Director: James Mangold
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
Did we realise, two years ago, that we were living in an age of superhero stagnation? Yes, probably, very much so. The glut of spandex movies has been pressing for a number of years. I can even remember talking about exhaustion on the subject way back when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies were swooping into town. But the genre has endured thanks to its sea of well-drawn characters (pun partially intended) and because of what these movies tend to provide; cross-spectrum mega-budget escapism and fantastic spectacle where everybody is invited.
But young audiences grow up and their expectations from art and storytelling changes. It seems as though studio executives are starting to consider this.
Because the trouble with appealing to everybody is that you develop a set of rules for yourself that it can be a struggle to shake off. There are certain things you can’t do lest you run the risk of offending people. Swearing and nudity are out as, in order to remain kid-friendly, you have to stay within the limits of the 12A certificate. The same goes for graphic or protracted violence. But these things are arguably not fundamentally necessary in any film. Yet still, in order to keep the kids on board, you have to work within a restricted tonal range. Sophistication is dropped. Narrative or thematic complexity has to be watered down. Adult themes are softened. The middle-of-the-road or mainstream becomes your world. Pretty soon you’re living within a set of well-defined parentheses. And you’ve become predictable.
This is what had happened to superhero movies by the end of 2015 until Deadpool came along and kicked out the fourth wall, releasing with it a tide of foul-language and the possibilities of something else. It was a huge hit, but it was only marginally successful in terms of redefining superhero movies. It added the language – previously a big ‘no-no’ – and it toyed comically with irony and post-modernism, but otherwise it stuck religiously to template. DC took ‘go darker’ literally and gave us two of the genre’s dreariest offerings in 2016. The biggie, Marvel’s Avengers-based cinematic universe, didn’t even acknowledge the need for change. Doctor Strange was visually exciting but otherwise textbook superhero fare and was as a result (whisper it) boring.
The X-Men films have been decidedly hit and miss over the years, and the Wolverine spin-off movies more-so. Instead of evolving, recent X-Men outings have steeped themselves in nostalgia and buried their heads in the past. Perhaps keenly aware of the desire for change, James Mangold has taken hold of the series and literally pushed it forwards, into the future.
It’s twelve years from now. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a hard-drinking limo driver on the Mexico border. The X-Men team are all gone. Mutant kind is dying out. Even his beloved Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is dying, succumbing to a brain disease, hidden in a collapsed water silo in the middle of nowhere. But Logan’s legacy as Wolverine catches up with him when a woman tracks him down and pleads with him to take her daughter Laura (Dafne Keen; child star in the making) to a safe haven to the north. When the mother is killed and when a team of gun-toting corporate killers come calling, Logan has little choice but to take Laura and the Professor on the run, headed for Canada and a place called Eden.
From the beginning most of the rules we associate with superhero movies are absent. The first word you hear from Logan is a grunted “fuck” and the swearing doesn’t let up. The script’s almost over-seasoned, actually. Like Mangold wants to make doubly sure he’s proven his point. There’s brief nudity too. Another rule broken. And the violence is cranked up conspicuously. Logan offers the kind of blood-letting usually reserved for horror movies. In its thrilling centre it is a horror movie; a sequence at a farmhouse goes about as dark as superhero movies have ever dared to go. All these things will superficially please people who’ve wanted something raw from a Wolverine film, but what’s more daring is how Logan wanders into other genres. It crawls out of the superhero box and peers into other boxes, and not just the one marked ‘horror’.
Professor Xavier and the mute Laura hole-up in a Vegas hotel room and watch television. On TV is the movie Shane. Xavier talks to Laura fondly about the film and a key dialogue scene plays within Logan so that it can resonate later. The film at large feels like a Western. Yes, it has good guys and bad guys like a superhero movie should, but stylistically Mangold keys into Western language, not just classic Westerns, but neo-Westerns like the recent Hell Or High Water. And Logan himself is a typically Western-styled reluctant anti-hero. Logan is also by design a road movie. It’s a chase film. And with its ramshackle and dusty near-future setting, nods to the post-apocalyptic series Mad Max.
If there’s one recent(ish) road movie that it brings to mind most keenly it’s The Road, John Hilcoat’s bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. There’s a busier plot here, granted, but it shares the same thematic DNA, and this is perhaps where Logan succeeds as a more mature movie than any of its contemporaries. Like The Road this is a pessimistic film about hope and parenthood, but it’s also about mortality. Logan himself feels diseased. We worry for Professor Xavier’s health. The older generation are dying. Laura quickly becomes a surrogate daughter figure for Logan and the movie deals with the responsibilities of parenthood knowing that you’re going to die. What kind of legacy should be left for the next generation? What kind of examples should be set?
Visually too, Logan is miles away from what we expect. Superhero movies – especially Marvel ones – come with an expected sleekness. There’s none of that here. Mangold’s film is dirty and it doesn’t care much for graceful framing etc. It feels scuzzy and unkempt. A concerted attempt to look and feel raw, which frequently pays off. And Mangold also distances himself from the clan by subtraction. There are no spandex costumes here. The story is relatively small and personal. The world at large doesn’t know what’s happening. Only the characters in the film know.
There are still ties to the superhero template. There’s a bad guy (Richard E Grant) and there are fights and superpowers will out, no matter how long you try to hide them. Working in tandem with the road movie concept is a fairly run-of-the-mill genre storyline, and Logan hits a number of the expected beats, it just hits them a lot harder sometimes. For all it’s maturity, this is also the most indebted franchise movie I can recall. It assumes well-versed knowledge of all the other X-Men films. In fact, it’s almost required at times. This is a thorn in its side, somewhat. I have only a passing memory of some of the other films, and Logan occasionally left me feeling in the dark, like I’d forgotten the secret handshake. It also assumes a well-seeded connection to the main character. If you have that, well, you can likely add a whole star to the score below.
By and large this film is a great success at redrawing expectations. It’s a little overlong and it wears its boldness and brutality like a badge of honour, which occasionally reads a little clumsily, but this is bloody and violent entertainment executed with gravelly sincerity. Where Deadpool nudged at the walls, Logan tears them down. It’ll be interesting to see how the other franchises respond and whether this eschews in a new era of superhero movies that are allowed to play in other genres, mix personalities, and merge with the much larger cinematic universe.