His body is a roadmap of all the mistakes they’ve made with this character in 17 years. This time, Logan comes correct.
People have been waiting a long time for this, but they maybe didn’t know it would be like this. Cryptic way of saying that people love comic book characters, genuinely love them, and want Hollywood to do right by them. Too often, they get it wrong and the fans think they know what they want. But does anyone really know? I doubt many people would envision Logan as the “right” interpretation of the characters. But it is. I doubt many people would have expected, after so many mixed and outright bad X-Men movies, for Logan to be so much better it’s not even funny… but it is.
The thing is, it got here by not giving a shit about the silly trivial details that the nerdiest fans get so hung up on. Logan’s hair, for example. Or why Professor X suddenly has some. These things aren’t really important, but they are the superficial details that the big fans obsess over all in the name of “getting it right”. It’s why some people are going to be bent out of shape that this isn’t an Old Man Logan adaptation (terrible comic anyway). So what makes Logan “right”, then? I think most simply because it focuses on having a good story that these characters can fit in, rather than the other way around. This movie is light on plot, but dripping with subtext and incredibly strong characterization. We’ve been watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine and Patrick Stewart play Charles Xavier for almost twenty years and they were always a big part of the reason why people kept coming back in spite of the stupid shit the X-Men movies have gotten up to in that time. That’s an era of performances in movies that didn’t deserve them. So now, for their final go around, James Mangold made a movie that does deserve them.
At the same time, it’s important to realize that this isn’t sudden proof that sadness and violence is what makes a “good” comic book movie. It helps make Logan good, because those elements interact with some mature themes and storytelling. Without that, with only the grim and the violent, you get DCEU movies. Logan is strong alchemy, and I don’t think it can be replicated any more than Deadpool can. There’s contextual stuff happening here and it’s a big part of why this movie is blowing everybody away. But if you skipped to the finish line, we’d have this good movie maybe but we wouldn’t have a movie that makes people grip their chairs or feel like they’ve lost a friend by the end. Context is everything.
The functional elements of the story are pretty simple and all the better for it.
No one cares less about the X-Men continuity than Fox, who changes it every outing. No one except for maybe James Mangold who has twice now made Wolverine movies so far outside the continuity that it mostly ceases to matter. There are references here and there, but these last two movies have been able to refine their way to something by avoiding that mess almost completely. This time, he did it by setting the movie in the future. Logan takes place in 2029, when new Mutants have stopped being born and the old ones have mostly died or gone into hiding. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Logan (Hugh Jackman), who goes by his birth name James Howlett now, have outlived them all along with Caliban (Stephen Merchant). They live together on the edge of nowhere in El Paso, Texas, barely keeping themselves going.
Logan works as a limo driver to get the money together for the drugs Charles needs to dampen the really harsh effects of what seems to be a degenerative brain disease. His seizures can, when they go off, kill everyone around him and there’s a strong implication that this is exactly what happened to most of the other familiar faces from their shared past. Logan is hard-drinking, slow-healing, and vaguely suicidal. While Caliban worries at him, acting as the trio’s den mother, he hides a single adamantium bullet: the only thing that can kill him besides time.
This movie beats the holy shit out of Logan.
Far from an idyllic life, it is nonetheless shattered when Logan’s past comes knocking one last time. It turns out that new mutants have been born, but they were created by a company called Transigen. There’s actually tons of subtle storytelling around Transigen, so they’re not just Staple Badguy Factory #323. The movie slowly builds a world around Logan, which works really well since this is kind of a road movie, and that world seems to be largely the fault of Transigen. Using the DNA of mutants, mostly long dead, they created a girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who is biologically Logan’s daughter. A rogue nurse (Elizbeth Rodriguez) from the company’s secret project tries to save Laura with Logan’s help, and he is slowly and reluctantly drawn in to one last adventure. The backbone here is the relationships between characters, and this backbone could work even in a movie about normal people trying to figure their shit out. At its barest level, this is a movie about an angry, broken, and fundamentally sad middle aged dude who is waiting for his deranged dad to die when all of a sudden he is forced into a relationship with an estranged daughter he didn’t know he had. This is the movie. Add in Transigen, 20 years of X-Men movie baggage that is subtly interwoven in the movie, and some really incredible action and you get Logan. But that backbone is key.
