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How Hugh Jackman Changed Superhero Movies Forever
He’s the best at what he does
This piece was originally published in February 2017.
It is hard now to believe that there was a time when superhero movies were novel. Executives at Warner Brothers and Disney have done such a thorough job of ingraining their films into our way of life that they almost seem necessary. Imagine, if you dare, a world in which our nation’s multiplexes are not littered with Avengers and Justice Leaguers every Summer. It’s almost more of a dystopian future than the one seen in Logan.
In fact, though, it was the very real year we called 1999. A time before Batman and Superman ever shared the same screen, let alone fought each other. A time when only the country’s most ardent comic book fans knew the name Iron Man. A time before America had met Hugh Jackman.
While Jackman had made a few films in Australia, he would not make his American cinematic debut until he played Wolverine in X-men (2000). It 's incredible to watch that movie today, and think that it represents Jackman's first outing in front of a global audience. The entire weight of that film rests on his adamantium-enforced shoulders, and he supports it effortlessly.
In fact, it is not the weight of X-men alone that Jackman carries throughout that movie. It is the burden of the entire superhero movie revolution. X-men marked the first of two times that Hugh Jackman revolutionized the superhero genre. Logan is the second.
Jackman has become so linked to the character he's best known for on screen that it is hard to separate them. It is hard to believe that he was not considered a good fit for the role in 2000. Fans of the X-men comic said he was too tall and too handsome for the role. To the studio, he was too unknown to star in a $75 Million movie. Although nobody wanted Hugh Jackman for the part, three weeks into filming, he was who everyone got
The Lead Up to X-men
Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights to the X-men franchise in 1994, following prolonged negotiations with Marvel. Stan Lee and acclaimed X-men scribe Chris Clermont had been looking to sell the rights to help bolster Marvel's financials. After all, they were a publishing company, not a film studio. If they wanted to make money on these properties outside the realm of the printed page, they would have to find a company willing to make a movie.
Fox went through a bit more than the usual rigamarole in the lead up to production on X-men. The studio wanted to ensure that audiences would feel the weight of the story they wanted to tell. Until now, most people were only familiar with the X-men from the Saturday morning cartoon. They wanted to take advantage of that touchstone, but also give the film more heft.
The script they put together would pull on well-established themes from ancient history, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights movement. In the comics, people hated the X-men because of the genetic mutations that made them different from humans. Fox wanted to keep this theme in their film. Their script established Charles Xavier in the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Magneto as a figure more akin to Malcolm X.
This parallel gave the movie more than a sympathetic and memorable villain. It also gave the film a grounding in our history. Stack on top of that allusions to Constantine I's conversion to Christianity, and a scene almost identical to Joseph McCarthy's claim about his list of Communists sympathizers, and the superhero movie is starting to feel a lot less cartoony.
With most of the major roles cast, Fox and director Bryan Singer still needed to find their Wolverine. They had approached Russell Crowe, but he had turned the part down. He had recommended a friend, though.
Then Singer cast Dougray Scott for the role. He backed out late though due to scheduling conflicts around Mission Impossible II. There seemed to be no one left for the part. But Crowe had mentioned that friend of his. And his audition tape wasn't that bad. Three weeks into filming, with almost no acting experience on film, Hugh Jackman walked onto the set in Toronto to play Logan.
Wolverine in the Comics
After 17 years in the role, Jackman seems like the only one who could ever play Logan. The truth is though that, in 2000, the role itself was a far cry from the character comic book fans recognized. In X-men, Bryan Singer would attempt loads of camera tricks to make the 6'2" look more in line with the 5'3" Wolverine of the comics. But the truth is that there were far more substantive differences at play than Logan's height.
Long-time Marvel fans will remember that Wolverine's first full appearance was in 1974's The Incredible Hulk #181. Hulk is fighting the terrifying creature called Wendigo. The two giant monsters are locked in combat when — out of nowhere — Wolverine jumps down between them, looking to take two trophies on one hunting trip. But when his claws have no effect on Hulk's skin, he focuses his efforts on Wendigo. It would be going too far to say that Logan entered the Marvel universe as a villain, but he wasn't a hero either.
In 1975 Chris Clermont revived the character to join his new X-men team. This version of Wolverine was still more anti-hero than a classic superhero. The role of the team's super-heroic mainstay belonged to the noble Cyclops. Logan was antagonistic. From bickering with his teammates and leaders to running off on side missions. The comic book version of Wolverine pops his claws at the first sign of conflict.
Clermont had one more well-known take on the character in his graphic novel Wolverine in 1982. In this team up with Frank Miller, another titan of comic books, Clermont cemented the character's legacy in comics with one line of dialogue. In the opening salvo of the story, Logan thinks to himself
"I'm the best at what I do, but what I do isn't very nice."
This line left an indelible mark on the character. The idea became such a part of Logan's character that he was still repeating it in video games, movies, and comic books 30 years later. In comics, Wolverine had two traits: his skills as a fortified killing machine, and his lack of empathy for those around him.
Logan in the Movies
In 2000's X-men, Hugh Jackman's Logan was never exceptionally good at what he did, let alone the best at it. When we meet Logan, he is living a nomadic life as a cage fighter in Canada. His memory loss has pushed his years of training out of his mind. He has trained as a warrior in the cage, but he lacks the Samurai's soul and the government training that defines him in the comics.
In Wolverine's place was a character with many characteristics that comic book fans would recognize. Jackman's Logan is driven by self-interest and defiant towards his team leader, Cyclopes. He is still stubborn about his role on the team. He will still abandon the team at a moment's notice if his priorities do not sync up with the team's.
