Logan is now in theaters and marks the apparent end of Hugh Jackman’s long and illustrious journey as The Wolverine. It may be hard for some to remember a time when a whole year passed without an incredible superhero film hitting theaters, but this was the world that Jackman entered. He now leaves the role, and the superhero film genre, in an inarguably better place. This is due in no small part to his earnest, vulnerable, and heartfelt performances as one of the fiction’s most hard-as-nails heroes.
While Jackman’s Wolverine was only one piece of the puzzle, his influence on the burgeoning genre is tangible. It’s possible that The Avengers wouldn’t have existed without him, and while his X-Men appearances haven’t always kept up with the best the genre has to offer, it’s often mirrored its performance in meaningful ways.
Before the turn of the century, there were only a hand full of superhero films even worth mentioning – most of them related to Batman or Christopher Reeve’s Superman. In 1998, Blade (starring Wesley Snipes) made a meaningful splash by dipping its toe in the superhero formula, but its only other competition that year was the made-for-TV Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. starring David Hasselhoff.
Superheroes of the era were allowed to be iconic, but to mainstream audiences, they were inarguably a niche pleasure for children or nerds. It didn’t help that Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin had just tanked the Caped Crusader’s reputation.
2000 – X-Men
The year Brian Singer’s X-Men hit theaters, the only other noteworthy superhero movie alongside it was M. Knight Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. That film was disguised as a psychological thriller, whose own shared universe potential only just came to fruition in last month’s Split.
X-Men wasn’t a flawless film. Its action and special effects budget paled in comparison to other films of the time (The Matrix, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) but it benefitted from a strong leading cast and a focus on flawed, broken heroes. Magneto’s (played by Ian McKellen) end-game may have been absurd – he builds a device in the Statue of Liberty to turn human leaders into mutants – but his tortured backstory and chemistry with old-friend-turned-rival Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) was groundbreaking.
So too was Hugh Jackman’s defining role as the rough-around-the-edges protagonist, Logan a.k.a. The Wolverine. While he wasn’t a flawless recreation of any prior iteration of the character (in the comics or cartoons), he was the gateway to the Marvel-styled superheroes that the mainstream needed to see. Logan wasn’t an icon. He was struggling to make a life like the rest of us. He just had weirder problems and cooler powers.
2003 – X2: X-Men United
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man burst onto the screen in 2002, building off of the momentum of the first X-Men and definitively signaling that superheroes were a hot commodity. The Marvel method had made its impact, and Brian Singer returned for an X-sequel that doubled down on what worked best about that formula. X2 focused on the tragic past of Wolverine and less on over-the-top super-schemes, becoming a new go-to high point for what the genre was capable of.
In the following years, many projects took the correct lessons from X2’s success (Spider-Man 2, The Incredibles, Hellboy, and Batman Begins), while others (Catwoman, Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, Fantastic Four) seemed to just realize that superheroes were an easy cash-in for a quick buck. Others tried to follow this course and create a unique groove, but with less luck (Daredevil, Hulk).
One thing was certain – the genre had proven its viability, and there was no going back.
2006 – X-Men: The Last Stand
Sadly, as the superhero genre began to lose itself, so too did the X-Men franchise. The third entry traded well-drawn characters for shock deaths and spectacle. It didn’t help that Brian Singer abandoned the franchise to helm Superman Returns, a similarly misguided project that made all the opposite mistakes. While Superman Returns leaned too hard into nostalgia and the somber self-reflection of its hero, the third X-Men traded the emotional stakes of the Dark Phoenix saga for a snappy running time.
Instead of focusing on what it had previously done well, The Last Stand minimized Hugh Jackman’s role and focused on bombastic action. In the same year, 300 beat X-Men and Superman at their own game, proving that if you can’t get emotional stakes right, you at least needed amazing looking action.
The following year saw Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and Ghost Rider all fall prey to the similar mistakes. The mighty had fallen, and it seemed like the superhero genre had jumped the shark.
2009 – X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Fortunately, all was not lost. 2008 saw a one-two punch of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, proving that superheroes weren’t going anywhere. While the former proved that Batman Begins wasn’t a fluke, the latter established the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has set the bar for the genre ever since. Sadly, Fox didn’t get the memo in time that ill-focused, corporate cash-ins would no longer cut it.
To his credit, director Gavin Hood (Ender’s Game) and Jackman made a concerted effort to lend additional pathos to Logan’s history. The film seemed to want to approach its origin materials in a similar manner to Batman Begins, but even without last minute script changes, it would never have been more than a misguided attempt to remove the mystique of Logan’s past and re-mine the same material of X2.
Origins was the first time that Wolverine’s depiction definitively fell behind the superhero genre curve. Rather than paving the way for other heroes, Fox had tried to play catch up and failed. It could easily have been the last time Hugh Jackman played Wolverine.
2011 – X-Men: First Class
When X-Men: First Class was first announced, fans wondered if 20th Century Fox was offering another prequel or performing a hard reboot of the X-Men franchise. The truth was somewhere in the middle, and Hugh Jackman’s gruff cameo was there as proof. The plot details in the 1970 storyline may not have lined up perfectly with the previous entries, but Fox wasn’t going to throw away what worked best about them.
