It was the summer of 2000. I was just eighteen years old and on a two week trip with my high school Youth Group. We piled into the church van and drove across country to Yellowstone, hiking every day and camping every night. I saw some majestic sights. I bought a literal sword (a rapier) in the “bargain cave” at a Cabella’s. It was awesome! As this adventure was unfolding, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was opening at movie theatres across the country. With it, Hugh Jackman would usher in the age of the modern cinematic superhero with his iconic turn as Wolverine (it killed me that I couldn’t see it opening night, regardless of an awesome trip). With Logan coming out this weekend I felt I had to offer my humble tribute to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.
The purpose of this piece is to celebrate Hugh Jackman’s performance as Logan, to explore how he honored the character and how he made him his own. The transition from a comic book superhero to a cinematic superhero can be tricky. To do it right, the performance has to take you to that place where you feel like a kid again – lost in the moment, wrapped in excitement, cheering on the hero. But it also has to make you feel for the hero too. You can’t captivate a movie audience with only a colorful costume as easily as you can a kid diving into a comic book for the first time. So in two hours we need to see an emotionally layered character we can empathize with, not just a badass we want to root for. At least that’s something I want in my comic movies. Hugh Jackman nails this. In all the “little moments” Hugh Jackman has built a character who feels, hurts, loves, and grows while in the “big moments” he always delivers a hero who kicks serious ass. This then is my thank you note to those little moments and the man who gave us our first incarnation of the modern cinematic superhero.
It’s easy to forget there was a time when comic book superheroes weren’t a regular feature on movie schedules. A quick and lazy causal Google search shows we have eight different comic book superhero movies coming out this year alone. Sure, it’s become the norm but it wasn’t always this way. As a kid who grew up loving comics, I had my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies (yay!). I had the classic Christopher Reeve Superman movies to rent (on VHS!). I had Batman (dear God…so much Batman). Buuuut that was about it. Thankfully the last ten years have given us Robert Downey Jr.’s snark-tastic Iron Man, Chris Evans’ incorruptible Captain America, Christian Bale’s dour/growly Batman, and so much more. But it begins with Hugh Jackman.
I think it’s safe to say if Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine wasn’t as brilliant as it was we might not have the onslaught of comic movies we now enjoy. X-Men proved weird comic book properties (that, thankfully, weren’t just more Batman) could be mainstream hits. And it was Hugh Jackman who carried that weight of X-Men‘s success or failure on his shoulders. If we’re honest, the X-Men franchise (save First Class and Apocalypse) has essentially been his responsibility. They aren’t strong ensemble pieces a la The Avengers. Rather they are largely the story of the omnipopular Wolverine and Hugh Jackman brought this beloved character to life for us. Due largely to his performance as Logan, the X-Men movie franchise spun box office gold. After X-Men hit big, Sony rolled out Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Christopher Nolan brought back the Bat in 2005 and Superman Returns tried to restart Big Blue’s franchise in 2006. Then Marvel would make interconnected movie history with the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s Iron Man. But this modern era begins with the X-Men…which means it begins with Wolverine…which means it really begins with Hugh Jackman.
Of course there were the to-be-expected grumbles when he was cast. Comic fans do like to complain about things. People actually lamented (and still do), “He is way too tall to play Wolverine!” As if the height mattered more than the heart of the character. But Hugh Jackman perfectly captured Wolverine’s heart and in so doing he led non-Batman comic book movies into the cultural mainstream. He gave us the badass, the loner, the protector, the hero while showing enough tenderness and empathy to allow Wolverine to realistically be the mentor he always was. X-Men was fun and exciting (if not solidly anchored in the comic canon) and we wanted more! For seventeen years Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine through nine films with Logan now poised to mark his finale.
To prepare for this bittersweet sendoff, I spent the last week or so (amidst grading all my end-of-term papers and exams) re-watching every X-Men/Wolverine film. It’s kind of my process. My brother David and I always like to do this – watch all the films that came before any given franchise film to get ready for a new movie. Canon issues aside, I forgot just how good these movies were! Okay, okay…I know the X-Men films lack continuity with the comics annnnd with the other films at times. But they are still fun movies in their own right! And, getting ready for Logan, I’m in the mood to celebrate what’s right with their world.
