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Wolverine, Iron Man, and Hollywood’s Infinite Chances for Middle-Aged Male Superheroes

wolverine cameo

Spoilers for X-Men: Apocalypse to follow.

Are you tired of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine yet? 20th Century Fox hopes not. Between Jackman’s recent cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse and his upcoming reprisal of the role in Wolverine 3, he just can’t seem to escape the role. Not that he wants towell, at least not until after Wolverine 3, after which point he plans to hang up his claws. He did get to play the role for 17 years, though!

I’ve already gone on record here with my original wish to see Wolverine make a cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse, but I admit, I didn’t expect it to be Hugh Jackman again. I made the same mistake years ago when I wished that Robert Downey Jr. would get to keep playing Tony Stark forever. RDJ has hinted that he wants to retire the role for several years now, but with so many more Marvel movies on the docket, it doesn’t seem like there’s any end in sight for him.

Hugh Jackman is 47 and Robert Downey Jr is 51. They’re certainly not the only middle-aged superhero actors, either. Mark Ruffalo’s 48, Jeremy Renner’s 45, and Paul Bettany is also 45, yet no one seems to find it strange that they’re chumming around with heroines who are decades their junior (Scarlett Johansson’s 31; Elizabeth Olsen is 27). What’s really disappointing is that it’s almost impossible to think of any female superheroes who are played by women in their late 40s or early 50s. The only exception that springs to mind for me is DC’s upcoming Wonder Woman movie, but it’s not as though the Themyscira elders will play a huge role in any future property. 31-year-old Gal Gadot will be the one carrying that franchise forward.

Famke Janssen, who played Jean Grey in the first few X-Men movies, pointed out this ageist double standard a few months ago with regard to X-Men: Apocalypse. While Hugh Jackman’s beloved Wolverine has returned for cameos time and time again, Janssen’s Jean Grey has all but disappeared. It seemed, based on her brief re-appearance at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past, that the franchise planned to bring her back and re-do her Dark Phoenix storyline. After seeing Apocalypse, though, I don’t think that’s likely.

Both Cyclops and Jean Grey got recast in Apocalypse as much younger actors. This made sense within the context of Apocalypse since it’s still a prequel to the other movies – well, sort of. The timeline for the X-Men movies is super messed up at this point, actually. Adding to the pile of weird problems is the fact that Hugh Jackman is STILL, apparently, Wolverine in this universe. And this time, he’s flashback Wolverine, yet he’s still his 47-year-old self!

Don’t get me wrong. Hugh Jackman still looks great. But he definitely doesn’t look like he has mutant anti-aging powers, because he is a human being. In spite of this, Hugh Jackman has clearly been pressured to maintain an intense weight-lifting regimen. I don’t want to lay on too much sympathy for Jackman here, since he’s obviously got an extremely successful film career out of this role and can afford as many personal trainers as he needs, but the level of musculature required of him to continue to embody this role is nonetheless unsettling.

The standards for male body image have changed over the decades; in the 70s, male action stars didn’t need to be jacked, but starting in the 90s, that changed. Super-muscular action star dudes aren’t necessarily framed as sex objects by the movies in which they appear; instead, they’re held up as fantasies that the viewer is meant to embody, no matter how unrealistic that might be. Progress shots of Hugh Jackman’s own physique in comparison to the first X-Men versus more recent Wolverine appearances show that he’s now even more muscular than he was in the first X-Men movie. Cultural standards for attractiveness always change over time, and for the moment, we seem to be prioritizing a very specific type of muscular male body type.

So, clearly, that’s the tradeoff that Hugh Jackman has to make. In order to be allowed to continue to make Wolverine movies, he now has to achieve an even more muscular physique than he had when he was a younger man. Somehow, he has done this, and he has been rewarded for his efforts. It’s messed up that he has to keep up that weight-lifting regimen in order to still be a star. But it’s also messed up that none of his female co-stars will ever be afforded the same opportunity in the first place.

Unlike Wolverine, Tony Stark is supposed to get older like a normal human, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood wants Tony to age at all–emotionally or physically. Robert Downey Jr. has also had to maintain his physique well into his middle age, but luckily for him, Iron Man wears full-body armor. Many of RDJ’s scenes as Iron Man get done in CGI; after he suffered an ankle injury during Iron Man 3, the creative team used a body double (both a real one and a CGI one) to finish the movie. Of course, RDJ still has had to keep up an extreme fitness training regimen; this fitness magazine describes all of the weight-lighting routines he did at age 48 for Iron Man 3. Seems like it’s worth it, since he’s now the highest-paid actor in the world thanks to that superhero role. His pay, and his age, still far exceeds that of his female co-stars.

I understand the narrative reasons why Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has made tons of cameos in other Marvel movies and Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey has largely disappeared from canon. Wolverine is ageless and timeless, so he can theoretically make a cameo in any story. But the Dark Phoenix is also ageless and timeless – it’s just that the X-Men movie franchise did not choose to pursue that storyline, choosing to rush towards Jean’s death rather than explore the idea of the Phoenix force remaining an ongoing concern (as it has been throughout decades in the comics). Basically, if there’s any storyline involving a woman in a lead role, the X-Men movies have shied away from it, choosing instead to focus on Wolverine, and the struggle between Magento and Xavier, over and over and over again. Even in Apocalypse, these familiar stories remain the focus once again.

