The 90’s was a weird time.
The Dark Age of Superhero Comics was in full swing, with bandoliers, belts and badasses the only flavour of ice-cream available to buy. Whimsy and lightness were out; stubble and dead girlfriends were in. This was the era when a hobbit-sized manimal possessed of more back hair than a stoat with three X chromosomes was the coolest guy in town. Which always kind of surprised me. After all, when your power set is essentially the same as Jason Voorhees, you’re not supposed to be the epitome of cool.
More popular than The Beatles.
Back in the 1990’s, you couldn’t move for Wolverine. Despite being a hero whose only real power is violent murder, and despite having the emotional range of Steven Segal on those emotion suppressors from ‘Equilibrium’, Wolverine’s gurning countenance glowered down from the cover of approximately eleventy thousand comics. X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Adventures, X-Men 2099… Marvel milked that cash cow until the milk ran out and the udders squirted blood. For over a decade, the stubbly shortarse with knives for hands was so ubiquitous on covers of comics so terrible they could conceivably be used by Q as an argument for the extermination of the human race, that he even has a trope named after it: Wolverine Publicity.
The thing is, you can kind of see why. The early nineties was the last great era of the action hero: Stallone and Schwarzenegger were demigods at the box office, so it made sense for the comics of the era – aimed as they were at the exact same demographic group of testosterone-poisoned teenaged boys – to ape what was popular in the mainstream. In this, Wolverine was more than successful, fighting, ninjas, cyborgs, cyborg ninjas, ninja cyborgs and of course, his worst enemy, Big Wolverine.
Because the only person who could possibly be a threat to Wolverine is a bigger version of Wolverine.
You’d think Wolverine would be an easy sell. He’s macho, has the king of all steroidal physiques, thinks in tough-guy clichés, and literally has knives for hands. By rights, he should be the greatest of all action heroes, ever.
But merciful Zeus Wolverine’s films are terrible.
Now, this has nothing to do with the man who plays him. Hugh Jackman is an incredible actor with huge range. ‘The Fountain’ is an unsung masterpiece, ‘The Prestige’ remains one of my favourite films of all time, and any man who will grab a stein of beer at a moment’s notice and pretend to be Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a class act all round. But, sadly, the only good film about Wolverine in is the very first, original ‘X-Men’ from 2000, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Despite featuring Cyclops, Jean Grey and the rest, it’s utterly Wolverine’s film – he almost effortlessly steals it from everyone else – and he’s just so amazing in it, we all thought he’d work on his own. I mean, come on, he gave Cyclops the finger and was kind to Rogue. How could a film where those douches weren’t around sucking up valuable Wolerine-kicks-all-the-ass time possible fail?
Spectacularly, as it turns out.
‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ was a garbled mess that exchanged plot for shots of a hideous cyborg made entirely of veiny bratwurst, wearing Hugh Jackman’s skin while it butchering faceless baddies to absolutely no effect. Seriously, this was a film so bad that Deadpool himself called it out.
The second attempt was no better. ‘The Wolverine’ was a borderline-racist caricature of what Americans think Japan is like that was so crap I was honestly amazed he didn’t end up in a duel with Tom Cruise’s character from ‘The Last Samurai’. Although, actually, that might’ve been better than what we got, which was Wolverine going toe-to-toe with a shoddy CGI abortion that wouldn’t have been credible in 1989, let alone the new millennium.
As two films have borne out, Wolverine just doesn’t work on his own. Not even a little bit. The interesting thing is that people always seem to lay the blame for this at the feet of bad scripts. Which is fair enough – the scripts were dreadful. I mean, it seems so simple: bad guy shows up, Wolverine tanks the damage and then solves the problem by stabbing them in the dickhole. Seems easy enough, yeah? Why can’t the studios just make it work?
Well, I’d argue that the problem isn’t the studios. Maybe it usually is – look at the way they mishandled Deadpool! But Wolverine’s a character they’ve more than given the chance to succeed, and he just never does.
I think the reason is Wolverine himself.
He’s just not that interesting.
