Wolverine and the Identity Tension

Frank_Miller_WolverineMost of us, at some point in our lives, are forced to ask that haunting question: who am I. We usually ask it during our years of teenage angst, but sometimes it lingers well into adult. It is particularly ubiquitous if you have amnesia, reoccurring brain damage, and a superhuman healing factor. The Marvel comic book character Wolverine is the epitome of the man in search of an identity. His quest and the inner tension that accompanies it is a helpful lens through which to examine our own personhood.

What does it mean to be a person? This is not merely a question of genetics. That is to say, we are not simply looking at DNA. Personhood is not synonymous with Homo sapien. Though of course our biology is relevant to the discussion – after all, we don’t generally speak of the personhood of plants or chairs, nor even of dogs – biology is not what we have in mind when we ask that metaphysical question. “Who am I” cannot be answered simply by stating “I am human.” Personhood can be a complicated subject to crystallize in our minds.

We may consider a number of factors as they relate to identity. In the case of Wolverine, as with us, he often struggles with the tension between what he feels/knows and what he does. Is his personhood the root of his behaviors and deeds, or is there more to him. The relationship between behavior and personhood is an important one for Wolverine. After all, his behavior is often pretty atrocious. His common catchphrase clues us in: I am the best at what I do, but what I do best is not very nice. He is not merely a killer; rather he is a “berserker,” an “animal in the form of a man.” Throughout the Marvel Universe, depending on who was writing him, Wolverine has vacillated back and forth between the animal and the man. This tension is brought to life in arguably the character’s best mini-series: Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.

Claremont’s story finds Wolverine returning to Japan to pursue his long-lost lover. The very fact that Wolverine has a long-lost lover is itself a testimony to his humanity, but she, in turn, wants nothing to do with him. She has married another and moved on. In an effort to win her back, and to protect her from the harm of an evil ninja clan, he reveals his “berserker” side, it’s a side she has never seen. “She doesn’t hide her reaction” when she does see it. “Whatever we had,” Wolverine says, “whatever we might have had, it is finished.” The novel goes on to explore, then, who Wolverine really is. When he is the berserker, when  he”loses control” it “feels great.” He is the only one standing among a litany of fallen foes when this happens. The berserker serves to keep him alive, to keep those he loves alive. But it also serves to drive them away. So, he must wrestle with his identity. Which will he chose: man or beast? Will he live alone, or die among friends?

The tension that plagues Wolverine throughout the storyline is the same tension we face. After all the Bible tells us that our behaviors stem from something deeper. We are not simply what we do, rather what we do is a reflection of who we are. So Jesus instructs that “out of the good treasure of our hearts we produce good, but out of the evil treasure we produce evil.” What’s in your heart compels what you do with your hands. But as Christians we know all too well the tension of the Wolverine. While it is true that I have been given a new heart my actions still do not reflect that new heart – at least not as consistently and perfectly as they should. Am I what I do, or am I something deeper? How do I know? The issue of identity continues to plague us even as Christians. If we take Paul to mean what he says on the surface of Romans 7, then he too knew the tension. “I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate that is what I do.” He knows that his behavior often does not reflect who he really is. Are we the beast, or the man? Are we the berserker or the lover? The quest for identity continues, but often it continues because we think the answer to our identity dilemma is internal.

Wolverine cannot find the answers he seeks within himself. He is constantly trying to pry back the layers of his story. His amnesia has made it near impossible, even with the help of Professor Xavier. Add to this difficulty the reality that he has regularly suffered from serious brain damage, only to be rapidly healed by his mutant powers. Each healing alters his brain just a little. He is not the same Wolverine he was prior to the brain damage.  His rapid healing factor has altered his personality so many times that even if Wolverine can get back to that history who is to say it would have the same significance to his present story. The truth is that identity cannot be established simply by looking inwardly or tracing out our life’s story. Identity is deeper than both our actions and our past. In fact part of the reason the question continues for Wolverine, as it does for us, is because he is broken. Brokenness can never lead to wholeness. Identity can’t truly come from within. We need a new identity, one that comes as we are made whole again, one that comes as we are healed. Identity, in other words, comes from beyond ourselves.

Comments

  1. Michele Binienda says:

    Never heard of or read anything related to the Marvel character Wolverine. Wasn’t sure I was even going to read this and then out of curiosity decided to. Quite profound. The following sentences really made the whole article cohesive for me and made me think: “The truth is that identity cannot be established simply by looking inwardly or tracing out our life’s story. Identity is deeper than both our actions and our past. In fact part of the reason the question continues for Wolverine, as it does for us, is because he is broken. Brokenness can never lead to wholeness. Identity can’t truly come from within. We need a new identity, one that comes as we are made whole again, one that comes as we are healed. Identity, in other words, comes from beyond ourselves.” Herein is the realization that without Christ as our Savior, we are broken and useless and basically, our identity is with the evil one, so in essence we have nothing and are nothing and are driven only by our ‘beserker’ innards – really a wicked heart – that will not change until Christ alone changes it and makes it new. Praise God that we have a new identity in Christ and a clean heart too and that while at times the beserker appears and rears its ugly head (it does in my life) periodically, the beserker is not who we are, because we are now new creatures in Christ. Really great, thought-provoking and well-written article.

    • Pastor Dave Online says:

      Thanks for the encouragement and the engagement, Michele. It never ceases to amaze me the places from which we can learn truth.

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