The same thing seems to have happened to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Even after retiring his suits in order to win back Pepper’s affection, we see Tony regressing over and over to a previous mental state, never recovering or growing as a person … because the movies just want to keep retelling the same redemption story, no matter how many times Robert Downey Jr. has acted it out before. There are so many other characters to focus on in The Avengers. Why are we still literally retelling the same stories, even with the exact same actors?

I want older actors to get work, but the way that it’s happened in superhero films over the past decade feels like a cursed wish to me. The actors who’ve been given movie after movie, year after year, have been white guys. Incredibly talented and charismatic guys, to be sure, but white guys. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan have been recast, but those two arguably continued in their roles for as long as they possibly could before that happened. Did any of their female peers get that opportunity?

It now seems as though X-Men: Apocalypse might finally be setting up a Dark Phoenix storyline, but instead of giving that story to Famke Janssen, as a follow-up to the ending of Days of Future Past, the conclusion of Apocalypse makes it clear that 20-year-old Sophie Turner will be taking up the mantle. Meanwhile, that Dark Phoenix moment doesn’t happen until the very end of Apocalypse, and it’s more of a brief teaser of what could come, not a true story beat. It’s also the only moment in the movie where a female character does something that actually affects the battle’s outcome, and you have to wait through the entire movie before you get that. I guess I should be grateful that the X-Men movies plan to do a Dark Phoenix storyline that makes sense, but this final reveal solidifies what Famke Janssen already suspected: she’ll no longer be in the spotlight for this.

The worst part? Hugh Jackman’s gotten multiple opportunities to do the Wolverine story “right”. Wolverine: Origins was a festering pile of poop, yet Jackman has managed to make three more solo movies with the character after that failed first attempt. It’s frustrating to see Jackman getting so many extra chances when his colleagues just aren’t afforded the same level of risk and opportunity. Also, it’s incredible that Jackman has had a lengthy late-in-life action career, when female superhero movies are still considered a financial risk, even when they star a young, conventionally attractive, well-known, A-list actress.

Apocalypse could have re-cast Wolverine along with Jean Grey and Cyclops. I didn’t want to see those three characters get recast, mind you. But if we have to recast Jean and Scott, then why not recast Wolverine as well? It’s obvious that Wolverine’s appearance in Apocalypse is only meant to remind us all that he’ll be in Wolverine 3; the post-credits stinger also appears to be a Wolverine 3 reference, so clearly this was a marketing tactic that just couldn’t be avoided. But in context, Hugh Jackman’s presence felt very out of place.

The worst part was when Apocalypse also chose to set up a tender moment between Jean and Logan, complete with a jealous quip from teenaged Scott. There just isn’t anything weirder than seeing the 47-year-old actor have a potentially romantic exchange with a 20-year-old woman, especially since Jean Grey is supposed to be a high-schooler at the time, so she’s probably meant to be 18 or younger. There will always be an age discrepancy between Jean and Logan, but that discrepancy seemed significantly less creepy in the first X-Men, since Famke Janssen is actually four years older than Hugh Jackman. Even though Jackman’s playing a guy who’s a lot older, he looks the same age as Janssen, so the pairing doesn’t feel as weird to the viewer.

Hugh Jackman’s cameo also means that now Apocalypse has painted itself into a strange corner. If they do want to pursue a Dark Phoenix storyline with Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, will Wolverine be in it? If so, will Hugh Jackman reprise the role again? I seriously hope not, even though Apocalypse went out of its way to introduce Wolverine and Jean to one another. So that means he’ll have to be recast anyway, which leaves me wondering why the movie even bothered to introduce Wolverine and Jean in the first place. Why even set up a dynamic between them, since the actor will invariably be replaced? And if Wolverine has to meet a high school girl in this movie, why not make it Jubilee, since there’s already a precedent for mentorship and friendship between those two? It would’ve been less creepy, plus Jubilee wasn’t given anything to do in this movie.

I already said that I wish Wolverine had been recast for Apocalypse, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the idea of an older superhero and want to see that trend continue. However, I don’t want to see it continue if it’s only older white men who get to pursue it, and if those white men are pressured to continue to adhere to an absurd body standard that masks how old they even are. What if superhero movies explored what it was actually like to get old – as opposed to forcing superheroes into a loop where they aren’t allowed to mature?

What if Tony Stark actually did go to therapy, instead of just joking around about it? What if Wolverine transitioned to the “Old Man Logan” storyline? What if literally any of the female superheroes on the docket were allowed to grow at all, as opposed to constantly getting replaced by younger models (sometimes even within the narrative, as with Peggy Carter and Sharon Carter)? Wouldn’t it be nice to see our role models aging gracefully, rather than entering into a forever-young cryostasis?

(image via X-Men: Apocalypse)

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