If you take a step back from the awesome to actually look at the meat of the character, there’s not actually a lot there. He’s got generic anger issues, a generic mysterious past, generic amnesia about said mysterious past… he’s a walking cavalcade of clichés, and he’s kind of hard to tell stories about as a result.
He works as a character when he’s with the X-Men because it’s a great juxtaposition: all the other X-Men are generally pacifists. In an organisation dedicated to showing humanity how safe and normal mutants are, Wolverine is the mutant everyone should be scared of. When the evil senator says ‘Some mutants are living weapons’, Logan’s the one they’re talking about. When the Danger Room’s power goes out, he trains other X-Men by locking the door and turning out the light and just attacking them.
He also makes the prettiest papercraft.
He’s the X-Man other X-Men fear. Which means we see his awesome by comparing him to them. His awesomeness exists in direct relation to their lack of it. The plucky protagonist gets caught in a room? Logan crashes to his rescue. The intellectual protagonist gets lost in navel gazing? Wolverine drops an Adamantium-edged truth bomb and passes her a beer. He’s the X-Men’s ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card, and that’s what makes him so amazing…
… but the moment you take him out of that equation – the moment he’s the one who has to carry the narrative – he fumbles, because on his own, there’s nothing about his personality that’s massively unique. When he’s skulking around the back, the mightiest warrior in a group of peaceful hippies, he stands out. Alone, he’s just another generic action guy: scowls and manpain and cliché.
The crux of a good narrative comes when characters run into a problem which they cannot solve through their strongest skills, or when they encounter difficulties they cannot overcome through the methods they’d usually use. Superman isn’t interesting when he’s taking on Muggle bank robbers, because the fight is a foregone conclusion. He’s interesting when he has to fight the concept of wealth inequality, or the fundamental problems of human cruelty, or when he’s up against President Luthor: a man he literally cannot punch without incurring impossible political consequences. In the same way, Wolverine isn’t interesting if he’s confronted with problems whose solutions are either knives, stabbing, punching, or kicking.
But those things are literally all his fans want to see him do… right up until they see him do them, whereupon we get a pointless fight between Wolverine and Big Wolverine, two men whose weapons are knives, but whose powers are immunity to knives. It’s a fight that literally neither of them can win, but the demands of the action genre mean there’s no other way the story can let their conflict proceed.
The fans want to see Wolverine fight. When he’s with the X-Men, it’s awesome, because he can’t be there to defend them all. When he’s alone, it’s always something of an anti-climax: he’s just too good at it. He is, to all intents and purposes, indestructible, so the fight has no stakes.
Well, apart from the girlfriend who will inevitably be killed for him to have some more manpain over. Which isn’t a boring cliché that’s making me yawn even as I write it.
This is why I’m actually quite grateful Marvel’s businesses were choking by the end of the 90s. The Dark Age, whilst initially successful, was losing money hand over fist by the end because every story was the same, and no-one cared any more. Marvel had to sell off the film rights to their biggest properties just to stay afloat: Fantastic Four, Spiderman, the X-Men… all the big money was given away.
Without that, we’d probably never have had the MCU.
On The Rise of a Reformed Junkie.
It may seem unthinkable now, but there was a time when Iron Man was B-list player. The first Iron Man film was a legitimate punt; no-one really knew who Tony Stark was, and Robert Downey Jr. was best known as a drugged-out former star of TV’s Ally McBeal. No-one knew it was ever going to lead to the insane success it received.
But Marvel had no other options. They’d needed money, they’d sold off the X-Men, Spiderman, all their biggest names, and so they had to fall back on the B-listers. The guys who people vaguely remembered from episodes of Spiderman and his Amazing Friends they’d watched decades before. But, by being forced into focusing on lesser-known characters, the organisation that would become Marvel Studios managed to tap into something people actually wanted: to see something they hadn’t seen before.
In the current superhero-saturated environment, it’s easy to forget what a breath of fresh air that first X-Men film was. My friends and I had been talking about how awesome it’d be to see Wolverine in a film for years, but we knew it’d never happen. Not when the dominant paradigm of the time was ‘Batman and Robin’, a film which was built entirely around a philosophy that superheroes should be ‘toyetic’. X-Men happened, and it was magical because we hadn’t seen it before. It was a real thrill to see the Wolverine in that first cage fight, just smoking a cigar and beating a man without even popping the claws; the way they made you wait for the first time they came out… we were champing at the bit to see him slash a motherfucker up.
