Friday, June 7, 2024

Does the Marvel Character Wolverine Have Origins in the Film Jeremiah Johnson?

"Jeremiah Johnson," the 1972 film starring Robert Redford, is based on a real-life story of a fightin’ man (1824–1900) who lived alone as a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. The Marvel comic character Wolverine (Logan or James Howlett) has also been a solitary mountain man associated with the Rockies before and even during his time as a superhero. In fact, there are several interesting parallels between the two characters that I will list here. Given the number of similarities, I found it strange that there does not seem to be any mention of this on the internet. 

When I asked ChatGPT to search the internet for a connection between these two characters, it replied, "There is no evidence that "Jeremiah Johnson" specifically influenced the creation of Wolverine." However, after I started giving it evidence that I noticed, it changed its wording and decided that the movie may have had an "indirect influence" or there may have been "shared inspiration." After brainstorming a little more and sharing my observations with ChatGPT, it admitted that the two characters share a "rich tapestry of similarities."


I want to know what you think. Please check out the list below and note your take on this in the comments.


1. Timing in the Early 1970s: The movie, "Jeremiah Johnson" was released in 1972, and Wolverine made his first appearance in 1974. This two-year difference suggests that the film could have been fresh in the minds of Wolverine's creators.


2. Historical Setting and Archetype: Both characters are born in the 1800s and embody the rugged mountain man archetype, thriving in the harsh, untamed environment of the Rockies. Although neither was known to tend cattle, both dress and behave similar to the paradigmatic cowboy of the old west.


3. Constant Hard Times: Both are tragic characters who endure significant physical and mental hardships, misfortunes, and tragedies. This theme of survival against the odds and never getting a break is a recurring narrative element for both. Both characters endure trauma and torment, demonstrating remarkable resilience despite persistent bad luck.


4. Life in the Wilderness: Both characters find themselves drawn to rugged, natural frontier. Particularly snowy, mountainous, wooded areas of the northwestern portion of the North American continent (Wolverine was born in Alberta). They were also both trappers who caught their own food and collected pelts.


5. Escaping Violence: In the movie, you get a strong sense that Jeremiah's army service in the Mexican-American War exposed him to things that made him want to get away from people and become a mountain man. The nonfictional man the movie is based on deserted the army after striking an officer and decided to live solitarily. Similarly, Wolverine accidentally killed his childhood companion, Rose, while fighting and subsequently decided to live outdoors with Canadian wolves. So, both men chose solitude after violence as almost a self-inflicted punishment.


6. Loners and Solitary Men: Both are complex characters who prefer to live alone and be left alone. They find solace and identity in the remote natural world, away from civilization, in a solitary lifestyle. Interestingly, wolverines are solitary and territorial animals.


7. Marriage to an Indigenous Woman: Jeremiah Johnson marries an indigenous woman. This narrative arc is similar to Wolverine's story involving his native American girlfriend, Silver Fox. They are both completely romantically committed to these women and create a life of subsistence hunting and gathering in the wilderness with them. They also build and live in a log cabin with these women.


8. Murder of Their Partners: Both men's native American partners are horrifically and bloodily murdered inside their log cabin while they were away. Wolverine's partner is killed by his archenemy Sabertooth, whereas Jeremiah’s wife is killed by a group of Indians after he travels through their sacred hunting ground. This becomes a pivotal moment in both men's lives.


9. Good People Turned Violent: Both characters have a fundamentally good nature but were driven to violence by the same traumatic event. The murder of their significant others set them on a path of revenge and retribution. In Wolverine’s case, it created a multidecade feud with his nemesis Sabertooth. In Jeremiah’s case it created a vendetta against the Crow tribe.


10. Antiheroes: Both men adhere to a firm code of personal honor and help many people selflessly. However, they have also murdered many men and made morally ambiguous choices in pursuing vigilante justice. Thus, both men are antiheroes because they stray from the conventional heroic paradigm.


11. Exceptional Combat Skills and Berserk Rage: Jeremiah Johnson and Wolverine are formidable fighters who take on multiple opponents simultaneously. Wolverine frequently enters a near-berserk state while battling groups of men. Interestingly, Jeremiah also does this in his movie engaging multiple men at once in a fury. This quality makes them both fierce, fearsome, animalistic figures, capable of great violence when pushed.


12. Use of Blades: As you may know, Wolverine has three razor-sharp retractable adamantium claws housed in each arm that he uses in close combat. Similarly, Jeremiah Johnson’s weapon of choice was a large knife that he carried at his waist, which he stabbed several men with. He also claimed to be excellent at skinning animals and said he could skin grizzly bears as fast as his mentor could find them. This somewhat echoes Wolverine’s skill with his claws.


13. Healing Serious Injuries: We see Jeremiah Johnson get injured several times in the movie, including being mauled by wolves, shot, stabbed, and impaled by a spear on different occasions. In the following scenes, he appears completely healed and carries no injuries. This ability to survive severe injuries with minimal long-term consequences mirrors Wolverine's iconic healing factor, his superpower.


14. Interactions with the Blackfoot Tribe: Both characters have significant interactions with the Blackfoot Indian tribe. Members of the Blackfoot notably ambush Jeremiah Johnson and Wolverine's wife was Blackfoot.


15. Encounters with Wolves and Bears: Both characters have memorable, close quarters encounters with dangerous wildlife, most notably bears and wolves. This emphasizes their bestial nature, survival skills, and deep connection to the wilderness.


16. Men of Little Words: Reticent, taciturn, and abrupt, both characters tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. They allow others to talk but often say as little as necessary.