Ostensibly, Logan is a road movie. But it mixes in elements of Westerns, neo-noir, and gritty action so well that it feels like a singular genre. Everything works together so well that you get the feeling James Mangold always had this movie in him. It’s hard to find a guy who has tried more genres and very different types of movies than him, and you can see that each one has left its mark. There’s a synthesis happening in Logan that becomes really noticeable when you get the context of who Mangold is. Again, context is everything.
But people who came to see Logan claw people in the fucking head will be happy too.
The first third of the movie is relentlessly bleak. A stark tone is set and you’re left wondering how in fuck the movie is supposed to summon up any momentum to propel these characters outside of just waiting to die. There’s a certain amount to which Logan’s boiling rage, maybe the thing that’s really keeping him going, and his (pretty funny) bickering with Caliban and Xavier keeps it light enough to prevent the movie from going up its own ass. But the movie really gets going when Laura shows up, and I’m here to tell you that I’d be hard pressed to pick out a movie that uses a kid better than Logan does. It helps that Dafne Keen is phenomenal and just completely steals the movie in most of her scenes, especially the action. Her feral cries of unbridled rage are an echo of her father’s, and there’s a recognition and bond that forms between them as the movie goes on. It’s not very different from the beats of The Last of Us (Logan even looks quite a bit like Joel). I’m sure that’s a coincidence, but it’s not a coincidence that people really respond to this stuff. It gives the movie so much emotional heft and motivation that the action scenes, cinematic and cool and bloody as they are, also have an integral element that is usually missing from slicker, less subtle action-heavy movies (including other superhero movies). The movie doesn’t over-rely on action and it doesn’t go big unless it has to, but you really feel every blow and every wound because you care about the people this shit is happening to. Logan slowly convinces you to get invested, to give up your detachment, and that’s something I think genre movies (especially comic book superhero movies) have a hard time doing.
Another thing I really liked about Logan was that its world-building is very present and often very (subtly) political. There’s a whole thing about Transigen operating behind the scenes to orchestrate, even accidentally, the end of the mutant subspecies. They seem to be a subtle shot at corporatism and particularly companies like Monsanto. Genetic tampering gone really wrong, but in a way almost no one notices. There are times in the movie where people drink and eat stuff with the packaging clearly shown and it seems like product placement but it’s actually setup for a bit where the bad guy, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) explains that the mutant gene was turned off, meaning no more mutants, because Transigen laced its food products from its industrial farms with stuff. Now it’s trying to create new ones, but failing in their central goal of making mutants controllable. Transigen, in a very real way, has created this world and their presence is felt throughout the movie, making messes and using its “Reaver” mercenaries to clean up after itself. Led by Donald (Boyd Holbrook), the Reavers are a bunch of ex-military types who themselves seem like a commentary on the lost lives and lost limbs of soldiers in America’s many wars. Give them new limbs, a new war, and they’ll be oppressors. In the sense that Logan is a Western, Transigen are the cattle barons employing PTSD Civil War vets to step on the little people in the semi-mythic “valley” that this movie references, in a paired homage to Shane. There’s a concern for this kind of shadowy corporate exploitation running under the surface of the movie, just enough to give it some weight and not enough to let it distract from the core story. That’s doing it right.
Move over, Hitgirl.
The movie also has some not so subtle digs at its own context. Laura reads X-Men comics, which Logan points out are bullshit. He talks about suiting up as a way to draw attention to yourself, to play the part of a hero. He wants none of it, though Xavier pushes him to remember that a hero isn’t about how you look but what you do. You can be a hero in small ways, with sacrifices and nobility and sheer giving a shit. It’s a wake-up call in some ways, I think, where the movie is speaking directly to us. This theme of the importance of caring for others and doing something about it has been present in all the best superhero movies, over and over again. A direct response to the “no fucks given” and fake cynicism that is way too easy to get sucked into.
