Overview: In a future where mutants have become near extinct, a world-weary, battle-damaged Logan must make his way alongside Charles Xavier to deliver a young mutant girl to North Dakota’s fabled mutant safe-haven, Eden. 20th Century Fox; 2017; Rated R; 137 minutes.
I See A Darkness: “Maybe we’re God’s mistake,” a haggard Logan tells an equally haggard Charles Xavier, as both men come to terms to with their failing powers and grief over the fact that most of their kind have died, be remembered as novelty acts at best. For seventeen years, we’ve watched X-Men films proclaim that mutants were the future, children of the atom who were ushering in the next stage of evolution. James Mangold brings us to a world where that didn’t happen, a world ruled by casinos, big corporations, and automated trailer trucks that suggest an American job deficit that feels like a natural progression of where we are now. Logan, going by his given name James Howlett and reduced to working as a chauffeur, is forced to witness this unnatural world through the tinted glass of his town car, an unnatural world that he couldn’t change for the better despite his long decades on Earth. It is very much a world of man, not mutants. And it is a world that feels stagnant as a result, as if humans, despite their technological progress, were never able to morally advance, mature, or drive towards the future with any sense of vision or purpose (“USA! USA! USA!” one of Logan’s passengers shouts, as he passes through a land deserving of little patriotism). Mangold’s world-building is particularly impressive, achieving what the early X-films could never manage, creating a world that feels lived in but also reflects humanity in a way that feels modern and honest. The subtle, dustbowl science-fiction at play here, owing no small debt to Mad Max and the Westerns of the mid-20th century, make good on the X-films oft used but rarely fully realized “not too distant future” setting. As a result, mutants being God’s mistake isn’t just a line said within the vacuum of the empty water tower where Logan and Xavier live like wounded animals, it’s a line that’s backed up by the land surrounding the film that we can easily imagine stretching beyond the frames of the screen, charting misery and the hope buried six feet under.
The Beast in Me: Hugh Jackman, one of a handful of actors who we recognize as one of the very best thespians to bring a comic character to life, brings a new physicality to Logan. Limping, breathless, and near blind, Logan is a far-cry from the physical perfection of the character in his prime. There are times, knuckles bleeding, his eyes watering with sorrow, his face a bruised expression of pain, purple with a choking fury, that Logan becomes difficult to look at. Watching seems almost cruel, like staring down an animal on the side of the road, back legs crushed and facing imminent death. Jackman performs with a kind of hurt that’s visceral, a violent internal war that’s both a physical and psychological struggle to accept that the redemption he strove for over so many years may finally be out of reach. When he fights, it’s damaging. Shotgun blasts leave open wounds, and blades tear flesh that will never heal properly. Mangold lingers on these wounds, and cinematographer John Mathieson captures them with a kind of reference usually reserved for war photographs. When we see Logan on the offensive, delivering the kind of R-rated violence that finally lives up to the character, it’s a violence that is shocking. It’s shocking not only because of the blows dealt and the gore that results from it (a factor that even in a post-Deadpool world took some serious gall for Fox.) but because the violence is tied to a struggle for survival that no longer seems like such a sure bet. For a film that isn’t using its violence for comedy or exploitation, Logan isn’t like anything we’ve seen from a comic adaptation.
Patrick Stewart, also giving his all in his final performance as Professor X, is faced with a similar violence of the soul and struggle to survive in a world where his gift has become a curse. The man who has always been a pillar for mutants, an endless reserve of power and knowledge, is reduced to a pill-addled old man, prone to psychic seizures that paralyze and kill those around him, tragically denying him of his life’s goal of bringing people together. The X-Men films started playing with similarities between Logan and Xavier in Days of the Future Past, and Logan fulfills that by having Xavier succumb to a power he cannot control, a power that only hurts those he comes in contact with. Yet, unlike Logan, Xavier still has hope in the future of mutant-kind, backed by a stubborn refusal to believe he is a mistake. This hope comes in the form of a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen), an 11-year old girl with the same powers as Wolverine and her own set of adamantium claws. Laura becomes Xavier’s last chance to bring people together, to ensure the future of his race.
Rusty Cage: Logan not only builds on the character’s film history, but his comic history as well. Logan describes comics as “ice-cream for bedwetters” but the film treats them with reverence, not simply in its use of source material, but as physical media within the world of the film. X-Men comic books exist in this world as historical artifacts that blend myth and reality, expose the truth inside the lie and ultimately inspire. Wolverine is a legendary figure, and the characters in the film display knowledge of his exploits with tones of reverence. But like any legend, there is a fair bit of liberty taken with the life behind it. Laura, though mostly mute throughout the film, is played with a sharp sense of observation by Keen. She is able to seal the rift between the Logan of her reality and the Wolverine in her comic books by acting as an emotional excavator, silently awakening something Logan long thought dead, placing a figurative costume of heroism over a broken man. Paralleling the relationship between Logan and Rogue in the first X-Men film, Laura sees Logan as the man instead of the animal, a man with agency and a natural, though deeply buried, goodness.
The contrast between the natural, and mechanic or lab-created, is a theme that plays out throughout the film. The Reavers, cybernetically enhanced soldiers, led by the charismatic and scene-stealing Donald Pierce (a star-making performance from Boyd Holbrook) are powered through an unnatural manipulation of their bodies. They’re evolutionary pirates, and a dark mirror to the mutants that once populated this world. Their quest to seize a number of escaped lab-created mutants, including Laura, who are the logical progression of the Weapon X program, shed light on this world’s problem with agency. The Reavers, backed by scientist Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) see these lab-created mutants, and the film’s brutal and frightening antagonist, X-24, in the same way that we see the automated trailer trucks in the film. They are tools without a driving conscience, tools to be set on road to fulfill a duty until the end of the line, and set to be taken out of commission when the next model comes around. Logan’s agency is ultimately what makes him a threat in this film, and a Western hero set to inspire. For a character whose early life was defined by being a prisoner, an experiment without control, it’s fitting that this chapter of his story finds him defined by choice—a cyclical redemption unable to be paved by Xavier or his X-Men, but carved through his own will and acknowledgement of who he wants to be, and who, in his natural state, he always was.
Overall: Logan is a deeply sad and deeply satisfying film that’s almost difficult to believe that Mangold was allowed to make on his own terms. It’s the Wolverine film we’ve always wanted, a perfect analysis of the character that’s melancholy, expertly-performed, action-packed, emotionally fulfilling, and it’s also more than that. In its exploration of age, sickness, suicide, parenthood, and the legacies we leave. Logan slices through the supposed cage of the comic book movie, becoming an exemplary character study and parable for a world that’s healing factor is best expressed through film.
Featured Image: 20th Century Fox