Movie Curiosities: Logan
Seventeen long years ago, Hugh Jackman came out of absolutely nowhere to play Wolverine. It was a starmaking performance in an iconic role in a massive hit movie. The movie then began the longest-running superhero film series in history (While it isn’t the longest-running continuous film series of any kind in history, I’m sure it’s up there.), solidifying the nascent superhero film craze that would go on to define a generation. The franchise, the character, and the actor all owe so much of their respective success and cultural impact to each other.
So here we are at the end of an era, with Jackman’s final turn in his signature role. And he decided to go out with a bang, taking a pay cut so the studio would agree to an R-rating. Which should have been a given this whole time — after all, Wolverine is a character whose superpower is the ability to shred his way through countless hordes of faceless bad guys while instantly healing from any damage dealt. If ever there was a premise for a hard-R action thrill ride, there it is.
What’s more, this film marks another crucial departure: The great Sir Patrick Stewart, taking his final bow as Professor Charles Xavier. While Stewart was always the perfect actor for the role and his absence will be keenly felt going forward, he at least has a capable replacement in James McAvoy. He even got to pass the torch in Days of Future Past. But there’s been nobody else to play Wolverine, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the role so well. And anyway, it’s his name that’s the title.
So with all of these sky-high expectations and sentimental goodbyes after two decades of history (Seriously, there are people of voting age right now who never knew a world before X-Men changed everything!), how did Logan turn out? To put it simply, this film was everything I had been led to expect. Almost.
Our stage is set in the year 2029. Mutants are now all but extinct and a new one hasn’t been born in 25 years. The details are sketchy — in large part due to the clumsy exposition in this film and the FUBAR timeline of the series as a whole — but I assume that the events of X-Men: The Last Stand somehow played a part.
The important thing is that with two exceptions — whom I’ll get to in a minute — all of Logan’s friends are dead. Anyone he might have considered family is dead. Hell, even Logan’s enemies are all dead. Granted, Wolverine has always been sort of a loner who kept everyone else at arm’s length, but at least he knew everyone else was still there when he needed them or vice versa. Here and now, he’s just alone with nothing but the memories of his friends as they all slipped into obscurity. Such is the price of immortality. And even that’s starting to fade.
From the very start of the movie, we can see that Logan is visibly older. And more importantly, he’s feeling it. He’s not as strong, he’s not as fast, his eyesight is going, and his healing factor isn’t nearly as efficient as it used to be. He still has his unbreakable skeleton, of course, but even that’s developing some side effects I won’t get into here. That said, this is still Wolverine we’re talking about. He doesn’t know how to stop. He’s clinically incapable of backing down from a fight. He was never destined to die quietly in his sleep. So he’s going to keep on running and fighting even if — especially if — it ends up killing him.
Anyway, Logan is one of the last few mutants remaining, his exploits with the X-Men have been turned into a bunch of hokey overblown comic books (Which turns into a pretty sweet tribute for the source material, by the way.), and his own body is finally turning against him. If ever there was a time for the character’s trademark cynicism to be at an all-time high, this is it. Normally, the counter for this would be Professor Xavier. Normally.
Unfortunately, time has been every bit as harsh on Professor X’s body and mind, and he was an older paraplegic to begin with. Plus, we’re talking about Alzheimer’s and/or ALS degenerating the mental stability of the world’s most powerful telepath. The potential dangers are catastrophic, and even that’s putting it mildly. Yet Charles still has his moments of clarity, just enough to show that the old mentor of the X-Men is still in there somewhere. He might look and act like a grumpy old invalid all out of fucks to give, but in his better moments, he’s still the teacher and the beacon of hope who can inspire greatness and optimism in the world, mutantkind, and Logan.
The other mutant worthy of note is Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who’s been taking care of Professor Xavier. For those who don’t remember the character in X-Men: Apocalypse (back when he was played by Tómas Lemarquis in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance), he had the ability to track down other mutants, though that’s been faltering due to his own advancing age and the overall lack of other mutants. Basically, Caliban is a plot device and little more.
Oh, right. The plot. I should probably get to that at some point.
