An old man in a wheelchair. A silent little girl. And an angry, limping, scarred man, reluctantly acting as caretaker for the two as they make their way north across middle America. If this doesn’t sound like the premise of your average superhero movie, that’s because it’s not your average superhero movie. It’s much, much better.
Logan is the ninth time Hugh Jackman has played Logan/Wolverine in the X-Men franchise, and probably the last. (Though never say never in the superhero universe!) Chronologically, the story takes place after the other films, in a time when mutants have been hunted almost to extinction. Logan, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and an albino tracker called Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are hiding out underground in El Paso. The powerful Professor X is now just Charles, suffering from seizures and memory problems that put everyone around him in danger. Logan is growing increasingly weaker as the adamantium in his bones slowly poisons him, a problem he treats with alcoholism and surliness.
Logan is content to wait out the remainder of his existence without incident, until he’s approached by a dying nurse who begs him to look after her girl, Laura, and bring her to safety in Canada. He refuses, but when an army of men (the Reavers, military-like cyborgs lead by Boyd Holbrook) arrive at his compound looking for her, he witnesses what the little girl is capable of—that is, the same ferocity as he is, complete with her own retractable claws. He realizes that Laura is no ordinary child, and could in fact be his child.
I’ve never been a fan of the X-Men movies; I don’t have anything against them, but haven’t intentionally sought them out. (I think the only film I’ve seen in its entirety is X-Men: First Class.) It’s possible that a greater knowledge of the X-Men universe would’ve increased my enjoyment of Logan, but even without a franchise background, it was a damn good stand-alone film. What works so well is the filmmakers’ decision to create a sparse western, rather than a crowded and chaotic action flick. The premise feels mythical or even biblical; this is the story of outsiders, the the chosen freaks, seeking their promised land.
Jackson, who’s consistently better than I expect him to be, is no disappointment here. His character could’ve easily turned into a “grumpy old man with a heart of gold cliche,” but in his adept hands, the aging Logan is embittered to the core, and any virtuous actions are due more to pragmatism than ethics. Which makes it all the more moving when he shows glimpses of something like affection for Laura. And Dafne Keen, as Laura, matches Jackman’s ferocity both physically and emotionally. Even without the adamantium claws, her vehemence would have us wondering about Laura’s fatherhood.
Though it’s unorthodox to say it, the violence is in the film is fantastic, largely because it’s actually used to characterize it’s two leads, and not just for entertainment. The way in which Logan and Laura fight and kill is appropriately animalistic—lighting fast, reactive, defensive, and ravaging; they don’t so much punch and kick as they shred and skewer. The carnage is gory but not indulgent, something we don’t often see in American cinema. And that’s because indulgence is a human characteristic, likewise torturing and gloating . Logan and Laura are like wild animals—they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them. But if you do, beware, because they’re positively feral when bothered. (Logan makes full use of its R-rating.)
What also works well in Logan is the barren, rural landscape. Because it’s so sparsely populated, the momentum builds with each encounter. The stakes feel higher when it’s the fate of one girl, rather than the fate of the entire universe, that’s in question. By shaping Logan not as sci-fi but as myth, the filmmakers allow the developing themes nuance beyond the simple “good vs. evil” worldview found in other Marvel movies. There’s a morality to hang your hat on here, but it’s presented with a subtlety that’s more Cormac McCarthy than comic book. At one point, when Logan is trying to convince Laura to quit tagging along, he snarls “I hurt people!” “I’ve hurt people,” she responds.” “You’ll have to learn how to live with that,” he says. “They were bad people,” she explains. “…All the same,” he says.
If there are any weak points, it’s that the some characters are underdeveloped, and they seem cartoonish in comparison to Jackman and Keen. This includes the villains, who are equally nondescript, if wisely so, because Logan’s most compelling enemy will always be himself.
The film examines the notion of creation, not from the perspective of the Creator, but from the perspective of the Created. Existential torture results anytime creation acts in contradiction to their creator’s intended purpose. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we’d call this concept sin. But what if your creator is not a benevolent, well-intentioned God, but a self-serving, fallible opportunist? Then it becomes your moral duty not to obey but to defy your creator. The tragedy of Logan is that, unlike most heroes, his quest is not “become who you were born to be,” but “try not to become who you were born to be.”
If last years’ Deadpool and now Logan are any indication, we may be entering the age of the R-rated superhero movie. While I certainly don’t believe that an R-rating is necessary for good storytelling, perhaps knowingly limiting the potential viewership (by forfeiting a PG-13 rating) allowed the filmmakers the freedom to resist building a story around special effects. Like Logan, director James Mangold wisely defies expectations of the genre, and gives us the best superhero movie that I’ve seen since The Dark Knight. “Don’t be what they made you,” Logan pleads. Don’t worry, Logan, you’re much, much more.
Rachel Woldum is barista and bartender currently living in Minneapolis. An MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University, Rachel also writes a TV column for Southern Minnesota Scene, and develops comic book scripts for Cartoon Studios.