Logan is a film at war with its own blood.
As with every prior venture starring Hugh Jackman as the vicious, tortured, self-healing mutant Wolverine/Logan, it is a superhero movie down to its very DNA. This is clear from the opening sequence, in which Logan murders several men meddling with the vehicle that is his office and home. Of course, this introduction is meant to show off the film’s R-rating, which for the first time allows for an anatomically accurate demonstration of what would happen if Wolverine’s adamantium claws tore through actual human flesh. But on a narrative level the brutality serves no purpose. The cynical truth is that these movies simply need violence. Death and destruction are studio mandates. And it’s the filmmakers’ clear desire to escape from these conventions and from the genre’s innate cruelty that is reflected beautifully in Wolverine’s struggle.
Amidst sequences of nihilistic savagery and grit there is a warmth that handily demarcates Logan from its contemporaries and from every other X-Men film over the last seventeen years (yes, it’s been that long). The narrative begins in 2029 with few mutants left besides Logan, Charles Xavier (again played by Patrick Stewart) and vampire-like Caliban (Stephen Merchant). The three of them remain hidden in Mexico, believing themselves finally rid of the endless fighting that has long characterized their existence. By this point, though, the characters themselves are no less privy than the audience to the fact this will never actually be the case. Sure enough, conflict arises yet again with the arrival of the sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who’s after Laura (Daphne Keen), a mute little girl with far more importance to Wolverine than he’d like to believe.
What follows is a classic road movie that borrows the look and heart of a western. Wolverine, Laura and a Professor X (quickly slipping into senility) flee from Pierce and his small army through the southern United States in search of a rumored save haven, a promise of peace that may or may not actually exist. As Logan deals with his own deteriorating state caused by poisoned blood from his steel claws (in effect, his body is eating away at itself), Laura’s presence forces him to face the inner demons he has spent his whole life running from. The refreshing focus on the character’s emotional state is perhaps only possible because audiences have spent so long in the company of Jackman’s mutant. The same goes for the iconic Xavier whom Stewart has portrayed for just as long.
The leisurely pace, moody atmosphere and near-episodic plotting can sometimes cause the film to drag, but this is easier to swallow knowing it’s a sendoff of characters (and actors) who deserve the rest. Whereas most comic book adaptations consist of long strings of action punctuated with slower moments meant to build character, Logan is the exact opposite: it’s a quiet tone poem punctuated by bursts of violence, often shocking and novel in their goriness. The blood-soaked presentation not only works as a gimmick but as a tool to confront audiences with a hard truth: every blockbuster contains this level of violence, but the blood is often conveniently left out. By finally seeing an honest depiction of the carnage that Wolverine (and many other Marvel heroes) would realistically cause, it’s much easier to understand his pain and guilt.
Last year’s Deadpool was another X-Men spinoff hailed by audiences and critics alike as a refreshing departure from the comic book norm. Yet it didn’t take long for many (myself included) to point out that while the movie gleefully mocked genre tropes, in essence it was as much a slave to convention as the latest Avengers bonanza. Making fun of how predictable and repetitive superhero blockbusters are makes for a hollow, hypocritical gesture when the parody maintains those same predictable, repetitive elements (although with admirable energy). A year after its release, Deadpool still drips with palpable frustration over a system that’s perpetually lacking in innovation, but the movie’s smug, snarky approach only emphasizes the futility of change.
Tellingly released in the aftermath of Fox’s own X-Men: Apocalypse (an ‘assembly line’ iteration in every sense), Logan is just as much a self-aware reaction piece to genre fatigue as Deadpool ever was, posing the same broad question: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why these violent, destructive stories in particular? The difference comes from the tools each film utilizes. If Deadpool’s weapon of choice is wit, Logan’s is soul. Instead of self-righteous sarcasm, director James Mangold goes the opposite route with a probing and contemplative approach, while retaining an unflinching impulse to shake up a tired system. After all, few in Hollywood know the constraints and pitfalls of making a big-budget comic book blockbuster more intimately than Mangold.
