Virtually the moment Logan came out in theaters people began to wonder who would replace Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Debates over recasting for future movies showed up all over the X-Men fandom and I cringed. Logan, The Wolverine, was always Hugh Jackman. He still is. Like Leonard Nimoy with Star Trek’s Spock, Hugh Jackman has become synonymous with this character he’s portrayed.
This isn’t always the case with every actor or every role out there; it’s a unique event caused by a blend of equally unique circumstances. Some are the result of role or the actor, others are beyond anyone’s control. For Jackman it was a seventeen year perfect storm that solidified him as The Wolverine in the minds of viewers.
An Iconic Role
Whenever it’s announced a popular book or comic is going to be brought to life there’s a swell of excitement. Even the most skeptical fans are curious to see how their favorite characters end up onscreen. The greater the popularity of the source material, the more likely the popularity of the new media and the same holds true for the popularity of a character. If popular enough a single character alone can draw in an audience and The Wolverine is that sort of character.
Despite having many members over the years, each with their own fans, it seems no one’s had such a wide and passionate following in The X-Men as The Wolverine. Even those who aren’t intense or longterm fans of X-Men know who Wolverine is. With his wild hairstyle, snikt-ing adamantium claws, and propensity to call others “bub” Logan is one of the key X-Men that fans get to know and love. Anyone who would play him is going to get wild amounts of attention, simply because the character is so well-known and beloved.
A Relative Unknown
As much excitement that comes with a favored book or comic being brought to life, there’s also dread. Characters imagined to perfection in readers’ heads now have to be made flesh and blood by an actor and there’s a lot of risk in that. Before casting even truly starts fans are throwing out suggestions, preferences, and shooting down any name they don’t like. It often gets worse if fans disagree with the choice that’s ultimately made. Some studios have attempted to avoid this by casting someone not widely known; a sort of blank slate upon which the character can be created for fans without the presumptions that may come with an already well-known actor.
While Hugh Jackman was known in the UK and his homeland of Australia, it was mainly for his stage work and lead part in a TV movie version of Oklahoma. He wasn’t really known beyond that or at all in the United States…and that was a good thing. There were few preconceived notions about whether or not he could pull off the part because no one knew anything about him. There was no risk in the audience thinking “this is just Jackman’s version of Wolverine” or “he was better as…”. Jackman was introduced to the world as X-Men’s Wolverine and, in turn, he introduced the world to Wolverine.
An Emotional Connection
Fans can be unforgiving if they believe their favorite character isn’t being done justice. A person can end up despised for portraying a character “wrong” or as a one-sided caricature. That said, if portrayed with an understanding for the complexities of the character and with fans in mind, the actor can instantly be accepted and develop a loyal fanbase as the character. The best way to do that is to honor larger-than-life characteristics while still finding a way to connect to audiences on an emotional level.
Right from the beginning – swigging beer, gnawing a cigar, and slicing a shotgun in half with his claws – Hugh Jackman had no trouble showing the classically tough side of Wolverine. It would’ve been easy to cater only to that side of the comic character and keep him the berserker-raging badass he can be. Yet, the films and Jackman have always been smart in exploring the deeper aspects of Logan. They’ve shown his insecurity, pain, and vulnerability in allowing him to panic, cry, and make mistakes. Audiences may never be able to relate to adamantium claws or invulnerability, but they can relate to the humanity of Jackman’s Wolverine.
There From Beginning To End
Prior to 2000’s X-Men, there was no film about the mutants of the Marvel universe. The truth is, it was the comic book movie that kicked off all the other the comic book movies we have today. The occasional novelization aside, Wolverine was strictly a comic book and 90s cartoon character before he was introduced as a live-action one by Hugh Jackman. Both character and the actor have been paired from the very beginning of the franchise. Jackman was the first to define how mass audiences saw Logan and, in turn, Wolverine defined how the world saw Hugh.
Over the years, the various sequels, prequels, and pseudo-reboots Hugh has remained The Wolverine. There’s never been a time when Logan showed up in a Marvel movie and wasn’t played by Jackman. He’s been the young buck mocking the concept of a mutant superhero team and he’s been the old man feeling hope for his kind even as his own life slips away. Ultimately, that continuous, long-term, portrayal has helped solidify the connection between Jackman and this role. It’s impossible to think of one without the other and, going forward, it’ll continue to be.