Review: Wolverines, Saberteeth, X-Men and Origins

Reviews for the just-released X-Men Origins: Wolverine can be found all over the net, but here at Monomythic we focus on the core aspects of what it takes to make a hero legendary and an origin epic.

Does Wolverine make the cut?

It’s a necessary evil that material must be changed from the source when adapting a work to film, but it’s interesting to note that for all the movie got wrong, they made one change for the better – and it all happened in the first 15 minutes.

(Spoilers to follow, but most are covered in released trailers)

In the film, as is clear from the trailers, Wolverine and Sabertooth are brothers who have worked side-by-side and against each other repeatedly over the years.

In the comics, Wolverine and Sabertooth are just two guys who have a lot in common (though various explanations have been offered), but they are not blood-relatives. Wolverine does have a half-brother called ”Dog” and a non-canonical half-brother called the White Ghost. Great pains have been taken to establish that neither is Sabertooth and neither have been a significant part of Wolverine’s life (not overtly, anyway).

Why is this at all important?

Hero myths often contain the element of “the other,” that double or twin who shadows the hero, either trailing behind, challenging or supporting. It is this iconic image of the brother-as-enemy that requires the hero to prove he is what his other is not. The brother is what folklorist Valdimir Propp called the false hero, someone who is thought to be the better individual, but is lacking in vital ways which the hero must prove. Anthropologist Joseph Campbell called this struggle the brother-battle, the threshold-crossing rite that allows the hero to make the passage from child to man.

In the comics, with a story shaped by dozens of writers over hundreds of issues, Wolverine is denied this brother-battle. He does not truly have a twin or Tezcatlipoca or Enkidu.

What he does have, is Sabertooth. The Holdfast of Wolverine’s epic, the one who constantly tried to pull him back into savagery and remind him of what he could be rather than what he strove to be, is Sabertooth, and as such his role should be an iconic one with significance to the overall story of Wolverine’s life. Even if the filmmakers didn’t understand the concept of using an existing villain rather than bastardizing an entirely different character, they did understand this.

The saga of Wolverine and Sabertooth is a long one, but the turning point came when Sabertooth raped and murdered Wolverine’s love (a Native American, not White Queen’s sister). This incident sparked a journey of anger, hatred and ultimately a desire to forget that led Wolverine in front of the Weapon X crosshairs.

And here, after the initial connection between Sabertooth and Wolverine, the film loses the iconic elements created for the comics. Barry Windsor-Smith created a symbolically rich origin in which Wolverine faced his inner demons even as he was becoming the hero he was destined to be. He fought his animal instincts, succumbing to bloodlust several times before escaping and being taken in by a kindly young couple.

Later writers wisely incorporated Sabertooth into the Weapon X landscape and eventually provided an “end” (such as can ever be in comics) to the story with the decapitation of Sabertooth by Wolverine.

The point is, Wolverine’s story has all of the elements needed for a truly epic hero’s journey, but what has been lacking is the cohesion of storytelling – something ill-fitting with the nature of on-going comics, and something nearly lost on film producers.

The movie adds good elements to the Wolverine mythos, makes bad interpretations of others (with some slow pacing) and makes a few really ugly mistakes, but it felt good to see a truly mythic – even monomythic – connection between the hero and villain.

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