Quick note, I’ll be getting back to my Southeast Asia stories next week! But in the meantime, a pause:
It’s crazy to look back and realize that it has been 17 years since the first X-Men movie came out. I still remember sitting in that theater, so nervous that they were going to get it wrong. Like any kid of my generation, I was obsessed with superheroes, and the X-Men were always near the top of my favorites list. And in particular, I loved Wolverine; the gruff loner of the team, the outsider who never quite fit in.
These days, there are multiple superhero films released every year, and characters as out there as Groot and Doctor Strange are featured on T-shirts, posters, and billboards all around the world. But back in 2000, superhero movies were a rare oddity, and when they did come out, it rarely turned out well.
So yes, I remember sitting in that movie theater back in 2000, totally nervous, feeling certain that this was going to be the only X-Men movie that ever got made, and just as certain that they were going to ruin Wolverine. The commercials had marketed the movie as more of a horror-like suspense than a sci-fi film, the costumes were all black leather, and the actor that they’d cast as Logan was some unknown Australian guy who was way too tall, too friendly, not angry enough.
And then the movie started… and there he was. This beaten, tired, reckless guy in a cage fight, wandering from place to place, not knowing who he was or where he came from. The impossible had happened, and somehow, a four-colored comic book character with six razor sharp claws had just been brought to life.
From that first moment, that first scene in the bar, it was clear that Hugh Jackman owned this role. And he never stopped owning it. Jackman made Wolverine into a household name, redefining the character for an entire generation of fans. And then, instead of stopping after a couple movies, he continued playing the character for almost 20 years, a legacy almost unheard of in any major franchise. Even more amazingly, his passion for the character only became stronger over time. From then and until now, Jackman was Wolverine. He’s made that role his own, arguably more than any other superhero actor to date.
Sure, Christian Bale was amazing as Batman. Robert Downey Jr. has brought Iron Man from a B-list favorite into the poster boy of Marvel Comics. Tobey Maguire was perfect for Peter Parker. But honestly, I don’t think there’s ever been another actor who has been this dedicated to a superhero role, starring in so many different films, and even playing such a key role in the writing of the character as the series went on.
What Hugh Jackman — and the director, Bryan Singer — understood about Wolverine, that could have been so easily screwed up, was that the fundamental appeal of the character is his humanity, and the constantly wavering contrast between the good man buried within him and the rabid animal that he was brainwashed to be.
Another creative team may have simply painted Logan as the X-Men’s cranky outsider with a bad temperament, or maybe the supporting character who is simply the badass of the team with all the best one-liners. Jackman’s take, instead, is to always show the vulnerability in those eyes — the eyes of a man who lost his memory, his past, and everyone he’s ever loved — while also not shying away from the brutality; this is a guy who has spent his time beating people in cages, who can fly into a rage and skewer soldiers on his blades, but who at the same time can fall in love, protect children from harm, and even learn to believe in some idealistic dream preached to him by an old bald guy in a wheelchair.
Wolverine may be a killer, but he’s not supposed to be cold. Jackman understood the character’s inherent warmth, and that’s how he was able to embody Wolverine so successfully.
It’s surreal to think that when Logan comes out, in just a few days, we’ll never see Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine again. From a creative perspective, I admire his decision to end the story now, while he’s ahead. Too often, these giant sci-fi vehicles just roll on and on without any closure; while there’s no doubt that the X-Men franchise will continue for years to come, this movie will at least allow fans to say a true goodbye to the character who first made the X-Men movies so popular to begin with.
When we look back on classic adventure characters in film, we always associate them with the actors who defined those characters as well. Harrison Ford was Indiana Jones. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Terminator. Carrie Fisher was Leia. Bruce Willis was John McClane. And I think, in the future, when we look back on Wolverine, we’ll always remember the way that Hugh Jackman held out those claws, forever etching his place in cinematic history.
Next time: The journey through Laos, I promise!