17. Speaking Style: Both characters speak in an old-fashioned, western way and use some of the same idioms. Wolverine has a distinctive language and speaking style characterized by his rough and often terse manner. He frequently uses short, clipped sentences, contractions, and has a penchant for bluntness and straightforwardness. His speech often includes a mix of slang and informal language, reflecting his rugged personality and hardened, no-nonsense approach to life. The same goes for Jeremiah.


18. Gruff and Surly: Their personalities are strikingly similar, characterized by rough-edged individualism and a gruff exterior. They are both upstanding and friendly underneath but tend to act curmudgeonly and distant. These traits often make them seem unapproachable but also add to their mystique.


19. Strong-Minded and Capable: Both Jeremiah Johnson and Wolverine are mentally tough, self-confident, and highly experienced, able to handle whatever challenges come their way. They demonstrate olden-day American determination and spirit. It is worth mentioning that despite being unsociable, Jeremiah Johnson is mentored by an old man (Chris Lapp) and this is akin to how Wolverine is mentored by professor Charles Xavier.


20. Appearance and Stature: They are both middle-aged white men. Neither character is particularly tall, contrasting with the traditional image of towering heroes like John Wayne and Rock Hudson (although the real Jeremiah Johnson was 6’2”). This makes them more relatable and unique. Robert Redford is 5'9", and Wolverine is 5'3" to 5’5”. They both also sport unkempt facial hair and maintain the hair on their head around the same length. Jeremiah Johnson smoked tobacco once in the movie and Wolverine smokes regularly, mostly cigars.


21. Manner of Dress: Through most of the movie, Jeremiah Johnson wears a yellowish shirt and light blue pants. He is also wearing yellow, blue, and black on the movie poster. These were clothes he obtained during his involvement in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). In that war, the American Forces generally wore blue wool coats with lighter blue trousers and gold braids and insignias. Of course, Wolverine’s most recognizable costume is blue and yellow. Alternatively, both men are frequently seen in a tan cowboy hat and a reddish-brown coat or poncho. It is also true that the straps that usually cross Jeremiah’s chest form an “X” like the symbol that Wolverine wears.


22. Heading for Canada: At the end of the movie, Jeremiah Johnson states that he has decided to head for Canada, which aligns with Wolverine's Canadian origin and nationality, which is an interesting coincidence. Jeremiah wanted to head there because, as he said, “I’ve heard there’s land there a man has never seen,” demonstrating his wish to be a lone, trailblazing pioneer.


23. Weight in Wolverines: While fighting, Jeremiah Johnson's ally (Del Gue) pronounces his fighting prowess by comparing it to that of a wolverine. He says, " I can whip my weight in wolverines." This line could have planted a seed or contributed to the cultural milieu that influenced the creation of Wolverine. Comic creators tend to look for fun, exciting, powerful, or relatable plot devices, and this movie may have linked wolverines to a fierce primal power in many people's minds at that time.


These parallels highlight the thematic and narrative similarities between the two characters. The convergence of these elements—reluctant violence, interactions with Indigenous cultures, heroes overcoming immense personal tragedies in the wilderness, and their resulting solitary, rugged lifestyles—suggests that the archetype embodied by Jeremiah Johnson may have influenced the creation or development of Wolverine, whether directly or indirectly. These cultural cross-pollinations are common in creative works, where elements from various sources blend together to form new characters and stories. However, the influences on Wolverine likely came from a mixture of literary, cultural, and comic book sources just as they do for other characters.


The Batman character was influenced by a number of wealthy protagonists that led a double life fighting crime such as Zorro, the Shadow, and the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was also affected by the dark Gothic elements of Dracula (such as the cape and cowl) and the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes. The creation of Superman was influenced by exotic or alien characters with great strength, such as John Carter of Mars, Doc Savage, and biblical figures like Sampson. Spider-Man was influenced by characters like the Spider who wore a spider-themed outfit and the Fly who had insect-like abilities. Wonder Woman was influenced by Greek mythology and characters like Rosie the Riveter who was the embodiment of strong women during World War II. The Hulk was inspired by the dual identity of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as Frankenstein, a misunderstood creature with immense strength. Iron Man seems to have been influenced by inventor and industrialist Howard Hughes as well as James Bond. In many of these cases, the creators divulged their inspirational sources.


There does not seem to be direct evidence in the form of creator interviews or documentation linking "Jeremiah Johnson" to Wolverine. Several people created the Wolverine we know today over decades. This includes Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita Sr., Chris Claremont, Dave Cochran, John Byrne, and Frank Miller. To provide more detail, Marvel comics editor-in-chief Roy Thomas asked writer Len Wein to design a character specifically named Wolverine, who was a Canadian of small stature with a wolverine's fierce temper. John Romita Sr. designed the first costume and introduced the retractable claws. Chris Claremont (who created Silver Fox in 1989) and others flushed out the hero's backstory. Interestingly, Chris Claremont has said that his biggest inspirations for Wolverine came from Conan and the Hulk. Even if not directly acknowledged, it's plausible that the film, Jeremiah Johnson’s, portrayal of a rugged, solitary, morally complex man surviving in the wilderness resonated with Wolverine’s originators and contributed to the shaping of the character.

So, clearly, it’s not the case that this one movie heavily influenced a single creator. However, whether intentional or coincidental, conscious or unconscious, the parallels between Jeremiah Johnson and Wolverine are indeed striking and, if you will allow me to say, “uncanny.”

If you are a Wolverine fan and have not seen the movie, I definitely recommend watching it, especially given that 2024 is the 50-year anniversary of Wolverine’s comic book debut. 

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