It’s been almost five years since Logan and Hugh Jackman’s last turn in the X-Men franchise – we take a look at his cinematic life after Wolverine.

At some point in the next decade or so, Marvel Studios is going to face its biggest challenge yet – recasting Wolverine. It’s not merely that Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Logan in the X-Men movies is somehow definitive, but that it was prevalent for longer than any other version of any other comic-book character. In the 17 years Jackman played the part, we went through three Peter Parkers, three Bruce Banners, and (thanks to prequels and time-hopping shenanigans) at least two versions of almost every other X-Man in the same franchise as well.

While 2017’s Logan brought a permanent end to that run, (touch wood) Jackman remains the best there is at what he did. But as the longest-serving actor to play the same comic-book-movie role in the modern era, he’s firmly established his version of that character, which isn’t necessarily faithful to the stockier version from the comics. With the wildly fluctuating quality of that franchise, it’s to his credit that he’s good in all of them, irrespective of the quality of the film he happens to be in.

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Jackman’s versatility often goes underappreciated, even though he got to show that off within the franchise better than most of his X-Men co-stars. And so, his post-Marvel roles give the impression of an actor branching out again. This feature isn’t an exhaustive rundown of his recent work, (which also includes Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner and a voice role in Laika’s delightful animation Missing Link) but rather an examination of three specific projects that have seen him move away from his most famous role.

It’s also worth noting that he was no slouch in between X-entries either. Jackman still found time to act in fare as varied as Swordfish, The Fountain, The Prestige, Real Steel, Prisoners, Chappie, and Eddie The Eagle, and also earned his first Oscar nomination for playing Jean Valjean in 2012’s Les Misérables. Given his origins in musical theatre, it’s a shame he’s not had more movie musical roles, but then the number of movie musicals he has starred in has doubled since he retracted his adamantium claws for good…

 

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“It’s everything you ever want, it’s everything you ever need, and it’s here right in front of you…”

While Jackman’s turn as P.T. Barnum was significant as his very next role after Logan, it was also a project he was working on for more than half of his tenure in the X-Men movies. The notion of Jackman playing Barnum went as far back as his turn hosting the Oscars in 2009, when producers Laurence Mark and Bill Condon remarked upon his showmanship during rehearsals.

The opening musical number of that ceremony was probably the most widely-seen exposure of Jackman’s singing and performing prowess Hollywood had offered him – his all-singing all-dancing recap of the year’s biggest films (“Ohhh, Nixon!”) was so good that it went on to win a television Emmy itself.

Meanwhile, when Jackman showed interest in playing Barnum, another writer for that year’s ceremony, Jenny Bicks, set about writing The Greatest Showman with Condon. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were tasked with writing the original soundtrack for the film, which cleans up Barnum’s act by having him bring together “unique” people at a totally un-exploitative circus, with no horrible shit underpinning any of this, no siree bob.

The film took another eight years to make it to cinemas, and we’ve covered the full story of its long road to a greenlight from 20th Century Fox in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can listen to right here…

Focusing on the film itself, which is already practically cemented as one of the like-it-or-lump-it popular faves of the 2010s, it’s unquestionably elevated by Jackman’s star power and commitment to the part. With its rose-coloured portrayal of Barnum as a champion of the outcast, rather than the real-life proponent of human zoos, the film makes it harder to like him than it really ought to be on the sheer gusto of his performance.

It would be like if, a century from now, they made a musical about an innovative breakfast TV presenter who’s clever and righteous and popular and persistent even in the face of his haters. There’s no reason you can’t make a great musical out of that premise, but if you actually call your hero Piers Morgan, there’s gonna be baggage.

The point is, if you’re gonna fictionalise the character anyway, they could have made a totally unproblematic film with a Barnum-like figure without taking on the baggage of Barnum himself. Either way, it hasn’t made a lick of difference to the film’s audience reception.

Despite the inevitably sniffy reviews, The Greatest Showman was a $435-million hit at the worldwide box office and it’s already a staple of singalong screenings and the drive-in events that sprung up during last year’s cinema closures.

If, like me, you didn’t warm to this one as much, it’s only a shame that we’re still waiting for the five or six other Hugh Jackman-fronted musicals that should have been greenlit when this one did well. A sequel was reportedly in development in 2019, around the time Jackman went on a world tour singing songs from the film and various Broadway shows, but that’s one of the projects rendered moot by Disney’s acquisition of Fox the same year, and there have been few developments on the original movie musical front since then.

 

Bad Education (2019)

“It’s not perfect. But it works. What we have here works. I hope we can keep it that way.”

On the more dramatic side of things, Jackman went on to play devoted school superintendent Frank Tassone in 2019’s Bad Education. Not to be confused with either the Pedro Almodóvar film or the movie spin-off of that BBC Three sitcom, this movie was made for HBO in the US, and it came over the pond as a Sky Cinema and NOW TV exclusive during last year’s lockdown.