X-Men introduced us to the cinematic vision of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The story is captivating, opening with tensions surrounding the Mutant Registration Act and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) varied responses. Yet, at the heart of the movie is Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. I’ll never forget how exciting it was the first time I saw him pop his claws!!! Plenty of X-Men‘s fight scenes had me impressed but it’s the little moments that’ve allowed the movie to last for me.
His scenes with Rogue (Anna Paquin) are these wonderful, intimate, real moments in a huge, special effects-driven superhero movie. In the comics, Wolverine was always a mentor, playing the big brother/teacher/protector role for Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, and Laura Kinney. This is embodied in the films with his relationship to Rogue. Two of my favorite scenes in X-Men are when Logan and Rogue are driving in his truck down the snowy road in Canada after they first meet and then when Logan finds her on the train after she runs away and they talk about going back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. These scenes still resonate because of their emotional weight. Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin present these quiet, tender moments amidst the craziness of metal-manipulating, mind-reading mutants. We care about these characters and their connection.
Similarly, in 2002’s X2: X-Men United I most appreciate Logan’s interactions with the students. While Professor X and Cyclops (James Marsden) are talking to Magneto in prison and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Storm (Hallie Berry) are seeking a new mutant who tried to assassinate the president, Logan is left in charge of the school. In the kitchen he has this awkward conversation with Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) who’s now dating Rogue where he’s defaulted into the father/big brother. Their conversation is interrupted by the assault on the mansion and Wolverine cuts Stryker’s team apart. I cheer every time I hear Hugh Jackman say, “You picked the wrong house bub.” I love it!!!! This is classic superhero stuff. But what moves me is when he abandons his chance to question Stryker about his past to protect Rogue, Bobby, and John (Aaron Standford). “I’ll be fine,” he barks to Rogue after Bobby erects an ice wall between him and Stryker’s (Brian Cox) forces. “But we won’t,” she counters. Realizing the truth and seeing her fear, he immediately turns to follow them. In all of this we see who Logan is, perhaps most of all. Above and beyond anything else, Logan is a protector.
Let’s get this out of the way – I like 2006’s X3: The Last Stand. I know people hate it. Sure, it has its flaws but I’ve always enjoyed it. Again we see the kick ass superhero moments – when Logan pops his claws and cuts apart the Sentinel in the Danger Room (after lighting his cigar from the fires of the wreckage around them) or leads the charge against Magneto’s forces on Alcatraz Island it is incredible. But, my favorite moment, the little moment that breaks my heart, is in the climax of the battle on Alcatraz Island. Logan reaches Jean and the Dark Phoenix personality asks, “You’d die for them?” And Logan, heartbroken, says, “No, not for them…for you. For you.” Jean comes back for a moment and begs, “Save me.” I cry every time I watch this scene. I’m serious! What moves between Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen in that moment wrecks me. It breaks my heart every time.
With X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, Fox anchored another idea – X-Men Prequels – on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. People hate this film too and…okay…it’s not my favorite of the series. It has its issues. But for me it was the first time I’d seen an origin story for Wolverine, having quit comics before Origin was written. Also it isn’t all bad! First, it sets the stage for Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool in 2016. Second, the action can be pretty great. How about that scene where Logan uses his claws to turn his motorcycle around before he drags them through the truck causing the wheels to pop, flipping it?? That’s epic. Most important of all though, we see Logan’s capacity for trust, for faith. I think often of that scene where Logan and Kayla (Lynn Collins) liberate the mutants Stryker (Danny Houston) has captive on Island. Reeling from betrayal and the revelation that Kayla is a mutant herself with the ability of tactile mind control, Logan still reaches for her hand. This may be the littlest of little moments I’m considering here but it’s always stuck with me. Despite everything, he trusts her. He loves her. Yes, he has an animal rage inside him – at times too violent for the good guys – yet this is what keeps him from ever becoming a villain. He listens to his heart and lets it lead him.
This is what I love most about Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine – how he presents the heart of the character. Wolverine is a protector, a soldier, a mentor, a practically immortal mutant…but he can still break and hurt in the most human of ways. He can also trust and love in the way that literally makes us human. Hugh Jackman paints all of this with rich authenticity.
