The audience I saw The Wolverine with sat quietly through the movie, not distracted, but not audibly engaged either. (They were certainly more docile than the crowd I saw Turbo with; there goes that tool for predicting box-office success.) Then the credits rolled, and after the above-the-line talent had gotten their contractually obligated billing, the movie started back up again for the now compulsory post-credits tag. The crowd lost it, and by "it," I mean their heads, their minds, their composure, the ability to remain seated -- the works.
I won't spoil the scene's content except to say that it mainly serves to tee up next summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past, and that it builds to a reveal that, while nominally surprising, should come as a shock to no one familiar with the way comic books bend their own history to suit the whims of their fans.
Until its pro forma climax, The Wolverine commendably, and for the most part successfully, departs from the bigger-faster-louder logic of modern blockbusters. Wolverine, given healing powers by mutated genes and an unbreakable skeleton by the U.S. military, may be functionally immortal, but his adamantium claws require him to work on a human scale: He kills his enemies face-to-face, not by throwing a building at them. But that closing tag puts it back on familiar larger-than-life turf, which may be why it drew more whoops than the rest of the movie combined.
City Weekly critic Scott Renshaw, who along with several other colleagues confirmed that his audience went similarly bonkers for The Wolverine's mid-credits tag, wrote on Twitter that "Credit teasers are a microcosm of movie-news mentality: Potential is always more interesting than what's actually happening right now." Given how much of the movie's (presumably gory) violence takes place just out of frame (See "This Summer's Movies Have a PG-13 Problem") , perhaps it's appropriate that its biggest thrill comes from something unseen. But it also reveals the extent to which comic-book movies, and movies informed by parallel sensibilities, have transformed the methods of the movie industry's top-tier product.
Hollywood's early stabs at the comic-book idiom were apologetic, assuming that general audiences knew little of their titular properties beyond their basic iconography. But beginning with Tim Burton's Batman in 1989, the industry began to realize the power of motivating audiences who already had a stake in the characters. I'll never forget seeing the movie at an early screening filled with fans who'd bought their tickets through a local comic-book store, and the titanic roar that rose from the crowd as Batman's ship broke through the clouds and hung for an instant in front of a full moon, forming a perfect replica of the Bat-Signal. It was as if Hollywood knew we were there, knew we mattered. This movie was ours.
Twenty-four years later, the movie surrounding that moment has become redundant. Last weekend, Warner Bros., who released Burton's Batman movie, whipped Comic-Con's fans into a frenzy with a carefully staged, content-free presentation revealing that Superman and Batman will appear in the same movie in 2015. There's no footage, not even a script, but the mere idea was enough to send Hall H into paroxysms of ecstasy. Watch past the reveal in this fan-shot clip to hear a woman in the crowd exclaim, "I have goosebumps. I have actual goosebumps."
Like soap operas, serial comic books don't end until their audience has had enough. No death is final, no door ever truly shut. And so it's become in comic-book movies. The stories wind on and on, reaching a conclusion only to have it undone, a thread provocatively left un-snipped. Rather than catering to new arrivals, the movies make them as if they've missed something: The heroes of both Iron Man Three and The Wolverine are haunted by the events of previous franchise installments, their anxieties nearly unintelligible to those who haven't seen The Avengers and X-Men: The Last Stand, or have seen and forgotten them. Instead of an asterisk reading "See Uncanny X-Men #27," these lacunae serves as incentives to catch up on or re-watch earlier movies, and as warnings for those who might considering skipping them in future.
Better fleeting allusions to the past than the 10-minute chunk of Resident Evil: Retribution given over to superfluously recapping the franchise's onscreen history. But there's something insidious -- and deliberate -- about the way these movies are designed to make viewers feel incomplete, to long for movies that don't yet exist and in some cases may never. (Pity Dylan Baker, set up to be The Lizard in Spider-Man 4 but replaced in the franchise reboot.) Perhaps one of the reasons The Wolverine feels more self-contained, more satisfying, is because it's adapted, without credit, from a miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, a stand-alone spinoff that, for once, manages to fit a beginning, a middle, and an end into the same movie. As for the endless string of big-screen superhero tentpoles: See you next Wednesday.