Logan is going to be a huge hit. A lot of people are already drawing a direct line from Deadpool, which was another R-rated superhero “gamble” that paid off in spite of the many very good reasons for anybody to be skeptical about it. I do think Deadpool‘s success helped Fox realize that they shouldn’t lose their nerve about an R-rated Wolverine movie. They let Mangold make the movie his way and the confidence and focus of that vision will pay off. What I hope is that we don’t see a bunch of movies trying to mimic what makes Logan work. You need to lay down groundwork, you need to provide or rely on context for magic like this to happen. This isn’t a “roadmap” to making people take comic book movies seriously. It’s not going to validate your obsessive nerdy fandom by taking this shit “seriously”. Nothing about Logan is forced. It’s got real heart to balance its grim and gritty take on what is, conceptually, a truly silly character from a truly silly medium. What I want is for Fox and other studios to trust filmmakers to make these movies with something to say, rather than trying to hit boxes from a “Make that Marvel money” checklist and failing miserably to do that because they have no understanding of how Marvel makes that Marvel money.
I mean let’s not forget this is a movie where he fights a clone of himself while bonding with another clone that is treated as his child.
That’s what’s missing from other movies that try to force “maturity” through signifiers like violence or swear words. I mean, those elements are trivial. Getting excited about Xavier saying “fuck” fifteen times or Wolverine sticking his claws in some dude’s skull… that’s only human, but it doesn’t make something more real or more “adult”. It’s trivial and it’s okay that it’s trivial.
What makes Logan real and “adult” is the way it treats its characters and its world. It takes their humanity seriously, not their fucking wardrobes. Iconography is something I’ve thought about a lot since watching DCEU rain garbage on itself and light it all on fire last year. It’s the way these movies almost invariable fall into the temptation to focus on iconography, in service of what? That angry dude on the internet who hashtags #notmywolverine because there’s no spandex? Or the guy who really wanted to see Hulk incest-raping She-Hulk and creating a brood of backwater Hulkbillies? That’s iconography, toying with it and using it to create shock and intrigue… but there’s no substance in there. It’s about twisting the tangible details or just lighting them on fire and you can get away with that for a while, because shock sells, but at the end of the day it’s hollow unless you’re actually trying to say something. Which is why I think Mark Millar is a hack.
Every aspect of the movie is stripped down as much as possible, bare and raw, in service of its story.
What Logan is trying to say is pretty simple. It’s saying that there’s always time to give a shit, to find fulfillment by caring and acting. That’s not going to blow any minds, but the power of it is real power and it’s incredibly moving and hard-fought to make a movie like this that could just as easily have been shallow and trivial. To not trivialize a fundamentally trivial medium is a tight rope to walk, and I really hope more filmmakers like Mangold come along to play with the “genre” (it’s not really a genre, more of a sandbox for genres to play in) of comic book superheroes and say something interesting with it and not just put the toys in positions where it looks like they are fucking or decapitating each other.
I guess a quicker way to say what I’m trying to say is that scenes where Xavier tells a goofy old man joke and makes Logan smile are just as important as “finally” seeing Logan stab dudes “for real” with his badass claws. Scenes where Laura mimics mannequins to show Logan sympathy, because she has so little socialization or real experience to draw from, are just as important as scenes where she rips off dude’s heads and throws them around at other dudes. That tension is where this movie lives. A tension that is often missing in genre movies, so focused on iconography and the superficial trappings of genre, and they are poorer for it. That tension is profound and I think most people can relate to it because we do want larger than life characters and action and worlds, but we also really want to see ourselves reflected in them. Logan has that and it’s what people are responding to. It’s why it might be the first X-Men movie to make grown men, maybe with daughters of their own, to choke back tears and listen to Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt on repeat.