While lots of people were just excited to see Pacific Rim because of its (admittedly thrilling) ‘giant robots punching giant dinosaurs’ premise, in certain circles the film also created a lot of advance buzz for being visibly different from the average blockbuster. Just look at those posters if you wonder why; a multiracial cast and strong female lead shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but it does. In contrast, The Wolverine was greeted with a degree of trepidation, not only because of how bad its predecessor was, but because the original source material (the Claremont/Miller miniseries, later collected in a graphic novel) was seen as slightly dated and racially problematic. Having seen both movies, I’d argue that, in terms of representation, The Wolverine actually does a far better job, and that Pacific Rimwas a massive disappointment.
In fairness, Pacific Rim does have a multiracial cast (though not as multiracial as you’d hope – get beyond the leads and there’s a whole lot of white faces in the speaking parts), and Idris Elba is given a role of real power and gravitas, or as much as he can be, in a film about giant monsters fighting giant robots. But if you’re looking for a kick ass heroine, Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako is actually pretty lame. Vulture has already commented eloquently on the ‘women problem’ of the film, pointing out the lack of speaking female roles, and that compared to the male leads, Kikuchi’s character barely gets a word in edgeways. But what they surprisingly failed to comment on was just how insipid her character is, no matter what she says.
[Note: Contains spoilers]
Mako is a woman who acts almost entirely without agency for most of the movie. Her deepest desire is to be a pilot, yet she allows herself to be deterred from this path by ‘respect’ for her caring but over-bearing father figure, Elba’s improbably named Stacker Pentecost, and it’s only when she’s goaded into action by romantic interest Raleigh, Charlie Hunnam’s character, that she actually gets to suit up – so, yes, all of her decisions are dictated by the men in her life. She’s also presented as a particularly toxic combination of racial stereotypes – the passive Asian babe and the kick ass ninja all rolled into one.
The scene where she and Hunnam physically spar should be electric, but the fact that she needs to be given permission from one man and encouragement from another to participate dulls it down, not to mention the fact that she then stands around saying nothing when two guys scrap over her honour (if she’s that badass, why didn’t she just thump the bloke who insulted her herself?). Even at the very end, events conspire so that she has no agency in her actions; she flakes out of oxygen so that Hunnam gives her his, jettisoning her to safety while he struggles on and saves the day. While it’s great to see a woman of colour in a lead role in a Hollywood movie, it’s a shame that her role is so spectacularly underwritten.
In contrast, The Wolverine actually solves some of the problems of the source material. Now, I loved the original comic, but it does pander to Miller’s tendency to fetishize Japanese culture, and it also has a very Madonna/Whore attitude to women. Mariko is the pure, passive woman who Logan loves (admittedly, she comes into her own later, but her initial presentation is fairly problematic). Yukio is, of course, much more fun as the lethal bad girl after Logan’s own heart, but we all know that the bad girls might be tempting but they’re not the ones the hero ends up truly loving. (As an aside, can I just say how pleased I am by the fact Marvel overthrew this trope in the comics with the Scott Summers/Emma Frost relationship – where the bad girl actually gets to be the good bet for a proper love affair?)
The film, however, decides against this romantic triangle and instead goes for something more interesting: making the relationship between the women about them, not about Logan. In The Wolverine Yukio is Mariko’s childhood friend, raised as a sister but ultimately seen as disposable by Mariko’s family because of her lowly economic status. This same family treats Mariko as a pawn in their ambitions, so that, in the end, both women are rebelling against the roles the men in their lives have chosen for them. Yes, they are opposites (Yukio remains the funky, punky bad girl, though Mariko does have a little more to her than her comic book incarnation) but their relationship is complementary, not competitive – a fairly rare thing in mainstream movies, and all the more compelling for it.
There’s a degree of stereotyping, true, but it never falls into the Geisha / Ninja stand off it so easily could, and both women feel like actual, proper characters, admittedly within the confines of a movie that isn’t big on character development. The film doesn’t make a major deal of it – in the end, it’s far more interested in Wolverine hitting things, and why should it not be, it’s a superhero movie – but maybe that’s the point. You don’t have to make a big song and dance about including Believable Female Characters (or a multiracial cast) and it’s not at odds with making a big, dumb, fun summer movie. It’s just sad that it happens so rarely that it feels like a treat when it does.
(Of course if you want to critique my own use of a multiracial cast and women who actually like one another, read my book, Dark Dates.)