Back in the 1990s, there was no superhero more beloved than Wolverine. Thanks to the cartoon series, Jim Lee’s insanely popular X-Men run, some video games, and endless action figures, everyone adored the growling clawed anti-hero. It was likely the characters obscene popularity at the time that helped get the first X-Men movie off the ground in an era when Blade was the only successful Marvel movie. The search for an actor to play Wolverine was long and arduous. In the end, fans cried out, “who?” when Australian Hugh Jackman was announced as the heir to the adamantium, and cried foul when they learned his most successful previous role was headlining a revival of Oklahoma. Meanwhile, when Patrick Stewart was announced in the role of chrome dome X leader Charles Xavier, nerds everywhere rejoiced. Both ended up being ideal choices for the X-Men’s live action cinematic endeavours and this week both actors bid farewell to their iconic roles in the suitably sombre farewell picture Logan.
The beginning of both performers journey to X-Men infamy couldn’t have been more different. Patrick Stewart came in as both a beloved thespian and a Comic-Con favourite thanks to Star Trek: The Next Generation. There was no other possible choice. He was beloved before he spoke a word and proved to be every bit as brilliant in the role as anyone could have hoped. Jackman, on the other hand, was a massive question mark until the first movie arrived. The pretty boy actor didn’t look the part of the gruff and diminutive anti-hero. He had no track record (he’d only been put into the running after the more obvious choice of Russell Crowe suggested his fellow countryman after turning down the movie). Of course, Jackman ended up being an excellent Wolverine, even if it took a while for him to grow into the role.
The first X-Men flick was underfunded and tonally confused. Director Bryan Singer wanted to take the mutant allegory seriously, but the studio wanted some fluffy pop culture fun. In the end, the film found and awkward place in the middle and didn’t quite offer the type of comic book action that fans might want. It was a decent movie and a hit. Most people praised Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen for their pained, powerful, and dramatic worth on two sides of the spectrum of response to being part of a discriminated social group. Everyone else, not so much. Hugh Jackman hardly embarrassed himself in the role and indeed laid the foundation of a character who he would play six more times over the next 17 years. However, he didn’t quite get to do the brooding and berserker characters shifts as often or effectively as fans might have liked. That came a few years later.
In 2003, the awkwardly titled X2: X-Men United fixed all of the problems with the first X-Men movie and delivered probably the first straight up masterpiece of Marvel movie entertainment. The mixture of action and allegory was spot on. Patrick Stewart deepened his empathic and powerful portrayal of Professor X, while Jackman got to both deliver his first genuinely bone-crunching Wolverine smack down while protecting that special X school, and hints of his tragic past finally grew into something more substantial. Sure, the Wolverine wigs were still rough but suddenly it was clear that Jackman didn’t just get the character, he was able to transform himself into Wolverine.
Of course, since studios at the time didn’t exactly treat the superhero genre with the respect it deserved, all of the good will of X2 quickly disappeared. The conclusion of the initial X-Men trilogy The Last Stand was by all accounts a disaster. Several directors quit the project thanks to the studio;s determined rush to have a 2006 summertime hit. Corners were cut. Depth was ignored. Patrick Stewart got an undignified death scene for his beloved character, which felt like an insult to the actor and fans, while Jackman had only a few good action scenes and a bunch of soap opera to play. It was a mess. Jackman was at least promised a make-up picture in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where he would get center stage to play all of the idiosyncrasies of his damaged mutant murderin’ machine. Somehow, that production was even more fraught and the film an even bigger failure than The Last Stand. Fans were furious, Jackman was unsatisfied. It seemed like the X-men series would die on a down note and Jackman would be remembered as that guy who played Wolverine well once and then got saddled with two of the worst superhero movies of his era. Thankfully, it didn’t end that way. There was redemption.
It would be nice to say that the folks at Fox realized that they had done poorly by their marquee superhero property and wanted to give the X-Men the respect they deserved, but that’s not how the franchise ended up being revived. Nope, the massive success of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-flicks and the early efforts in the MCU made superheroes the biggest game in town, so it only made sense that the X-Men be revived. At first that meant a reboot in the form of the downright excellent X-Men First Class. But that wasn’t the end. After that success, Fox decided to bring back the original cast for a few victory laps. Jackman first got to revive his character with The Wolverine, a make-up picture of the pitiful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Loosely based on the beloved Chris Claremont and Frank Miller Wolverine In Japan comic, the blockbuster was both an artistic and commercial success if not a massive hit or an instant classic. The movie at least dared to take the character seriously, delivered some impressive action scenes, and embraced the Japanese setting for a broken samurai tale of sorts. Sure the CGI robo-samurai finale was a letdown and the whole thing felt more like a sidequest that a stand-alone narrative, but hey! At least it was better than the last Wolverine movie and meant that Jackman didn’t have to leave the role as a disgrace.
