In “Logan,” Carnage and Catharsis

“There are no more guns in the valley” the gunslinger tells little Joey in the 1953 classic western Shane. This moment features heavily in Logan, James Mangold’s newest and probably final film adapting the title character, known more regularly as Wolverine, less regularly as James Howlett, most iconically as Hugh Jackman. The parallels to Shane are clear, from the title to the plot to the theme. Logan wears its influences on its sleeve, so much so that it’s hard to discuss them without feeling rote and obvious. Less obvious, maybe, is the way Mangold and Jackman have showed what makes franchise filmmaking so exciting: salvaging heroes not just from villains, but from the passage of time and the onset of boredom.

If Logan, the tenth film based off the X-Men comic series, gives one impression, it’s experience. This is Hugh Jackman’s seventh full film as the title character. Jackman’s performance is legendary, a shorthand example for consistently great performances in superhero films that often range in quality overall. His character is so recognizable, the newest film doesn’t feel the requisite blockbuster need to shove name recognition in front of audiences. Behind the camera, James Mangold settles in for his second Wolverine film, his third film collaboration with Jackman, and his second film inspired by the classic Westerns of the studio era (or third, depending on how you see Cop Land). This is all to say that Logan is a film about an experienced fighter, reckoning with the end of his era. That it be made by filmmakers experienced in its story seems obvious, and thankfully is true here.

Still, that might not be enough to shake some viewers’ superhero fatigue. After all, Bryan Singer is as experienced with superheroes as anyone, and X-Men: Apocalypse, while fun for me, was as well received as the actual apocalypse would be (then again, at this point, probably less so). A lot of filmmakers and performers are experienced in the superhero genre, but using that to create potent blockbuster cinema is hard and seldom accomplished. That, not the fact we can see blood and severed heads, is the reason why Logan’s R rating is so special. Our culture has a consummate knowledge of bloodless CGI superhero violence. Mangold and company want us to have catharsis here, they know that that’s what a seventeen year old screen character deserves, and that it’s the only way to make him feel fresh. But you can’t have a bloodless catharsis, not with a Wolverine movie. He was, quite literally, born into violence and shaped by it repeatedly. This is easy enough to see. His mutant ability allows him to heal from any injury; he was tortured and injected with a rare metal enough that his memories were buried; he was forced to kill the only woman he came to love. Is violence necessary sometimes? I don’t know, maybe. But I do know that in cinema, seeing violence sometimes is. Westerns understand this, and Logan is best understood as a western. 

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So, Logan brings the violence many have waited for in a Wolverine movie. It also brings a great, great deal of heart. The film finds our adroit hero living near the Mexican-US border, driving a limousine in what seems to be a futuristic version of Lyft, in 2029. There’s talk of a tragedy, or several of them, that have led Logan, now going by his birth name James Howlett, to care for an infirm Charles Xavier. Brilliantly, Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green have brought Patrick Stewart back into the fold, an actor also iconically tied to his X-role. Much as Logan is defined by violence, so is Xavier by sickness. His wheelchair has given way to a bed at the beginning of the story; he is even more immobile. To add further tragic injury, his mind is now also afflicted. He suffers from a neurodegenerative disease that has so meddled his psychic powers his brain is considered a weapon of mass destruction (and it nearly proves to be through the course of the film). The film also introduces Laura, a mysterious 11-year old mutant played Dafne Keen, who will rightfully emerge as the film’s standout. Her ties to Logan are revealed throughout, though I don’t think too many are mystified by what the relationship could be (and the film acknowledges that). Logan refers to Xavier as his dad, with a level of comfort that we understand. Xavier is as much a father figure as Logan has ever had. In fact, he is the prime reason we even refer to Wolverine as Logan, since Xavier’s insistence on calling him that has pervaded throughout all their shared films. It makes sense then that Logan would finally, as the film develops, be forced to act as a father himself. It’s typical western stuff, and atypical comic book stuff: emotional heft buried beneath the surface.

From Logan, all most of us want is a fitting farewell to a beloved character. We want to see Jackman as much as Logan leave a character with his head up, a great two hours of a Wolverine movie in his final wake. We want David Bowie’s Blackstar or John Wayne in The Shootist, not Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door or Gene Hackman in Welcome to Mooseport. Wolverine has always been a rated-R superstar shackled by lower ratings and a studio unsure of how to use him effectively, at least consistently. He is a character born of and beloved because of violence, but after all those years of violence, we (and Logan himself) only want a little catharsis. Half of the battle for the filmmakers is simply understanding that. Thankfully they do, and go well beyond what we expect.

Logan is rated R, and now playing in theaters

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