In 1982’s First Blood, the loner John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) crosses through Hope, Washington, looking for a place to settle. Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) decides drifters aren’t welcome and tries to make an example of Rambo when he defies his orders. In the end, Teasle and his cronies mess up to the point that they unleash the beast and Rambo wages a one-man war on the town – only stopping when his former commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), manages to calm him down to see reason.
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While not the same plot, a good part of Wolverine’s backstory in the X-Men Universe sees him drifting from place to place – normally in the icy mountain regions of Canada. He prefers to stick to himself, but he isn’t afraid of baring teeth (or claws) if someone gets in his face. In fact, he never runs from a fight; instead, he leaps right into the battle. It’s only when he meets a mentor in the form of Professor Charles Xavier that he learns to tame the beast and not react to every provocation.
While the lone wolf personality is a common trope in the action genre – and not exclusive to either man – Rambo and Wolverine share much more in common than meets the eye. There’s the bond of tragedy that has seen both lose friends and a sense of purpose, while also trying to rediscover who they are beyond being used as killing machines.
The military chewed them up and spat them out
Wolverine’s mutant powers make him appealing to military agencies. After all, he possesses a healing factor that renders him unkillable, and that’s music to the ears of military officials who are always on the lookout for the ultimate weapon. The Weapon X programme pumps adamantium into his body, strengthening his claws and bones and making him even more unstoppable than before. The powers-that-be then use him as a black-ops mercenary for their top-secret missions, turning him into a killing machine. When Logan shows concern about his actions, this is where his relationship between him and the agencies grows sour, and he gets kicked to the curb with nothing and no one to help him.
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John Rambo is a Vietnam War veteran in First Blood. This is a man who served his country and witnessed horrific and violent acts that left scars on his mind, body, and soul. The military used him for the war then dropped him back off in civilisation, expecting him to carry on with life as per usual and as if he didn’t see horrors that no human should ever experience. He arrives back in the United States without any support or anywhere to go, but he is expected to simply get on with it and be well adjusted.
In both scenarios, Wolverine and Rambo are used by the military for their combat skills. They are extremely good at what they do, and undisputed assets to their respective countries. However, when they have served their purpose and are no longer useful, they are cast off like disposable items – expected to adapt to life as if they didn’t experience insurmountable psychological trauma.
A struggle to find purpose
Both Rambo and Wolverine sacrifice any chance of an ordinary life to serve. They don’t have partners or children when they depart, so when they come back, they are alone. As combat veterans, they arrive in a world where they don’t know where they fit in, and nothing is waiting for them. It’s up to them to get a job and to find a way to make a living – but even that isn’t an easy challenge.
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While they might find work in the long run, what about the other aspects of their life? They aren’t prepared or trained to relate to others, as all they have known is the brotherhood of the people in the trenches with them. It becomes a case of work, eat, sleep on infinite repeat – and that isn’t healthy even for someone who hasn’t experienced the horrors of war.
Rambo and Wolverine remain on a quest to find a renewed purpose and to rebuild all they think they know about themselves. If they can’t be killing machines anymore, who are they? Ultimately, it’s a path that leads them to discovering how they can use their abilities to protect others.
Along with rediscovering purpose, Rambo and Wolverine are on another crucial journey – toward peace. Not only have these two seen and experienced harrowing events, but they have also likely taken part in them. There’s a guilt that comes with that, especially in the quiet moments when they are all alone and remember their victims’ faces.
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As shown across all the Rambo films and Wolverine stories, both characters are plagued by the sins of their past. They struggle with what they have done, and there’s a forgiveness of self that needs to take place. Instead of hating themselves for what they have done, they need to accept the consequences of their actions and seek the road of redemption. Sure, Rambo and Wolvie still put up their dukes, but they are learning that it’s far better to walk away and search for a peaceful resolution rather than engage in an all-out war. They may never become monks, but they are discovering how to be better people.