Based on the true story of a US public school scandal, the film starts with Frank chatting merrily away to student journalist Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) about how he and his colleagues are working hard to make their school the best in the country. As a great teacher and top bloke, he advises Kayla to treat her feature on an expensive new infrastructure project as any top reporter would. Unfortunately for Frank and his colleagues, she takes his grinning encouragement to heart.

Appreciating that this one’s a bit of a hidden gem, we don’t want to give away too much of the film’s story or the true events that inspired it, but this is definitely one to seek out if you haven’t seen it already.

Over the course of the drama, Thoroughbreds director Cory Finley gives the American school system the Scorsese treatment, to arresting and quietly devastating effect. As well as a clever, beguiling script by Robert Kolker and Mike Makowsky, the film boasts great supporting turns from Viswanathan, Allison Janney, and Ray Romano.

In the centre of it all, Jackman is on tremendous form. The star dabbled in this territory after The Greatest Showman with his role in Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, as disgraced Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart.

In that film, the portrayal of a good man stuck on a turning point in the news coverage of politicians’ personal lives plays on Jackman’s established likeability and screen presence.  By contrast, Bad Education slowly turns up the heat on him, melting that persuasive persona away and revealing the flawed character beneath over the course of its running time.

Had this been an eligible theatrical release, it’s not a stretch to say this might have earned Jackman another Oscar nomination. It’s a terrific role that exercises his full range, from sparkling composure to indignation and humiliation, and he plays it perfectly.

 

Reminiscence (2021)

“No such thing as a happy ending. All endings are sad. Especially if the story was happy.”

Currently playing in cinemas, Jackman’s latest leading role is in Reminiscence, a sci-fi neo-noir about a man who helps his clientele relive their memories using advanced technology, and his quest to find Mae, (The Greatest Showman’s Rebecca Ferguson again) a singer and waitress who has mysteriously disappeared. Written and directed by Westworld co-creator Lisa Joy, the film is as straight-faced a noir story as we’ve seen inside a cinema for some time now.

In a nice “not-so-distant future” twist, we learn that global warming has turned Miami into a sunken city and high temperatures have forced the population into nocturnal living. It’s a unique backdrop for a mystery thriller that otherwise embraces all the tropes of its genre, from femme fatales to corrupt elites. Your mileage may vary on how effectively it evokes those conventions, but it does so knowingly, and either way, this is handsomely made, enjoyable popcorn fare.

With a title like Reminiscence, we can’t avoid talking about some of the other films to which this one owes a creative debt. These range from Inception, a film which also has military technology being used as a thriller plot device, to Blade Runner, which famously had a lot of narration explaining things in its theatrical cut.

Mercifully, Jackman sounds livelier than Harrison Ford does in that studio-mandated voiceover. Heck, if he did some pulp detective audiobooks, I’d listen to them, but more importantly, it befits a film that unironically has its tortured male protagonist talking over it.

My objection to the generally negative response for this one (it’s flagging around the 38% mark on Rotten Tomatoes) is that it would be okay if more films tried to be clever. If Reminiscence were the bog-standard norm for this kind of sci-fi thriller, that would be one thing, but it’s very much the sort of mid-range original sci-fi movie that’s gone away in the era of massive tentpoles being planted every couple of weeks. Frankly, we could stand to have a couple more like this.

Like The Greatest Showman, it’s the sort of film that’s not happening without a star like Jackman on board. Also like The Greatest Showman, I completely understand some viewers not getting as much out of Reminiscence as others, but as per usual, we can likely all agree that the lead performance is one of the best things about it.

Next to his other roles, it’s more like The Prestige than any film he’s made since The Prestige, and sequences of him submerged in a tank of water or obsessing over finding out what he needs to know recall Robert Angier as much as Logan/Wolverine. While he’s versatile enough to keep it from becoming samey, Jackman has this powerful thread of melancholy running through many of his performances and here, it pulls together a film about obsessive nostalgia quite nicely.

 

What’s next?

The next film we’ll see Jackman in is The Son, Florian Zeller’s (unrelated) follow-up to this year’s Oscar contender The Father, and he’s also been attached to leading roles in Michael Mann’s Enzo Ferrari biopic and a biblical epic about Paul the apostle.

There are continuous rumours that Jackman may return to Marvel movies in some way, but despite persistent cameos in Fox’s X-Men spin-offs via archive footage from other movies, Logan is as emphatic a full stop as you ever get on a modern comic-book movie performance, so we’re sceptical about him ever unsheathing those claws again.

By working between superhero movies and other projects all the way, the post-Wolverine Jackman is also a post-movie-star Jackman, and while it’s concepts and properties that launch projects rather than actors nowadays, his choices since Logan exhibit what may not have been obvious at the time he first rose to stardom – that he really can do it all.

And hey, while it remains an abject failure of Hollywood that casting agents have given James Corden more big movie musical roles than Jackman, he’s got the chops without singing and dancing. Looking back at that Oscars opener though, it would be a shame if we didn’t get to see more of him doing this sort of thing on screen…

 

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