To catch the newbies up, this summer, in honor of the blockbusters that appear weekly, I am going to choose a superhero and suggest HIS classical mythological antecedent. (Since there aren't any girl superheroes on any foreseeable horizon, why get politically correct?) Last column I wrote compared Superman to the hero Karna of the Mahabharata. This week, another superhero movie opens, THE WOLVERINE, based on the character from Marvel comics. This time the clawed one is in Japan, attempting to redeem himself from a pretty lackluster first solo outing. And crummy CGI. And that lousy Adamantium bullet!
This time, the story line is rather anticipated, based, as it is, on a venerable Chris Clairmont/ Frank Miller comic arc from the early 1980s. You know the one, where Wolvie makes his way to Japan, is gifted with an Adamantium sword, begins training with Ninjas, falls in with the Yakuza, falls in love with the leader's daughter, falls in lust with a female assassin, falls in badly with a samurai in silver armor known as, surprise, the Silver Samurai, basically your average day in Tokyo, if you're Logan.
For those who are not steeped in comic lore, Wolverine was initially unleashed on the Marvel universe as a one shot villain (sort of) in a Hulk comic. He was created by Len Wein, one of the writers on The Hulk stories at the time. It was decided to keep him on as a recurring character for the sake of diversity. (Apparently, being Canadian passed for diversity in the early-mid 1970s.) He was also a short, hirsute, surly, bulky runt of a gnome (so, as has been noted by several persons who care about these things a good deal more than they probably should, a dead ringer for Hugh Jackman) with a bad habit of smoking cheap cigars and hanging out in bars that would give Hell's Angels a moment of pause. There is some supposition that Wolverine became so popular because he was accessible and recognizable. You could imagine seeing him in a gas station or a dive bar in the neighborhood, whereas, the other superheroes were too idealized, like Cyclops from the X-Men, or too out there, like Hulk in his mean, green form.
After his introduction, Wolverine was recruited by the X-Men. Then, Alpha Flight, a group of Canadian superheroes, eh, was created to essentially play tug of war with the X-Men for the crabby Canuck. Then he was sucked into the Avengers, he got to hang out with every underage X-Men female as a semi-creepy uncle figure, and was, thereafter, basically added to any group that tickled the Marvel writers' fancy. He's in a book club with Dr. Doom and the Silver Surfer at this very minute, for all I know.
According to the "official" history (although Marvel has so many alternative universes, I can't vouch for this anymore), Wolvie was born James Howlett in the Canadian Territories (think modern Alberta or thereabouts) in the mid-1860's. Little Jimmy was a sickly fellow until one extremely traumatic winter's evening, about which I will not go into detail (if you saw X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE...Lord, what an awful title!...you know what happened), at which
point he realized he had the claws and heightened animalistic senses. He ran off with a suspiciously familiar looking redhead, thereby starting his lifelong obsession with willowy redheads, much to Cyclops' chagrin. He developed skills as a hunter, took up arms as a soldier, fought in a slew of wars, including WWII during which he apparently met Captain America, and ultimately went to Japan to train as a samurai, which is the essential back story of the upcoming movie, THE WOLVERINE (although apparently the time frame and some other aspects of the story were monkeyed with.)
In the exercise I'm attempting, I have to decide on the essentials of the character to determine a halfway decent match in mythology. It's not easy with Wolverine. Since he's been around for as long as he has and has been a part of so much of the comic universe, Logan had become a pretty complex and conflicting character. Some rumor that the character started as a wolverine who mutated into something resembling a man (Len Wein is said to deny this rumor); others, that he was a mutant human from the start, who had regenerative abilities, coupled with animal-sharp senses. That he had the fictional element Adamantium grafted on to his skeleton, while he was being experimented on by military scientists, is canon, but there seem to be several variations on the facts of the experiment known as Weapon X. The claws may have been a by-product of the experiment, or he may have had them from the beginning, when they were bone outgrowths that sprang from his hands when he went into fighting mode. He seems rough and surly, but at one time, he was a relatively suave bar owner in the exotic land of Madripoor. He can be monosyllabic, yet he supposedly speaks several languages. He was generally considered a short, ugly guy (in the original comics anyway), but no one can say he doesn't get his share of attention from the ladies. He's haunted by a past he can't really remember; he is essentially an outsider and a loner; and he has a lot of issues. However all those qualities have been turned inside out at one time or another. His primary trait is his ability to heal and regenerate, but his personality, implicating the immortality that accompanies that trait and the status born of the conflict between his animal and human natures, is that of the existential outsider, unable to be a true part of the worlds he craves. Neither fish nor fowl, if you like.
Trying to find a mythological archetype that fits here is tough, in this case. I thought about the Sumerian Enkidu, the wild man who becomes the hero-king Gilgamesh's closest friend after his fall from innocence alienates him from the animal world and drives him to the human world, as represented by the city state Etrech. But when he loses his animal nature, he becomes rather toothless and is pretty whiny until he meets his unheroic end. Not a good fit.
I thought of Loki, the Norse trickster god. He's certainly an outsider, born of giants not of gods, but he seems to care more about that fact than the deities of Asgard and it makes him bitter and malicious and
ultimately evil. No matter how much beer he drinks or how much mayhem he causes, Wolverine is essentially good. Again, not a good fit.
I thought of Cuchulainn, the Irish hero. He goes into the berserker rages for which Wolvie is renowned. But that's the end of the resemblance. Cuchulainn is really the epitome of a hero to the Irish and he's seriously lacking in psychologically crippling introversion. So, not a good fit.
