Why a Superhero Actor Can Never Truly Move On

Iron Man_Wolverine_Captain America_Split - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest
Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Jackman and Chris Evans influenced how comics writers portray their heroes, even as their characters seeped into their own real-life personas.

Earlier this week Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart were awarded with Guinness World Record certificates for holding the longest careers as live-action Marvel superheroes, as Wolverine and Professor X respectively. From X-Men (2000) to Logan (2017), the two actors held their roles for 16 years and 228 days, with Logan providing a powerful farewell to both of those characters as we’ve come to know them onscreen. In a video clip from This Morning, Jackman celebrates his record, delighted and emotional over an honor he’s dreamed about since childhood. It’s a touching moment that reminds us of how much these characters impact us and the actors who play them. While the nature of modern superhero movies permits that these roles are passed down, like Shakespearean characters or James Bond, that doesn’t prevent actors from being immortalized by these heroes and villains. As we prepare for Avengers: Endgame, and potentially get ready to say goodbye to another group of heroes and villains we’ve had the chance to watch grow over the years, it’s worth considering what these actors mean to us in these roles and the legacies they leave behind.

Almost every superhero and super villain casting announcement is met with a barrage of opinions, both negative and positive upon release. This has been true since the day Michael Keaton was first announced to play Batman for Tim Burton, and it’ll surely be true when the next live-action Batman, the fifth since Keaton, is cast later this year. It’s funny that so often these casting choices that inspire so much controversy eventually come to instill so much confidence among audiences who will forever associate these actors with the role. And that’s especially true for those actors who get to wear their role like a title belt and spend years defending it, taking a few punches along the way, but still remaining a champ. Jackman, even if we were to consider X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) a blow, which we shouldn’t because his performance is great, certainly leaves the superhero movie arena as a champ.

I was 10 when Jackman was cast as Wolverine, and I remember reading about it in the pages of Wizard magazine. I remember the concerns about the lanky 6’2 stage musical actor playing the gruff and 5’3 Wolverine. I remember reading that Dougray Scott had originally been cast and, lacking access to the internet, was unable to look up a picture of Scott to see if he looked more like the comic book character (he did actually, but that would become moot). Ultimately, at 10, these decisions mattered very little to me, and as someone who watched X-Men: The Animated series every Saturday morning, I was just excited that an X-Men movie was going to be made. When I finally saw X-Men in the summer of 2000, there was no doubt that Jackman was Wolverine. Admittedly, I probably would have been impressed with any guy with claws that came out of his knuckles and hair on his chest, but it was Jackman who made that character real for me. To see Jackman’s portrayal grow over the years, to tap further into comic book portrayal as I furthered my own comic book education, felt like chronicling a historically significant event.

There’d never been a time before where I’d actually been able to chart how a character’s film portrayal influenced the comics. I witnessed the comics, in quick succession, harness Jackman’s portrayal. In New X-Men (2001) Wolverine received a black leather costume, in Ultimate X-Men (2001) the character was made taller, younger and more classically handsome, and in Origin (2001) Logan’s backstory was revealed, along with his real name, James Howlett—a backstory and name that seemed perfectly fitting for an actor whose talents clearly went beyond being an action hero. Over the years, the comics and Jackman’s portrayal converged until the only notable thing separating the two Wolverines was the medium. Jackman has a filmography larger than one character, and he certainly won’t be at a loss having moved on from the character, but for many he’ll always be Wolverine, even after a new one is cast and we come to appreciate him too. And while we’ve seen some actors begrudge their most iconic roles over the years, there’s a sense that Jackman looks fondly on the legacy he’s built as a comic book character.

While no actor has established a legacy quite like Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart, who was entirely the character of Charles Xavier from the beginning, we’ve seen plenty of actors leave marks that, while not Guinness worthy, are certainly records. Like Jackman, the greatest testament to these records is how these actors change perceptions of the character and the medium they stem from. Robert Downey Jr., who has been Iron Man for almost 11 years, gave a performance in Jon Favreau’s 2008 film that forever changed how comic book writers approach Tony Stark, as well as popularizing a character many general audiences had no clue about. If you read an Iron Man comic before 2008, there is a striking difference in terms of how Tony is written. He’s more self-serious, at times broody, and occasionally stiff as though writers sometimes forgot there’s a man inside the suit. There’s a population of comic readers who got to grow up experiencing this comic book shift, just as I did with Wolverine. And similar to Jackman’s own rise, Iron Man allowed Downey to rise once more and reinvent himself as a movie star. Chris Evans, who’d already memorably portrayed the Human Torch in two Fantastic Four films in 2005 and 2007, was able to embody Captain America so well in 2011 that those concerned about him playing another superhero have largely forgotten there was one before Steve Rogers. Not only has Evans’ portrayal seeped into the comics, creating a Cap that’s more concerned citizen than grumpy old man, the role has seeped into his life as well, changing how he’s engaged with politics on social media. These comic book characters might be performances, but time and time again they have found a way to seep into reality and create a shared contextual experience.

I once saw someone compare recasting comic book characters to bringing in a new artist on a comic book. It’s an astute comparison, but I’d argue that these roles are more personal than that. It’s far easier to go through multiple artists than it is to go through multiple actors. There are still people who will forever see Christopher Reeve, Adam West, and Lynda Carter as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, often because they had a chance to grow with these characters and discover what all their worlds had to offer. This doesn’t mean, at least not often, that these people reject new actors in these roles, but it is difficult to separate these characters from actors, though we know they must both move on. While it’s so often the actors who get to spend lengthy amounts of times in these roles that hold the most emotional resonance for us, there are also those who held the title briefly or have only just begun that performance with such power that we immediately see the effect of their work across mediums. The late Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is of course one of those, and it altered how every writer and actor has approached the character since. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman has also had a tremendous effect on how the character, particularly in her facial expressions, is handled with both a warrior’s spirit and a tremendous amount of empathy. There’s so much emphasis placed on whether these actors can fit into what’s on the page and be constrained by the panel, but the true beauty of superhero movies and the casting that comes with them is how these actors bring about change, grow with these roles, and allow us to grow with them.