Logan, the latest film in Fox’s X Men movie-verse, marks the conclusion of Hugh Jackman’s 17 year tenure as the iconic mutant Wolverine, and even amongst superhero skeptics the film is garnering rave reviews. Drawing thematically on the Old Man Logan storyline from the comics by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, Logan sees the eponymous hero as an older, more vulnerable character. His healing abilities have diminished, leaving him scarred and in chronic pain, which he medicates with alcohol. While the film doesn’t go into the beyond-bonkers territory of the comics – which includes roving gangs of incestuous Hulk hillbillies and Logan getting very close to “super villain landlord” Bruce Banner – it does signal a fascinating change in the narrative of one of the superhero genre’s most iconic creations.
Wolverine has always been a fascinating game of contrasts for fans: He’s a seemingly unbeatable force who is at his most compelling when his vulnerabilities are exposed. For seven films, through major time jumps and dramatic shifts, Logan’s journey has been one driven by this balance, with Jackman changing little except to add a few more muscles over the course of 17 years. Jackman is now 48, and has indicated that Logan will be his final time in the role, so there is added pathos to the character’s own journey: aging as we must all do.
The model of the ideal Hollywood hero has shifted over the course of the industry’s history, although for the most part it is defined as a youthful exploit. From the daring cowboys and suave swashbucklers of the Golden Age, to the current swathe of superheroes, the preferred model of heroism tends to be young, white, male, and largely untroubled by reality. Even in instances where a character has clearly aged, such as the later years of Roger Moore’s tenure as James Bond, that aging was never fully acknowledged; Moore, with thinning hair and a creakier fighting technique, goes about his adventures and seductions in A View To a Kill as if time had frozen.
This is a phenomenon that’s even more noticeable with the rarer instance of women action heroes, who are beautiful, lithe and seldom over 35. The assumption of this ideal is rooted in a lot of societal standards that fetishize youth and vitality, but it’s also one that can be limiting from a storytelling point of view. We know Wolverine’s going to heal, but the cumulative effects of decades of damage on his body and his obvious struggle to deal with it makes his story all the more compelling.
Logan is not the only example of a beloved hero dealing with the inescapable effects of time. James Bond’s arc took a darker turn in Skyfall when, after a major injury, he was forced to acknowledge the reality of his own body failing him. His aim is not as sharp as it was, his endurance is lacking, and his drinking has become an impossible to ignore problem. The obvious irritation on his face as realizes these changes is palpable. Even Han Solo himself faced this problem in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Some things stay the same but it’s clear that taking on the galaxy is a young person’s game.
Then there’s the flipside of the equation, with Hollywood embracing older actors for the kind of gun-toting, ass-kicking action hero leading roles that seemed to dry up past the age of 40. The focus is less on exploring aging through the genre and more on showing the capabilities and power that can be retained passed the supposed age of aptitude. After years as a reliable character actor with critically acclaimed roles in Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, Liam Neeson’s career took a dramatic turn when he signed on to the lead in revenge thriller Taken at the age of 56. Two commercially successful sequels later, this past decade of Neeson’s work has been defined by this action status, from The A Team to the upcoming The Commuter.
Sylvester Stallone has seemingly never stopped being the mega-muscled action hero of the Rambo years, with The Expendables trilogy seeing him team up with an assortment of older classic Hollywood action men like Bruce Willis, Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger to make up the ultimate mercenary group. Tom Cruise has only gotten more ambitious in his later years as an action hero, with two Jack Reacher films, five movies in the Mission Impossible series and now a leading role in Universal’s monster-verse reboot The Mummy to his name. He’s even doing his own stunts. It’s not limited to men either, as Helen Mirren went full assassin in RED and its sequel, toting an assortment of very large guns and looking incredible in the process. Audiences clearly appreciated this too, as all of the above films had varying degrees of box office success.
It’s a noted contrast from the tropes of the elderly Hollywood previously relied on. If the senior cast members weren’t doling out tidbits of inspiration to the younger stars of the film’s focus then they were often subjected to condescending mockery or cheap gags, where a bout of swearing or tawdry sex jokes were their only definable characteristics. Even Robert De Niro couldn’t escape this fate with the truly awful Bad Grandpa, but it’s a phenomenon with its roots in Hollywood history. Not even three Oscars to their names and decades of critical appraisal could save Bette Davis and Joan Crawford from having to go full-aged crazy in the cult classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The same year that film was released, Davis placed an ad in Variety looking for work, which had dried up in her later years. Aging actors previously “sent out to pasture” by the industry that made them are now showing they can keep up with the young ones.
While it remains to be seen if Logan will indeed by Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine – with reviews as good as this film is getting, it may be tough for Fox to let go of their prized asset – its central conceit offers a refreshing change from the polished heroes of its genre contemporaries. A tired, bitter and world-weary Logan who remains capable yet still struggles with the realities of his condition is a hero that’s complex, compelling and all too relatable.