I even thought of Satan. He's the ultimate outsider, a cast out, he's lost heaven. He's even a pretty deep and introspective guy, at least in Milton's version. But there we have the evil thing again. Not a good fit.
So I had to think out of the box. And I came up with, what I think, is a pretty good fit.
So, Wolverine's mythological counterpart is....drum roll, please.....
What? I hear you say. She's comparing Wolverine to the kid in the diaper with the arrows? What has she been smoking?!
Wait! It's not as crazy as you may think. Here's my rationale.
The other night, I was revisiting a fantastic avant-garde film from the 1940s, Jean Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LE BETE. In it, Cocteau takes the classic French fairy tale, which was actually a literary work in its day and not a folktale, and turns it into a surrealistic masterpiece, all smoke and mirrors, honestly, and disembodied arms holding candlesticks. If you saw Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, they ripped off much of the cool imagery and all of the ideas from Cocteau.
In the film, Jean Marais plays three roles: Belle's obnoxious, dumb jock- equivalent suitor, the Beast, soulful and tortured, and the enchanted Prince whose form the Beast takes when Belle lifts the spell. The first and the last are pretty dull parts, but the Beast! He knows he's hideous and repulsive, yet he needs love. It's not really made clear in this film that love will break the spell or even if was under a spell – unlike most versions, it's never clearly stated that he was a prince enchanted after a cruel act. Sure, he's dressed in princely finery and he lives in a castle. But, if you choose, the film permits you to believe he needs love to FEEL human, even if he never looks human. His transformation into the prince at the end is the result of the love he earns from Belle. In this version, the transformation doesn't require his reaching the brink of death at the thought Belle has abandoned him, as it does in most versions; to tell you what the cause of the transformation is, would spoil a unique touch found only in the Cocteau. And, as for Belle's part, she doesn't exactly look thrilled to lose her leonine lover for a pretty boy in satin pants, particularly since he's a dead-ringer for her boorish suitor, with slightly more foppish hair.
The Beast is a heart-breaking character. He's described as a monster, of course (although, he really looks more like a humanized lion in Cocteau's vision), but he was more cultured and sensitive than any other character, male or female, in the film. He tries to be kind and gentle, yet he is embittered by the inescapable fact that he is a beast – he hunts the forest deer,
in spite of his better nature, so he cannot be gentle or kind. But the effort of his conflicting natures wounds him; so much so that, when he returns, bloody, from the hunt, his paws smoke with the wrongness of the act of killing.
Cupid and Psyche
The Beast stands as the most potent literary and archetypal figure of the war between animal nature and the supposed exalted psychology of civilized man. In that, the Beast is a good analogy for Wolverine. And how did I get to Cupid? Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, the 17th century French lady of the salons and palaces who earned a living writing the fairy tales that were popular with the aristocracy, adapted her fantasy from the tale of Cupid and Psyche, which appeared in the ancient Roman novel Metamorphosis by Apuleius, a book better known as The Golden Ass. For those who aren't familiar with the Cupid and Psyche, there are lots of similarity to Beauty and the Beast. Psyche is so beautiful that she makes Venus, the goddess of love, jealous. Venus commands Psyche's father to expose her on a cliff, to be killed by a monster and then sends her son, Cupid, to kill the girl. Cupid, being the personification of amoral lust and the madness that accompanies love, had no qualms about Mom using him as a hit man, until he sees Psyche. Whether by nature or because he nicks himself with one of his arrows of desire, he falls madly in love with her. He spirits her away to his castle, without his mother's knowledge. Once in the castle, Psyche is alone, waited on by enchanted objects, but without human companionship. That is, until night, when her mysterious lover visits her. She never sees him. While she is mostly content, she convinces him to let her see her sisters. When she returns home to people who though her dead, her sisters are consumed with jealousy at her rich clothing and jewels. They convince her her lover is a monster, so the night she returns, she waits until Cupid is asleep beside her, then lights a candle to see him. She is so overcome by the sight of the god, she allows some melting wax to fall, burning his shoulder. He abandons her when he wakes. The remainder of the story involves Psyche doing penance to Venus to regain the right to be reunited with Cupid. It is often said the story is an allegory for the soul (which is the meaning of the Greek word, "Psyche") longing for love. But it could be looked at from the reverse as well. Physical, almost bestial love finding the lofty pursuit of love of the soul rather than just the body.
Cupid and Psyche, although famous in Roman form, actually go back to ancient Greece, when Cupid was called Eros. Eros is the root of the word, erotic, and he symbolized carnal love. In his beginnings, which were prehistoric , he personified chaos and predated the Greek equivalent of Venus, Aphrodite, who also eventually became regarded as his mother. In the form of Eros, he represented the bestial form of man, but as he evolved, he became more civilized, in the same way that Wolverine fights his basic animal nature to become a most evolved human. He represents the search for betterment in spite of one's basic nature.
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Jul 30, 2013 11:19 PM
|I just found the time to read your column, and I must say, you could have given another former columnist a run for her money in analysis! Making mythological analogies was just up Karma's alley.|
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|A Musing in Movieland|
Every other Sunday
One woman's attempt to find meaning in movies, from movies, and between movies and to figure out why movies should matter to us, all while trying to find a laugh in the whole, screwy business."
I'm still cautiously optimistic that there really is a pattern to our lives and am striving to find mine, although I secretly suspect that life is really just about a Big, Space Baby. Which would be disappointing. And confusing. But, hey, you gotta have a sense of humor about it all, right? Philosophical stuff aside, I am an attorney, an artist and a performer and, if I could figure out a way to make the last two pay the bills, I'd dump the first one tomorrow.|
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