The same goes for Jackman. There are few actors who have portrayed the same character over so many years and so many films, let alone one that has been imposed upon time and time again to pesky studio meddling, always adjusting the character to fit a perceived audience rather than staying true to a singular vision. Jackman has been a supremely good sport considering his starring ventures have ranged from excellent (his fierce original performance and recently X-Men: Day of Future Past) to abysmal (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it’s clear that he, along with those behind the camera, have always had to dull his claws muzzle the unstoppable rage he embodies to keep things PG-13. This is no longer a problem. The claws are out, and Wolverine is finally unleashed.
Mangold’s attempt to understand the character, and to simultaneously make sense of the vexing Hollywood system ultimately turns out to be one and the same, resulting in a brilliant meta-narrative in which Logan acts as the walking, bleeding, self-loathing manifestation of the superhero genre as a whole. Though disillusioned, Wolverine seeks an answer to the same question posed earlier: why do we keep consuming the same stories over and over, and why violent, destructive stories in particular? His life is the definition of insanity, fighting the same battles over and over (seriously, read some plot summaries of X-Men movies to see how repetitive it gets), yet always hoping it will finally end. Still, conflict follows him everywhere. There is seemingly no end to the vicious cycle that pains him, just as there’s seemingly no end to studio executives recruiting him (or perhaps someone younger) for yet another round of senseless violence and suffering.
Yet the movie tries anyway, and so do its heroes. The plot sees Wolverine literally fleeing from the genre’s worst and most inevitable impulses: convoluted/convenient plotting, mindless action sequences full of blaring chaos, an un-intimidating antagonist (Halbrook’s Pierce is as bland as it gets), and the promise of a sequel or ten. All of these familiar drawbacks encroach on the film itself, leading to certain moments that fall back on traditional, dull storytelling techniques in a very disappointing way. Yet unlike Deadpool, Mangold at least valiantly questions why a movie like Logan apparently can’t exist without these flaws. Without spoiling anything, a couple of plot points in the second half demonstrate the only logical conclusion for what should, and perhaps one day will, happen to today’s most thriving genre. The ending is not only poignant – it feels correct.
If the suggestion that Logan is actually a commentary on the superhero phenomena seems far-fetched, Mangold doubles down on the idea by drawing a (sometimes too) clear parallel between his film and the Western. The setting, lighting, and narrative structure make this apparent enough, as does a recurring, overt reference to 1953’s classical Western Shane, a major influence on Mangold’s work. But the darker tone and a deep reckoning with the consequences of its genre more accurately aligns Logan not with the patriotic, violent ’40s and ’50s classics of John Wayne and co., but with ‘revisionist westerns’, later entries that question the values earlier westerns had perpetuated in the American cultural psyche.
One of the most famous revisionist westerns is 1992’s Unforgiven, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood (one of the most recognizable figures of the genre) as weathered cowboy Will Munny, who must face all the terrible things he (and the western mindset) has done in the past. It’s hard not see Jackman’s Logan in relation to Eastwood’s Munny, attempting some sort of retribution on behalf of a system of Hollywood films that may just reflect the worst of their contemporary societies. It’s not completely fair to compare the woefully racist and ultra-aggressive classical western to the increasingly diverse superhero movie, but at least in terms of massive popularity, repetitive content and a penchant for violence, there are striking similarities that have not gone unnoticed. What the CGI-fueled, mass destruction-obsessed, and globally set exploits of Marvel’s cinematic universe says about today’s society will be up to future film theorists to debate.
That Logan is more insightful and inquisitive than most superhero movies isn’t to say that it doesn’t work simply as crowd-pleasing action spectacle with a suitably unique vibe. The action is well choreographed, the score is fantastic, the performances are formidable, the dialogue draws real emotion and much of the shot composition is excellent. But it’s the acute self-awareness that makes this a special film that rises with the best of the genre. It isn’t as deep and nuanced an experience as The Dark Knight (still the gold standard) but the desire to be more than its DNA is strikingly sincere. Logan is thoughtful, artfully made entertainment that acts as a touching tribute to a character and franchise that helped start a filmmaking revolution, as well as a visionary look into what the future may hold for comic book adaptations in the right hands.
Review Score: 4 out of 5