Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine since July 2000, when the first X-Men movie hit theaters. Bill Clinton was still in office. Elián González had just gone back to Cuba with his father. AOL had purchased Time Warner a few months earlier. Filming on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie wouldn’t start for another six months. Willow Smith was three months away from being born. I was in the fourth grade.
Jackman’s Wolverine has been around for two two-term presidents and the start of a third president’s first term. He’s witnessed the evolution of the cellphone from Nokia bricks to the iPhone 7, he’s been featured on three generations of game console, lived through the heydays of the DVD and the Blu-ray disc, and the start of online streaming. His tenure as this character has been longer than any single actor has played Bond (Roger Moore only played Bond for 14 continuous years), is only eclipsed by Christopher Reeves’ run as Superman in longevity amongst the superhero crowd, and is only equaled amongst his current peers by his co-star, Patrick Stewart. This Friday, that all comes to an end when Logan hits theaters, a graceful exit for an excellent performance that came to define a character for a generation. So, in honor of its release, we figured we’d go back all the way to the dark age of comic book cinema and watch the evolution of his role from inception.
It was far from a sure thing that he’d ever make it this far. When the first X-Men movie started casting, superhero movies were by no means a guarantee at the box office or for critical success, and despite the success of films like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise or the Tim Burton Batman movies in the first half of the decade, the rising tide didn’t lift all boats. By 1997, the genre hit its absolute nadir, where movies like the adaptation of indie comic success story Spawn and DC projects like Batman and Robin and the Shaq-starring Steel disappointed audiences everywhere and, at least in the latter’s case, got decimated at the box office. In a somewhat fitting twist of fate, this downturn in the genre’s success paralleled the crash of the comic speculator market, which shuttered nearly two-thirds of all specialty shops in the U.S. and even caused a publisher as well-known and successful as Marvel to declare bankruptcy (though they were able to recover without a lapse in publishing). Needless to say, it was an incredibly bad time to be a comic book fan, and aside from a few rumors every once in a blue moon about a big director potentially being interested in a property (see the abandoned James Cameron-helmed Spider-Man movie from the mid-’90s), there wasn’t much hope to be found.
One of the few rays of hope to emanate from any studio in the back half of the ’90s was the Wesley Snipes action vehicle Blade, a 1998 New Line Cinema adaptation of a Marvel comic about a part-vampire vampire hunter. It only was a modest financial success, but it deeply influenced the thinking behind the X-Men movies. Watching the two in tandem, it’s easy to see the similarities: The wire-fu fighting styles, the structural way that we’re introduced to the two worlds here (a mysterious loner helps someone understand their new predicament by introducing them to a secret society and their enemies), and, especially, the costume design. All the heroes look like they’ve come straight out of a BDSM dungeon, while the villains alternate between suave and totally disheveled depending on their level of sanity. Blade, even though it was from an entirely different studio and had some different goals in mind from the get-go (appealing to kids wasn’t a priority), could have seemed like a dry-run for Marvel’s first true success. If things went right — some excellent casting here and solid direction there — the X-Men movies were sure to be a hit. After all, they were one of their flagship titles for years and years (the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run back in the ’70s being a fan and critical favorite as well as an excellent seller), and had a cartoon successful enough to rival Batman: The Animated Series (at least in the ratings). But they had to nail the casting, especially for the most popular mutant of them all: Wolverine. Director Bryan Singer initially cast Dougray Scott (remember him?) in the role, but the actor had to leave after three weeks of shooting due to other commitments.
Enter Jackman, whose casting announcement was hit by a wave of fan doubt so large it makes what Ben Affleck went through after the world found out he was Batman look positively quaint. Why on Earth were they casting this rando Australian as the superhero world’s most famous Canadian? He didn’t have any muscles — did he even know how to act tough? He’d been in nothing but musicals up to that point, and they didn’t give a good goddamn that he’d received raves for his Curly in the West End production of Oklahoma! He was too tall, too awkward, and his accent would probably be a goddamn disaster. The only thing this casting had going for it, it seemed, was an excellent make-up artist, who at least could make the dude’s hair look something like Logan’s in the comics.
Luckily, the fans assuaged themselves, the rest of the casting wasn’t so bad, and how bad could he really be? It’s not like this is just a Wolverine movie, they told themselves, it’s a team movie.
