I can’t recall when and where I heard this, but I have a clear memory of listening to comic-book creator Jim Lee — his X-Men #1 is still one of the best-selling comics of all time — explain why he loves Wolverine.
Lee’s affection for Wolverine, he said, was because, like Lee, Wolverine is a short, feral man. That may be hard to imagine for fans who equate Wolverine with 6-foot-2 actor Hugh Jackman. But suppose the character makes his way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon. That offers an opportunity to bring the character back to his (admittedly diminutive) comic-book roots.
A reimagined Wolverine would be a significant departure from the cinematic representations of Wolverine for almost two decades. The ripped, towering Jackman has played Wolverine for 17 years, starting with 2000’s X-Men and, most recently, 2017’s R-rated Logan. But Wolverine isn’t supposed to be like other superheroes. He’s not a tall, handsome blockbuster star who graces glossy magazines. Canonically, he is a short beast, a more feral creature than a man.
In the comics, Wolverine is 5-foot-3 — shorter than most of the other characters in the Marvel Universe, including 5-foot-10 Spider-Man and 5-foot-7 Black Widow. (HalloweenCostumes.com once made a helpful infographic on this back in 2014.)
Now the X-Men are set to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and long-time fans want to know how Wolverine, arguably the single most loved mutant, will feature in the franchise.
There’s no question that Wolverine should feature. He’s Wolverine. He has starred in the vast majority of all X-Men comics since the character debuted in 1974. Wolverine has inspired movies, anime, cartoons, video games, and podcasts. He is the Marvel Batman — an antihero we all love to love. Marvel only needs to announce Wolverine, and fans will flock to Fandango pre-sales. The recent announcement of a new Wolverine video game functioned an awful lot like a preview for how the inevitable film announcement will look.
A more complicated question is how Wolverine should appear in the MCU?
A good comparison here is to remember how Spider-Man entered the franchise — young and boyish, just as comic creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko envisioned him in the first dozen issues of Amazing Spider-Man. It was an interpretation that ran counter to what mainstream audiences were used to, but it was also closer to the source material.
That’s why Wolverine should be what most heroes in the MCU are not — squat and maybe just a little harder on the eye than hunky Hugh.
To understand why that needs to happen, let’s go back to when it all began for our favorite furry friend in 1974.
X-Men Origins — Wolverine made his comics debut in 1974 not in an X-Men comic but as a nemesis for the Hulk in The Incredible Hulk #181. He was “teased” in older issues, just like how a movie’s post-credits scene teases a new character today.
Wolverine began his X-Men journey in the historic Giant Size X-Men #1 published in 1975, but it wasn’t until the legendary Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont that Wolverine’s star started to shine. His unrequited affections for Jean Grey contribute to the book’s soap opera dramatics as well as Wolverine’s charisma, his inner softness hidden by a rough exterior.
One of Wolverine’s most iconic lines — “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice” — was first spoken by Wolverine in Uncanny X-Men #162. It describes Wolverine as a character unlike anything else I’ve read. This guy has layers.
“What I Do Isn’t Very Nice” — The trope of noble heroes fighting against crime or evil aliens prevails in superhero films, but not all heroes are built the same. Wolverine’s mainstream popularity masks his character’s inherently brutal nature. Those signature retractable claws of his aren’t for cooking hot dogs, you know.
That’s why it would be a mistake for the MCU version of Wolverine to be played by an actor as palatable as Jackman. Tall and handsome men are undoubtedly capable of monstrous acts. But casting a conventionally attractive leading man to play the rabid Wolverine is missing the character's point.
Let’s be clear: Casting Hugh Jackman for the role was the right move back in 2000 when the only people who knew X-Men were comic-book fans and children who watched the Fox Kids cartoon. The conventional rules of Hollywood got adults through the door — and now here we are.
Cinematic superheroes have transcended the actors who play them. There is an opportunity for the MCU to do something unconventional and unique yet faithful to the comics.
In almost all comic book depictions of Wolverine, Wolverine is tough, rough, and abrasive as a Brillo pad; he’s gravel with a heartbeat. And yes, he’s shorter than most other heroes and villains. To cast someone fitting that description is counter to Hollywood norms, where it is common for attractive actors to play ghastly characters. Just think of Charlize Theron, a former fashion model who inhabited the skin of a real-life serial killer in the 2003 drama Monster.
However, a fresh start for Wolverine could offer something different for Hollywood and the now well-established MCU. He’s the best at what he does, and fans love him for it. But what he does isn’t very nice.
The Inverse Analysis — Ultimately, we don’t know if or when the X-Men and mutants will make it into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel is yet to announce a formal project, making its plans hard to guess even on a speculative level.
But what is true is that the X-Men enjoy a long history of iteration and reinterpretation in the comics. Chris Claremont’s version of the X-Men is different from Grant Morrison’s interpretation, and Grant Morrison’s version is different from current writer Jonathan Hickman’s vision. Wolverine himself has gone through changes, though the fundamentals have remained the same: He’s brutal, gross, short, and likes beer.
As a character performance, Hugh Jackman nailed Wolverine. The Australian actor knew what Wolverine was and how he ought to behave. He just didn’t fit the spandex, which is maybe why they never gave him the spandex. Hugh Jackman didn’t need it to be Wolverine. The next guy will and that’s a good thing.