In the early months of promoting a big-budget film, parties involved usually make a play towards reaching diehards first, making their film seem like a boutique item to the devoted. This sort of fan service feeds the few who are credited with starting the “buzz” on a film before a trailer is released to the general public, at which point regular moviegoers can judge it for themselves. In recent years, some studios have turned this into high art, with filmmakers delivering pre-planned soundbites during shooting, teasing footage during public appearances, and even heading online to be ready for fans’ inquiries as sort of a cheerleader for their own work. It’s created an odd intimacy with fans not just in the filmmaking stages, but in the promotional exchanges as well. And while it can do much to stoke excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film, can this sort of marketing technique backfire?
In the run up to “The Wolverine” James Mangold has readily been opening up to fans (particularly via his Twitter presence) who are curious as to what’s going on with the popular title mutant. “The Wolverine” arrives as a follow-up to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which wasn’t exactly a failure ($373 million worldwide) but an underperformer compared to the $459 million take of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Furthermore, the film was tainted by a high-profile leak of the film’s workprint, an indignity hammered home by the film’s perceived (lack of) quality: it (deservedly) earned the worst reviews in the series. The four-year gap between “Wolverine” films is largely Fox’s attempt to distance themselves from the earlier film, along with the more spartan title and Mangold’s strategic revelation that the film takes place in a contemporary setting, ignoring the first effort’s final scenes set in 1979.
We’re a little over four months away, and because shooting only started last August, we won't be seeing a trailer until later this month. But that hasn’t stopped Mangold from talking to fans, and he recently revealed a most curious teaser as to how the film would feel. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a still, or footage, or even a spoiler about the plot. Instead, Mangold shared a list of the ten films that most inspired the upcoming actioner on Twitter, and he made his point not by descriptions, or even the titles of the films, but using screenshots suggesting the tone of each movie, and, in theory, that of his new picture.
And to say that the choices seem more high-minded than you’d expect for an “X-Men” film is a pretty timid assessment. Certain choices make a great deal of sense: Wolverine’s always been a lone wolf, and the character and Hugh Jackman’s resemblance to Clint Eastwood makes “The Outlaw Josey Wales” a logical pick. The breathless contemporary action of Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” also rings true, particularly considering the film is set in Japan, and the idea of Wolverine coming-and-going into town like a transient ronin speaks to the spirit of “Shane,” if not all of its content. And “Chinatown” and “The French Connection” have long been revered hallmarks of any American filmmaker looking to get a little heavy, even if we doubt any “X-Men” film will reach that quality.
Beyond that, things get a bit idiosyncratic. Not one, but two Wong Kar-Wai movies? The lauded filmmaker dabbled in action with “Ashes Of Time” and the upcoming “The Grandmaster” but Mangold singles him out for the intoxicating romantic kaleidoscope “Chungking Express” and the gay romance “Happy Together,” perhaps suggesting there will be a romantic element regarding forbidden love. “The Samurai Trilogy” makes sense considering the presence of Toshiro Mifune, but it also feels oddly specific for some unknown reason. And Yasujiro Ozu’s elegiac, influential “Floating Weeds” and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus”? Okay, James, you’re just reading titles off your Criterion rack, aren’t you?
The question here is twofold. First, does Mangold have the goods to make a film anywhere near the ballpark of these films? He’s set the bar pretty high for a guy whose last film was the middling “Knight And Day.” Mangold has a couple of strong films on his resume like “Cop Land," his indie debut "Heavy" and the Oscar-winning “Walk The Line." But the guy’s only as strong as his material, and when it’s bad, he’ll sink to the weakness of a poor script: the strong cast of “Identity” kept it from resembling straight-to-DVD garbage, while it took Ebert and Roeper’s intervention to make Mangold ditch an incest subplot in “Kate And Leopold." And again, coming off the lightweight, mega-budgeted “Knight And Day,” what business does he have comparing his next film to “Floating Weeds”?
The second, more obvious question is, does it matter? We have to credit Mangold for putting Michael Powell and Wong Kar-Wai on the lips of some comic movie fans, but he’s going awfully obscure here, revealing influences that will be understood by maybe 1% of the actual public who see the film. It blurs the line between a filmmaker discussing his film, and promoting it, and one could argue his, and Fox’s interests currently lie in promoting the film, not providing DVD commentary-level insights.
Of course, we’re talking the sixth film in thirteen years featuring a muscle-bound heartthrob with knives in his hands, but does anyone think any moment in “The Wolverine” is really going to remind viewers of “Floating Weeds”? And is that moment going to be courtesy of Mark Bomback, who was the last writer to re-write the Christopher McQuarrie-Scott Frank script? This is the same Bomback who wrote “Live Free Or Die Hard” and the “Total Recall” remake, both of which obviously had their share of Ozu inspirations. Obviously.
Mangold should be free to find new ways to distinguish his film from the predecessors (particularly "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"). And these listed inspirations do make us a bit curious for a moment, but let’s be serious: this is still a summer movie called “The Wolverine.” With Mangold’s Twitter talk, he’s revealed an active mind who finds personal inspirations in a few fantastic movies. But this is Fox, this is a “Die Hard” screenwriter, and this is a superhero movie. We'd argue at the end of the day, while references might excite the high-minded nerd, the general aspirations of "The Wolverine" are to show that those involved have gained a little wisdom from how everything went wrong last time. A trailer has been promised for the end of March: let’s see how much reminds us of “Happy Together.”
"The Wolverine" opens on July 26th.