Posted on Wednesday, March 8th, 2017 by Jacob Hall
(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: James Mangold’s Logan.)
There has never been a superhero movie like Logan.
Paced like a ’70s drama, styled like a classic western, and powered by characters rather than action, director James Mangold has concluded the saga of Hugh Jackman‘s Wolverine with a powerful pop rather than an empty bang. Like the very different Deadpool, this is a superhero movie, an X-Men movie, that is beholden only to itself. It has shrugged off its masters and is all the better for it.
And while most superhero movies dwell on surface pleasures, Logan offers meat to chew on. Bloody and bitter meat, but meat thoughtfully and carefully prepared. Let’s take a deep dive into what makes Logan so special and so different.
Spoilers head, of course.
Snikts and Stones
Logan opens with a startling scene. Our hero, the man whose name is the title of the movie, the superhero we’ve seen save the world a few times in the past, awakens from a drunken slumber in the back of the limousine he now drives for a living. A group of men are stealing his hubcaps. He intervenes. They shoot him. He doesn’t die, but it sure looks like it hurts.
In the fight that follows, Logan steps in front of gunfire to protect his car, which is a lease and his only source of income. He dispatches his attackers, but it’s not easy. If his superhuman healing abilities( fading but still kicking) weren’t active, he’d be a dead man a half dozen times over. It’s unlike any other scene in a comic book movie – it’s a sequence devoid of excitement or romance. Logan retreats to a gas station restroom to clean himself up and painfully waits while his body ejects the bullets that once wouldn’t have fazed him in the slightest. Time has caught up with the warrior. The ageless Wolverine has gotten old.
Everyone and everything is dying in Logan. The world as we know it is fading, giving way to a future that is realistically depressing and mundanely dystopic. Our hero has seen his greatest strength, the adamantium skeleton installed within his body decades earlier, turn against him, poisoning him and undoing his ability to shrug off any wound. It’s easy to think of soldiers, of war heroes, who return from battle and slowly realize that every single thing they were trained to do well doesn’t apply to the real world. The very things that made them powerful, that made them useful, drive them to self-destruction. Logan’s lack of self care is a delayed suicide attempt.
Professor Charles Xavier, once the most powerful mind in the world and the respected leader of a school built for the betterment of mutantkind, battles an unspecified illness that has rendered him unpredictable. In one of the film’s most disquieting moments, the man once called Professor X fights back tears and apologizes to a room full of strangers after one of his seizures, brought on because he didn’t take his medication, nearly killed them with its uncontrollable blast of psychic energy. My grandfather was an engineer whose work was used in NASA’s space shuttle. His final descent into dementia was almost impossible to endure. Watching Charles Xavier battle his own mind, the way tiny shred of himself appear amidst the anger and confusion, is heartbreaking. And familiar.
Those superpowers, the abilities that made Logan and Charles so confident and so primed to fight on behalf of the world, have revealed their double edged nature. A brilliant mind is undone by dementia. A skilled soldier is undone by age. The things we take for granted, the things that define our youths, slip away. Our finest assets turn against us. Time is the great enemy of humanity. It turns out that it’s the great enemy of superheroes, too.
In the end, Logan and Charles have to stare an unforgiving world in the eye and dredge up all of the dignity they can muster for their final fight. They both die painfully, away from a public battlefield, in service of a battle they did not choose being fought on a scale where the stakes amount to a handful of souls. Logan brings its heroes down to our level – a fight to reclaim the self is a battle we all know. It’s the battle we all have coming.
Stripped Down, Worn Out, Going Strong
The filmography of James Mangold defies easy and instant classification. At a glance, he appears to be a working director, a journeyman comfortable in all genres who can turn out strong work on any job. However, our obsession with auteurs blinds us to a filmmaker with a steady thematic through line.
Mangold makes movies about people (usually men) and the institutions, real or imaginary, that they fight to maintain. In Cop Land, he tells the story of a police officer battling corruption in his ranks. In the adorable Kate & Leopold, he builds a rom-com around a time-displaced man representing a type of gentleman that has vanished from the modern era. In 3:10 to Yuma, men living in the wild west risk life and limb to protect the vague concept of law and order. Even those films that don’t fit this tidy description feel connected by invisible tethers. His Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line is less about a legendary singer and more about how that singer struggled to find his place in a world that he would come to define.
Logan is a movie about people who fight and die for a forgotten cause. When the film begins, the X-Men are gone, existing only in tattered comic books. But as that group’s final two representatives, Logan and Charles must represent their team, their institution, one more time. What good is a set of ideals if you’re not going to fight for them in the middle of the North Dakota woods in a brawl that will never be remembered? The unseen battles are what define us.
Mangold’s adaptability as a filmmaker is something to be treasured. We take so much pleasure in dissecting the work of storytellers which instantly identifiable styles that we sometimes fail to appreciate directors who simply know where to put the camera. Mangold’s stripped-down style, his straightforward depiction of weary men and women doing their damnedest, is to be treasured and respected.
The New American Wasteland
Logan was developed and shot long before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, but like television’s The Young Pope before it, the film can’t help but feel like one of the first accidental responses to the current administration. Like the most powerful art, this movie has a political stance.
To be fair, the X-Men have always been political. These are the stories of a marginalized group, people who are different, people who face discrimination on the streets and in government legislation. The mutants fight not just to protect the planet, but to reverse prejudices. They are, like Superman before them, bleeding heart “social justice warriors.” And as Logan begins, they have lost.
A wall runs along the Texas/Mexico border and the drunken frat boys riding in Logan’s limo chant “USA!” as they drive by border patrol vehicles. Driverless trucks populate the highways, but instead of a hopeful future, they represent a world where blue collar employment is rapidly dwindling. It’s no accident that Logan himself has found employment as a driver, a job that will soon be obsolete.
In a year where refugees are literally fleeing the United States and losing fingers to frostbite as they cross the Canadian border, the central plight of Logan becomes all the more immediate. Here are a group of young mutants, victims of a war they cannot control and only want to escape, fleeing a privatized military force across the new American wasteland. They are victims treated like criminals, children painted as monsters. It’s disconcerting that Logan climaxes with these kids, these Mexican refugees, finding a safe haven north of the border. America is no home for mutants. America is no home for those who seek a better, safer life. Not in Logan. Not anymore.
Of course, Logan himself perishes helping these kids. The mission of the X-Men, that fight for justice, has always been depicted on a massive scale. But real change, the real nudges to social structure, occur in the shadows. We cannot save America or the world on our own, but a thousand good deeds from a thousand good people, working anonymously because it’s the right thing to do, can tip the needle. There’s still time. You’re here right now. “Someone has come along,” Charles tells Logan when a simple moment of everyday, mundane heroism reveals itself. He’s right. We’re here right now.