20th Century Fox
Last summer in this space, I put together a lot of words, paragraph-wise, about Brie Larson choosing to take on the mantle of Captain Marvel in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and expressed in print for the first time one of my general theses about Hollywood and show business, that being, “No true movie star ever takes a part that is bigger than he (or she) is.”
A good example of this thesis is the difference between Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise. RDJ is a brilliant actor and, last I checked, the highest paid one on the planet, but he is without question identified with Tony Stark. He is Tony Stark, and it’s that role which has made him the megastar he has become. By contrast, Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise, but Tom Cruise is not Ethan Hunt, or any other character, if you get my meaning. There isn’t any one role with which you can identify Cruise, because he is, by definition, bigger than the parts he plays.
This whole thing caused a fair amount of furor at the time, and more than a few angry comments directed towards me, but that’s fine, because I enjoy provoking discussion, and believe that if I write something with which everyone agrees, it’s boring. One person, in fact, asked me point blank, with no small amount of righteous indignation, “Are you saying that Dr. Strange is bigger than Benedict Cumberbatch?”
Now, I don’t respond to comments posted at the bottom of my columns, but if I did, I would have said, “You’re asking me if a character who has been around for 50 years and has had literally hundreds of stories written about him is bigger than an actor who became famous for playing Sherlock Holmes? Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
I bring all this up because, at long last, Hugh Jackman is retiring Wolverine (aka Logan), the character that made him a star, after spending 17 years playing a superhero better than anyone else ever has. I don’t believe Jackman to be an exception to my above-stated rule, because he is so closely identified with Logan, but rather a shining beacon of an example of the best possible outcome of it, for both actor and character.
20th Century Fox
Lots of people have played Batman and Superman, The Hulk and Spider-Man, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else as Wolverine, because Jackman took one of the most popular characters to ever appear in a comic book and made it his own. As the retrospectives came in last week ahead of Logan’s Friday release, David Hayter (the writer of the X-Men movie that first introduced Jackman and Logan to a mainstream audience), talked about how the character as written was grumpier, nastier, generally less pleasant, but that Jackman’s natural charm, his charisma, his overall joie de vivre, was impossible to hide, and the fact that it came through made both him and the role he was playing an undeniable sensation.
In the years since, he has become one of the most appealing presences on the big screen, and even if he’s not able to carry a non-super hero movie like some others do — though he certainly has his star power, there’s no questioning that — the way he has embraced this part, the manner in which he has run towards the adulation and identification with a single, career-defining role, flies in the face of so many who try to do the opposite, and all it does is make us respect him more.
The fact that he goes out on top, after delaying the film until he felt the script was just right — another thing not everyone would do, considering the enormous pay day he was getting for the venture — is one added feather in his cap. Logan is, simply, a brilliant piece of filmmaking, the perfect way to go out. It is one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, and yet, is barely a superhero movie at all. In fact, at its heart it’s really a western, a classic take on the lone hero doing one last good thing for redemption — containing both overt and subtle references to one of the defining entries in the genre, Shane — and a masterful one of those, as well.
The movie, and Jackman’s performance, is an absolute triumph, a brilliant coda to what has been arguably the most impressive run by one actor in one role in movie history.
If nothing else, Jackman has shown that he is one of the great talents of the 21st century. His work hosting the Academy Awards in 2009 was perhaps the best in recent memory, his abilities to sing and dance, as well as act, make him as formidable a performer as there is (recall, please, his deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for the otherwise lamentable 2012 Les Misérables adaptation, as well as the darkness and haunted quality he brought to Keller Dover in 2013’s Prisoners), and his clear, unbridled joy at his station in the world, his appreciation for such good fortune, his affection for his fans and admirers, all combine to make him irresistible.
20th Century Fox
He is also, without a shred of doubt, incredibly smart about his career. He exploited Wolverine for all it was worth, and set up his second act with amazing aplomb. This fall, he’ll appear as P.T. Barnum in another 20th Century Fox film, The Greatest Showman, and the studio is already planning a huge awards push for him. Whether or not the movie will be any good is a reasonable question — a first-time director is at the helm and, even though it has an excellent cast that includes Rebecca Ferguson, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Diahann Carroll and Zac Efron, one never knows how a thing is going to turn out until one sees it — but whether or not Jackman will be is not. He’s gong to absolutely kill that part. Murder it. The greatest showman of the 21st century is playing the greatest showman of the 19th.
I mean, come on. This is the part Jackman was born to play. Of course he’s going to be great at it. The only question is, will his own swan song in the part that will be the opening sentence of his obituary upstage this one? When the next Oscar season starts up again in two or three months, will people be less interested in rewarding him for what will indubitably be another example of singing, dancing and acting in all its fabulosity than they are in finally recognizing the singular achievement of his Wolverine?
When faced with multiple positive options and the tough decision that goes along with them, my mother, in her considerable wisdom, will say, “Oh, to have such problems.” She could say the same thing about Hugh Jackman’s future. It should be so bright for all of us.