If you know anything about Wolverine, you know this: he’s the best at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. And if you know anything about Hugh Jackman, you know this: he’s (among the) best at what he does, and what he does is very crowdpleasing.
So it’s great that he’s back as Wolverine for Deadpool 3, right? After all, Jackman and Ryan Reynolds have made it clear that their adventure, set years before Logan, won’t undo Logan’s sacrifice. And anyway, if you don’t like dead superheroes coming back to life, then X-Men—whose roster includes multiple characters whose defining feature is cheating death—may not be for you.
But despite the initial excitement of seeing a fan-favorite one last time, asking Jackman to don the Canucklehead’s mutton chops once again presents serious problems for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Jackman comes from another era of superhero movies, from the start of the second wave following the initial output of Superman and Batman films. When X-Men came to theaters in 2000, only two big screen Marvel movies existed: Blade (which ruled then and rules now) and Howard the Duck (which does not).
Moreover, Superman and Batman succeeded in part because they didn’t treat the comic book lore as seriously as fans did. As wonderful as Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder are as Superman and Lois Lane, the real draw to Superman was its big budget special effects the involvement of Marlon Brando, and Gene Hackman, the latter of whom felt like he was in a different (comedy) movie opposite Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine. Batman drew attention because it had Jack Nicholson and Tim Burton and a distinct aesthetic separate from the 1960s show. The weird jokes (i.e., cutaway gag to guy with ice cream cone during Zod’s attack in Superman II) and disregard for basic character traits (Batman kills a whole bunch of people) made superheroes palatable to a wider audience.
So when Jackman appears onscreen with a scowl and a stogie, his hair fashioned into the unlikely coif designed by Dave Cockrum, comic book fans couldn’t help but cheer. And when the movie stops to give us an insert shot of Wolverine’s claws actually breaking the skin when they pop, our minds were blown. It felt like the people making the movie cared about Wolverine, that they got him.
So happy were we that we really didn’t care that Hugh Jackman looked nothing like Wolverine. Chris Claremont and his various artistic collaborators established Wolvie as a runt, a short and unattractive man whose bestial nature regularly drove him into berserker rages, even against his friends. An extremely talented actor, Jackman can furrow his brow and show signs of nobility against the beast howling inside of him. But he can’t change the fact that he’s tall, handsome, and mostly hairless.
To be clear, this is not a complaint. X-Men served as a crucial link between late ’90s action movies like The Matrix and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, which gave us not one, but two super-characters in brightly colored costumes. And a lot of that success came from Jackman’s soulful performance, who, along with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, reminded viewers that rich drama can be wrung from four-color characters.
But that was over two decades ago. We’re not in that place anymore, not when even your grandma knows who Groot is, not when Z-listers Mr. Immortal and Porcupine show up on She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. With public perception shifting, there’s no need for Wolverine to be a certainly conflicted, but largely standard-issue good-hearted leading man. Viewers are ready for a feral scuzzball in bright yellow spandex.
Up until Reynolds’ announcement on social media, that’s exactly what we expected. Not long ago, shortsighted comic book fans were actively cheering for Disney to swallow up more of the pop culture landscape by buying 20th Century Fox precisely because the MCU could tap into the richness of the X-Men comics in a way that Fox had not.
Speculation about SDCC and D23 announcements hoped that we’d hear about Karl Urban, Daniel Radcliffe, or Taron Egerton slapping on Wolvie’s finned face in an upcoming movie. The Ms. Marvel mutant reveal and She-Hulk Wolverine tease led us to believe that we’d get to see how the feared and hated X-Men would live in a world with the loved and trusted Avengers. We thought we’d see a new take on Wolverine, unlike the version played by Jackman for almost a quarter of a century.
Of course, Jackman’s part in a Deadpool movie comes with a litany of caveats. Deadpool famously knows he’s in a movie, and the fourth-wall breaking allows for a lot more levity than other characters. The stakes are going to be lower for this Wolverine, as it will be almost assuredly played as a well-known actor playing a popular role more than it will be the introduction of a beloved character in the MCU.
His appearance will likely have much in common with the return of his X-Men co-star and fellow Logan casualty Patrick Stewart as Professor X in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Along those lines, Deadpool 3 will probably be another multiverse story, like Multiverse of Madness and Spider-Man: No Way Home.
But that’s part of the problem. One more swan song for Stewart’s Xavier won’t undercut the MCU Professor X, whoever they may be (come on, Giancarlo Esposito!). But Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina were already the definitive Green Goblin and Doc Ock in the public mind. Even if the MCU eventually introduces more comics-accurate versions of those characters later down the road, the new actors will have to define themselves against Dafoe and Molina, because we’ve already seen Tom Holland battle them. Instead of allowing the MCU to be a fresh take on characters from earlier eras, No Way Home saddled them with unnecessary baggage for easy nostalgia points. Jackman will be doing the same in Deadpool 3.
Jackman’s performance deserves praise, especially from superhero fans. He took the role seriously and crafted a unique character, tragic and inspiring. The X-Men franchise, if not the entire state of superhero movies, would not be such a success without his commitment to the role. But Wolverine had existed for more than 25 years before Jackman played him, appearing in hundreds of stories. To paraphrase one of the first and best of those stories, Jackman’s taken his shot. Now it’s someone else’s turn.