At the start of the film, Logan has been dividing his time between sides of the U.S./Mexico border. In Mexico, he looks after Professor Xavier, who’s been holed up in some abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere. In the States, he works as a limo driver, saving up his money to buy a boat so he and Professor Xavier can live out their days in the middle of an ocean somewhere. Then along comes X-23, otherwise known as Laura.
For those who aren’t up on their comic book history… well, X-23 didn’t actually get her start in a comic book. She was created for the “X-Men: Evolution” animated TV show in 2003, and immediately became such a fan favorite that she debuted in the comics a year later. She even took on the mantle of Wolverine herself in 2015. Long story short, she’s the result of an attempt at cloning Wolverine from a DNA sample with a damaged Y chromosome. After 22 failed attempts at creating a duplicate X chromosome, a female clone of Wolverine was finally born. Because science.
(Side note: Her name is also an obvious reference to the 23 chromosome pairs of the human genome. Just wanted to point that out.)
In the film backstory, however, Laura was borne of some mad science project to try and create new mutants for whatever nefarious purpose. Through experiments with cloning mutant tissue, 23 children were cloned with mutant abilities. Then the 24th experiment happened, and it was deemed so perfect that the other 23 subjects were deemed obsolete. Not wanting to leave any loose ends or potential dangers unattended, our evil corporate head (Dr. Rice, played by Richard Grant) decreed that the 23 young artificial mutants be disposed of.
The young mutants’ handlers took issue with this, disobeying orders so they could release their charges and flee with them to safe haven in Canada. (Did I mention that this all takes place in a lab in Mexico?) So it is that young Laura is put into the charge of her extremely reluctant clone-daddy, who takes Professor X so they can all go on the run across the country in pursuit of asylum that might not even exist.
At this point, I’d like to say a few words about Dafne Keen, the young actress here making her film debut in the role of Laura. It would be an understatement to say that this is a daunting role, as Laura is a feral child who slowly learns how to be slightly less feral. It’s an arc she plays beautifully, often while going from innocent and unassuming to pants-shittingly dangerous on a dime. Moreover, Laura is silent through most of the running time, and it’s genuinely impressive how much emotion Keen is able to convey without the use of dialogue.
It’s also interesting to note that Laura doesn’t quite have the baggage that Wolverine does, and I’m not just talking about how X-23 has a considerably shorter comic book history with far less impact (and therefore fewer expectations) in the mainstream. I’m talking about how she — unlike Logan — was born into this. Logan was always chasing after knowledge of who he was before Wolverine, but everybody knows that there was never a Laura before X-23. That’s just not a thing she has to worry about. But at the same time, she doesn’t yet know what terrors and disappointments and wonders wait for her in the greater world, and she doesn’t really know what it means to take a life. Wolverine sees all of that, and however much he may hate to be anyone’s surrogate father, it does at least give him reason to think that maybe she won’t be as messed up as he was. Provided, of course, that he lends whatever wisdom and patience he’s capable of.
There’s also the matter of combat. Logan has decades of experience, but he’s not nearly as fast or flexible as the preteen girl. Yet for all of her abilities, Laura still has the size and muscle mass of your typical preteen girl. So it turns out that the two of them complement each other in battle very nicely.
As for Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, what do I even have to say? These actors have been living with their characters for two decades, and they both go at it like this really was the last time for both of them. The villains, alas, are considerably weaker.
Richard Grant and Boyd Holbrook (as Pierce, the henchman to Grant’s character) both chew the scenery well enough to get by, but not enough to make for anything engaging or memorable. Pierce only has one gimmick — a cybernetic arm — but that means very little when all of his goons have the same prostheses, and Grant’s character doesn’t even get that much. They’re just bland, generic villains who contribute nothing aside from moving the plot along.
What makes this especially disappointing is the stinger at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse, in which (SPOILERS) Wolverine’s DNA was put into a briefcase clearly marked “Essex Corporation” in big bold letters so we’d be sure to read it. Except that the corporation behind all of this is under a different name entirely, and nobody named Essex is even remotely involved. This means that instead of Nathaniel Essex — otherwise known as the classic X-Men villain Mister Sinister — we get some generic unremarkable mad scientist. What a load.
