Please allow me to explain to you why Wolverine is not only the greatest comic book character ever created but also one of greatest characters ever created in any genre of fiction.
Heroes are meant to be characters with whom an audience can sympathize. The audience can put themselves in that character’s shoes; they understand the character’s choices and the motivations for those choices. And from a fantastical point of view, a hero can complete an audience member. They can fill a spiritual vacuum with a mythos that calms our tortured souls (this is how most religions function).
There are 3 qualities to Wolverine that raise him to the iconic context above.
When needed, Wolverine has the ability to tap into a deep well of berserker rage and unleash it upon the deserving. He does what many of us are afraid to do – find a place for anger. Let’s be honest, every human being gets angry. And often, a reasonably sane human being will try to placate or calm that rage. This can lead to unresolved anger, a circumstance in which ensuring someone is not angry becomes of greater value than alleviating the actual cause of that anger. Wolverine reveals that there can be a home for rage and, rather than stifling it, one could simply allow it to run its course. I mean, seriously, what dummy is going to stand in Wolvie’s way when he’s raging out? Okay, maybe Captain America, but that’s it.
Wolverine’s mutation is an accelerated healing factor. He can take a bullet and be good as new within seconds. To a young nerd who is dealing not only with the changing physiology that puberty brings but also the challenges of finding their place in the social sphere, this is like the One Ring of superpowers. Especially for boys who, in Western culture, are pressured not to show vulnerability, the ability to be essentially invulnerable is highly attractive. But not in a dissociative way. Wolverine takes every punch thrown at him, every bullet, every slice, every impact; but ultimately, he’s only affected (emotionally) by the hits of his choosing.
As a result of his healing ability, Wolverine’s aging process has slowed to a crawl. Born in the late 19th century, he’s still as able-bodied as he was when he served in WW1. And unlike homo sapiens, Wolverine is unable to perceive his mortality. He doesn’t know if he’ll live 200 years or 2000. This is where Wolverine becomes more than just another comic book superhero; he becomes an archetype of existentialism – the man who lived forever. He reveals to us desperate mortals the unrelenting pain and horror that would come with (what is ostensibly) immortality.
James Mangold’s The Wolverine opens today. It is based upon a seminal 4-issue Wolvie narrative from the early 1980s that I was fortunate enough to read in its first run. I read it the same year that I read Catcher in the Rye. Some 30 years later, I dismiss Holden Caulfield as a shallow meaningless dud. But ain’t nuthin’ holding me back from seeing The Wolverine today, bub.
Not even my casted left arm I broke yesterday.