk" #180-181 (October-November 1974) Created by Bellerose artist John Romita Sr., writer-editor Roy Thomas and writer Len Wein, the scrappy super hero first appeared as a Canadian-government operative pitted against the Hulk.
"Giant-Size X-Men" #1 (July 1975) Wolverine returns as part of a revamped X-Men lineup that eventually will become one of Marvel's biggest hits.
"Wolverine" #1-4 (September-December 1982) His first solo title, this Japan-set miniseries introduced major characters and scenarios of the 2013 movie. The character has gone on to star in dozens of series, miniseries and one-shots.
Animation: "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" episode "A Fire-Star Is Born" (NBC, Sept. 25, 1982) Wolverine's first appearance in animation. In 1992, he became one of the stars of the five-season Fox Kids animated TV series "X-Men" and would go on to star or co-star in five more series.
Video games: "The Uncanny X-Men" (1989) A Nintendo adventure from publisher LJN, it marked the first of more than 25 home video games to star or co-star Wolverine.
Films. Hugh Jackman has played him in three "X-Men" movies (2000-2006), the solo "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (2009), an uncredited cameo in "X-Men: First Class" (2011) and "The Wolverine." He reprises the role in next year's "X-Men: Days of Future Past."
Has Wolverine also appeared as action figures and on trading cards, T-shirts, caps, mugs, belt buckles, earrings, key chains, backpacks, boxers and dog collars? You bet, bub.