The Wolverine and the Implicit Libertarianism of the Wayward Samurai

I’m not sure what I expected from the 2013 film The Wolverine, the most recent addition to the summer box office from the Marvel comics archives, but a libertarian theme seemed too much to hope for. And I was right—to an extent.  In fact, after watching movie, I think the plot has an unusually strong implicit libertarian theme, a fitting added layer of complexity for the anti-authority, anti-hero that seems to anchor many of the misfit superheroes in this genre.

The most recent Hugh Jackman vehicle is very good in its own right—good acting, real plot, and decent special effects (by contemporary standards).  Many may think the ninja theme and fighting is a bit overwrought. (But then again, when was a ninja movie ever understated?) At least this time it’s a fantasy character thrashing all of those trained assassins and Yakuza thugs, and there’s no pretense of realism. But a lone man fighting off evil (including a very high ranking corrupt politician) doesn’t necessarily make a libertarian movie.

Rather, the libertarianism in The Wolverine was much more subtle and perhaps more relevant as a result. The main values-based theme behind the movie hinges on the Samurai ethic. The Samaurai were Japan’s medieval knights, professional warriors tithed to do the bidding of their very human lords and feudal masters.  The Samurai have achieved mythic status because they were highly trained soldiers while adhering to a very strict code of honor, loyalty, and integrity. Indeed, the loyalty was so severe that once a Samurai’s master died, he was expected to commit suicide.

And that’s where the libertarianism comes into The Wolverine.

Some Samurai decided to forgo the ritualistic suicide and strike out on their own. These wayward Samurai were called Ronin, and the term was initially derogatory (concocted as a way to stigmatize Samurai who didn’t follow the feudal warrior program). But, they were Samurai, nonetheless, and while they no longer served a master, they were expected to conduct themselves as honorable Samurai.

This is where Logan, the Wolverine, comes into play. He is a loner with a strange curse of a superpower (metal talons that are both deadly and difficult to control and the immortality that comes with being able to heal naturally and quickly). He has no master, but he is a soldier. In short, he is a Ronin.

Others might call Logan a vigilante, someone seeking justice outside the formal trappings of the legal system. That’s way too simplistic, as the explicit tie to the Samurai makes clear. The interesting twist is that Samurai aren’t seeking revenge or retribution; they are morally bound to seek justice. Even if a Samurai seeks “revenge,” his purpose is to restore social balance and achieve justice. The Samurai are not lawless in the abstract sense of the term either: They adhere to a moral code that is well defined and strict. They follow a private, rather than a public, law.

These are the ideals that form the core plot of The Wolverine—honor, integrity, moral corruption, and justice.  They unfold in a layered way throughout what I found to be a very entertaining and engaging movie. Indeed, I didn’t even draw many of these connections until I was deep in discussion with my aspiring filmmaker son after we had left the movie.

Nonetheless, these elements of the plot are unmistakable, and the movie would serve as an engaging platform on which libertarian notions of social responsibility, individualism, law, and the scope of private action in seeking justice could form. It’s for these reasons that I will likely put The Wolverine on my list of libertarian movies.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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