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Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine changed the face of superhero cinema before it was cool

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Pour one out for this cinematic generation’s oldest running actor/character pair

Ben Rothstein

Fox’s X-Men is generally regarded as the movie that began the rise of the modern superhero films, after the 90s damn near killed it. It’s an incorrect claim that honestly should go to the first Blade movie, but the X-film was a first in modern superhero movies in one regard: the inclusion of Wolverine. In doing so, the X-Men and Fox became a powerhouse in the superhero movie genre, and while there are other factors that play into it, it’d be hard to deny that Hugh Jackman wasn’t the biggest of them all.

Unless you were into the Australian acting scene at the time, you likely had no idea who Hugh Jackman was in the year 2000. The role of Wolverine was originally intended for Dougray Scott (who had to depart from the film when Mission: Impossible II went over schedule), and Jackman was added three weeks into filming. All eyes were on this new guy making his way into Hollywood, and it was the first time modern superhero movies would really surprise anyone with its casting choices.

Both Blade and Spider-Man’s respective leads made sense nearly from the get go — Wesley Snipes just oozes cool and badassery, and Tobey Maguire has always sort of had that dopey Peter Parker charm. Everyone else in the cast of X-Men seemed to have either the right look and demeanor for the character or just made perfect sense: Nerds had been fan-casting Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor X for years. But Jackman was a harder sell for a lot of fans, partially because he was a no-name and also because of his height. (Wolverine in the comics is famously short, for a leading man, at 5’3; Jackman has a full foot on him.)

Jackman in X-Men (2000)
20th Century Fox

Needless to say, the pressure was on for X-Men to not suck, given that it had thrown a newcomer actor into a genre that was trying to rebuild itself after the combined work of Spawn, Steel, and Batman & Robin. The most surprising triumph of the first X-Men wasn’t just that it was good, it was that Jackman turned out to be a revelation. It was certainly ballsy of Fox to net him, and it became a tactic that other studios have played with to some degree, hiring either completely unknown names or fairly obscure and up and comers. Marvel did it with Chrises Evans and Hemsworth, DC nabbed Gal Gadot and Ray Fisher. Fox is even going full circle with Logan, bringing in 11-year-old Dafne Keen as X-23, in her second acting role ever.

X-Men’s subsequent success meant that Jackman became an overnight star and everyone wanted a piece of him. Unfortunately, it eventually became clear that much like Vin Diesel, not a lot of people really cared to see to him in anything else. Jackman did what he could with what was given to him, but while Les Miserables is one of his best non-superhero movies, others like Van Helsing and Movie 43 should be avoided at all costs.

Case in point: this hairdo
20th Century Fox

The thing about Hugh Jackman is that he has a lot of loyalty to Fox for being given the role (the money doesn’t hurt either). There’s a passion for this character that is really evident when he’s playing Logan: Even when he’s in X-movies that aren’t good, he’s been good in them. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Wolverine’s solo movies. It’s incredibly doubtful that you’ll find anyone who won’t agree that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is really, really bad. But Jackman makes it enjoyable enough to mostly overlook that. The Wolverine is substantially better, and a big reason for that is Jackman’s ability to reveal a new side of Logan in each film. Jackman himself has said that when he originally auditioned for Wolverine, he looked at the original Mad Max and Dirty Harry movies for inspiration, and the way Jackman carries himself in those solo outings definitely gets that across more than in the group films.

While perhaps understated, Jackman’s long tenure as Wolverine clearly has had an effect on other superhero movies across the genre. In all honesty, it probably wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that his dedication to these movies is what has inspired other actors in superhero films to stay on, even when their movies aren’t the best they could be or their roles lack the big power of Wolverine. Many actors who were considering walking out on their films for whatever reason, be it creative differences or money, had to have seen what Jackman was willing to put up with and thought, “if he can tough it out, then so can I.” Look at guys like Ben Affleck or Terrence Howard — Affleck has been pulling back from The Batman, and Howard stopped being James Rhodes in the Iron Man films after one movie.

The New Avengers (2004) #6
David Finch/Marvel

It wasn’t just in movies that Jackman proved to be successful. Once it dawned that Wolverine was incredibly marketable, Marvel Comics quickly hopped on the bandwagon of making him a much larger character outside of the core X-Men books, adding him to the roster of the Avengers for the first time in 2005, with Brian Bendis’ New Avengers run. That boosted him to even higher A-level status than he was at the time, and it’s likely that — combined with being the lead in several books likes X-Force and Wolverine and the X-Men — is what helped keep the X-Men prominent after the Marvel Cinematic Universe got big. The Schism event in 2011 helped distance Wolverine further from the X-Men for years, allowing Marvel to profit off of him without having to really acknowledge that he was owned by its competition.

Even Wolverine dying in 2014 was all for Marvel to take advantage of Jackman’s eventual turn as an older Logan, where the comics publisher followed the death of the main Marvel universe’s Wolverine with an excellent solo book and appearance in team titles to an alternate universe’s Old Man Logan. Wolverine is also the only member of the X-Men to have consistent appearances in the slate of Marvel cartoons, having headlined his own show twice and been a guest spot on Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-Man. The Big Two comics are influenced by the success of cinematic counterparts, and you can see that clearly in changes — like when a character looks more like the actor portraying them. Logan never really needed to be changed to look much like Hugh Jackman, but it’d be hard to deny that Wolverine’s growth wasn’t inspired by his live action portrayal and the long tenure that’s come from it.

Jackman and Dafne Keen in Logan
Ben Rothstein

The big question that now surrounds Jackman’s departure from the X-Men franchise is what Fox can do to fill the void that he’ll be leaving behind. Going 17 years and 10 movies strong is a hell of a run for the star of any franchise. With X-23/Laura, Fox leaves a door open to keep the series going without Jackman, and if Logan turns out to be as great as reviews have made it out to be, I will gladly welcome watching a little girl slicing throats open and going feral for two hours. The only question that comes after that will be what Fox does going forward without its heaviest of heavy hitters.

Star power is everything in movies these days, and none moreso than superhero movies. The MCU’s got a steady stream of actors that they can use for both main and guest appearances such as Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, and DC has a similar thing going on with big guns like the Rock (in the future Black Adam and Shazam films). It sounds ridiculous, but keep in mind that thus far, all the X-Men movies released have featured Jackman in some capacity, whether it was the blatant attempt to set up his solo film in Apocalypse or the many praises given to him by Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool. With the First Class trio of Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, and James McAvoy having fulfilled their three-movie deals, Fox can only really boast Reynolds and Maisie Williams (she’s set to play Wolfsbane in New Mutants) as part of Team Fox. Hopefully Dafne Keen will be a part of the plans in some capacity, should Fox decide to give her an X-23 solo flick.

Logan is going to be more than just the end of Hugh Jackman’s time as the Best There Is: It’s going to open up the question of whether or not people will pay to see an X-movie that doesn’t have the franchise’s money maker. It’ll be a while before we really have an idea of how Fox plans to move forward without him, but this still marks the end of an era and a huge turning point for one of the revivals to the superhero movie genre. Whatever the future of Jackman and this franchise ends up looking like, it certainly won’t be the same without him.