This article contains minor spoilers for Logan.
Along with his Logan co-star Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman is the joint longest-serving superhero actor in movie history. He’s played Logan, aka Wolverine, in nine out of ten X-Men films since the turn of the century. Jackman was even referenced in the tenth one that he wasn’t in, last year’s Deadpool, when our hero used a magazine photo of him as a makeshift mask.
But with Logan, a sad and violent drama that posits all of the character’s previous adventures were sanitised Hollywood takes on a sad and violent life, Jackman is hanging up his vest and adamantium skeleton, and it’s hard to know how the X-Men franchise will get on without him. Up until now, he’s been a permanent fixture in a comic book movie industry that developed a remarkably high turnover since he started in 2000’s X-Men.
The big screen has seen three Peter Parkers, for example, and three Bruce Banners. Heck, there’s been at least two of almost every other X-Man in his own franchise too, including Professor Charles Xavier. This is the character that made Jackman a movie star and even in between pursuing more conventionally complex work in films like The Fountain, The Prestige and Prisoners, he’s continued to return to his signature role and Fox has been happy to have him at the centre of most of their X-Men movies.
It’s not just a matter of popping in to film a new sequel or a quick cameo every few years either. Jackman has put in his hours in the gym over the last 17 years, getting progressively more and more ripped with each successive sequel. With the exception of trying to do a berserker rage in his scene-stealing cameo as himself in Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb, he’s taken this character seriously.
Starting from Bryan Singer’s original film and that admission to Rogue that it always hurts when his claws pop out, Jackman has found humanity in the hard-drinking, cigar-chomping mutant and lent credibility to a character who some comics fans feel was ill suited to a PG-13 franchise. As is the case with an alarming number of characters from stories that were originally designed for children, Wolverine fans have been clamouring for a more explicit film about the character for years now and Jackman has apparently kept that in mind.
Making 2006’s third instalment into X-Men: The Last Stand must only look short-sighted in retrospect, but Fox was banking on a series of prequels, starting with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, to keep the franchise going. The fact that he’s still good in this film, which is lamented in some quarters as one of the worst comic book movies ever made, illustrates how he’s been consistently great as Logan, even in some not-very-good films.
Everyone behind the scenes knows they’re onto a good thing with him, even if they don’t always necessarily know how to use him. Jackman gamely showed up in some comics-faithful get-up in last summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, even though there was arguably no place for him in it, further entangling him in what might have looked like a clean break from the pre-existing continuity, once upon a time.
His cameo in First Class, telling young whippersnappers Charles and Erik to go and fuck themselves, is the only thing that tethers this soft reboot to the previous films. As a result, its sequel Days Of Future Past had the unenviable task of pouring both continuities into one status quo-busting time travel extravaganza, seemingly just to keep Jackman around. Logan is the only constant in the topsy-turvy continuity of the X-movies.
Wolverine’s spin-off series is similarly wild in consistency. Jackman’s Fountain director Darren Aronofsky persuaded him to stick around after X-Men Origins for The Wolverine, by suggesting that future films should highlight situations in which Logan is truly vulnerable, rather than focusing on his invicibility. James Mangold would end up shepherding that film to the screen, as Aronofsky was diverted by 2014’s Noah, but at the time, The Wolverine was the most interesting movie to feature the character since X2.
It presents an interesting pivot for the character, but was flawed as a result of its function in the franchise. Mangold has recently revealed that the film’s slam-bang CGI-slathered ending was not what they envisioned, and it’s further undermined by a bizarre post-credits stinger to set up Days Of Future Past, a film which eventually retconned this one, not 12 months after it was released.
But without Jackman’s loyalty to the franchise, we wouldn’t have Logan, whose existence as a major studio film feels like a thank you to its star, more than a lucrative spin-off. The massive weekend box office numbers are probably a welcome bonus, but can’t be entirely unexpected given the popularity of Jackman’s portrayal. It might not the best X-Men movie, if you define an X-Men movie in some other way, but it’s arguably the best movie to be based on characters from this property.
Logan does separate itself from the previous continuity by positing for the first time in the franchise that the X-Men have appeared in comics and movies, and when Logan sneers about idiots in leotards trivialising real events, we’re reminded of how Wade Wilson has an action figure of Origins‘ Deadpool with the sewn-up mouth. The film doesn’t quite go as far as Deadpool in its meta-narrative, but there’s an implication that in this umpteenth different timeline, the previous movies might have been in-universe products based on the grim reality.
The film also seems to be a cathartic exercise for Jackman, following the previous flawed attempts to take him beyond the main movies. One sub-plot in the film involves shady genetics company Transigen developing a soulless killing machine called X24, which turns out to be an bigger, badder duplicate of Logan with none of his personality. It’s the point at which the film might have tipped back into comic book theatrics, but as an antagonist, X24 is on-theme, serving as a representation of how others have bastardised this character in the past.
Wolverine existed before Hugh Jackman and will exist again, but now that he’s moving on, they’ve got a challenge on par with recasting Superman after Christopher Reeve. In fact, it’s tough to see that Wolverine has any future in this iteration of the franchise. They’ve made some leaps, but Jackman is inextricably tied up in several different eras within the films and the enormous emotional impact of Logan comes from some of us having watched this version of the character since we were 10 years old.
He’s so instrumental in this franchise that there’s a strong argument for this to be the last film in this current cycle. We know that won’t happen, but the argument against rebooting is to keep the cast on board. Now after Jackman and Stewart’s final curtain, with Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence potentially dragging their feet about coming back now that their contracts are up, Fox are losing many of the key players who have kept it going this long. You don’t get a movie like Days Of Future Past, in which you can put great actors like Stewart, Ellen Page, and Ian McKellen to work watching a bloke sleep for most of the running team, without someone like Jackman holding it together.
In Logan, the definitive star of the X-Men franchise closes on a film that’s finally every bit as worthy of his performance, but also finds new dimensions in him. his portrayal has never chimed with the stocky and surly portrayal in the comics, and perhaps that’s where his inevitable replacement will break new ground on screen, but for a generation of film fans, Hugh Jackman is the best there is at what he does.