Mar 1, 2017

Why Hugh Jackman's Wolverine is One of the Best Movie Superhero Characters

Hugh Jacman in Logan
This Friday marks an end in pop culture. With director James Mangold's Logan, actor Hugh Jackman will retire from his role as Wolverine in the X-Men movies. In an age where many characters are easily replaced, it's easy to see what makes Jackman stand out - especially as a veteran of a 17-year-old franchise. He's been through every high and low of the films, pretty much serving as the defining feature of the cinematic world of mutants. Yet what makes it more impressive is that there's arguably no actor who has owned a character quite like Jackman, and that's why he may be one of the best superhero characters from film of all time.
If one wants to crunch the numbers, it's impossible to find any other actor who has dominated a primary role in a consistently successful franchise quite like Jackman. One could argue that Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man comes close, as he has helped to launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe and makes a simple cameo into a significant plot point There's no denying that his personality and charisma makes him iconic, if just for turning a two-bit hero into a household name. However, the first Iron Man came out in 2008, and Downey would have to stay at it another decade to even match Jackmam's longevity. Otherwise, there's not too many people in superhero cinema that even come close not only in length but in consistent releases. Maybe X-Men co-star Patrick Stewart, but even he is sometimes reduced to cameos.
The fact is that Wolverine seems to be the only superhero who hasn't drastically changed in 17 years. Even most of his co-stars in 2000's X-Men got younger counterparts starting with X-Men: First Class. What's crazy to consider is that in this time, there have been: three Spider-man and two Batman (three if you count The LEGO Batman Movie) actors. Hollywood has no choice but to regenerate their talent to find something new and vital. They cannot help but try to find a formula that works. In a field that favors youth, it's a miracle that Jackman has stuck around and can make the most of a minute of screen time in a cameo involving no more than cursing.
An argument could be made as to whether he was the best character in any of the X-Men movies. His role varied greatly in later films, even though he was considered hot enough to give three spin-off movies while his equally appealing co-stars got nothing. Still, he was there through thick and thin, giving his all to bring a lone rebel to life with a vibe that evolved from a hacky James Dean impersonation into a fully fleshed out performance. As his haircut got better, his charisma did. If one had to judge off of his first few movies, he wasn't anything special. They were still group movies. Wolverine wasn't a cultural phenomenon beyond having adamantium claws and some cool friends.
While the quality differed, Wolverine worked because he wasn't constrained by premise. He was a character with limited superpowers and an empathy towards a close group of friends. Even if he could be read as hostile sometimes, he still managed to show care for those that meant something to him. Also, it helped that in a CG world that he was one of the factors that couldn't be altered by a computer. He had to jump and stab people, creating almost a callback to a simpler form of action cinema. It also helps that he had more interesting material to pull from, as it allowed him to not only appear in X-Men movies, but also go on adventures to Japan (The Wolverine) and deal with the existential crisis of getting older (Logan).
Downey has experienced this somewhat over the years, but mostly comes across as a hollow mentor figure whose ennui comes from wealth-inspired dread. Jackman maybe has an advantage of being a capital-free character who could walk into any far flung room and logically begin his story. He is a superhero cowboy who smoked cigars and picked fights with stylish language. Most of all, Jackman, somehow, brought a physicality to Wolverine that is unprecedented. Not only was he in incredible shape, but his smaller movements would be given life thanks to Jackman's ability to find an insular story for Wolverine. He would know how to react if his claws hurt. He would know how to bring a deeper drama to ridiculous fight scenes.
While the X-Men series is largely hit and miss, there's no denying that there will be a big change between this Friday's Logan and the future. Wolverine is what connected each of these films, and thankfully they weren't in lazy or reprehensible ways. Jackman was a legitimate actor who, as his other projects showed, could still do deeply dramatic roles. Even if it'll be hard to get past the type casting, one can only hope that these 17 years of perfecting a role will give him the levity he needs to continue his career with powerful roles that justify his strength as an actor. He managed to make the most of the one role of the past 20 years that wasn't recasted from superhero folklore. That alone is a feat few can proudly boast about. Thankfully, he's going out on top.

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