Last week, we announced the newest chapter of The Great Debate: inspired by James Mangold's wonderful film Logan, we ask if Wolverine (portrayed for the past seventeen years by Hugh Jackman) is the greatest of the cinematic X-Men. Here to argue their cases are Great Debate vet Jacob Oller, whom you can follow on Twitter here, and newbie Adam Sweeney.
As always, we can't promise that The Great Debate won't have spoilers - this conversation is intended for those who have seen Logan (get your tickets here!). So if you haven't checked out the film yet, do that ASAP. We want you guys to weigh in with your own opinions in the comment section, and of course vote in our poll below. Next week, we'll announce the winner.
Take it away, Jacob and Adam!
Wolverine, Logan, James Howlett, Weapon X or, yes, even just “angry Hugh Jackman” - whatever you call the beclawed Ol’ Canucklehead, he’s the most iconic cinematic X-Man and, I’d argue, the best supermutant character screen adaptation. My esteemed opponent will be arguing the merits of Magneto, who, though he can’t hold a metal-encased candle to our whirling Wolvie, is definitely a (distant) second place.
Magneto’s powers, while definitely very cool, frankly aren’t anything new for the discerning cinema-goer. If you think about it, he’s just a very specific Jedi (or Sith depending on how sympathetic you find the guy), doing the same concentrate-and-lift schtick we’ve been seeing since The Empire Strikes Back. A gesture and a flying wall of steel is neat, sure, but where do we go from there? CGI whirlwinds of debris? Kinda cheesy. Wolverine, on the other clawed hand, extends his blades and, AW YEAH, it’s on like Donkey Kong: increasingly complex and realistic special effects can make the claws proportionately cooler as time goes on (with more detail, smoothness and brutality), compared to the same sort of rising metal we’ve been watching since the ‘80s.
Sure, Freddy Krueger or Enter the Dragon’s Han have had slicers at their disposal, but neither could retract them as part of their body, nor had intense regenerative healing abilities, great facial hair or twice the normal amount of veins in their human bodies. They just had finger swords. With three retractable blades in each forearm, eventually coated with Adamantium during the Weapon X project, Wolverine just has more visual flair than the anthropomorphic magnet despite his resistance to wearing a costume fancier than jeans and a leather jacket. There’s a panache, a visual charisma, stitched into the simple fabrics he wears - an unassuming alternative to the clownish pomp of someone like Superman or Batman. Seeing a superhero in street clothes isn’t just badass, it’s humanizing. And Logan’s nothing if not an imperfect, charming human.
We first meet Logan as a Canadian cage fighter that runs into Rogue and Professor X by chance. He doesn’t want anything from anyone and damn it, we respect that. From the first moment we see Hugh Jackman as Wolverine in the original X-Men (in Jackman’s first American film role), we know he’s not going away anytime soon. He’s a dog-taggin’, knuckle-breakin’, neck-crackin’ tough guy - and thanks to his freshness on the scene, Wolverine becomes Jackman as deeply for the moviegoing public as Jackman becomes Wolverine.
He became the centerpiece of the entire franchise, making cameos almost as frequently as an actual comic creator like Stan Lee. His “Go fuck yourself,” in X-Men: First Class - his only line in the film - is better than anything Magneto has ever said. Wolverine is one of the few X-Men characters appearing in every media adaptation of the X-Men franchise. Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in nine X-Men films (X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse and Logan - phew) over 17 years. That’s longer than America’s been in Afghanistan post-9/11. He’s been Wolverine longer than Moana star Auli'i Cravalho has been ALIVE. That’s wild.
His plot thickens in the next two X films, involving his history with the Stryker corporation and his romance with Jean Grey. The plots may get away from the films and the battles may get a bit convoluted, but Wolverine’s steady, grounded search for truth and acceptance sees us through it all. He’s got no great notions of the future of mutantkind. His blue-collar levelheadedness cuts through the rhetoric (with Adamantium claws) like a populist’s wet dream.