By the time ‘The Wolverine’ came out, that thrill was gone, and with exactly as much character depth in his sixth film as he’d displayed in his first, Wolverine was something we knew completely. And this is where the truth of things was revealed. Like the film The Amazing Spiderman, the simple truth is that people don’t want to see things they’ve seen before. We’ve seen Wolverine beat up a horde of spec ops dudes in gasmasks so many times now. We’ve heard Spiderman explain how with great power comes blah blah yakety schmakety…
Pictured: something that never needs to ever be in a Spiderman story ever again.
It’s the reason ‘Amazing Spiderman’ tanked, while the excitement surrounding Spiderman in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was so intense. ‘Civil War’ was a new Spiderman. There was no angsty bullshit, no tediously rehashed scene of Uncle Ben dying, no retelling of a not-exactly-complicated origin story we all learned back when we were five.
Instead, there was a funny relationship with Tony Stark, a man clever enough to immediately know who the Spiderling Crime Fighting Spider was. There was Peter Parker geeking out over Winter Soldier’s cybernetic arm, marvelling at the build quality of Falcon’s wings, being mildly awed at the simple fact that that’s actually Captain America he’s fighting.
In short, it was the first time a film had done something original with Spiderman in years.
The thing is, everyone says they want to see something new, but the truth is a little more complicated than that. People don’t actually want what they think they want. They don’t want originality, because true originality is actually a little bit overwhelming. If it’s something the audiences have absolutely no familiarity with, no cultural reference points to refer to, then it’s actually not pleasant for them. Because true originality is, by necessity, weird. Radiohead followed up the triumphant ok computer with Kid A, an album that essentially attempted to reinvent the concept of music, and which was instead a garbled mess of bleeps and bloops which only the most pretetentious music fans could even tolerate. Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’ is a work of stunning originality… and an experience so horrible it only succeeds as a surrealist comedy.
A film whose star looks like he was stitched together from leftover foreskins by Jim Henson’s creature shop.
Genre criticism argues that people don’t actually want originality, and the failure of films which just rehash the same old ideas proves that there’s no success to be found in doing the same thing repeatedly to diminishing returns. The thing is that people don’t actually want their favourite thing over and over again; they want something that’s like the thing they loved, only different enough that it’s not immediately recognisable as such: a new twist on old favourites.
A hilarious recent example of this – for me, any way – is Doctor Strange.
Dr Stephen Strange is an arrogant genius with a goatee beard and many material possessions, forced to reevaluate his life after a crippling injury, trained by a wise mentor in an isolated location, emerging empowered by his newfound knowledge, driven to use said gifts for the betterment of all people by a guilt at his previous selfishness.
He is LITERALLY Tony Stark, only with magic powers instead of science powers. Right down to the facial hair, they are literally the same man, and their initial films are, to all intents and purposes, the same.
Dear Glob let this be in Infinity War…
But the thing is, there’s just enough differences that Strange felt new and exciting.
Despite what the common wisdom will tell you, a lack of originality isn’t a bad thing; refusing to give fans what they want – another Iron Man film – isn’t a bad thing, because you can just file Tony Stark’s serial numbers off, call him Stephen Strange and BOOM, new property.
We can even see this in supposedly utterly original properties that take apparently daring risks like ‘Game of Thrones’. For all its defiance of everyone’s expectations with Ned Stark and Robb Stark, SPOILER ALERT John Snow has turned out to LITERALLY be Aragorn. Just like Tolkein’s famous ranger, Snow is the lost son of the rightful king, returned to claim his birthright from the unworthy usurpers who have been ruling in his absence. ‘Game of Thrones’ may seemingly bear very little similarity to ‘Lord of the Rings’ beyond the superficial, but the truth is that slowly, it’s been revealed to be hitting many of the exact same story beats as the trope codifier. Jon Snow’s narrative may not be fully exposed yet, but it seems to be the same Hero’s Journey that Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and Buffy Summers all walked long before him.
