Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Hugh Jackman and the Myth of Wolverine

Promo photo via 20th Century Fox
Australian actor Hugh Jackman was thirty-one years old when he played Wolverine, the role that made him a bankable global star in Bryan Singer’s 2000 film X-Men. Now forty-eight, he has completed filming his ninth (and, according to his Twitter, final) appearance as Wolverine for this year’s Logan. His age range across the movies, playing a character substantially (physically) unchanged since 1974, makes me wonder: how do mortal actors play immortal characters?

In 1972, before Wolverine existed, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco wrote a much-read essay, “The Myth of Superman.” The title is more than slightly misleading, since it’s about Superman’s audience, not Superman himself. But touching on how readers enjoyed serial stories like Superman comics, in the days before narrative continuity and “realism” became storytelling priorities, Eco notes how each story, though nominally independent, transforms the reader.

Eco’s central theme is “consumption.” Superman, who had by that time existed for about thirty-four years, isn’t constrained by time. He remains youthful, square-jawed, idealistically American. But his audience doesn’t, and as they continue reading, their ability to consume comics evolves. Every time Superman punches Lex Luthor, he nominally ages, nominally “consumes” himself—but not really. He actually consumes his relationship with his audience, and must constantly transform to remain relevant for changing readers.

By contrast, Wolverine doesn’t even nominally age. His “mutant healing factor” doesn’t merely stave off physical injury; the ravages of time don’t even influence him. His skin doesn’t leatherize, his joints don’t creak, his hairline doesn’t recede. Since I debuted the same year as Wolverine, I appreciate this mutation. But it also serves comics’ underlying conceit, that events published years, decades earlier, are somehow still recent, and events are always happening “now.”

Promo photo via 20th Century Fox
Though Wolverine’s superpowers keep him eternally thirtyish, Jackman lacks that blessing: besides deepening lines in his face, concealed behind makeup and copious facial hair, Jackman recently had his sixth—sixth!—skin cancer removed. Jackman cannot play the role forever, simply because he cannot resist time. Eventually the franchise must either end, or the role must be recast. Either option has dire implications for Wolverine going forward.

Critic Djoymi Baker writes that actors from influential franchises inevitably carry their characters into other appearances. George Takei always trails Hikaru Sulu’s clouds of glory behind him, something he used to his advantage in the series Heroes. We could continue: no matter how many roles David Tennant plays, the whiff of The Doctor always follows him. American audiences cannot see Patrick Stewart as Professor X without Captain Picard coloring our perceptions.

But the reverse also remains true. A role always has the imprint of the actor most associated with it: attempts to recast Michael Keaton’s restrained, whispering Batman became progressively worse as different actors attempted to play the same Bruce Wayne. Chris Pine as Captain Kirk remains disappointing as he cannot shake Bill Shatner’s shadow. And Brandon Routh as Superman… well. The only lead character ever successfully recast is James Bond.

That’s why, when existing superhero franchises like Batman or Spider-Man recast their leads, they also reboot altogether. As Hugh Jackman ages out of the Wolverine role, the entire franchise is jeopardized. (Notice that, unlike in comics, Cyclops and Jean Grey remain dead.) In comics, characters like Wolverine or the original X-Men retain their youthful vigor because they’re a collaborative invention of the artists’ and readers’ imaginations. In movies, actors get old.

Actors sometimes don’t take this well. Jackman has followed the Harrison Ford model of building a diversified career so he’s never yoked to one role to his credit. But consider how, aging out of Superman, George Reeves committed suicide, while Christopher Reeve essentially retired to yeomanry. The popularity of Birdman notwithstanding, Michael Keaton’s leading-man career essentially ended after Batman. God help Henry Cavill if he ever works for scale again.

Actor Hugh Jackman out of costume
Superheroes’ intimate relationship with their respective actors really consumes both. Since 2000, Hugh Jackman has inextricably been Wolverine, a portrayal that spills into the comics. Likewise, the reciprocal relationship between Nick Fury and Samuel L. Jackson resembles nothing seen since DC first retooled their Batman comics to portray Adam West. As Hugh Jackman uses up his ability to play Wolverine, he uses up Wolverine himself.

Grant Morrison has observed that superheroes reflect their audiences’ needs, which change with culture’s constant evolution. But depicting superheroes with live actors fixes them in time. To survive, Wolverine must completely abandon Hugh Jackman, an unlikely proposition for now. As actors and audiences age, characters become subject to time. And time is always unforgiving.

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