As icons of masculinity, James Bond and Wolverine offer very different case studies. Wolverine is a rebel and a misfit; he operates by instinct, often in anger. Bond is a company man, the consummate insider; he survives on charisma and cunning. But while their primary characteristics are at odds, the qualities embodied by Wolverine and Bond are remarkably similar. Both men exude a kind of inevitable heroism that we call “manliness.” Both have endured as major cultural figures for decades. Both are defined by a collaboration among multiple generations of writers, actors, artists, directors, and fans. Bond and Wolverine reflect our shared notions of ideal male behavior. By claw or by gadget, in a rage or in a tux, they show us what (we think) it takes to be a man.
Although he’s famous for his claws, which are only possible because of his mutant healing factor, the mutation that describes Wolverine best is his heightened sensory abilities. He sniffs like a hound, hears like a rabbit, and sees like a falcon. These gifts are invaluable whether he’s stalking Sabretooth in the woods, or seeing through one of Mystique’s ruses. Being Wolverine means that nobody gets the drop on you. Bond, too, will size things up in a heartbeat. As an agent of MI6 he is a master of the snap judgment, the telling detail, the peripheral glint that precedes a knife thrust. The first quality we encounter in these men is their unerring ability to assess a given situation. We expect men, in general, to be well-informed, not easily duped, and perpetually alert to danger. This elevated sense of perception forms the basis of a man’s identity.
Action is the byword of any Bond flick or Wolverine comic, even though its outcome is always foretold. Bond will either fire the impossible killing shot or disarm his opponent with a brilliant martial arts chop. Wolverine’s tenacity and heaving muscles make him as formidable as a small army. Superiority of fighting skills is an inviolable premise for both characters. If they stopped being unbeatable (in a fair fight), they would stop being Bond and Wolverine. Most of us don’t tussle with Juggernaut or bring down shadow governments in our daily lives. But we can learn from Wolverine and Bond that we are expected to be nothing less than excellent at what we do. Whether you’re in border patrol, Russian ballet, or accounting, mastery of your chosen field is such a crucial component of your masculinity that it’s practically axiomatic. Whatever you do, be a living weapon at it.
Precisely because it is so unquestionable, strength is the least interesting of a man’s attributes. Stories about Wolverine and James Bond always require them to be tricked, drugged, or morally boxed in to situations that are more complex than a one-on-one fight. Even when we see them in battle, there has to be something more at stake—a Bond girl in distress, or a building of civilians under siege by Magneto—for the story to engage us. We take it for granted that these men are supremely powerful, and then we move on to explore more dynamic narrative possibilities. For men, strength (or excellence) may be a prerequisite, but on its own, it is something of a bore.
Now that you’re a living weapon with a superb sense of perception, it’s time to defy your boss. Wolverine’s story begins when he breaks out of the Weapon X program that would have wielded him like a tool. He doesn’t readily take orders from Cyclops or Professor X, either. James Bond is all smiles when M hands him an assignment, but you can bet he’ll hang up on her when she calls him in the field. Or else he’ll disobey her completely, and temporarily lose his license to kill. For a man, it’s not enough to be the bomb. You also have to keep a finger on the launch button.
Decisiveness should inform everything you do. Wolverine doesn’t just attack: he broods first, and we get a close-up panel of his clenched jaw, his beetled brow. And then—decisively—he explodes, all snarls, on the next page, taking up a full panel. Bond is characterized by his witty, rapid-fire repartee, and by the constant readiness of his game-changing gadgets, both of which lend his actions a seamless, decisive elegance. You’ll never see these guys hesitate or change their minds.
In its extreme form, decisiveness becomes an urge to “go it alone,” which is the most fanciful aspect of Bond’s and Wolverine’s masculinity. In most communities, men are encouraged to be steady, hard workers, always loyal to their loved ones. It’s better for the average man to endure hardship than to risk everything. But of course, Wolverine and Bond aren’t responsible for a health insurance policy for a family of five, so they’re basically off the hook. Also, conveniently, when confronted with a decision that might cause them to “go it alone,” it’s almost certain that everyone around them, both friend and foe, will be so obviously in the wrong—either morally or strategically—that Wolverine and Bond will have no choice but to go renegade. In other words, their decisiveness is scripted into the narrative.
A man who possesses the first three qualities, but lacks the fourth, is probably an arch-villain like Scaramanga or Sabretooth. Compassion is what elevates a man above his enemies. It proves, retroactively, that all his killing and disobedience was for the good. Bond will never betray his queen and country, will never harm a lady if he can help it, and will never be too brutal. His arch banter with M and Moneypenny offers him, over the course of 22 movies, the closest thing to redemptive love that a spy can hope for. Wolverine keeps a flame alive for Jean Grey and Lady Deathstrike, cares for Rogue like a big brother, and dutifully helps train the young mutants and Professor X’s academy. Neither man kills any more than is necessary. Perhaps this is the crown jewel of masculinity: in the midst of power, restraint.
It’s hard to imagine James Bond and Wolverine being friends outside of work. But in separate ways they have both become—over the course of thousands of stories, written and enjoyed by millions of people—a distillation of our idea of masculinity. Masculinity, of course, is not a real thing. It’s whatever we decide it is. Judging by these two characters, we have decided it is perception, strength, decisiveness, and compassion, four simple qualities that are so simple to apprehend, and so suited to the page and screen, they can be transmitted to huge audiences with ease. But give us another kind of hero, and we might decide masculinity is something else.