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What Hugh Jackman leaving the X-Men franchise means for the superhero genre

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'Logan' New York Special Screening Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

With Logan hitting theaters today, Hugh Jackman’s 17-year tenure as Wolverine has theoretically come to an end. James Mangold’s film is a brutal, bittersweet send-off for a character (and actor) who’s arguably the lynchpin for the superhero movie genre’s longest-running franchise. Save for 2016’s Deadpool, Jackman has appeared in every single X-Men film to date, plus two of the video games. And more often than not, he’s front and center in the action. Frankly, casual viewers thinking about the X-Men will probably remember Hugh Jackman’s claws long before they ever arrive at Professor X or Magneto. Seeing him stepping away from the role is like seeing an elder statesman step down from his post.

It’s important to take stock of what that means. Superheroes effectively rule the box office now, and other franchises have emerged over the course of the last 20 years to eclipse the X-Men series. At a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains the gold standard for cross-property storytelling, the X-films, with their confusing timelines, repetition, and stunningly inconsistent quality, are second-string. So it’s all the more remarkable that Jackman emerged as the solid foundation of the series. His departure signals a turn not just for the series, but for the genre itself.

Spoilers ahead.

As The New York Times noted last month, Jackman is practically alone among performers who’ve played superheroes in ongoing franchises on-screen. Characters like Batman and Spider-Man have been rebooted multiple times, and even series veteran Patrick Stewart must share Professor Charles Xavier with the far younger James McAvoy. At this point, Jackman has joined the likes of Star Wars’ core cast for length of time inhabiting a single genre role. When fans unfairly cite X-Men as the film that kicked off the generation-defining superhero boom of the 2000s, Wolverine is a big reason why.

It’s not that he’s been the series’s single driving force. Actors like Sir Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender stand head and shoulders above most performers in the franchise, thanks in part to Magneto’s unique pathos, but also because of those actors’ sheer presence and gravitas. Jennifer Lawrence’s nuanced turn as Mystique helped revitalize the series in X-Men: First Class. Meanwhile, crowd-pleasing set pieces like Quicksilver’s “Time In a Bottle” scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past have been used to sell the quality of whole movies to audiences.

But Jackman is the most consistent element in the X-films, both in his presence as a leading man and in his ability to elevate even the worst of the franchise’s outings. His charisma and physicality let him create a believable Logan in the original X-Men, and his smart-ass, almost-hammy performances make him watchable in just about anything. It’s why Wolverine discovering the truth about his past became the emotional heart of X2: X-Men United, which still stands as one of the better X-films. He went all-in for the terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and his commitment shone through the lackluster script and terrible decision-making. X-Men: Apocalypse is a plodding mess of a movie, but Jackman’s extended (and otherwise unnecessary) cameo was one of the film’s few genuinely thrilling moments. Even Wolverine’s one line in X-Men: First Class is a joyful nod to fans, because no X-Men movie is complete without Logan.

There’s a reason for that. Wolverine embodies a bad-boy power fantasy that held sway over Marvel Comics in the 1980s and ‘90s. As an audience avatar, he lets fans imagine themselves as taking on the world and coming out unscathed. He’s an outcast who must grapple with the world’s prejudice like any X-Men character, but as a near-immortal tough guy, he’s disdainful of the more philosophical conflict between faction leaders Professor X and Magneto. Instead of choosing sides in their battle, he opts for his own, taking on the world’s reckless hate — and sometimes, samurai — with brutal efficiency. What’s more, his past as a soldier, mercenary, and mindless living weapon gives him a depth, complexity, and poignance that few other characters in the medium can compete with.

In short, he’s the quintessential badass in comics, and his crossover appeal can be seen in his solo comics runs, video games, and starring roles on TV. Jackman, who always played Logan as gruff but hiding a deep ocean of pain, has been excellent at capturing Wolverine’s essence as a haunted warrior. It’s why, despite being a fine stage actor and Oscar nominee, he’ll probably forever be known as Wolverine, in the same way Sean Connery will always be James Bond.

All this puts Jackman in an entirely unprecedented position when it comes to the genre. In the same way that Wolverine saw whole eras pass in his long life in comics, Jackman has seen the superhero fad of the late 1990s explode into a dominant driver of the Hollywood machine. He’s been at the center of that shift, and has seen superhero movie styles evolve as he’s aged out of a role designed for an eternally young man. In a way, the fatigue Jackman must feel having given so much of his life to this one role is akin to what audiences sometimes feel seeing the same superheroes land in theaters over and over again. Logan, a Western with an apocalyptically bleak outlook on mutantkind, is a fictionalized version of Jackman finally giving into that fatigue. Logan’s admissions of failure in the movie feel like Jackman acknowledging, on both a textual and metatextual level, that he and the rest of the movie X-Men failed — which makes it all the more incredible that such an ethos makes Logan the best X-movie ever made.

Logan

And that’s all too fitting. Logan thoroughly deconstructs the things fans love about Wolverine before finally burying him, and it’s easy to feel like the movie is attempting to close a chapter on the current state of the genre. Wolverine’s comic book death in 2014 had an impact because it made way for a future without him. (Old Man Logan notwithstanding.) Comic book characters don’t ever die for long, but killing off an unkillable superhero is a tacit admission that something needs to change. In this way, the end of Jackman’s film run as Wolverine becomes a symbol, suggesting comic book stories should embrace what comes next, instead of forever running in place. In the world of constant reboots and retellings, that’s a radical idea.

With that in mind, the idea that Wolverine is passing the torch to someone younger than himself has far more weight, especially when that someone is an equally badass girl of color. Superhero movies aren’t going anywhere, but they need to evolve to hold the interest of critics and audiences. That means leaving more and more of the past behind. Hugh Jackman’s departure is an opportunity to celebrate how important the character has become to popular culture. And given that he’s leaving on such a strong note, Logan invites us to start hoping for more good things to come.