Wolverine even bounces back from starring in one of the most dismal movies ever made, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That movie is, well, not great. Its special effects are sloppy, its plot long and dull, and its writing both overly complex and banal in its fleshing-out (no pun intended) of Wolverine’s past. His scientific origin story is clunky and unwieldy, but at the end of the day, the very strength of the character - the strength of the portrayal and the strength of the nameless tough guy that blows into town (town being Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters) - warranted his own film. That’s reserved for the best characters out there. If anyone besides Han Solo was getting a "making-of" film, there’d be riots. This isn’t even Wolverine’s standalone film - he gets two of those directed by James Mangold that I’ll get to shortly - it’s one focused on retroactively making him an even more compelling character, entirely due to audience demand.
He also makes a second uncredited cameo as Wolverine in X-Men: Apocalypse, in which the X-Kids release him from a military research facility under Stryker's control. He’s grizzly and rabid and makes weird eyes with a teenager, but he also provides some of the only energy in that equally dismal film.
The Wolverine and Logan give him the chance to age, to cope, and to feel in ways more profound than any other X-Man and - possibly - any other superhero. To be timely, of the two Mangold films, let’s talk about Logan. Logan pushes the character further than Magneto has ever gone or, maybe, will ever go: his end. Closure is something that Mangold has the luxury to provide and Jackman has the privilege to enact.
As long as young Magneto is bullied into busting up Auschwitz by an Egyptian god while a skimpily-clad henchman silently watches on, he’s going to be hard to take seriously. Jackman relishes his evolving role that, in Logan, allows him to give his finest performance in any movie yet (yes, I’m even including that) by letting him exist as a character we’ve learned about in two complex relationships we haven’t quite seen. The loner always stuck with people, which in turn always made him more interesting. Logan gives him two sides of paternalism: one guarding the young mutant X-23 and one caretaking the dying Professor X. He’s easing one generation out while welcoming the next, a man between two Xs. Logan comes to terms with himself alongside us, reveling in a final film of violence that unleashes all our bloody fantasies while allowing his primal core to scream out and a final film of tragedy and hope that gives us an ending while whispering to his soft nurturing protectivity.
The best X-Man has to be someone that operates well as both a member of the team and a character apart. His or her difference from humanity must be both deeply felt yet not unbridgeable. Their powers must evoke an uncanniness that reminds us that these are metahumans - humans with MORE. Uncanny X-Men. They should be a blast to watch while they make us think and, like the lightly-veiled allegory that these mutants are, inspire us like all good comic book heroes should. Wolverine does that with the lived-in gravitas, grumpiness and begrudging kindness that makes it feel all the more real.
Logan is rightfully being hailed as a reinvention of the superhero film genre and the first fully realized presentation of the Wolverine character. It’s entertaining, brutal and also a triumphant send-off for Hugh Jackman in the X-Men franchise. Fans are riding high on a berserker rage of the best Wolverine movie ever, and it’s an exciting time. But for all the bankability Weapon X and Jackman have to offer, we need to take a breath, because I’ve got a reality check for you, Bub. The pound for pound greatest cinematic X-Men character ever is not Logan. It’s Magneto, a character blessed with more power of magnetism and personality in a single finger than Wolverine has in his Adamantium-laced body.
There is a reason both Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class open with Magneto’s story. His character is the entry point for audiences, offering a cultural context and way to connect a fictional world filled with mutants to our own. The plight of a man who is devastated after watching his family get torn away from him and taken to a concentration camp is both the heaviest and most engaging backstory any X-Men character possesses. Human experiments are cool, but to paraphrase Denzel Washington in Training Day, King Kong ain’t got shit on Magneto.
Magneto is the heart of the X-Men narrative because he is constantly evolving. While Wolverine grunts and chews on his stogie in an act of defiance, we always ultimately know he will come around to Professor X’s way of thinking. He is a character who is continuously reactive and ultimately a role player. Magneto, on the other hand, takes his destiny into his own hands and decides he won’t let history repeat itself. His fear of annihilation for his mutant brothers and sisters is a real one and we know it as an audience because his story is grounded in reality to the near-eradication of the Jews in our world.