Then comes The Wolverine in 2013. This film finds Logan broken, searching for meaning and purpose as the guilt of his past sins consume him. Set in Japan and dealing with the Yashida family, the movie’s loosely based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s seminal 1982 miniseries Wolverine. However, what moves me most is completely original to the film. The dreams of Jean that haunt Logan, constantly seeing a future he can never have with the woman he loves, give the film it’s focus as well as its emotional resonance. This is a tragic, tortured vision of a soul mate – the one wound Wolverine can’t heal. He can never be with the woman he loves. It’s the straw that allows the damn holding a century of pain to break. He has no idea who he is anymore. It’s brilliant and beautiful, poignant and painful. Yes, it was exciting to see Wolverine fighting scores of ninja or Yakuza. But Hugh Jackman took Logan’s emotional landscape to a whole other level here.
Is it weird that sometimes I think of watching The Wolverine and skipping over the final battle? Judge me if you will be the emotional journey of this film is all I need. Also, it’s worth noting (again) that people love to hate X3: The Last Stand. People also laud The Wolverine as being perhaps the best Wolverine film (if not even the best X-Men film) to date. Well, without X3 we lose all the emotional power in The Wolverine. We lose the whole point driving the plot! So, yeah.
Bryan Singer returned in 2014 with the timestream-skipping X-Men: Days Of Future Past, allowing the original and prequel eras of the X-Men to come together. Loosely based on the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne storyline of the same name from 1981, the X-Men are trapped in a dystopian future which necessitates Wolverine travelling back to the 1970’s to set right what once went wrong. (Yes, that was an intentional Quantum Leap reference.) There’s not so much a moment in this film that’s my favorite but rather an overall feeling. With X-Men: First Class (2011), X-Men: Days Of Future Past, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), and whatever new version of the Dark Phoenix Saga Fox’s is working on now, the torch is pretty solidly passed to the James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender version of the X-Men. This may sound silly but, for me, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine grants them legitimacy. They couldn’t really be the X-Men, to me, if Hugh Jackman wasn’t there.
Yes, despite it being heralded as a Wolverine-less X-Men film, Hugh Jackman’s surprise cameo in X-Men: First Class was pretty much my favorite part. And he had a far more prominently teased cameo in full-on Weapon X regalia in X-Men: Apocalypse. But those, while fun, were cameos. Seeing Hugh Jackman resume his place in the center of an X-Men story, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen on one side and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender on the other just felt right. It was the moment when the newbies graduated from the kids’ table you know?
For seventeen years Hugh Jackman has been the consistent and careful steward of Fox’s X-Men universe. Over that time, he’s brought Marvel’s most famous mutant to life – honoring the character we knew from the comics while also making him distinctly his. As far as I’m concerned, he’s more than earned the right to put his stamp on the character and Logan is better for it. He’s put his heart and soul into these movies, simultaneously breathing life into the heart and soul of Wolverine.
Logan premiers not while I’m a high schooler on an amazing trip with his Youth Group but rather while I’m a high school teacher myself (incidentally in the midst of end of term grading). I’ve literally grown up watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine. I’ve been working on this post slowly, as I’ve been grading over these past few weeks. I’ve given myself sporadic breaks to watch the X-Men movies and write a bit of this post at a time. As I did, I found myself thinking of how many moments in my life I can associate with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and the X-Men movies. I think of the friends I saw certain movies with who I don’t really know now. I think of the amazing friends I now have that I didn’t yet know back in 2000. I think of the family still with me…and those I’ve lost. It’s been a unexpected weirdly, wonderfully nostalgic trip. David and I have seen every single X-Men film opening night (well, I was in Yellowstone for X-Men but David was there!) and we’ll be there this weekend too.
This weekend we’ll say goodbye to Hugh Jackman as Logan. David and I already have our tickets for the 7:00 show on Thursday night, the first screening in town. I’m sure, whatever happens, it will be an emotional ride. I don’t know if I’m ready to say goodbye yet. But I do know how much I appreciate Hugh Jackman for bringing my favorite X-Man to life in such a marvelous fashion…and for bringing the modern cinematic superhero age to life with him. Thank you Hugh Jackman. Thank you Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner, Gavin Hood, and of course James Mangold. It’s been a wild ride. All I can think of that’s left to say is…SNIKT.