But that’s ultimately not much of a drawback, because those aren’t the only antagonists in this movie. In fact, the biggest immediate threat is the so-called X-24, who I’m quite sure went by a very different name in the comics. And that’s all I dare say about that, no matter how badly I want to talk for several paragraphs about how beautifully realized the character is, how ingenious its inclusion was, and how much that inclusion brings to the film as a whole.
Yet the chief antagonist of this film, far and away above all others, is time. More specifically, it’s mortality. Because even if X-23 had never been made and nothing in the plot ever came to pass, Logan and Charles would still both have to deal with the fact that they are slowly but surely dying, and all of mutantkind would die with them. It’s about how even Professor X and Wolverine — two seemingly unshakeable pillars of mutantkind’s resistance against oppression and extermination (not to mention the franchise as a whole) — are not immune to the effects of time and physical degradation. Through every second of runtime, there’s always the implicit understanding that we’re witnessing the final moments of these characters, and possibly their entire species. Thus there’s always the question of what they’re going to do with that time, what they leave behind, and how they make those moments count.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the more subtle theme of scientific enhancement. Through various implicit and explicit methods — mostly through talk of food, corn syrup, genetically modified crops, etc. — there’s quite a bit of lip service given to crooked scientists and greedy corporate execs who seek to improve humanity for exorbitant prices through artificial means developed through unethical measures. It’s a potentially interesting extension of the “mutant” angle, as humanity seeks to destroy what nature created so it can be duplicated in a controlled and monetized way.
Getting back to the issue of mortality, it’s a tall order that the theme should be so potent in a genre where characters are known for returning to life on a regular basis with no consequences. But this film totally makes it work. A huge part of that is in the basic premise, as Logan and Charles are tasked with safeguarding the first (and last, if they fail) generation of mutants in over 20 years. Thus the movie is all about passing the torch, creating the very real sense that a new era is beginning just as the old era ends. Moreover, there’s the simple fact that every single person involved with this film — on both sides of the camera — quite clearly went all-out. It feels like a last movie because everyone pulled out all the stops and worked like they’d never get another shot at this. And of course, all the nods to previous entries in the franchise — from the climactic Statue of Liberty battle to the goddamn adamantium bullet — help to close the circle.
Speaking of going all-out, the filmmakers really got their money’s worth out of that R rating. This is the promise of an unleashed Wolverine truly realized, as blood and body parts go flying all over the place in some genuinely gruesome kills. Even if Logan isn’t quite the fast healer he used to be, that only adds to the satisfaction of watching our feral antihero overcome his own limitations to deliver some serious hurt on anyone foolish enough to go asking for it. In addition, we’ve got tons of hard swearing and even a brief gratuitous topless shot. With all of that said, the climax is somewhat underwhelming — given the presence of so many young mutants with so many different powers between them, it felt like a lot more could have and should have been done.
On a technical level, the film has a distinctly gritty feel to it. Director James Mangold drew clear inspiration from a ton of old westerns, which is little surprise coming from the guy who remade 3:10 to Yuma. The CGI looks seamless, even as the movie bears a distinctly “shot on film” look to it. A great majority of the film takes place in the deserts of the midwest, which adds to the western flavor. The sound design is effective, and maestro Marco Beltrami works wonders with the score.
Logan is a perfectly worthy send-off to two of the most enduring and iconic superhero portrayals in modern cinema. The cast is going at it like no tomorrow (because in a way, there isn’t), the action is beautifully visceral, and the central themes of aging and mortality are somehow made genuinely powerful in a fucking comic book movie. I wasn’t terribly impressed with the villains, but there’s so much else here to love and our main characters are up against so many more powerful forces — such as time and senescence themselves — that it doesn’t drag things down too much.
This feels like such a definitive end to the franchise as we know it that it almost feels like a disappointment going back to whatever’s happening in the First Class timeline. If ever there was a time for Fox to either call it good and let the rights revert to Marvel, or finally give the franchise the hard reboot it’s needed for at least seven years, this would be the time. In any case, don’t go into this one expecting the same old PG-13 VFX-heavy fare. But definitely go see it, ready to have your mind blown and your heart broken.
P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I suppose I should mention the X-Men fanfic script I co-wrote with a colleague some time ago, describing the franchise reboot we wished that Fox would make. You’re welcome to read it on the co-author’s DeviantArt page here.