The Superhero Movie We Need, But Not The One We Deserve

I meant to write this soon after Logan came out last March, and a rough draft has been sitting on my computer since then. After a recent rewatch and the announcement of Logan’s Oscar nomination I thought I might to a good time to finish this overdue piece.

I can’t fully begin this essay without acknowledging how I have attempted to shoehorn my opinion about Logan into one of the one more memorable lines from The Dark Knight. It’s a little forced yes but, in regards to my thoughts about this movie I believe it is apt and (mostly) justified. Logan is a wonderful movie and its quality is somewhat astonishing because it did not have to be that good. It could have been a hot pile of garbage and it sill would have closed in on $100 million worldwide during opening weekend. If X-Men Origins: Wolverine could make its money back then there was never a chance that Logan was going to be a financial bomb, and yet they still made a great movie when an okay one would have sufficed. This movie could have been fantastically mediocre and everyone would have still gone to see it, and in that sense I wonder if we deserved a movie this good.

Wether you want to say that the superhero film genre kicked off with X-Men in 2000 or Blade in 1998, I think it is fair to same that Logan is unlike most things in the cannon. It’s a small and grounded film about an aging Wolverine who is eking out a living as a limousine driver. He shuttles frat boys and bachelorette parties around while also taking care of an ailing Professor Xavier. They, and another mutant named Caliban, are living in a rusty industrial compound just south of the U.S.A/Mexico border. The dream is to buy a boat so that Logan and the professor can leave the world, which no longer wants them, behind and live their final days in peace. No new mutants have been born in fifteen years, and a number of years back a large group of X-Men were wiped out by an incident in Westchester NY. Logan is also in an unusual position with a much reduced healing factor that makes the possibility of death much more tangible, and makes each ejection of his famous claws (wether necessary or unnecessary) more difficult than it has ever been. Notice there that I didn’t say painful, because flashing his claws has always been painful, but now he suffers it even more. In the first scene Logan is reluctant to engage with the gang that is stripping his limo. He endures a gun shot to the chest, but does not have the privilege of death’s escape, before exacting his vengeance. This scene is a more brutal Wolverine fight scene than any depicted in previous movies, as Logan dismembers a number assailants before the survivors escape into the night. Logan is not blameless in these actions, nor is he entirely at fault, and where a different movie would have let the hero off for defending his life or honor, this movie will complicate his actions and his legacy.

There are the physical repercussions of this fight, which are depicted in some detail immediately following that violent first scene. Logan goes into a bathroom where the camera starts in close on his bleeding knuckles and pans up his scar-riddled torso. He trembles with effort while trying to put on a clean white shirt (other than being a limo driver I think its important that it’s a white shirt, but more on that later) before continuing on with his job, with his life, after what is one violent episode among dozens. Logan never bore the physical cost of being a survivor (his mutation took care of that). He was a fighter, an X-Man, someone who lingered while others faded away, but the toll was not visible. Psychological trauma has always been an important part of the Wolverine character (maybe more so in the comics because of how things pertaining to his memory have been mishandled in the movies) but it its manifestation, mental and physical, have never been more vivid. The scene in the bathroom is very early in the movie, but the very first scene is that of a drunk Logan stumbling out of the backseat. He steps out of the limo and the camera focuses on a booted foot scuffling around on the ground searching for purpose in an unsteady/uncaring world. I’ll try not to get to deep into metaphor with this scene, but it does set a precedent for much of what follows. As he stumbles out of the car and into confrontation, we can interpret a man who wants to escape (or as will be repeated back to him later in the movie), who wants to die. Starting a superhero movie with the titular character stumbling around drunk, and not in the affable Tony Stark way, is a bold move. The drunkenness, the violence, the blood and scars let the audience know that this is a different superhero movie, that there might not be a metaphorical white shirt (dozens of suits of armor, guns, a lot of punching, a combination of heart and will) which the hero “can pull on” to make to everything better. Logan’s white shirt is ill-equipped to hide the signs of violence, he can cover the scars, but the blood will spread underneath and the pain and memories remain as long as he does. 

