Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Mangold, Frank Scott and Michael Green
Perhaps its kind of silly, but for a while now I’ve judged superhero movies by a “it’s not like other superhero movies” standard. At the time of its release I was mildly tempted to see Logan, but was advised by a viewer with a similar mindset to my own that it was in fact “like other superhero movies.”
This year, however, I went through a superhero phase. Excited by the releases of Endgame (because I got caught up in the hype), and Dark Phoenix (because I’ve always been loosely aware of/compelled by Jean Grey’s storyline) I decided to finally get into Marvel Cinematic Universe (M.C.U.) and X-Men movies. While I did end up seeing Endgame and Dark Phoenix , I now feel that the true light at the end of my movie watching journey was Logan.
Despite being creations of the Marvel comic book brand, when it comes to movies, the X-Men and Marvel are two different franchises (that may soon change with Disney’s recent aquisition of Fox). Throughout their histories, both MCU and X-Men filmmakers have struggled to produce films that can be pitched to people who are not reasonably committed superhero fans. These struggles, however, have taken markedly different forms. M.C.U. films are consistently hard to knock (I know some people describe them as “fun”), but lack a boldness that could make them interesting to film-buff-type-viewers. X-Men films, meanwhile lack the M.C.U.’s consistency in their quality and character. They tend to have more subtly (better) written dialogue, and have compelling moral/philosophy dilemmas at the hearts of their stories. Nonetheless, factors ranging from having too many underdeveloped characters, to lacking humor, to being too visually dreary cause the preliminarily smarter X-Men films to end up less entertaining than their M.C.U. counterparts.
Perhaps a shared quality of the M.C.U and X-Men serieses is that they both contain a prolific amount of movies, and operate on the assumption that fans will commit to seeing most or all of them. This can be frustrating for movie fans, eager to see the masterpieces, but not necessarily the entire catalogues of these film universes.
In the case of M.C.U. films, the benefit fans get from seeing most/all of the movies is that it allows them to pick up on nuanced differences between superficially similar characters, when those characters are brought together in films like Infinity War and End Game. Movies that at first glance appear to be slugfest can come to be seen as engaging depictions of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, etc-portrayed figures.
Logan, by contrast, lacks even the vapid layer of fun of the M.C.U.’s slugfests: it is a film that, had I viewed it out of context, I think I would have found boring: its two hours and seventeen minutes long despite having few characters and a relatively simple plot. However, unlike M.C.U. films, Logan can be hailed as an interesting (mostly) stand-alone work, and not simply a satisfying conclusion to a years-long content parade. I say “mostly” because its not a good movie to go into, if you don’t know who “Logan” is.
So what is the context you need to know to appreciate Logan? Firstly, you need to know its protagonist is James “Logan” Howlett aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). I make this, perhaps obvious, statement because while visibility wise, Wolverine (who I mistakenly referred to as “X-Man” as a child), is up there with A-List superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spiderman, the specifics of his identity aren’t as culturally embedded. Wolverine’s superpowers include the ability to rapidly recover from nearly all injuries, a seeming inability to age (but note the gray in his bear in this film), and claws that can burst from his hands, that early in his career were coated with a powerful metal known as adamantium. Furthermore, in addition to having a “solo career,” Wolverine is a key member of a superhero team known as the X-Men, who are lead by the telepathic Professor X (Patrick Stewart). All X-Men are mutants, and while technically this means they are humans with (highly-fictionalized) genetic mutations, within the logic of the X-Men universe, being any sort of “mutant” renders one part of the same, socially marginalized human subspecies.
Aside from the above, there are small details from the past X-Men films that can enrich one’s Logan experience. The film echoes 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine by having its protagonist be taken in by a farm family;2000’s The X-Men by having Wolverine serve as a mentor figure for a girl (teenage, new-superhero Rogue in X-Men and the even younger Laura in Logan); and these and other films that develop the pain associated with Wolverine’s immortality.
While slow and not completely devoid of the specifics of superhero mythos, Logan is fundamentally a film that engages viewers via its themes. One such theme is mortality/age. The film is set in 2029, a significant choice since the first X-Men prequel film (First Class (2011)) is set in 1962, and the first prequel film starring Wolverine’s “peer” X-Men is set in 1982. In short by 2029 one can assume that. at very least, there would be no young X-Men left in the world save for the ageless Logan (it is in fact implied that all the other notable mutants are dead, but noticing this detail is not necessary to appreciate the film’s sombre mood).
