Why the death of Wolverine is good for ‘X-Men’

Snikt! That is the sound in the comics when Wolverine’s claws extend from his knuckles. For 13 years, Hugh Jackman has been responsible for producing that sound in live-action. However, come summer 2017, Jackman will retract his claws and put them away for good. Jackman hinted back in April that he might be leaving the Marvel universe behind after the sequel to The Wolverine, which will once more be directed by James Mangold. Now it seems that will indeed be the case.

In a recent interview with TV’s Dr. Oz, Jackman confirmed he would be leaving the role, saying that “it felt like it was the right time to do it.” For some fans of the series on the Internet, the disclosure was likely heartbreaking. After all, Jackman has defined the role of Wolverine over seven movies and nearly 17 years. By the time Jackman leaves the role, he’ll have played the role of Wolverine in at least nine films—including appearances in X-Men: First Class and a rumored cameo appearance in next summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse. 

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That will be the most times a character has played a superhero on the big screen. However, for others, that might come as a breath of fresh air.

There’s no denying that Hugh Jackman is very good in the role; after all, there’s a reason why he’s played the character this long. However, his departure might finally allow some of the other X-Men characters—such as Channing Tatum‘s forthcoming Gambit or the beloved Rogue or Jean Grey—to really flourish. As Ethan Anderson of FirstShowing.Net says, “[Jackman’s departure is] the perfect way to set up the First Class franchise to continue and have plenty of mutants to keep the story going.”

It’s not really all that much of a secret that Jackman’s Wolverine has overshadowed many important characters in the X-Men film franchise because of the actor’s popular portrayal. It actually got to a point where the filmmakers seemed to misunderstand the whole reason why Wolverine is such a beloved character in the first place. In the comics, he’s a gruff loner—almost like an anti-hero, akin to Batman or The Punisher. He works better when he’s a side character who can play alongside other characters like Cyclops.

Joss Whedon, for example, understood this very well when he wrote a run of Astonishing X-Men comics called “Cure,” in which Wolverine was a supporting character that had some quips—but left the running of the team to Cyclops. In an ironic twist of fate, Whedon’s run would later be loosely adapted for X-Men: The Last Stand, but for some reason Cyclops was sidelined (and outright killed). Meanwhile, Wolverine was made the leader—because loners do so well when they are in charge—even though it defeats the purpose of the character and, y’know, makes him infinitely less interesting. Wolverine makes the most sense when he’s giving Cyclops a hard time—not when he’s picking up his slack.

Wolverine works best when he’s a side character who can play alongside other characters like Cyclops.

On top of that, The Last Stand also short-changed Jean Grey’s character arc as they borrowed lightly from a popular story from the comics called the Dark Phoenix Saga. In that storyline, Jean Grey is a powerful character who comes into her own, evaluating and determining her own self-worth when her own mutation “evolves.” She basically mutates into a god-like figure, consuming planets and entire species. 

In the film, though, she’s lost, squandering for any sense of power or control—as the men around her each try to control her, such as Professor Xavier, Magneto, and even Wolverine. In the end, Jean Grey eventually begs Wolverine to kill her—and he does, because apparently only Wolverine can kill an omnipotent being (as well as wear some damn good omnipotent resistant leather). In the comics, Jean actually left Earth, which was her decision, as she defied Cyclops and the other X-Men. In the movie, she succumbs to Wolverine and the others.  

As the Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw argued in a post last May, such gender issues are indicative of a larger diversity problem in the X-Men films, best exemplified by the most recent movie in the franchise, Days of Future Past

Days of Future Past had an extended cast of Game of Thrones-like proportions, but only one of the main characters was a woman. All of the characters of color were restricted to backup roles in the dystopian future scenes: A lengthy fight sequence where all of the meaty storytelling remained in the hands of Magneto and Professor Xavier.

Storm, along with newcomers Bishop, Sunspot, Blink (played by Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing) and Warpath (a little-known Native American X-Man), were selected for their cool, flashy powers, but had little dialogue and no character development whatsoever. Most viewers were probably unaware that these dystopian future characters even had names.

This sudden influx of racial diversity was meant to counterbalance the overwhelmingly white and male nature of the movie’s main cast. Unfortunately, it also served to remind us that while Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, and Hank McCoy got to chase around after Mystique back in the 1970s, the main role of non-white characters was to provide interchangeable expository dialogue and keep Wolverine alive for long enough to save the world.

20th Century Fox might be inclined to re-cast Jackman when he vacates the role after The Wolverine 3 slashes its way into theaters in summer 2017, and Entertainment Weekly jokingly suggested Asa Butterfield for the part. But here’s hoping that Fox lets the character sit on the sidelines for a bit. 

It’s time for not just Jackman but for Fox to hang up the claws as well. As X-Men: First Class proved, you don’t need Wolverine as a lead character in order to make a good or successful X-Men movie (First Class got some of the best reviews of the franchise). There is a wealth of supporting characters in the X-Men pantheon that are long overdue for some exposure; for instance, Rogue, a fan favorite in the comics, actually got exorcised altogether from Days of Future Past. (Fortunately, Fox is smart and is putting out a Rogue Cut of the movie that comes out in July, restoring her scenes and reportedly adding 20 more minutes of material.) 

Here’s hoping that Fox lets the character sit on the sidelines for a bit. 

It seems like 20th Century Fox and Bryan Singer, director of the X-Men movies, is already being proactive about moving away from featuring Wolverine as the central character of the series. Next summer’s X-Men: Apocalypse will allegedly only feature Wolverine in a cameo role, instead focusing on the younger versions of characters certain fans have been clamoring to see return, including Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee. 

This is actually exciting for several reasons. For one, Days of Future Past was essentially a soft reboot of the entire franchise, meaning the last several films have technically been erased from the series’ continuity. That means Apocalypse and any X-film that follows doesn’t need to tread over familiar territory. Anything can happen.

With that, I hope 20th Century Fox, Singer, and whoever ends up helming the franchise after Singer’s eventual departure resists the admittedly strong temptation to recast Wolverine, leading to the torturous situation DC Comics experienced in replacing Christian Bale‘s Batman. Instead of a #Batfleck scenario—as the Internet feels doomed to instantly hate anyone who takes the reigns of such an iconic character—why not give the role some room to breathe? Why not gives fans time to let their attachment to Hugh Jackman fade so we can all get over it together?

In addition, the looming Apocalypse reboot feels like a good time to reboot the series’ complicated relationship with women, at a moment when the ongoing Black Widow controversy forces us to reflect on the troubled role of women in superhero films. Instead of making Jean Grey into just another Damsel in Distress, ready to be put “put her out of her misery,” why don’t we let her use her omnipotent powers to take over the franchise? 

In the comics, when Jean Grey is around, Wolverine’s claws stay where they belong—and it’s time the movies reflected that.

Screengrab via The Wolverine/YouTube

Dan Marcus

Dan Marcus

Dan Marcus is a geek culture reporter based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in First Showing and Trek Movie.