In video games, the final showdown against the final boss is the culmination of a long journey that included various dungeons, mini-bosses, and cheat codes where necessary. The quality of the game is often measured by how satisfying that final fight is. If the final battle ends and all those tedious levels before felt worth it, then that’s the sign of a great game. That’s why Mario beating Bowser or Link beating Gannon never gets old. The journey each character takes to get to that final battle makes it worthwhile.
The same concept applies to comics, minus the cheat codes and frequent price gouging on hardware. It’s also why there can be dozens of stories where Wolverine and Sabretooth try to kill each other and yet they’re still compelling. The concept is amplified when an entire series is built around setting up what’s supposed to be the biggest battle to date between these two characters. It would be like having multiple Mario games where each game only got the player a step closer to the final showdown against Bowser. It’s needlessly elaborate and requires way more of an investment on the part of the consumer, but it would still be a price worth paying if that final battle is worth it. However, by following this model, Wolverine #12 is a ripoff on the level of the old ET Atari game.
This latest Wolverine series was built around Wolverine having lost his healing factor and having been humiliated by Sabretooth. From the first issue on, the story has centered around Wolverine seeking a rematch against his arch nemesis. He went to needlessly elaborate lengths, pretending to quit the X-men and teaming up with a rag-tag group of super-powered nobodies that have the name recognition as a stunt double in a James Bond movie. At times, the lengths Wolverine went to made for compelling development where he learned to cope with his newfound mortality. But all that development might as well have been side-quest in this issue.
The setup was already painfully familiar. Sabretooth lured Wolverine to a mall full of civilians, just like he did in their previous fight. And like last time, he has a hostage that keeps him from fighting with reckless abandon. But unlike last time, he’s armed with an exotic alien weapon that he can use to summon an infinite amount of alternate versions of himself and others. It’s like having an unlimited item duplication code in a Pokemon game. He uses it to great effect, turning this army of duplicates against SHIELD and all the backup Wolverine brought with him. But like a sushi chef trying to cut up vegetables with his fingernails, Sabretooth doesn’t use this weapon against his arch rival.
That’s not to say Sabretooth prefers a fair fight. In fact, his preferences aren’t even that clear. He just lets Wolverine get under his skin to the point where he sets this potent alien weapon aside and decides to fight the same way he’s always fought (and lost) against Wolverine. It would be like a football team making it all the way to the Superbowl and cutting their star quarterback just before kickoff.
There’s no believable reason for why Sabretooth takes this approach. There’s also no believable reason why Wolverine would be just as foolish and agree to shed the special armor he had been wearing to compensate for his lost healing factor. There’s no epic trash talk. There’s no berating each other or reflecting on their bloody history. They just taunt each other in ways that would never make it into a rap album and that’s somehow enough to get them fighting. They might as well have insulted each others’ mothers because that’s how shallow their dialog was.
And even when they start fighting, it’s nowhere nearly as epic as it was set up to be. There’s a distinct lack of visceral anger and heightened emotions. It doesn’t at all come off as a battle between two rivals that have been trying to maim each other for decades. It feels more like a glorified bar fight over which brand of light beer tastes best. There’s no blood, no yelling, and no passion. It’s like a Die Hard movie that was watered down to a PG rating. Nothing about it felt epic. Nothing set it apart from the many other brawls that Sabretooth and Wolverine have fought.
There were any number of chances for the fight to escalate to the levels that had been promised. All those chances were basically thrown away when this passionless brawl ended in the most generic way possible. There was no brutal disembowelment or bloody decapitation. Wolverine just landed one lucky punch that Mike Tyson probably could have landed way sooner and that was enough to knock Sabretooth out. And this is the same Sabretooth that hasn’t lost his healing factor. It would be like 1980 US Olympic hockey team beating the Soviets after one period on a technicality. It’s incredibly unsatisfying to the point where no amount of Kurt Russell movies could ever make it feel epic.
The potential was definitely there for Wolverine #12. The setting and the emotions were all in place. But it all went to waste. It wasn’t mishandled or destroyed either. It was just flat out ignored. It’s like lottery winner spending millions of dollars on their dream home and opting to live in the dog house. There was no emotional weight to the struggle and little impact from its aftermath. This was set up as the most important chapter of the Wolverine/Sabretooth rivalry to date. In the end it barely qualified as a footnote.