And as I’ve explained, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As we’ve seen, when people say “That’s so unoriginal,” what they mean for the most part is “I’ve seen these exact same story and character patterns played out in this exact same way before,” not “I want something I’ve literally never seen before”.
Now, I think this is kind of important for fans of Games Workshop and most especially Warhammer 40,000, because as of 2017, we are in interesting times.
A Gathering Storm
If you’re a 40K player, unless you’ve been living under a barn, you know about the Gathering Storm. GW have been cranking out campaign books for a while now. Since the lacklustre turd that was ‘Campaign of Fire’ at the start of 6th edition, we’ve had the various Warzone books, as well as Shield of Baal, Warzone: Damocles, Sanctus Reach, Death Masque… but despite all these, Gathering Storm represents something legitimately new.
“When are GW going to move the narrative forwards?” fans have been asking for years, so much so that last year, I wrote a blog exploring the concept. Well, to go with the interesting times we live in, everything seems to be changing, 40K included, and the unthinkable has happened: the plot of 40K has indeed moved forwards. Cadia has fallen; the Primarchs are returning; three plastic Sisters of Battle models have been released!
AND THEY SAID IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!
All of which begs the question: what does Gathering Storm imply?
After all, for years, Warhammer fans had been clamouring for the story of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle universe to move on. When it did, and when it came to the unavoidable apocalypse of an ending that had been promised… Well. There’s no deny the disappointment of that for many people, nor that the Age of Sigmar setting which followed was contentious.
Speaking as a never-fan of WHFB, I wasn’t overly distraught over the loss of that game’s setting. I also rather like the Age of Sigmar stuff, overblown hair-metal nonsense though it undeniably is.
However, I’m massively invested in 40K, and the things I love about it – the cultural stagnation, the fascist nightmare that is the Imperium of Man, the complete and unrelenting horror – all those are threatened by the Gathering Storm narrative, especially with the release of Guilliman. A true, genuine hero is something I personally don’t like the idea of it 40K (Ciaphas Cain excepted) and the idea of turning 40K into a white-hat-vs-black-hat Manichean universe of ‘goodies vs. baddies’ is honestly the last thing I want my beloved game to become.
So what should I do?
Well, not panic.
Because yes, the absolute worst could happen. 40K could go the way of the Warhammer universe, finally bent and broken over the knee of the Ruinous Powers as the Emperor’s Finest go down swinging. I honestly can’t imagine anything more tedious than that, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. I could have serious reason to be worried.
But panicking is a bad idea, and knee-jerk demands for what we think we want are unhelpful; Henry Ford may never have said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful adage to bear in mind whenever a serious/significant change is made to a beloved setting or product.
We’ve established that people don’t want the same thing again and again, no matter how much they might protest otherwise. No matter how much the devout might rail and pluck at their beards, 40K is a long, long running game. We’re coming up to its 30th anniversary, and that is a long time for a setting to be static. Every equivalent setting – Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and so on – have played with other settings, other eras, other ideas. 40K has evolved and developed, until the point where I would argue that we’re now in an unprecedented golden age, especially with the mainstream release of Horus Heresy.
So when it comes to Gathering Storm, I’m quietly optimistic, especially when the signs so far have all been so promising. The models are utterly wonderful, the changes to the setting so far have been engaging and exciting, and it seems to be building up to something genuinely quite brilliant. Not to mention that, if we step back from the narrative and look at the real-world business side of things, the fact that 40K is in nowhere near the dire situation that WHFB was in pre-Sigmar. With that system, GW had reached the stage that they honestly had nothing to lose. Unlike WHFB, there’s nothing to be gained from a complete restructuring of the setting.
And honestly, even if they did, sure, it could all go pearshaped and we could end up with something that’s not a patch on the setting we have now. But the truth is that the model line exists as it does now. Whatever changes come, the core elements must necessarily remain the same, and as we’ve seen from other media: it’s better to have something unexpected than something we’ve seen before.
I for one am looking forwards to where the Gathering Storm leads.