Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant.
With Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, the opportunity to make serious superhero movies in other franchises opened up. The Dark Knight, in particular, was so serious and so successful a departure from its lighter roots, it was inevitable that other comic book movies would spawn similarly serious sequels.
Nolan’s Batman films represented a departure in themes and tone, but they were also represented by a new cast. They felt like a standalone trilogy of batman films, in a different film world from Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher’s. In Logan, we have a tonal shift of a similar kind, but no actor changes. This film therefore, unlike Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, presents itself as in the same world, and continuous with, the other X-Men films.
Set well in the future (2029), America, and our few remaining heroes, are in states of decay. Logan is wrinkled, grey and wounded – rarely free from blood and bullet-holes. The series’ best mind too, Dr Xavier’s, is degenerating under the influence of a neurological disease.
In its opening scene, we encounter Logan sleeping in a vehicle in Juarez, Mexico, dejected and drunk. Soon after, we find Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier suffering from dementia and a corresponding loss of control over his powers. Both appear more frail, weaker, older, and more human than we have ever seen them before.
For a fan of the series, this made for an at-times poignant and fascinating, but at-others dissatisfying and bland, experience.
Logan wears its historical influences on its sleeve. Mangold has made clear, both within the film, and in conversation with the press, that American Westerns such as Shane (1953) and The Cowboys (1972) were key stylistic influences. As I have also suggested, I believe Logan fits into the recent history of “dark superhero movies.”
I think this departures works, and fails, on a few levels. It is refreshing and satisfying to see a more realistic depiction of what a Wolverine in the real world might actually look like. Violent, isolated, and deeply troubled. For the first time we are given a somewhat realistic depiction of what would happen were a super-human warrior to attack humans with foot-long blades. My ticket stub accurately warned of “bloody violence.”
This realism is interesting, but for me it came at a cost. The action, for one, was less satisfying here. Like the world of Logan, it was harsh, but at times bland. By grounding itself in this greater sense of the real, Logan achieves its intended grit, but it loses some of the earlier films’ wonder. There is less magic to the action. Logan’s combat in this film is brutal, bloody, and largely basic. He stabs, he slashes, and he occasionally lunges. There are no other mutant combatants with different powers to spice up the action. Only more slashes, more stabs, more lunges, and countless faceless enemies firing guns.
This more serious X-Men movie does better allow Jackman and Stewart to exhibit their acting skills than previous installments. These characters experience deeper, more devastating emotions than ever before. Patrick Stewart’s depiction of alternating between symptoms of dementia, genius, joy, hope and guilt is virtuoso. Hugh Jackman effectively taps into the pain of loneliness, loss, and sickness. Eleven-year old newcomer, Dafne Keen, is impressive as Laura.
There are some moments of real poignancy with these characters. Moments when they do effectively connect with their previous iterations, and reflect on the impact of their war-filled pasts. One such moment is during a rare escape from the bleakness and the violence, when our three main characters are dinner guests of a friendly family. Logan and Charles reminisce about their time at Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters. Another occurs when Charles experiences a moment of lucidity, in which he comes to terms with his past. These moments work because they remind us that this is the same universe as the other films, and this is the all-important final chapter for these characters.
It is also interesting to see a believable, well-drawn post-hero world, where Charles and Logan are effectively in hiding, and mutants are a thing of the past. Society has moved on, and retains only a distant, inaccurate memory of them, represented by the X-Men comic books that exist in this world.
Logan is less effective when it feels like it is taking place in a universe detached from its predecessors. Despite being led by these two familiar actors and beloved characters, Logan just doesn’t feel contiguous with its antecedents. The cinematography, the colour palette, the music, the overall presentation of this film is substantially different. As such, some of the power of seeing where that story ends up is lost.
So although I find the whole dark superhero movement interesting, and my favourite movies are generally serious ones, I feel like the cost outweighs the benefit in this case. Comparing it to other ‘dark’ superhero movies, it’s hard not to think this film has forced itself into that box, for no great reason. Its darkness does, at times, feel forced, and comes at the detriment of this story’s place in the greater X-Men continuum.
Part of the reason it feels unnecessary and forced is that much of it is unexplained. The movie’s environments border on the dystopic. Cities are littered with crime, and landscapes are either barren, or populated by abandoned, decrepit buildings. The movie doesn’t really explain why, politically, morally and economically, USA and Mexico appear to have declined so much. So I’m left thinking it was just for the sake of creating a mood.
I love Wolverine, and this impressive movie is an interesting way to end his story. Logan is bleak and painful, at times unnecessarily so – but perhaps this is just me struggling with the reality of something beloved coming to its end.