Logan

As a comic book character, Superman is not unique in being invincible. Bullets bounce off him, not because he’s from Krypton, but because he must survive to the next issue. Even though Batman and Spider-Man are called “mortal" by comparison, even though the heroes deal with their immortality differently, they all survive situations that would kill the rest of us. Their pain is one issue long; their lives are endless by necessity. This is why Wolverine is so unique. He’s as invincible as any hero that goes on weekly adventures, but despite that fact, he still gets shot. He still feels pain. In his X-Men films, Bryan Singer gave us a Wolverine who can take the bullets going into him. That, at the time, was a daring thing to do, but it wasn't the whole story. With Logan, James Mangold completes the journey, by realizing that this character is completely unique in one way, which makes all the difference: the bullets have to come out of him too.

At forty-eight, Hugh Jackman would be hard pressed to play an old man (excepting the most gentlemanly body builder imaginable). But recall that Wolverine is a young man who ages only in his mind, in the smoldering core of his eyes. He’s a walking Johnny Cash song. Logan opens with Wolvy as a disheveled uber driver in Mexico, evenly matched with four rowdy passengers who pick the wrong belly to fill full of lead (it's already full of metal, if you'll recall). He’s drunk, dusty, and unmistakably scarred. He no longer heals cleanshaven GQ skin, but carries his past with him. When he gets hurt, it’s worse than if he was mortal because you know he’ll survive it. You know there will be pain. Being a comic book character has become his torment.

He describes the past movies as though they were comic books. “Most of it didn’t happen,” he says, as though he hared X-Men Origins: Wolverine just as much as we did. He makes Logan seem like the real world against which its predecessors have been a childhood fantasy. There is no cutaway from the violence in Logan, no censor, no fairytale. His blades are slow to come out of his knuckles. They pinch and bleed. They are his bone-saws and guillotines, his tools of vengeance and fury and guilt. These are all Wolverine has ever been able to feel in these movies, but Mangold reminds us that there's poetry in that. He makes Wolverine’s anger naturally self-harming.

To match the immolation of his characters, Mangold constructs Logan on the stage of a Western road picture with the dream of Shakespeare creeping in around its edges. Patrick Stewart as the once docile Charles Xavier is its king, stripped of all his splendor. He raves in his room, which is a stage: a cot and herb garden in the belly of an upturned water tower. A spotlight climbs through a hole in the rust, and though he wheels around spouting the shadow of a Taco Bell commercial, Xavier plays a King Lear of his lonely domain. He once had access to the thoughts of the world; now Logan keeps him in a morphine coma for the sake of that world. Lear wandered through a thunderstorm with his fool, and we always knew it was really the storm of the king's lonely madness. He said, “I have full cause of weeping, but this heart/ Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/ Before I’ll weep." Xavier is a prisoner in his noble past and a victim of the world he now inhabits, as punishment for playing a part in its creation. But to spare himself from crying, he has given up his heart and mind; he lets himself forget, as Wolverine can never do. “I always know who are,” he tells Logan, “it’s just that sometimes, I don’t recognize you.”

Against this shattered past, newcomer Dafne Keen comes in with an indispensable performance as a voiceless child with an animal side, whose bond with Wolverine doesn’t warm up into comedy like you might expect (this isn't Little Miss Sunshine with superheroes). She was manufactured into fear and death and knows nothing about people. She ponders two manikins holding hands like an animal listening to music. You may be surprised to discover children amid the gratuity in Logan (doubly so in the seats next to you at the theater), but though she's a child, she is most certainly not a kid. There’s a tiny moment when she fiddles with the lock on her car door, more defiant than playful. That micro-moment of childish uncertainty, that chink in her anger, manages to be as poignant as a grandiloquent speech on humanity’s future, such as Stewart would have given in a previous X-Men film. It’s just the faintest spark of childhood, but as unexpected as a can opener writing a sonnet, and as amazing. Nothing in Logan describes its emotional dystopia, or its redemption, better than the micro-moments that the best movies know is more important than a shot tailor-made for teaser trailers.

Mangold and cinematographer John Mathieson let framing do the talking in Logan, leaving out the poster-worthy photo shoots the Avengers love so much in favor of bone-crushing close frames. Prejudice has always been a theme of X-Men and Bryan Singer was praised for evoking it through speeches. Mangold doesn’t need words, crafting oppression from harsh, intimate frames. Logan is a bloody noir, a dystopic dirt bath, Shane starring a human switchblade.

The blockbuster numbness creeps in occasionally. Logan eases on the animation (it cost just under $100 million, serving as another argument for tight budgets tightening films). But if someone peeled a pitchfork from their knuckles and lacerated my father’s jugular, my reaction would not be a non-exclamatory “Oh shit,” as though I knew I was in a superhero movie and something like that was just bound to happen. People don't know how to scream in these movies. There's no fear in these movies to accompany the violent atrocities because, occasionally, Logan is still a film less about making stuff than about making stuff for the people who want to see it. We've been waiting for Wolverine to be Rated-R, and now we have it; why shouldn't we enjoy it? But if this was any other film in any other genre, the violence in Logan would be a primeval horror—if Jeremy Saulnier had directed this movie, it would probably be his most violent film. Castrations by frustrated feral children is an area that, to my knowledge, even he hasn't ventured to yet.

I don’t think this genre has the desire or the maturity to fully demythologize its legacy, which Logan attempts to do. But with the gunslinger subbing for the typical superhero, we are given a reason to remember how essential heroes are to the human spirit, even if they don't amount to much in society. Finally, the inability of the X-Men writers to find charisma in this character has become an advantage: Jackman finally finds the sadness inherent in being so angry and boring all this time. We will always strive to make sense of violence, to make our sins heroic. Jackman bows out of seventeen years playing one superhero (a record for the genre) by making us wonder why we ever wanted to watch these in the first place, in the best possible way. He makes us morally re-examine our love of Wolverine. Singer put him in a lot of pain, I'll grant it. Mangold finally made him hurt.

His frames are placed as carefully as eyeliner: Logan is scenic, brutal, and completely engrossing. Why the last hurrah is the first time anyone’s thought to write the X-Men like they mean it escapes me. But if X-Men was a revolution in sneering, maybe Logan will be one in shooting this genre from the hip, not playing it safe, taking no prisoners. It’s a mouthful of razorblades at times, a rotten wound, a sore tooth. It also gives our sore, rotten razorblade a chance to go out with a crooked smile and his guitar on his back. The title is appropriate, since out of all those melodramatic school kids, the snarling wrestler ends up being the only human being of the bunch, with a real name we'll all remember apart from the powers and the fancy clothes. It does seem like every X-Men movie knew that’s who he was. Mangold’s is just the first to recognize him.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

James Mangold

Scott Frank (screenplay)

Michael Green (screenplay)

James Mangold (screenplay and story)

Roy Thomas et al (based on the book by)

Logan/Wolverine/James Howlett Hugh Jackman
Charles Xavier/Professor X Patrick Stewart
Donald Pierce Boyd Holbrook
Caliban Stephen Merchant
Zander Rice Richard E. Grant
Laura/X-23 Dafne Keen
Will Munson Eriq La Salle

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