But Jackman also played up some of Logan's traits that were less pronounced in the comics. The movie zeroed in on how much Logan cared about young women in his life. In the comics, specifically in Clermont's 1982 story Days of Future Past, it was Kitty Pryde. In the animated series, it was Jubilee. In X-men it was Rogue.
The biggest difference between the comic book character and his on-screen counterpart, though, had to do with the mutant's claws. In the comic book, Wolverine would pop claws at the first sign of trouble brewing. In the movie, Rogue asks Logan if it hurts when his claws come out. His response
This line is as memorable as any moment from the comics. And it had just as big an impact on the character. Where the comic book version of the character relished the opportunity to show how good he was in a fight, the movie version of the character had a more reserved attitude.
In the comics, Wolverine began life as an antagonist and became a reckless and violent hero. In the movie, though, Logan began as a sympathetic outsider who had to fight to stay alive, not because he lusted for violence. The difference between these two characters was important, not because it made Jackman's on screen version more enjoyable, but because it established Logan as the high water mark for superheroes in cinema.
Too many superhero films have struggled because of actors who try too hard to align their performance with what fans expect. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has often been accused of having static plots with no stakes and characters that cannot evolve over time. That staleness is what grows out of feeling a need to stick to one interpretation of a character over an extended period.
Jackman's interpretation of Logan was anything but stale. His first outing as Logan in 2000 was not guaranteed any franchise opportunity. The X-men were not a proven property like Batman or Superman. And Jackman was not established star. If the movie flopped, there would not be a second. But Jackman's role was so dynamic, so authentic, and so resonant, that he would earn more than a sequel. Over 17 years, Jackman would star in seven of the nine films in the X-men franchise, giving birth to the first comic book cinematic universe.
In X-men, Jackman worked with director Bryan Singer to establish the X-men expanded universe. Working with director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine), Jackman has brought Logan to a world all his own. While it would not be surprising to find out that Logan takes place in the same universe as any, or all, of the other X-men films, the film has a stand-alone quality that makes it feel unique.
The unprecedented feel of Logan has been evident since the first trailer premiered in late 2016. Everything about the film, from the style to the setting, to the music, made it obvious that this would be unlike anything we've seen from the X-men universe. Everything about Logan indicated that it was a Western that happened to be a superhero movie, not the other way around.
And when the movie finally came out, it was unique. Building on Deadpool's success as an action-comedy, Logan pushed the genre envelope even farther. Logan is exactly as violent as an R-rated Wolverine movie should be, but its originality stems from more than just the over-the-top action. The film is a Western movie grafted onto a superhero framework. If Shane had adamantium claws and a healing factor, it would be Logan.
The film centers around Logan's struggle to find continued meaning in his life. Logan lives in a post-mutant world, where his only living ally is the 90-year-old Charles Xavier. As his mind is torn apart by old age, Xavier's psychic powers have gone from being his greatest asset to the world's most dangerous threat. Wolverine, feeling a debt to his last living friend for the years they fought side by side, spends his days waiting for Xavier's death, as well as his own.
Their lives turn upside down when Laura, a young female clone of Logan, turns up on their doorstep. She needs help getting to Canada to escape The Reavers, a band of mutant hunters. Xavier, Laura, and Logan take to the road attempting to outrun the Reavers to the border.
Their adventure is exciting to be sure, but to call it uplifting would be an exaggeration. The film has moments of levity and knowing that it is the last chance we will see Jackman in the role of Logan adds an extra sense of sentimentality. But the movie does not waste any time filling the audience with a sense of hope. For each moment that of over-the-top violence that would force a snicker from the public, there are a handful scenes that are much more emotional.
There has never been a superhero movie like Logan. That is because Logan is not a superhero movie. Its characters are pulled from the pages of comic books, but the genre of the film does not match the grim-dark of DC or the sparkle of Marvel. Logan is the first superhero film to realize that superhero movies are not a genre, but a conduit for any movie one wants to make.
Jackman's unique version of Logan is the reason this film is possible. Without his honest, more vulnerable version of the character, the X-men universe would be trapped in superhero limbo, just like DC or Marvel. With X-men, Jackman created the superhero universe. With Logan, he has redefined the genre forever. The success of this film will signal that a focus on character, and a movie crafted to suit those characters, are more important than the possibility of any number of sequels.
The Inevitable Impact of Logan
One interesting aspect of Logan is that Laura is a ravenous fan of X-men comic books. Her enthusiasm for the comics is the main reason she thought that Logan and Xavier would be able to help her. When Logan finds out about her comic obsession, he becomes irate. While trying to explain to Laura that the comic books are fiction, Logan says that
"Only a quarter of it happened. And not like this."
Up until now, the producers behind superhero films have assumed that the best films will come from treating the comic book pages as gospel. Any deviation, no matter how small, will be noticed by the fans and criticized. One must stick to the script to preserve continuity and brand synergy.
Logan takes the exact opposite approach. It understands that the content which inspired it (Old Man Logan) has value. But it also recognizes the value of a film. And by merging the two, it has constructed the best possible outcome.
In 2000, Hugh Jackman's only hope was probably to survive his experience on the set of X-men without incident. Instead, he created the most successful film genre of the 21st Century. In Logan, he reportedly wanted to go out on his terms. When Fox complained about the budget of a rated R film, Jackman himself took a massive pay cut. The result: he redefined the genre he created. The new life he has breathed into the superhero film will last for the next 20 years.
Calling Wolverine a hero may be a dicey proposition. While he has always fought on the side of justice, he has not been without his moral hangups. Mr. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, should be forever remembered as a hero by any lover of comic book lore. His unforgettable performance in X-men gave life to the genre. And his unique interpretation of the character made room for Logan, a film that will redefine superhero movies for years to come.
He is the best at what he does. And what he does, is wonderful.