Logan (2017, dir. James Mangold)
I remember being between by freshman and sophomore years of college and going to see X-Men in the movie theater. This was our first introduction to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Jackman almost wasn’t this iconic mutant; it would have been Dougray Scott who dropped out of X-Men to play the villain in Mission Impossible III. But now Jackman and Wolverine are constants throughout the X-Franchise, even shoehorned in cameos in First Class and Apocalypse. He is the star of what is roundly considered the worst film of the lot: X-Men: Origins: Wolverine. With Logan, his tenure as this character, and Patrick Stewart’s role as Charles Xavier comes to a close.
We learn at one point that the year is 2029 and for a little, over a year James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine has been in hiding with Charles Xavier and another mutant, Caliban. Some catastrophic event occurred that forced these three into the Mexican wilderness. Logan is saving up cash to purchase a Sunseeker yacht and take Charles as far from humanity as possible. Time has caught up to our protagonist. He moves slower and stumbles more often. His claws are impeded by arthritis and injuries that aren’t healing like they used to. While trying to live a quiet life Logan’s path crosses with that of a nurse and a little girl who desperately need his help. There’s one final mission for Logan and Charles where they must struggle past their physical and psychological issues to be heroes again.
In contemplating this film, I realized that we haven’t had a big screen superhero send off like this ever. If we look back at the iconic comic book movie franchise, they more often than not fizzle out and just end with a whimper. Christopher Reeve ended his tenure as Superman with a dismal fourth installment. Michael Keaton left Batman due to creative disagreements. Tobey Maguire danced his way out of Spider-Man with Ted Raimi’s third installment. Christian Bale’s Batman seems to be the only movie superhero I can think of with a proper ending to their iteration, and that is not regarded too well. For close to two decades Hugh Jackman has played this character, even after some films that any of us would have forgiven him from not returning after. So there is a special sentimentality to Logan.
There’s no doubt I loved this film. Will it be on my top ten of the year at the close of 2017? Probably not. But if I were to make a list of best comic book films this is up there. What helps Logan transcend the weight of the convoluted X-Franchise is that it doesn’t need the other films to work. You could switch out the X-Men with any generic superhero team, and the allusions to past events still work just a well. Instead of looking at this as a piece of a larger franchise, writer-director James Mangold smartly chooses to make the film a character piece. I have much stronger memories of the character moments than the action set pieces and that is quite an accomplishment these days in big-budget studio fare. The relationships between the three core characters (Logan, Charles, and Laura) feel honest, and choices they make are affected by these relationships. Logan’s hesitance to take Laura in and embark on her quest is true to his character.
The acting from the three most important cast members is phenomenal. You likely won’t see better performances in another 20th Century X-Picture ever again. Jackman is very comfortable in the skin of Logan and adds more layers with the affliction of age. It would be interesting to go back and watch the action sequences in X-Men and X2, comparing them to the awkwardness and lumbering of Logan in this film. Killing is taking a physical and emotional toll on the protagonist, and we see it how he slows down, how he falls. I have to say I don’t think I have ever seen Patrick Stewart in a role quite like this. The staid, headmaster of previous films is gone, and now we have a very broken, crass, angry Charles Xavier. He floats between states of consciousness due to medication, and when he does gain clarity of mind, it brings up tragic truths Logan sought to bury from his mentor. Dafne Keen as Laura delivers a very powerful performance. She is forced to hold her own against Jackman who is giving probably his best work, and she never flinches. For the majority of the film Keen is non-verbal and how an actor does in a role that asks them to act through reacting is a great litmus test. She has the makings of someone very special because she understands Laura isn’t just an angry Lil’ Wolverine. There is history beneath the surface, and she chooses to reveal that in interesting ways.
There are strong allusions to other films. The most obvious is the 1953 Western film Shane which Charles and Laura watch in a hotel room. The ending monolog of Shane is quoted in Logan’s climax, and it pretty much spells out the themes and ideas Mangold is aiming for. I don’t enjoy this element of comic book films, where at some point characters or the director put up big neon signs that point at what we’re meant to learn from the picture. I’d prefer to infer theme from watching the story unfold, and this element is a big part of why Logan isn’t going to end up as one of my top favorites of the year. Just a personal preference, but one that has always had me keep comic book films at arm’s length. There is also a moment in the third act that is blatantly nodding to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and I loved that film acknowledge it was taking a lot of inspiration from the structure of those films.
If I could just end the X-Men franchise with this film, I would. 20th Century Fox has other ideas it seems. I hope that they look at Logan not for what it is on the surface, but for what it represents in the way comic book properties can work beyond just four color summer tentpole action. In the hands of the right creative people, these characters can be elevated and be central to stories that go much deeper than audiences expect.