Wednesday, March 15, 2017

No More Guns in the Valley: James Mangold’s Logan

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman in Logan.

Logan is perhaps the most unusual Marvel film yet made. It more closely resembles director James Mangold’s 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma than its own predecessor, 2013’s The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold), not just in looks, but in spirit. Logan has more of the Western in it than the popcorn-fueled superhero norm; it’s absolutely insane to think that it shares DNA with last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse. It doesn’t feel like a superhero movie, or an X-Men movie, at all. It feels like a swan song, haunting and terribly sad. It also feels like the first time that anyone has been able to truly make a meal of the character of Wolverine – so, of course, it has to be the last time.

In Mangold’s 2029 Texas, mutants are an endangered species, and Logan’s life – whatever life there ever was for him – has crumbled to dust. The adamantium fused to his bones is poisoning him, stunting his healing factor and allowing his borrowed years to rapidly catch up to him. Hugh Jackman has never looked more haggard, and his performance bears the weight of both a character who yearns for death and an actor who senses that freedom – real or illusory – from his superhero prison is imminent. Logan drives a limo, chauffeuring the rich and stupid along streets he barely sees through the cloud of his own pain and grief. At the end of the day he comes home to a twisted, pathetic family: Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant who speaks like Logan’s uninvited conscience, and the ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has a degenerative brain disease, lashing out unintentionally with waves of devastating psychic force whenever his meds wear off. Stewart is brilliant – a woeful, bitter shadow of his kindly mentor figure – but it’s not just Xavier who's sick. The whole world feels like it has cancer. 

Logan carries an adamantium bullet with him, a constant token of the escape he desperately craves. That he hasn’t used it is telling – especially since he and Xavier comfort one another with platitudes about a different kind of escape, to one last job that’ll earn them enough money to buy a boat and chase the horizon into a future that neither needs nor wants them, going where they can no longer hurt anyone else. That last job is interrupted by the arrival of Laura (Dafne Keen), an eleven-year-old mutant whose powers and demeanour are far too reminiscent of the grumbling Wolverine to be a coincidence. She is pursued by a cohort of non-mutants, heartless foes who have so wholly embraced their roles as “those who play god” that they have no compunctions about being seen as the devils of the world – and who, in a world where mutantkind is dying on the vine, could stop them anyway? 

Hugh Jackman and Dafne Keen in Logan.

Laura, or “X-23,” as she’s known to her pursuers, represents the vigour and promise that Logan has already abandoned as a lost cause. Laura is not a lost cause, not yet, and the film is richly enhanced by Keen’s performance as this savagely vital little person. She’s known nothing but pain and dehumanization for her whole short life, and she is a reflection of that upbringing, a whirlwind of rage and murder. She even manages to surprise Logan himself – and he’s appalled by what Laura can do. A mirror is held up to his own destructiveness, and, perhaps for the first time, he understands how he must look to everyone else. That this also represents the possibility of an alternate path, a choice that could bring Laura away from the horror Logan has known his whole life, and towards the sort of family that Logan never had, is the pulsing lifeblood of the picture.

Thanks to the resounding box-office success of last year’s Deadpool, the R-rated superhero film is now a proven entity, a viable moneymaking option for ever-cautious studios. Logan earns its R rating, and then some: it is horribly gory, brutally violent, and peppered with profanity. But these elements aren’t simply tossed in to satisfy a blood-hungry crowd. They’re baked into the movie’s soul. Logan’s instances of violence are deeply felt, often more upsetting than exciting. The use of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” in the film’s first trailer was no mistake; its masochistic melancholy is a perfect echo of Logan’s journey, of a life marked by suffering both caused and endured. George Stevens’s Shane is a touchstone in Logan, as both a guideline for Mangold’s filmmaking style and a metaphor for Laura’s relationship with the titular ex-hero. She watches Shane in a hotel room – likely the first and only film she’s ever seen – and is enraptured by it, recalling Shane’s final speech to the painfully innocent Joey in a later scene that speaks volumes with the gunslinger’s simple words:
There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand that sticks.
Logan is a movie that tackles the thematic underpinnings that have always pervaded the X-Men stories in a way that finally sticks, just like Shane’s brand. The issues of racism and genetic supremacy that are baldly stated in the rest of the franchise are brought to their logical conclusion here: mutants are wiped out, deliberately, through the very water they drink and the food they eat. The world is literally poisoned against them. But Logan’s vision is small, apocalyptic in mood but not in scope. This is Mangold’s most human picture, quiet and lyrical and sad in the way all its influences are, be they Western or road movie or noir. It’s a movie about hurt – the hurt we do to others, and the hurt it causes us in return. But ultimately, it isn’t as bleak as all that, because it’s about the good we do to soothe that hurt, the good that can literally change a life. It’s about raging against the unfairness of a cruel world with kindness and selflessness, and not violence.

It’s about not becoming who they made you. 

  – Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.