Mar 20, 2017

Review: "Logan" is a Powerful Tribute to a Superhero Icon

Scene from Logan
In 2015, director Steven Spielberg caused an uproar when he suggested that superhero movies would go the way of the western. As a blanket statement, it seemed appalling. Even if westerns still existed, the idea that a commercially viable style of film making would disappear made no sense. But what if superhero movies went the way of the western, presenting archetypes who rode into town and saved the day before tragically riding into the sunset? In the new millennium, there hasn't been a character more indicative of a John Wayne or Clint Eastwood archetype quite like that of Wolverine: a character known for his scathing comebacks and fighting alone against unfathomable evil. In the second Wolverine film directed by James Mangold, Logan adapts to the way of the western and gives its actor Hugh Jackman a perfect send-off; creating its version of The Shootist for a genre that thrives on recasting at any cost. Logan proves why the same can't be said for Jackman, and why he will go down as one of the greatest characters that superhero cinema has produced this century.
A lot isn't initially clear at the start of Logan. As Logan sleeps in his limo, he is awoken by a gang of thieves trying to steal his hubcaps. After politely trying to stop them, he gets into a confrontational fight that leaves them dead: all speared through the head with his adamantium claws. Logan is a man on edge now, barely making ends with his Uber-esque job as a limo driver who denies his past with the X-Men, which has been replicated in comic books. There's pain in face, which has grown grotesque and at times unpleasant to look at. The year is 2029, and it isn't clear why most of the gang from the X-Men franchise is absent, but the uncertainty and grief informs the viewer that Beast, Storm, and Cyclops will not be stopping by for a cameo.

The film that follows diverts its time between several styles. At times, it is a dark and violent comedy full of eye-popping action that puts all of Bryan Singer's X-Men franchise to shame. Other times it is a poignant father-daughter drama between Logan and his daughter X-23, a.k.a. Laura (Dafne Keen): a lab-made mutant who is being hunted by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and a gang of scientists embarrassed by their failed experiment. On a deeper level, it is the existential drama to end all existential dramas that explores the inferiority of superhero icons. Jackman is almost 50 and has been playing Wolverine as long as the millennium has existed. Even his performance shows a reluctance to let go of the role that will forever define him. He shakes with the pains of a character on the downswing of life. He can't keep going on, if just because of the physical requirements it takes to look cool while stabbing people with claws.
Even if there are traces of the film here that could be read as the set-up for an X-Force series co-starring Keen, it mostly reads as the end of an era. Even with the film taking liberties with the R-rating, its vulgarity in violence and language does more than titillate the viewers who felt that Wolverine's previous entries were too bloodless. It gives Logan the ultimate challenge by turning him into a gunslinger who must take Laura to safety at the expense of harm. There are casualties and it's a miracle that Logan even makes it past the hour mark. Still, it is Jackman's performance that sells the film and makes its darkest moments (possibly the darkest any comic book movie has been since The Dark Knight, even more-so) hold horror as well as excitement. Mangold is a great director who balances emotion with peril, and it coalesces beautifully in the final half hour, where the film hits its deepest resonance.
Even if Logan's name is on the title, it does seem important to recognize the departure of another superhero icon: Patrick Stewart as Charles "Professor X" Xavier. Here he plays an aged character whose dementia forces him to live in a secluded Mexican desert. He means well, and his defeated banter with Logan and Laura delightfully humanizes a character who's largely been relegated to an exposition tool in the franchise. Much like Jackman, Stewart gives a powerful performance that transcends superhero acting and finds something deeper and more emotional. It's impossible not to feel scarred by Professor X's send-off. Logan is an unfair world akin to a Sergio Leone flick, and the old school just has to keep marching on. How far they can go is up for speculation.
What may be the greatest achievement of Logan, especially in a world of "cinematic universes," is that it feels singular. It's an attribute that Goldman also brought to The Wolverine with expert results. While it adds emotional depth for long time fans to have seen the other eight movies, no viewer will be lost in following the significant plot beats. With exception to a few callbacks, the film is largely insulated to the elder Logan's journey, whose regret wears heavily on his face. The writing is strong enough to suggest that Logan was a hero who fought too hard and maybe sacrificed certain joys for the sake of being the hero. It's a revealing tale, and one that feels like a blanket statement for every other superhero movie currently out there, suggesting the sad final chapter for the happy-go-lucky faces in any franchise.
Logan may not have all of the conventions of a traditional superhero film, at least by modern standards. There's no need to be engulfed in a shared universe. There's not even a post-credit sequence. What it does have is characters who feel real without sacrificing what made them appealing. With the addition of a young and vulnerable new generation of mutants, there's a sense that this is passing on the torch to a new generation; one that is meant to protect the world and not fall for the traps of being a lone hero. It's a tale of triumph and tragedy, and one that features a heartfelt riding off into the sun that is fitting of the Wolverine character. It's hard to say goodbye, and Mangold perfectly manages to do the next best thing. Who knows what's next for Wolverine the character in film, but it likely won't be as special without Jackman. Everyone knows it. That's why they kept inviting him back for 17 years.

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