Logan (2017)

Written by Scott Frank, James Mangold, & David Frank
Directed by James Mangold


    Logan (2017) is a film comprised of small miracles. Its most astounding: It was made by the guy who subjected us to the schlock-fest known as The Wolverine (2013). 
    How director James Mangold was able to switch gears from that film, a nonsensical superhero slice 'em up, to this one, a moving, pro-immigration treatise on heroism and regret, is best left for posterity to reveal. For right now, we must count our blessings. Logan is a celluloid "hallelujah," a gravelly, scratchy animal scream straight from the larynx of Hugh Jackman's aged-out superhero.
    As a lifetime comic book reader, and something of an X-Men snob, I cannot adequately describe my disappointment with the last seventeen years of Mutant Cinema. We have never received a "true" X-Men movie, one that brings to life the decades of metaphor, soap operatics, tragedy, and candy-colored action that the myriad X-Men comic book series are known for. We've seen glimpses over the years: First perhaps in the original X-Men (2000), if only because the audaciousness of simply committing the trials and tribulations of Charles Xavier's mutant superhero squad to the big screen shoved us into the Undiscovered Country of superhero movies. And then in Bryan Singer's follow up, X2 (2003), we came closer to the platonic ideal of the X-Men with the introduction of a deeper--and soon to be confusing--mythology, a wider array of mutants, and of course, the now somewhat tame throwdown between Lady Deathstrike and Wolverine (finally, a real knock-down-drag-out brawl). It was at this point in time that it became apparent that the X-Men franchise, such as it was in the early 2000s, was Hugh Jackman's show. 
    This bucked years and years of established canon, where Wolverine was a much admired, albeit (literally) diminutive ensemble player. He had a few solo outings to his name, sure, but nothing on the level of a Dark Knight Returns or an All-Star Superman. Wolverine was never meant to be a lead, but there he was leading. Jackman's Wolverine was the character people wanted more of. Not Cyclops or Rogue, not Storm or Jean. Jackman's star rose in Hollywood as the size of his role in the subsequent X-Men films eclipsed those of his colleagues'. His influence increased further when he became a producer of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), which is hilariously bad, but worth watching. It's easy to see why this all happened--his was the only character to have much of a coherent arc over the last two decades, and Jackman buried himself in the part with the same fiery intensity we've seen from him in other, better films. It was commercial superhero fare, sure, but it seemed like the guy was giving it his all.


    The closest we ever got to the real X-Men, at least visually, was Deadpool (2016). But no X-Men film has ever given us what a comic book reader has usually found month-in month-out on the shelves of his or her comic shop since the 1960s. And while Logan eschews much of the aforementioned candy colors, it does get to the heart of the mutant dilemma. And then it puts that heart in a blender, pours it into a tall glass, and makes the audience drink it down in one gulp. 
    As a piece of a whole, the film works. It is essentially the cinematic equivalent of Wolverine: The End--the final Wolverine story in the overarching X-Men mythology. It takes into account what has come before and sends the character off for a viking funeral. But the X-Men films are not known for their wholeness--they barely connect. Each film resets, in some way, the events of previous features. This is clearly not by design. Rather, the various filmmakers (who are usually and disappointingly Bryan Singer) have taken to making quasi-sequels, choosing to disregard characters, plots, and basically whatever they don't want to use in a follow-up. And with the exception of Deadpool, no movie has really functioned as a standalone feature. But Logan, as a singular film, does more than just function. It lives and breathes and coughs and bleeds. It does this prismatically, borrowing from great films from outside of the superhero genre, digesting them and reflecting back at us something that finally feels like a real movie.
    There are shades of Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men (2006) in the way Mangold introduces us to his dystopia. Mutankind, as we know it, is all but dead and gone. Wolverine, a legitimate globetrotting superhero, is now an Uber driver, just another participant in the overgrown gig economy. At one point in the film, whilst carting a senile Professor Xavier and Logan's wily female clone Laura cross-country, the trio is almost pancaked by an "autotruck," a cargo container on wheels, piloted by an unseen and seemingly malicious operator. Later, we witness gargantuan harvesters pull genetically engineered corn from the ground, all in the service of some Monsanto-esque conglomerate. The influence of James Cameron's Terminator (1984) is impossible to ignore when, in the second half of the film, Logan encounters "X-24," yet another cloned version of himself, this time a feral version possessed of an un-aged physique. X-24 is relentless, primal, a silent killing machine with a metal skeleton, very much in the mold of the T-800. And once seen, you cannot unsee Luc Besson's The Professional (1994) in the relationship between Laura and Logan, as Jackman's gnarled killer does his best to fend off the annoyances of his young ward. George Stevens' Shane (1953) comes up more than once in the film, and for obvious reasons. Logan is, after all, a Western. It's the story of the old killer coming out of retirement for one last job, a tried and true framework for violence and redemption.

 
    All of this in an X-Men movie. Who knew? But the proud sleeve-wearing of influences does not a good movie make. Lucky then that there's magic in this film. Almost as if Jackman is summoning the dead, atoning for years of mediocre efforts on the parts of writers and directors who just didn't get it, righting wrongs before his character shuffles of his semi-immortal coil. His Logan is old, worn out, dead on arrival. But Jackman imbues his X-Man with hints of the man, the hero, the tired old samurai futilely wheeling around his disgraced master. It's hard to see anyone else doing this job. It's hard to look back, after nearly twenty years now gone, and see Tom Cruise playing the part, or Bob Hoskins, or Mel Gibson (although it's fun to imagine). Jackman is not alone in this crusade for redemption, his performance is bolstered by the work of two geniuses, one nearing the end of his career, and another just starting hers. Patrick Stewart delivers one of his most heartfelt performances as the near-death's-door Charles Xavier, former leader of X-Men, now a shell of a man with the world's most powerful mind. And Dafne Keen is absolutely perfect as the child murderess X-23. She is both innocent and compromised, a seasoned pre-pubescent killer, capable of unleashing an absolute fucking tornado of violence. Her skill as a performer is in the transition, the way she can shift between the extremes. It's a joy to watch, but also heartbreaking. Whatever she appears in next will be worth the watch (perhaps the announced New Mutants film).
    It's also important to point out that this film's plot is a glorified border crossing. Laura is a young Mexican girl with a lot of potential--she could make America great again. Mangold and his writers have shown us an America possibly too far gone. It seems that the fall of the mutants is inexorably tied to the fate of this once great superpower. That's why Laura, Logan, and Xavier are headed to Canada, where Wolverine himself is from, the true land of opportunity in this film. I'm sort of shocked at the timing of this movie, but art often has surprising predictive capabilities.
    So if my math is correct--and I'm hoping it's not--a good X-Men movie rolls around once every 17 years. Which would mean we're due for once in 2034. I'll be 46 years old, just a year shy of Jackman's age when he began filming his fond farewell to the character who put him on the map. And Wolverine himself, well, he'll be long dead. 
    Au revoir Logan-San.