May 3, 2018
Wolverine, Hulk, and Raphael: When rebellious loners struggle to go solo
Wolverine from X-Men and Raphael from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a surprising amount in common. Both are hot-tempered and quick to turn to violence to deal with problems. Both characters are mutants. They both have weapons that are sharp, metal, and used for short range combat situations. Further, they both chafe under authority and are frequently in conflict with the leaders of their respective groups. And they both tend to go off alone on missions they’ve taken upon themselves rather than work with the team. Finally, they’re both more interesting in ensemble-type stories where they serve as an effective contrast with other, more typically “heroic” characters than they are when they’re the focus in solo adventures.
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This year’s Logan did much better than both 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2013’s The Wolverine, the previous Wolverine solo movies, and I guess it was okay if you can ignore the gratuitous violence and repetitive plot structure, but it was missing something that the X-Men team movies had. In Logan, Wolverine had no other characters who presented a contrast to his more cynical perspective and who challenged him about his role within a team. Professor X by that point was too psychologically damaged and changed from his mentoring role to do it, and in any event was never someone that Wolverine regarded as a rival as he did someone like Cyclops. When removed from the team, Wolverine was denied the opportunity to be a mentor to a younger, more innocent character. That’s a role that Wolverine plays frequently in the comic books and on screen. He did it with Kitty Pryde in the ’80s and did it with Jubilee later on, and then of course with Rogue in the movie series in the early 2000s. For obvious reasons, the contrast between a gruff, ostensibly antisocial adult man with undisciplined personal habits and young, troubled women in need of guidance is a source of inspiration for writers.
While X-Men Origins: Wolverine was, in the most obvious way, a movie that focused on the character of Wolverine, and his background story and motivations, it was a movie that seemed not to put too much trust in that as a focus, as it also tied in a lot of extra elements and characters. It might now be noteworthy more for Liev Schreiber’s performance as Sabretooth and for introducing Ryan Reynolds in the role of Deadpool than for any special insights we got into Wolverine or significant character moments. For a character whose popularity was partly built on him having a background shrouded in mystery, a story that spells out a whole history can detract from the appeal. In addition, there seemed to be a concerted effort to avoid creating a backstory that would have made the character seem too dark or amoral. 2013’s The Wolverine didn’t have the origin story complications to deal with since it took place after The Last Stand and got to be a true standalone vehicle for the character without throwing in peripheral X-Men drama. And despite being well regarded at the time, and an interesting change of pace, it performed underwhelmingly at the box office and was almost immediately forgettable.
The Hulk is another character with a similar personality type to Wolverine and Raphael, and he has a similar problem when he’s left to carry a story or movie on his own. 2003’s Hulk with Eric Bana was widely perceived as a major disappointment and so was eventually rebooted into 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which was merely a minor disappointment. You can blame writing or iffy CGI in the case of the former, but Hulk is still the odd character out from the Avengers characters as far as individual success. They’ve changed actors in the role a few different times, and does it even matter? The fun of the character is the giant green CGI guy smashing stuff, but also in the case of the Avengers movies, playing off of the other characters and being the disruptive force of the team. The character of Bruce Banner can get relegated to the equivalent of background elevator music while the audience waits for the next Hulk outburst. The similarities between Hulk and Wolverine were referenced in the original Infinity Gauntlet comic book series, when Wolverine comments on how they’re both willing to do the dirty but necessary work that more classically heroic members of the group fighting Thanos wouldn’t be.
Wolverine, Raphael, and Hulk can get stuck on one repetitive note when they’re overexposed. They’re the often violent, hot-headed “bad boys” of an otherwise mostly cohesive group. It’s ironic that for three characters that have a loner streak, they can all be a bit on the boring side when they’re actually left to carry a story. Or perhaps it’s not that ironic and just reflects the story logic that a rebel has to, you know, have someone to rebel against. Some of the most memorable conflicts in X-Men: The Animated Series involve conflict between Wolverine and Cyclops about leadership style or decisions that Cyclops makes. The early movies have the same dynamic between the two characters. In the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, Raphael’s frustrations with his role and desire for decisive action butt up against Leonardo’s more patient and calculating command style.
The problem with the rebellious and angry loner character is that he or she can get pretty one-dimensional when the traits are taken too far, and that the character can come across as unlikeable if they’re not given a softer side for the viewer or reader to see. Each of these three characters has a tormented side to them that they must deal with, and their level of internal guilt can help to induce audience sympathy. Bruce Banner struggles with internal anger and destructive consequences of the Hulk’s actions, whereas Wolverine deals with his dark past and externally imposed longevity as a result of his powers. Indeed, perhaps the best onscreen version of the Hulk character was in the ’70s-’80s TV series The Incredible Hulk, which despite not being a team show, focused thoughtfully on the lonely and conflicted nature of Banner and the Hulk, and was less about the spectacle of the violence.
Raphael doesn’t really have examples of stand alone onscreen adventures, but does tend to carry the story on his own for a while in the original Turtles movie, as well as to a lesser extent in the sequel Secret of the Ooze, and in 2007’s TMNT as the vigilante Nightwatcher. Obviously, attempts by writers to explore the depths of his troubled nature have had to be adjusted to the kid-friendly formats that he’s often appeared in. I think overall each of these characters are most effective and also at their most interesting when they must control their angry and excessively independent streaks for the good of the group, rather than in stories that give them license to indulge that more troubled side of themselves.