The cult of personality surrounding Magneto lies in the fact that he is compelling both as an individual and a character who fights for a greater cause. Outside of finding out his true identity, what is Logan’s bigger purpose? To keep the Habana House Cigar Lounge in business? Wolverine is a rebel without a clue and not a born leader. He’s a glorified adult version of Tuck Everlasting. Yes, he is charismatic and chock-full of one-liners, but he is one of the most selfish onscreen characters that exist. Magneto, meanwhile, is willing to surrender his liberties and his life-long friendship with Charles Xavier, he will turn the world upside down to ensure there isn’t another Shoah. He is hell-bent on leading the liberation of mutantkind and will eliminate the menace of humanity “by any means necessary.”
If his story wasn’t enough to make you want to join the Brotherhood of Mutants, Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender’s turns as the charismatic leader are hands down the best performances in the entire X-Men collective series. It’s a part actors dream of: equal parts Malcolm X, Hamlet and Bruce Wayne all thrown into one. Wolverine is the quintessential lone wolf, but beyond that, there just isn’t a lot to chew on with his performance.
Magneto is also an incredibly complex and relatable villain because he is fighting for a cause that you can rally behind. Erik Lehnsherr has seen the worst of humanity and came out stronger because of it. Consider this comic quote from Magneto for a second:
“Your humans slaughter each other because of the color of your skin, or your faith or your politics -- or for no reason at all -- too many of you hate as easily as you draw breath …”
Can you argue against that? It’s 2017 and it feels as if our country is as divided as ever. Ideals and the power of positivity are great, but sometimes it’s refreshing to see someone call a spade a spade and find a figure that people can stand with. Stan Lee once said he "didn’t think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist ... he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson.” Sounds fair to me. Magneto has lost his family, his namesake, and witnessed communities he was part of nearly get wiped off the face of the Earth multiple times solely because they existed. Like so many of the people in our world who have been marginalized, he's mad as hell, and he's not going to take this anymore.
Plus, if we are going to compare superpowers, Magneto possesses control over all forms of magnetism and can shape and transform magnetic fields, dude. That is some next level shit. He literally had power over Earth’s magnetic axis in comic books and we have seen him lift the entire damn RFK Stadium in X-Men: Days of Future Past. He can stop bullets with his mind and has repeatedly owned Wolverine in head-to-head match-ups. In Singer’s X-Men, Magneto uses Logan’s own claws against him to painfully trap him against a wall. And when Wolverine tried to stand up to Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the master of magnetism lifted a finger and dropped the Canuck’s chained ass into the heart of the ocean. What good do metallic claws and a regenerative healing factor serve if the repeated outcome against your adversary is to get your ass kicked? Wolverine’s superpower is his greatness weakness against Magneto. His can-opener claws and accelerated anti-aging cream aren't quite in the same category as Erik the Red’s. Magneto is literally a weapon of mass destruction.
We should also consider that we have seen the best on-screen story Wolverine has to offer and it took them three damn tries to get it right. Multiple critics’ lists rank both X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine as two of the worst X-Men films ever made. Now, is this Wolverine’s fault entirely? Maybe not, but if you’re at the center of a franchise that has put out multiple films that are universally lambasted, you bear some of the burden. Now, compare that to the James Bond-esque revenge narrative in the first act of X-Men: First Class where Erik hunts down the remaining Nazis in an effort to find Sebastian Shaw, the man who tortured him and exploited his power as a broken child. It’s, in my opinion, the best story arc we have seen in all of the true X-Men films. Why the hell isn’t THAT a movie of its own? We already know what the Ol’ Canucklehead head can do on-screen, but we haven’t even come close to tapping the true potential of what Magneto’s character could become in a stand-alone franchise.
Wolverine is certainly one of the most entertaining X-Men that movies have tackled. But if we’re picking the character that I will ride or die with in every cinematic universe imaginable, well, it’s time to put the stogie out and clear the smoke. You can keep your shiny claws and healing factor, pal. Make mine Magneto.