“Prisoners,” the new Warner Bros. thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is a movie that Alfred Hitchcock would have made if he were channeling David Fincher. Director Denis Villeneueve casts Jackman as a dad overcome with grief when his daughter vanishes one Thanksgiving afternoon. “Prisoners” is full of surprises, which shouldn’t be spoiled, other to say that it earned raves when it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in August. As Variety’s chief film critic Scott Foundas wrote at the time: “Jackman has never been better.” (The full review is available here.)
You could argue that Jackman, at the age of 44, is in the midst of a career resurgence. On the first day of filming “Prisoners” last December, he clinched his first Oscar nomination ever—for playing Jean Valjean in the Universal Studios adaptation of “Les Miserables,” which grossed $442 million globally. There’s just one problem: the two performances were interrupted by Wolverine, Jackman’s alter-ego on the big screen with treacherous claws.
In July, Fox’s “The Wolverine,” the sequel to 2009’s “X-Men Origins Wolverine,” which itself was the spinoff from 2000’s “X-Men,” opened to a disappointing $55 million. This was the sixth time Jackman had played Wolverine, and the latest film only grossed $130 million domestically, down 28 percent from the 2009 pic that made $180 million at the U.S. box office. Despite audience fatigue, the studio later announced that Jackman will be reprising Wolverine in the time-travelling “X-Men Days of Future Past” directed by Bryan Singer and scheduled for 2014. All of which leads to a bigger question: Is Wolverine now a liability for Hugh Jackman’s career?
Many actors (see Robert Downey Jr. or Natalie Portman) transition seamlessly from serious fare to summer blockbusters. But Wolverine has been both a blessing and curse for Jackman. The Marvel comic book character was the role that put the unknown Australian actor on the map in the first Singer “X-Men” pic, but it also typecast him.
Jackman has worked assiduously to break out of the mold. He dabbled in romantic comedy (2001’s “Someone Like You” and “Kate & Leopold”), more action (2004’s “Van Helsing”), a Woody Allen film (2006’s “Scoop”) and an epic romance that tried to be “Gone With The Wind” but failed (2008’s “Australia”). None of these movies really worked. Audiences didn’t pay much attention to his good turns in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain” or Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” either, although younger boys rightfully embraced 2011’s “Real Steel” about fighting robots. Now that he’s regained new career momentum, returning to Wolverine is only going to make us forget his range.
To give a sense of how much time Jackman has spent under all that hair, when the upcoming “X-Men” movie opens next year, it will be his seventh appearance as Wolverine (including a cameo in 2011’s “X-Men: First Class”) over 15 years. That’s longer than the decade Daniel Radcliffe spent playing Harry Potter. Christian Bale committed to three “Batman” movies for Warner Bros., and Tobey Maguire only donned “Spider-Man’s” tights three times for Sony. Both these actors were entities in Hollywood before they started playing comic book heroes. Unlike Batman or Superman, Wolverine just isn’t that deep. Jackman has already explored all the various depths — and more — with the character.
Ironically, the one role that allowed Jackman to escape the most from the X-Men world was his 2004 Broadway turn as the gay crooner Peter Allen in “The Boy From Oz.” It’s the only performance that earned him a fervent fan base that rivaled his Comic-Con groupies. The self-described “Ozalots,” mostly women between the ages of 30 and 60, practically took out second mortgages on their homes to binge-purchase orchestra seats, returning to the theater dozens of times to be near Hugh. That’s the kind of excitement Jackman can generate with the right character, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to do that often enough at the movies.
It also doesn’t help that every time Jackman promotes a different film, interviewers ask the same questions about Wolverine. That happened this week on “The View,” when the gabbers showcased his ripped torso and Sherri Shepherd fondled his pecs. Half the headlines generated by the “Prisoners” press tour are somehow related to Wolverine, which must be annoying for Warner Bros. Even Jackman has said he’s not sure how much longer he can keep up the act. It’s time to retire those claws.