Seventeen years later, Jackman’s pretty much the only consistent link between any of the X-Men movies, which have the most muddled continuity of any major franchise at the moment, even giving the most ardent of Transformers devotees headaches trying to unravel the timeline and what’s true at any given moment on screen. He’s utterly perfect in the role: Tough, strong, waves of emotion hidden beneath the granite surface of his face, and his commitment to being the best possible Wolverine physically he can be is astounding. Just look at his body’s evolution over the course of the past 17 years, and you’ll see how he treats this truly as a responsibility. In each of the first three X-Men films, he’s the most magnetic character on screen (and that’s fascinating given that you have him sharing screen time with Sir Ian McKellan, master thespian, who’s playing a literal master of magnetism). Perhaps it helps that his writing is the strongest and the most consistent amongst all assembled, and that he’s, on some level, the only character allowed to crack wise and be rogue-like and charming in that Han Solo way. He punctures the seriousness of the affair, and brings the audience to the table in the way that the best films in this genre does. He levels the playing field for everyone, and crafts an interesting character out of his dualities. He’s a reserved loner who wants to be loved. He’s a hero who kills. He is Logan, a violent man from a violent past with a clear sense of right and wrong who heals from every injury; and he is Wolverine, a superhero on a team with others, a teacher of young mutants, a sensitive mentor to the most vulnerable. This conflict between these characters within one body (and enhanced by Jackman’s excellent performance) has given life to some incredibly mediocre movies that would otherwise be lost to history.
Yes, I mean that.
Have you watched the first few X-Men movies recently? They’ve aged about as well as a can of New Coke. They’re full of awkward and silly moments, most of which are made in service of making everything seem “badass” as opposed to goofy (I think of the “yellow spandex” line from the first movie as one of the most depressing moments in modern superhero fiction). There’s bizarre casting, especially in the last film of the trilogy, in which fans got their Kelsey Grammer-as-Beast wish fulfilled and realized why fans aren’t put in charge of casting departments; awkward direction, with Singer’s action set-pieces being almost entirely unmemorable aside from two big ones in X2: X-Men United; and weird, unnecessary changes to the source material that mar a lot of the bigger characters. And they’re still compulsively watchable, thanks to the efforts of its central cast. And more often than not, Jackson’s easy charisma and “earned badass” status is a cool salve over the hot mess beneath its surface. You can see this reflected in his amount of screen time, which reaches its max in the third installment, The Last Stand, a film that actually goes out of its way to kill off Cyclops, the leader of the goddamn X-Men, and Professor X, the founder of the goddamn X-Men, simply so Wolverine can finish out it’s half-assed attempt at the Dark Phoenix saga as an unrivaled protagonist. And because it’s Hugh Jackman, it works, for the most part, whenever he’s on screen. The only time that really begins to crack up is when the material is truly poor, and of course, Fox saved all of that beautiful badness for Logan’s first solo outing.
Seventeen years later, Jackman’s pretty much the only consistent link between any of the ‘X-Men’ movies.
To be fair, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a lot going against it from the start. For starters, it was a prequel spanning over 130 in continuity, and radically readjusted Wolverine’s relationship with many of the central characters in the franchise. It had the misfortune of coming right in the middle of the worst part of studio head Tom Rothman’s time at Fox, who, it seems, wouldn’t have known a good script had it bit him right on the ass, and whose projects suffered accordingly. It was a passion project for writer David Benioff (best known today for showrunning HBO’s Game of Thrones) and the studio did everything they possibly could to undermine his written vision for the film. Director Gavin Hood, only a few years removed from an Oscar win for his foreign-language film Tsotsi, seemed like a good choice at the time, but he couldn’t handle all of the moving parts. A month before it was supposed to come out, a workprint of the movie was uploaded to the internet, and it seemed Fox had to deal with outright mutiny in the ranks. The film’s release in Mexico was postponed by the H1N1 outbreak, and it seemed like if something could go wrong for this movie, it did. The material failed Jackman, finally, and he couldn’t overcome that film’s many, many failures — he couldn’t help the fact that people fucking hate prequels, or that his character would be given a garbage backstory, or that Deadpool would be in it and horribly mangled, or the incredibly stupid Three Mile Island finale, or the casting of Taylor Kitsch as Gambit. He was better than this, finally and truly, and Fox began to explore ways to have the franchise move past its reliance on him.
