How Hugh Jackman Has Defined Wolverine for a Generation

     March 3, 2017

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Hugh Jackman has said for years that Logan will be his last time playing Wolverine. It should be. With Logan, he gets to go out on a high note and provide a closing chapter to a character he defined cinematically. It’s an amazing accomplishment in Hollywood cinema history, one that will likely go unremarked by awards bodies because Jackman was playing a guy who has blades coming out of his fists instead of a troubled historical figure. And yet Jackman’s performance as Wolverine will endure long after we’ve all forgotten the Oscar-friendly turns from his colleagues.

It’s worth remembering what a monumental challenge Jackman stepped into back when he signed on to play the role in 1999. To begin, he wasn’t the first choice. Dougray Scott famously had to drop out of the role when shooting on Mission: Impossible 2 ran over. Secondly, Jackman was a completely unknown to American audiences, something that worked in his favor in terms of carrying no baggage into the role, but also against him in that legions of fanboys were waiting to be convinced. Third, Wolverine was an immensely popular character and had been for decades. While he hadn’t penetrated the mainstream like Superman or Batman, he was beloved by X-Men fans, and had been since the 1970s. Oh, and the new X-Men movie, the start of a potential franchise, was pretty much on his shoulders.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

His debut as the character instantly erased all doubts. He didn’t ease into the role or grow into it. He owned it from the start. Fans that whined about Jackman being too tall were silenced, and people who complained that “Person X Should Have Played the Part” were ignored. Jackman perfectly encapsulated the character’s rage, sadness, humor, and physicality. He was true to the comics, but still made the role his own, taking a character who had only been seen before on the page and the animated series and bringing him to life.

Jackman’s far from the first actor to take a beloved character and nail the screen adaptation, but what’s astonishing is the longevity of the part. No other actor has played a character taken from the page for as long at such a high profile. Jackman has been Wolverine for 17 years. While other actors have come to be associated with their screen characters like Sean Connery with James Bond or Christopher Reeve with Superman, no one has done it as long as Jackman, nor made themselves indispensible.

It would have been easy for Jackman to try and bury Wolverine after finding success in the U.S. He could have treated it as that silly comic book thing he did in order to get a foothold in Hollywood and a stepping-stone to bigger and better roles. Instead, Jackman has always worked to try and make Wolverine bigger and better. He’s never forgotten his breakthrough character, which could have been viewed as a risk. But by giving a real performance and understanding Wolverine’s humanity, Jackman wisely put the character on par with any other role. He wasn’t “slumming it” by playing a superhero (and keep in mind, in 2000, superhero roles weren’t automatically associated with prestige actors); instead, he used his success as a springboard to work with auteurs like Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan. Other actors may have run from Wolverine; Jackman embraced him.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

If Jackman only played Wolverine a few times in the early 2000s, his accomplishment would be impressive, but Fox would have quickly recast and moved on to other X-Men movies. But Jackman has left such a mark on the character that it would be foolhardy to try and find a new Wolverine for at least a few years. He’s cast an enormous shadow, taking the character through highs and lows, but never diminishing the performance. Even in his worst movies, Wolverine doesn’t come off badly. You still care about him and you can see that Jackman still cares about the character. That commitment has cast an awful long shadow, and 20th Century Fox would be wise to try and build a franchise around young Dafne Keen and X-23 rather than rush to find a new Logan.

Logan is a swan song, but it’s one Jackman absolutely deserves. He’s invested as much into Wolverine as any fan if not more so. It may seem odd to pay tribute to an actor who has already received so much from playing Wolverine. But it would be a mistake to say that the character made Jackman rich and famous. Jackman is the one who did the work. He understood that Wolverine could be more than just a comic book superhero. Every film featuring Wolverine wasn’t a success, but he was successful in them. He shaped the character like few actors have ever had the chance to do, and defined Wolverine for a generation.

Perhaps one day twenty years from now, fans will debate who’s the better Wolverine. Maybe the choice will still be obvious. But after 17 years, it’s obvious that when it comes to playing Wolverine, Hugh Jackman is the best at what he does.

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