What exactly is the cost of surviving? This movie handles question in a way that few (maybe none) superhero movies before it have. The opening scenes situates Logan in this story, but he is not the only one who has hung on. Professor Xavier is a doddering old man who must be sedated in order to prevent crippling psychic attacks that he cannot (entirely) control. A long way from the man who led the X-Men and saved the world on more than one occasion, although he is afforded the small mercy of not being able to remember the Westchester incident and what he did that day. Then there’s Laura. A young girl who they tortured, trained, and attempted to subjugate just as they did Logan. Except Laura never knew anything else, there wasn’t a time before she was the product of morally bankrupt scientists and mercenaries, a time before she was the thing they made. She is the legacy Logan never wanted, a perfect and efficient killing machine killing exactly as they wanted her to, but not who they wanted her to. Because of the people who are after Laura, the three of them go on the run roughly aiming towards Eden, a location that Logan discovers came from an X-Men comic book. Logan learns this piece of information in the context of a a scene where Xavier and Laura are watching this scene. It’s from 1953’s Shane, and specifically the scene where the titular Shane explains to little Joe about complicated morality and consequences. As Logan reads the comics he sees an imagined and sanitized version of what someone thinks his life is/was. I read and enjoy comics, but most of the time the good guys win and the good guys find redemption. But for Logan, who has existed long past his fellow X-Men, past the time when people cared about those stories, the pain of those conflicts remains. But where is his redemption, where is the part where he gets to go home happy. When he confronts Laura and the Xavier with what he has learned about Eden they are watching that scene, where Shane (who is the hero that did the right thing) must remove himself from the town, because of his mark as a killer. The people who do the right thing, who stand on the line for the rest of us, they don’t always get to go home (it reminds me of the final scene of The Return of the King where Frodo and Sam have this moment). Logan knows this. He knows the cost for standing against what’s wrong, for fighting and killing for for what you think is right, and surviving after everyone else has faded away. For him there’s loneliness and despair and for Xavier there is senility. In his own rough and detached manner this is the only lesson thing he can offer to Laura who faces a difficult life bearing the mark of Wolverine.

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Hugh Jackman in Logan, 20th Century Fox

The most lighthearted scene in the movie occurs when Logan, Laura, and Xavier are seated at dinner with a family they recently helped out on the highway. There’s happiness and joy, as Logan and Laura experience the type domesticity that is hard for them to come by. He has struggled to find and hold onto it, while she has never known it. But Logan knows that this isn’t the ending his story gets. He is happy that he could provide Xavier with one last moment of peace and comfort, but ultimately this scene ends in violence, with their host family and Professor Xavier dead at the hands of men who would take Laura and Logan and use them and make them do the thing they were made for. From here Laura and Logan bury Professor Xavier’s body and make their way to Eden. There they find the other children that were raised as weapons like Laura. The movie slows down a bit as Logan heals from wounds sustained fighting the men who killed the professor, but picks up and moves quickly to its conclusion as the children decide to make their final move Canada. The final fight takes place in a wooded area as soldiers from the facility the children escaped, and who have been tracking Logan and Laura, surround Laura and her friends. Logan arrives on the scene and a violent battle ensues that the children ultimately survive, but it costs Logan his life (he had to fight another clone of himself and took too much damage to live). Logan’s final words to Laura are, “You don’t have to fight anymore. Don’t be what they made you… So this is what it feels like.” It is heart wrenching scene scene between a father and daughter who didn’t get enough time together, between a parent and a child they know they can’t save. Logan’s final battle may have ended the men and company who wanted to capture Laura and use her to fight their battles, but she still has the mark of the Wolverine on her. Logan’s efforts at peace and seclusion never lasted. Someone always wanted to, or thought they could, control him. He wasn’t human, but the thing someone made. Laura’s way forward is made a little easier, the hunting will stop, but the choice about what to be still lies in front of her. And that is Logan’s ultimate gift, that her life of killing (because she has killed a lot of people) doesn’t have to continue, whereas Logan struggled to end his. Laura will have to live with the lives of the bad men she killed but it doesn’t have to continue, or define her the way it did him.

The final scene of the movie is Logan’s burial. Laura recites the scene from Shane that her and Xavier had watched earlier. “A man has to be what he is… Can’t break the mold. There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back. Right or wrong it’s a brand.” It was not Logan’s choice to be made into a what he was, to have adamantium bonded to his skeleton so as to make him virtually indestructible. That’s what they made him to be. Even as he ran and tried to escape what he was, the killing continued as he fought the people who would use him for their own ends. The Wolverine. That brand, as part of the X-Men or on his own, that brand stuck and why peace eluded him until his final moments. He felt what a normal life could have been briefly at the end, the thing Xavier pointed out to him in their final moments together, when he was beyond being what they made him. Laura’s final moment in the movie, as the other kids have walked away, is to turn the cross on its side into an X. Here lies an X-Man, who stood up for us all again and again when few others would. He stood up because he could, even though it meant the world slipped a little farther away from him each time because of what he had to do to save it. Don’t call him an angel, he’ not a hero, he was the Wolverine, an X-Man.

At least that is what I get out of that final, very emotional, scene. But it’s extremely messy and I’m probably cutting off some of the less neat edges or ignoring other things completely to find these ideas or themes in there that really do it for me. Its message is messy and that whatever I extracted from it is only a piece, hopefully a somewhat cumulative one, of it’s violence, homages, silent moments, fits of rage, and innocent deaths. In all of that, lies it’s artistry and quality, and meaning (whatever you think it is). We expect this from artistic or dramatic films, but not from our superhero movies. We could’ve got a more faithful adaptation of the Old Man Logan story which is much more violent and much less morally confusing. Right now that sort of, are they a hero or are they not a hero, and who do you look to for what’s right, confusion is what’s actually going on in our world. The bad guys don’t all wear the same uniform and the good guys are sometimes cynical. Logan might not be the sort of escapism that I look for in a superhero movie, but maybe it’s the movie and the message we need right now.

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Daphne Keen in Logan, 20th Century Fox

 

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