Is Logan an X-Men film? That’s the prevalent question through James Mangold’s nuanced and unexpectedly poignant picture.
Hugh Jackman returns as a past-his-prime Wolverine struggling to make a living as a limo driver to support a deteriorating Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Clearly ailing himself, too much drink is not enough to hide the scars and the fact his healing factor is diminished. The relationship is as fractious as it is barely functional and, with the support of Caliban (Stephen Merchant), they try to keep Xavier drugged and hidden from the U.S Government (who now classify his declining mind as a weapon of mass destruction).
The arrival of Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) forces Logan to look his legacy in the eye. Pursued by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his mechanically augmented Reavers, both Logan and Xavier find that Laura is not only one of the last remaining mutants in the world but that she is the genetic, adamantium-clad daughter of Wolverine. What follows is one part Children of Men meets Unforgiven as Logan reluctantly agrees to smuggle Laura to ‘Eden’ with Xavier – a supposed safety zone for mutant children in this familiar, but post-apocalyptic world.
Logan, if nothing else, is an acting indulgence for Jackman. Although it’s the role that made his name and which he, in turn, has defined, there has never been a definitive Wolverine movie. Mangold’s previous attempt with The Wolverine was visually impressive but altogether unremarkable. Logan, by contrast, is a revolution in the superhero genre and a personal best for a returning cast, the director and a script that is entirely self-aware that this is their last outing together.
The result is an astonishing swansong and something of an unexpected triumph for a genre most thought was in decline. Yet this is where the film succeeds: it knows that at their best, superhero films have to be a timeless tale and less contingent on effects and dated context. It’s an obvious lesson, but given the immortal quality of the comic source material, it’s remarkable that most filmmakers eclipse this point in favour of utilising the latest technologies to produce something that will, eventually, age beyond relevance.
When compared to the original X-Men film back in 2000, Logan serves as both a fitting and mature epitaph for the times we now live in as well as a timeless character study. Gone is the Clinton-era optimism of liberal values, hopes for mutant multiculturalism and world peace. Here is the first film to portray the Trump soul on screen: barren, desolate and anarchic and it’s impossible to detach the sandy wasteland on-screen from the daunting danger the world now lives in.
Nevertheless, the film doesn’t find it’s soul in a quasi-political statement like its X-Men predecessors, but in relationships and, in particular, the rage of a small child. Laura is the genetic progeny of Wolverine, but like the role of the companion in Doctor Who she is also our entry into this world. In her is the earnest fear of captors pursuing, the salivating promise of freedom from a tyranny erected around her and the longing for a father who doesn’t understand her and a grandfather who dies.
Early on there are tender moments between Laura and the ageing Charles Xavier as he desperately tries to help her. Stewart’s utterly compelling portrayal of the waning professor is comparable to his on/off-screen friend Ian McKellan who likewise played an advanced nonagenarian in Mr. Holmes. There is a shared elegance and empathy in Stewart and Jackman’s performance that is all the more heartbreaking because it is a nuanced continuation of their portrayal over the last twenty years.
The desert setting makes no bones about this being a story inspired by Shane, but influenced by Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The former is the definitive standard for heroic purpose in a world that doesn’t expect heroes; the latter an unpardonably cruel display of evil, vice and character. If Logan is not quite as graphic, it is just as brutal and the explicit blood and language work well, and never indulgently, to elevate the question about what superheroes really look like.
The meta inclusion of ‘X-Men’ comics works in-story puts this question front and centre and curiously raises the prospect that these characters on screen were merely fictive: here we have the real thing and all the trauma that brings. A magnificent retcon, done in no more than a scene, that reinvigorates the franchise in a most unexpected way.
The allusions to Shane are, of course, one of the more noted themes of the film. Xavier watching it with Laura is foreshadowing at its best, as is the silence between Logan and Laura at Xavier’s grave. Save for choked tears, it is a beautiful analogy for the affection that was clearly unsaid between these two men. When this is contrasted with Laura’s eulogy at the graveside of Wolverine, there is a wonderful display of growth; the quote from Shane that’s the de facto tagline for the film: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from it.”
No X-Men film (if this can even be called one) has dared to do what director James Mangold has done. Indeed, it’s significant that he has created a film riddled with such given that previous incarnations have done little to give these characters the life, complexity and script they deserve. But the themes of love, family, loss, growth and redemption work almost as characters in their own right here and they form the backbone of Logan.
