Let’s face it: the world was a much warmer, cosier place back in 2000 when 20th Century Fox’s rebooted X-Men franchise first hit our screens. Gladiator was about to become one of the most beloved films of all time, Britain was still comfortably in the European Union, and the world didn’t welcome the apocalypse with the turning of the new millennium. Seventeen years on, things aren’t quite so hopeful. World politics are in turmoil, our most iconic actors and musicians are swiftly departing this mortal coil and, perhaps the worst of all, the release of Logan marks the end of Hugh Jackman’s tenure as Wolverine.
But let’s not dwell on the negative. It’s time to celebrate 17 years of Wolverine: nine films, and a hell of a lot of Adamantium-coated violence.
So what it is about Wolverine that we find so relatable? A character that has stood the test of time, Wolverine first appeared in comic books in The Incredible Hulk #180 and #181 in October 1974. And that was it – the world was hooked. Frank Miller revised the character with a four-part eponymous series from September to December 1982, where Wolverine first uttered his catchphrase: “I’m the best at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.” It’s a sentiment that perfectly encompasses Wolverine’s entire ethos – which is why it isn’t a surprise that Wolverine is the only character to appear in nine out of ten films in the X-Men franchise.
Wolverine is a complete paradox – utterly invulnerable, with self-regenerating healing powers and claws that extend from his knuckles, he’s pretty badass. But at the same time, Logan has an incredible vulnerability that, in his ridiculously gruff and unapproachable way, makes him the most accessible character to an audience. And arguably it’s this inherent quality that makes X-Men the franchise that brought the comic book genre to the mainstream. Before this point, we’d had a series of popular but incredibly poor adaptations of Batman (we’re looking at you, Joel Schumacher) and incredibly cheesy comic book spin-offs – but more on that later. The superheroes of X-Men were slick, but relatable. The best thing about their universe is that the superheroes have gained their powers through evolution – they weren’t bitten by radioactive spiders, nor are they aliens from another planet. No, this is a very possible (albeit, unlikely) portrayal of how the human race could evolve into superheroes. This is why we loved X-Men in 2000, and it’s why we still love the X-Men franchise almost two decades on, despite some arguably poor films in the mix (honestly, X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn’t the best… ).
But let’s look at Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine in some more depth. Up until this point, Jackman was largely unheard-of outside of his roles on Broadway – a few straight-to-TV movies, a couple of TV shows, but nothing of note. But with X-Men, he was catapulted to fame. He was musclebound, had the characteristic “duck-ass” hairstyle of the comic books, and the same solitary, standoffish attitude as his counterpart. He perfectly played the tortured antihero, the antagonist to other X-Men, while still retaining the heart of gold when required. But possibly the best thing about Jackman’s Wolverine is that he isn’t a boy scout – far from it. Take Captain America, Superman, even Batman and Iron Man – what do you see? Privileged heroes (yes, privileged) in that they’re handed these powers, or they’re rich enough to buy them. How can the average Joe relate to that? In contrast, Logan riles against powers that he wouldn’t have chosen, that cause him pain every time he has to use them. And it’s this that made him a sustainable character, who could develop and grow over the years. The success of X-Men derives from the fact that it is a realistic view of how people become superheroes – and that is what makes the series so engaging.
Now, this may not be a popular opinion since the release of the prequel trilogy – First Class et al – but the original trilogy is arguably the best, even with The Last Stand. Considering they were made before special effects were as finely attuned as they are now, they were incredibly well-crafted films. With an excellent cast boasting the likes of Halle Berry, James Marsden, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart (enough said), the films were incredibly well scripted, and the best offering the comic-book genre had had in a very long time. We’ve since become accustomed to Marvel, and now DC, churning out two or three films a year like clockwork, but X-Men was the catalyst to this brave new world of superhero movies.
With the end of the original trilogy came the awkward moment where 20th Century Fox realised that they had to keep releasing movies in order to keep hold of the property rights. Thus, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013) were born. But while Wolverine was the most popular character of the initial three films, for some reason his popularity never translated to these solo projects; he struggled to be engaging enough to support an entire film in these two outings. The likely reason for these missteps is that, despite Wolverine’s popularity, what people loved about X-Men was the ensemble element. The main issue with Origins is that once we know Logan’s back story the mystery, and therefore the human interest, is gone – especially once we learned that it was Wolverine’s choice to have Adamantium fused to his bones.
Thankfully, Fox managed to bring things back around with an hilarious cameo in First Class: a very simple “Go fuck yourselves” which embodies Wolverine to perfection. Wolverine found himself back as one of the central figures of an ensemble cast in Days of Future Past (2014), another successful outing for the X-Men franchise, and while he was absent from Deadpool (the only film since 2000 depicting the X-Men that didn’t use the character), he was brought back for Apocalypse; firmly cementing Hugh Jackman’s place in comic-book movie history. It’s almost as if Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer were reluctant to omit the character entirely, in case his absence turned out to be a curse upon the franchise. Hence the very swift cameo in First Class – better not to tempt fate.
Which brings us to Logan, reportedly the final film featuring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. There have been many rumours surrounding Jackman’s departure from the franchise, but apparently, the reason is simple – he simply doesn’t have the energy to stay in “Wolverine shape” anymore. And who could blame the poor guy? He can’t have eaten anything but chicken for 17 years! It makes sense for this to be Jackman’s final outing as the character – Wolverine may not age, but Jackman certainly does, and everyone knew he’d have to quit sooner or later.
Still, his swansong raises questions over the future of the X-Men. Arguably, their universe has enough characters to keep the franchise churning out films for the next century if they wanted to take it that far. With a Gambit stand-alone project in the works, Deadpool 2 slated for 2018, and a million other possibilities besides, the franchise is far from dead in the water.
But for now, so long, Wolverine. We will sorely miss you, and we salute you for your service to the superhero genre.