The success of The Wolverine and First Class led to X-Men: Days Of Future Past. An adaptation of one of Chris Claremont’s most beloved X-adventures rooted in time travel, the movie felt like a project conceived to correct the mistakes of The Last Stand. That flick was supposed to be an epic farewell to the original X-Men cast based on both The Dark Phoenix Saga and Joss Whedon’s The Cure, but it failed to deliver on that ambition in nearly every way possible (Thanks Brett Ratner!). Days Of Future Past brought back Singer and the entire original cast and combined it with the new First Class team. It should have been an overstuffed and overambitious endeavour. Instead, it was a blast of entertainment that finally brought the epic and surreal X-Men adventures from the comics to the screen untouched. All of the contributors to the success of the long franchise got a moment to shine, while Stewart and Jackman got a fun curtain call. Sure, it wasn’t deep but dammit, it was at least clever and fun.
All of which brings us to Logan an existential neo-Western that just happens to be an X-Men movie (yes, I know that Jackman was technically also in X-Men: Apocalypse but I’m ignoring that mediocre movie because who cares?). R-rated, slow, tortured, and layered with meaning it’s easily the most adult X-Men movie and one of the most thoughtful films to ever emerge from the superhero genre in general. More importantly, it’s a perfect farewell for Jackman and Stewart, two actors who defined the franchise for almost two decades bringing their formerly two-dimensional heroes to thrillingly human life. For Stewart, it’s a chance to play a damaged and battered Xavier whose Buddha-like calm and quest for peace has been hampered by brain ailments and a nearly apocalyptic destruction of mutant kind. He’s a shell of his former self, yet still filled with the hope and idealism beneath his cracking psyche. It’s a heartbreakingly human performance of a character who was always typically defined by stoic calm and easily one of the finest film roles the Shakespearian veteran has ever received (blockbuster or otherwise). To see Stewart dig into the depths of his talent and humanity for one last crack and Professor X is a beautiful thing. One that should be honoured with awards in a world where trophies are routinely awarded to actors, even Logan is technically a comic book blockbuster. Hopefully, it’ll happen. He certainly deserves the praise.
As for Hugh Jackman, Logan was an opportunity to play a weakened Wolverine defined almost entirely by the character’s inner turmoil. The mutant who can’t be hurt has always been an intriguing combination of impossible physical perfection and seemingly insurmountable mental anguish. Too see Jackman finally get a chance to play that anguish fully while also struggling with his battered body for the first time can be gut-wrenchingly powerful. That the character is literally forced to confront the legend of Wolverine vs. the real thing on screen is an opportunity that Jackman likely never imagined would come his way, and he delivered entirely on the promise. It’s a beautiful farewell to the icon and arguably the most complex depiction of Wolverine ever written in any form of media. That Jackman would get to portray this movingly layered version of the berserker bad ass feels not just like an appropriate farewell, but a vindication. He faced so much unjust criticism over the last 17 years of playing Wolverine, even though the problems with those projects were normally outside of his control.
Now that this cinematic chapter in Wolverine’s career is over, it’s almost poetic that Jackman got a chance to deliver the most complex rendition of the character that the world has ever seen. Even though Patrick Stewart was always beloved in his time as Professor X, it’s also perfect that his final onscreen appearance not only represents his best work, but is a humbled and battered version of Xavier that’s never quite been seen before either. In their own very different ways, Jackman and Stewart were vital cogs in the history of superhero cinema, proving that the cartoony pop culture icons could become fascinatingly human characters on the big screen. Initially, they used their respective talents in movies that gave them few opportunities to dig deep and somehow still stood out from the pack in massive ensemble blockbusters. Now that this time in their respective careers is over, it’s nice that both Jackman and Stewart got to go out on such a high note. Logan makes a strong case for superhero blockbusters being capable of sustaining art film attentions and ambitions. No actors deserved the opportunity to prove that more. It’s no surprise that both performers were up to the task and while it will be sad to see them leave the franchise and genre that they once hoisted up on their capable shoulders, at least they are leaving with a project that will be remembered for many years to come. Good job gents. Thanks for all the joy over the last 17 years and also for those well-earned tears at the end.