With his squat stature, thick muttonchops and gravity-defying hair — plus his penchant for popping shiny claws while flying gnash-teethed at his enemies — Wolverine is among the most visually arresting superheroes. Podcasting might seem like the wrong medium for one of his stories.
Yes, Superman was a radio star years before he appeared in movie serials, on TV, and finally, in multiplexes. But that’s because no one had figured out how to use film to make you believe a man can fly. Now they have. Which means “Wolverine: The Long Night” has to do something the many “X-Men” and solo “Wolverine” movies haven’t. And fortunately it does.
Rather than build a podcast around Wolverine, “Wolverine: The Long Night” works him into the already established tropes of the relatively fresh medium. Stories about mysteries, small-town murders, and especially small-town murder mysteries have thrived in podcasting, maybe because a podcast is one of the only genres almost always consumed on the go: in a car, on a run, in the midst of a chore. The progress we make in the narrative pleasantly parallels our own motion.
“Wolverine: The Long Night” — Marvel’s first foray into podcasting — doesn’t rely on Wolverine to keep things moving. In fact, it’s willing to slow-burn its way to his first appearance, even at the risk of losing us. It won’t, of course, because we know — and the podcast knows — that we’ll stick around for the first Wolverine sighting. Or at least the first sound of him.
The Wolverine podcast follows the first rule of monster movies — don’t show us the beast too soon — and instead describes lots of carnage that may or may not be Wolverine’s grisly work product.
Wolverine — identified here only by his Christian name, Logan — is barely mentioned in the first episode, which astutely gambles that we know enough about his powers (claws, rapid healing ability, heightened senses, mutant speed and strength) and personality (grumpy, but on the side of the righteous) to bring our own assumptions to every story he’s in.
This time, he’s tooling around a forgotten corner of Alaska. And like many of the best Marvel stories about Logan, this one doesn’t fit into any particularly established timeline. Wolverine just kind of pops up in strange places at strange times, usually tracking someone, usually eager to be left alone.
People start turning up dead pretty much immediately in the first episode — from injuries that sound kind of claw-inflicted — but they don’t especially sound like the usual suspects Logan tends to kill. Has Wolverine gone berserk? Is he being framed? Assuming these murders are Logan’s claw-work, how do they square with his code?
Speaking of codes: “Wolverine” follows one of comic-book adaptations that I don’t really love — one that holds that in order for a superhero story to be taken seriously, it needs to hold off on anything fun for as long as possible.
It can feel, in the first episode, like the podcast is going too far to prove how little it’s going to rely on its hairy antihero. But the time it spends developing other characters seems likely to be worth it. Three episodes were made available to critics for review, and by the end of the third, I appreciated all the time spent on character- and world-building by Benjamin Percy, the writer who scripted “The Long Night.”
The leads include two government agents (Celia Keenan-Bolger and Ato Essandoh), a callow deputy (Andrew Keenan-Bolger), and isolated sheriff (“30 Rock” vet Scott Adsit). We may know Wolverine better than they do, after all these years of comics and “X-Men” movies. Or they may be holding back how much they know. Either way, there’s an interesting meta-narrative at work. We don’t just learn alongside them, but also bring our own assumptions. Sometimes we want to yell at the characters, like people in a movie theater yelling at a screen: It wasn’t just a bear attack! It was a wolverine!
There is also, of course, a cult. Cults both real and fictional are becoming a stock element of podcasts, and “The Long Night” has created one of the cooler ones. No one is as interesting as cult leader Nicholas Prophet (Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, seen recently on “Mr. Robot”). He’s the most delightful kind of ham, a subtle one, who chews up the scenery we can only immune.
“Wolverine: The Long Night” generally makes good use of its lack of visuals. One particular locale, sonically rendered through hollow sounds and drips, is darker and scarier in my mind than I can imagine it being on TV or film.
And what of “Logan” himself? He’s played by Richard Armitage, who some Logan superfans have fantasycast as a replacement for Hugh Jackman given his exit from the character. By the end of the third episode I felt like Armitage at least had Logan’s voice down cold. And that’s all that matters here, isn’t it?