A planned spin-off about Magneto under the Origins banner was canned and absorbed into Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, a more successful ’60s-set prequel that showed the franchise could survive without Jackman’s power if the filmmaking was good enough. He’s only in it for one scene, to tell James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender to fuck off, as they approach him in a New York bar to ask him to join the X-Men. It’s a good laugh-line, probably the best in that film, and the entire thing moves on at an inoffensive clip. It’s also the second least successful X-Men movie, and the first that actually had to compete with a crowded superhero marketplace. Marvel Studios had risen, and First Class was released right between Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. Wolverine’s second solo outing, the James Mangold-helmed The Wolverine, currently stands as the least successful film related to the X-Men franchise, and that as much to do with superhero fatigue than it has to do with anything else. That summer saw the release of Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, and plenty other minor comic adaptations, and Jackson’s Wolvie went from the only show in town to being just another player in a crowded club.
That’s a shame, given that The Wolverine is perhaps the best on-screen representation of that iconic hero for at least two-thirds of its runtime. A sort of loose adaptation of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s solo miniseries from the 1980s, Jackman’s finally given the chance to act natural and let Mangold (the director of Cop Land and the 3:10 to Yuma remake) do his job and make a great film. The material works with Jackman too, instead of spitting him at every turn: In an early scene involving a group of hunters killing a bear with poison arrows on the land he’s living on is a character moment we’ve never really been able to have over the course of the last five films. We get to see him in the past, but in an interesting way, as he saves a man’s life right as the Nagasaki atomic explosion happens. He gets an amazing action sequence on a Tokyo bullet train that he’d never be able to have with someone like Bryan Singer at the helm. He’s allowed to put his relationship with the franchise’s main love interest, Jean Grey, to rest in an interesting and organic way, and potentially begin a new one. He’s truly freed from the shackles of the X-Men franchise and its particular methodology, and doesn’t have to only be charismatic on-screen masking tape for a film’s flaws. He is that film. Well, at least until the Silver Samurai shows up, this time as an old man inside a giant robot looking to slice off Wolverine’s claws, and the movie kind of shits the bed. But still, it was wise for Fox to re-up and hire Mangold for the next solo Wolverine movie, which would come after two more X-Men movies, one of which would have Jackman in a huge role.
X-Men: Days of Future Past would be Jackman’s last time interacting in any meaningful way with the rest of the X-Men franchise, and would be, in my opinion, the last on-screen appearance of Wolverine. Sure, we’d get an awkward cameo in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, mainly an extended riff on Barry Windsor-Smith’s brilliant Weapon X comic, but Jackman doesn’t say anything. He just wears the headset from that comic, murders a bunch of guards, has a bizarre interaction with a really young Jean Grey, and escapes into the snowy wilderness to presumably kill deer and buy the truck he has in the first movie. Days of Future Past is the real precursor to Logan, here. This time travel movie was both Bryan Singer’s “triumphant” return to the franchise, and an attempt to bridge the worlds of the two eras of X-Men movies. It did so by using Jackman as that bridge, sending him “back in time” to alter the past with the young mutants and save the future for all of the characters from the first three movies. He’s great as always, and it’s the closest that franchise has ever come to producing a truly excellent film. It ends on a happy note, where we glimpse the altered future of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters; a paradise free of prejudice and full of excited students and their teachers, who are many of the X-Men we’ve seen killed over the course of the franchise. It’s a little sappy, but it serves a purpose overall for the franchise. It brings the story of the persona of Wolverine to an end. It puts him in his proper dynamic, as happy as he’ll ever be, amongst the people who love and care for him. The Berserker Rage is seemingly quenched, off-screen.
Logan (an adaptation of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan arc in the character’s self-titled series), if anything, is representative of the end of the Logan character, the one covered in blood and guts after a rage-filled fight, the one who watches all of his friends die over and over again at the prejudice of their fellow man, the one who forced himself off the grid and blamed himself for the death of an important loved one. It’s the violent ends to our violent delights, and offers the viewer who’s been along with Jackman for these seventeen years a chance to see the absolution that we’ve avoided seeing on screen. We’ll see the loner do what he could never do, and end the cycle of violence that’s defined this character and accept people into his heart. It will be cathartic for a lot of us, to say the least. None more so than Jackman himself, who finally gets to play Logan as he wants to play him, and to not have to worry about the potential development of the franchise down the road or directorial and studio interference. Hell, it’s rated R, courtesy of the success of Deadpool, and will truly stand out from the pack of Marvel movies in content and in quality. It’s received raves so far, and it’s fitting that Jackman will end his career with a heaping of praise for committing to a role that only paid out so much for what he put into it. Jackman did what no other superhero actor had done before him: put true soul into a genre defined by its angelic and angsty characters.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.