For Jackman, his penchant for Oscar appearances invites speculation here that it’s time for him to be on the receiving end of the award. His brutally understated performance bears more resemblance to the physically wrecked Bruce Wayne of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Unforgiven, The Dark Knight Rises, Rocky Balboa, Skyfall and, most recently, Mr. Holmes all deal with the realities and ravishes of time for indestructible characters. More subtly and sweetly than not, these films give beloved characters the conclusion they need to make them real. The monomyth concept, first written about in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, is now a much more common template to generate realism in films particularly if prior stories were fantastical.
Where stories like this succeed best is when they set themselves diametrically apart from the adolescent simplicity and superhero mortality of their previous incarnations. The satisfaction derived from Logan is because of non-pandering storytelling; a style largely started by the risk Fox took on Deadpool in 2015. The mind boggles at how Marvel (whose successes with The Avengers and related characters have often dwarfed Fox’s attempts) would handle such a feat.
What Fox unsuccessfully began with Daredevil back in 2003 they’ve finally got right with Logan. Audiences want the saccharine thrill-rush of Marvel or the now established, but once risky, maturing of heroes. They will not tolerate a middle effort, as Batman v Superman‘s critical failure proved. The grand flirtation of moviemaking of whether you can really make a comic book story that deals with adult themes have now become a marriage of great success.
Throughout the film, there’s little to suggest where Logan fits into canon save for an allusion to an ‘incident’ in New York (presumably the first film). In truth, it doesn’t matter. So compartmentalised is the story and so character-driven is the focus that the mystery as to why Xavier and Logan are living in exile is all but irrelevant. Mangold and Jackman have adapted for screen what the source material comics do all the time: shake the kaleidoscope with little concern as to where the story more broadly fits in.
Marco Beltrami’s understated score brings these threads together beautifully. There are Western allusions, but no evocative string arrangements. The only real ‘blast’ of sound occurs in the crescendoing finale which is intensely satisfying: Logan, reborn, ploughing himself into an army to save the children he’s tried to pretend he doesn’t care about becomes, in mere minutes, one of the most complete ‘superhero’ portrayals ever seen on film.
Logan is an undoubtedly bloody, miserable affair but it is a captivating journey. Batman v Superman had all the grandiose costumed imagery which Logan has stripped away to leave us with real characters. The old adage that script is everything is still true. But there’s no substitute for an evolved interest and genuine affection for characters which have been on the screen a long-time or, in this case, nearly 20 years.
Richard E. Grant gives subtle menace throughout the film as the surgical head of Transigen. That mutants have been eradicated through science and children brutally experimented on is eery as it is a hark back to the circumstances that created Wolverine in the first place. With all credit to Grant, the film benefits from the absence of a ‘big bad’. It would have been absurd to cast some vaudeville villain when such pains have been taken to show that heroes, or the perfect people we imagine, don’t exist. Grant brings to bear the perverse, genocidal Josef Mengele rationale that works impeccably as the X-Men’s final adversary.
Laura is a visceral embodiment of rage although her relationship with Logan is progressively more affectionate and genuinely heartbreaking. Taciturn yes, but Keen gives the character, and characters around her, the catharsis they need by the promise that she will be different to her genetic father and the violent world he came from. Xavier’s deteriorating mind and sincere remorse clearly cost the lives of those he tried to protect, and Logan, through subtle toilet-taking loyalty, is paralleled by Laura and how she supports her father.
In the end, Laura rearranging the cross at Logan’s grave into an ‘X’ is utterly perfect. One of the other small children clutching a Wolverine toy, having been saved from the reluctant, but stoically decent character, is a fitting end for fans of a certain age who’ve grown up knowing only Hugh Jackman’s take on-screen. There will likely be others, and that’s the maturity of the film: it doesn’t boggle the mind trying to find out where the story fits into continuity, it accept that versions ebb and flow and retiring one version and retiring it well is just as important.
Trailers are usually a source of inspiration and latterly intense hatred. The afterthought of films is that they never get to the crescendoing highs of a two-minute compilation. Logan, rarely for a film, succeeds; the thematic riffs and melodic inducement of Johnny Cash are entirely well placed and justified. Indeed, by the time the credits roll and ‘The Man Comes Around’ plays there is a widespread capitulation to the feeling that the music was expertly used and the film belongs in black and white (rumours abound this may be released).
Jackman and Stewart have been patient enough for the studio to give them the film their talents justified and fans have, at last, been given a superb Wolverine picture. More than that: audiences have been given the remake of Shane they never knew they needed, and a film they never knew how much they deserved.