Facing the pain of his immortality is nothing new for Wolverine. In 2013’s The Wolverine for instance, he is haunted by visions of a dead companion. But despite dealing with similar themes, Logan is far more heart-wrenching than its predecessor. There are two reasons for this. One, is that The Wolverine’s main- plot, and the source of Logan’s pain are only loosely connected. The other, is that in The Wolverine Logan mourns a single, and iconic death, confining that film’s themes to the world of comic books. Logan, by contrast, generalizes its protagonist’s suffering, giving viewers far more time to channel Wolverine’s anguish.
While time is an important theme in Logan it is also one the X-Men series has struggled with. The prequel X-Men films (First Class, Days of Futures Past, Apocalyps and Dark Phoenix) take place over a forty year period, yet its stars don’t appear to age at all. The best defence against such criticisms is to say that they don’t matter: that if consistency gets in the way of a sequel’s concept (such as wanting to set a story in a given decade), consistency can afford to be compromised.
Unlike previous X-Men films, however, Logan leans in to the idea that it might not be entirely consistent with the other X-Men films. Adding a whiff of contrast to his film’s (crisp but) dusty color scheme, Logan discovers an X-Men comic book in the possession of his young ward Laura (Dafne Keen), lecturing her that the content of these comics is fictional. This scene announces that it’s ok to make a film that is closely inspired by, but not necessarily a pure sequel to its predecessors. Beyond that the line also hints at the film’s ambitions: making a superhero film (rooted in absurdly simple pseudo-genetics) that’s also realistic. Skeptical viewers might dismiss this scene as a cheap gag, awkwardly placed in an unfunny movie. I, however, see it as a fitting nod to and development upon a series that has always maintained a healthy distance from its source materials. In comic books Wolverine wears a an iconic yellow suit. X-Men filmmakers have avoided this approach seeing it as too cartoonish. Director James Manigold explained he didn’t see having a superhero cosume as consistent with Wolverine’s non-egotistical personality. Manigold’s Wolverine is literally fictional, but also far more real than his suited-up, comic-book counterpart. Manigold thus made a film about separating “the man and the legend,” even though legends are his medium.
I began this piece by discussing the idea of “not being like other superhero movies.” So far we have established that Logan is about a (sort of) elderly superhero, and it is about a figure who both does and doesn’t live in a world where superheroes are real. This second idea also speaks to a broader quality of Logan: that what you see both is and isn’t what you think it is. When I was told that Logan is “like other superhero movies” a big reason for that is that it is filled with violence. The character of this violence, however, is unique. In a movie like The Avengers, audiences are supposed to take violence as straightforward entertainment. Logan’s violence, however, is designed to disturb; particularly in one slow motion scene when we watch Logan stick his claws straight-through his enemies heads. Viewers watching this scene are not supposed to think “wow Logan is so strong.” Rather, they are enticed to wonder how Logan endures such a Hobbesian existence.
Another common trait of superhero movies is moralism: eg an egotistical character learns to be selfish. In Logan this trope is taken on through his relationship with Laura. But while the Logan-Laura plot is set up in such a way that viewers are led to think “Logan better learn to be a good dad for his abandoned child,” the relationship between Logan and Laura is rendered unique by the fact that Logan is not in fact the kind of man who would have and then recklessly abandon a child, and his struggles and triumphs in relating to Laura are rooted in something far more complex than simple immaturity.
So is Logan “like other superhero movies?” I would say the answer is no, but that’s also something one might not appreciate if one does not know what it means to be “like other superhero movies” in the first place. Viewers strictly averse to action-based stories might easily grow impatient with Logan. Those more accustomed to superhero works and those more patient with action, however, can expect quite the cinematic experience from Jackman’s final X-Men series performance. When looking at the film’s poster they will not see Logan’s BATTLE scars, but his battle SCARS. Logan’s troubled lead and his charismatic travel companions, give the film incredible emotional weight. Regardless of how aware you were of that superhero in the yellow suit before you saw Logan, there’s a strong chance that once you do see it, it is the version of the hero who acts without a suit you will come to remember.