While First Class wasn’t perfect or groundbreaking in any real way, it was seen as a return to form for the series, with a strong focus on the relationship between Charles Xavier (now played by James McAvoy) and Eric Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). While it wasn’t a massive box office hit, it compared favorably to its most recent peers from Marvel Studios (Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger). Duds like the same year’s Green Lantern were quickly becoming the exception, rather than the rule, and the X-Men had once again secured their relevance among the rising tide, with Jackman’s role unforgotten.
2013 – The Wolverine
In 2012, The Avengers hit theaters and became the event movie of the decade. In the same year, Batman concluded his “grounded” Dark Knight trilogy, while The Amazing Spider-Man received his own. The DCEU’s own “gritty reboot” of Superman would follow the very next year in Man of Steel. Despite his abysmal first solo outing, 20th Century Fox decided to give Wolverine a second shot on his own. The world had not only realized the potential for a shared universe, it seemed more ready for a mature, character-driven superhero tales than ever before.
The Wolverine took massive strides towards covering up the bitter aftertaste of Origins, but it still managed to stumble in a third act, whose comic-booky tone clashed with the seriousness of the rest of the film. Perhaps more importantly, its story felt incidental – even distracting – from the ongoing X-Men mythos. While a Marvel-styled post-credits stinger hinted at Wolverine reuniting with Xavier and Magneto for X-Men: Days of Future Past, this doesn’t actually make much sense in the context of that film’s post-apocalyptic story. Furthermore, the next film would alter Logan’s history, essentially erasing the events of The Wolverine from the canon.
Jackman’s portrayal of Logan in The Wolverine was as relevant as ever, and his role better reflected the modern day superhero zeitgeist he had informed. Unfortunately, Fox was now far behind the curve in the world building of a cinematic universe.
2014 – X-Men: Days of Future Past
What happens when your universe is too muddled to compete, but too valuable to scrap? Days of Future Past – a sequel to First Class, a sequel AND prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, and a (sorta) hard reboot in the vein of Star Trek (2009). To be fair, Days of Future Past is the exact kind of weird, wacky sci-fi that comic book films needed to be borrowing from their source material. The delightfully insane, time-travel based storyline was likely only greenlit because Fox was in a tough place. They needed a fresh start, but without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The film brought back Brian Singer to finally reunite Wolverine with the X-Men, and essentially ignored three of the last four X-movies. It capitalized on everything that people had liked from the original formula while boosting production values to a level more akin to its peers. (Sadly, Singer still seemed allergic to comic-accurate costumes).
The X-Men didn’t just have their groove back. They were riding high on a legacy that made them competitive with the best Hollywood had to offer. In a year shared with two of Marvel’s best-received films yet (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), this was saying a lot.
Sadly, this year, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 would also release, signaling a turn of the tide towards jumbled films, desperately forcing to rush their own cinematic universes. The studios had forgotten the value of character-first storytelling all over again.
2016 – Deadpool/X-Men: Apocalypse
2016 may go down in history as a pretty rough year, and a number of these bumps were represented by its superhero output. Deadpool set X-Men box office records with a minuscule budget, R-rating, and self-loathing approach to the X-franchise. Then the official sequel to Days of Future Past released with X-Men: Apocalypse… and fell flat on its face.
The box office wasn’t necessarily cruel to Apocalypse, but critics and many fans were. The movie may have been a bloated, unfocused mess of unnecessary “world ending” destruction, but perhaps its worst offense was a misguided subplot whose only purpose was to set up an embarrassing Wolverine cameo. Not only did Logan’s cameo not jive with where he’d been left in the previous film, it also gave Hugh Jackman nothing to do but scream and flail with a bad haircut.
The same year, Marvel Studios would hold the line with the quality output of Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad proudly declare themselves as meaningful expansions to the DC Extended Universe. Both films familiarly tripped over themselves to catch up with Marvel’s shared universe, without putting the time to get audiences invested in their new takes on the characters.
2017 – Logan
Fortunately, Jackman’s career as Wolverine has a happy ending. Wherever Fox takes the X-franchise next, Logan stands as a testament to what superhero films can be when they’re not afraid to lean into their character. While it’s a bit sad that it took 9 films for Fox to realize that a film about foul-mouthed grump with knife hands and a tendency for getting shot to mush, (then regenerating) required an R-rating, but here we are.
Whether Logan falls at the top of your “Best X-Men Film” list or not, it’s hard to argue that it’s not the best depiction of his character yet committed to film. Logan is brash and shocking, heart-breaking and funny, dark and so very very hopeful. This Wolverine may still not boast the cat-like stealth or tracking skills of his comic counterpart, but he definitely fulfills the promise of his very first entries into the series. He relates to the audience in a human way.
Logan stands as a beacon for where the superhero genre can go next – no longer bound by conventions or ratings. Superheroes can be amusing and serious, adult and child-like, bombastic and personal. And sometimesl, if they’re very very good, they can be all these things at once.
Thanks for the ride, Hugh Jackman. It’s been a bumpy road, but certainly, one worth traveling.