Logan - James Mangold
Rating: 9 out of 10
Logan is a movie of profound warmth for its titular character. It may age him, weaken him, and brutalize him, but it digs into Logan’s psyche deeper than any before, making full use of its R rating to spare us nothing. Freed from the constraints of broad-appeal storytelling as well as the Gordian knot of the X-Men film continuity, director James Mangold sets out to craft a western out of the superhero movie and triumphs. Everything missing from Bryan Singer’s X-Men universe is here in spades, from the profanity and viscera that is so illogically absent from the original franchise to a richer, more nuanced focus on character.
In the future, mutants are scarce. There is Logan, who works as a chauffeur to pay for the medication he must administer to the ailing (ex) Professor Charles Xavier, who is looked after by a reptilian mutant named Caliban when Logan’s away. Logan is old and cantankerous, far more so than in any previous iteration. Xavier, whose paternal attitude became a difficult sell once James McAvoy’s portrayal of the young, hedonistic Charles was introduced, is more foul-mouthed, more damaged, and more believable than before. Caliban may be underdeveloped in the scheme of things, but for perspective’s sake, demonstrates more personality in his half-hour of screentime than Cyclops across three movies.
That seems to be it. They live on the U.S./Mexico border in an dingy, dusty factory, driven to these meager environs by an event for which “Westchester” becomes shorthand - a disaster for which Xavier feels responsible, and which is heavily implied to have spelled the end of the X-Men. Xavier is old, and his mind, classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the U.S. government, is slowly deteriorating. The medicine and the drum-like structure Xavier is kept in quickly make sense, and despite some conflict among the three, they seem to be getting along well enough in these conditions until a woman named Gabriella comes to Logan for help.
His first response is a curt “Get the fuck away from me,” but there’s more to her than it seems. She’s a nurse on the run from a shadowy organization with an interest in her daughter, who Gabriella desperately needs to get over the Canadian border. Her pursuers are represented by a man with red Ozzy glasses, a mechanical hand, and a condescending drawl, and he starts applying pressure from the moment he enters the picture, murdering Gabriella and storming the factory where Logan and company are holed up. What no one counts on is Gabriella’s girl, who isn’t her girl at all, but a subject of the same experiments that turned Logan into the Wolverine. In one of the film’s numerous showstoppers, she lays waste to scores of heavily-armed men on her own before Logan steps in to help. The girl, aka X-23, is an absolute dynamo. Some of the credit must go to the choreographers, editors, and special-effects personnel, but the performance is Dafne Keen’s, and she is a find like few others in recent memory. Because X-23 is mute for most of the film, Keen’s physicality comes heavily into play. The sheer skill it takes to pull this off is admirable, but comparing the depth of her performance to her age, it’s nothing short of incredible. And her battle screech is terrifying.
With no choice but to honor Gabriella’s request, Logan takes off across the country with Xavier and X-23. The latter bond almost immediately, but ever the gunslinger, Logan is frosty and distant in his interactions with her. He treats her and her journey like a job to get done. It’s when he doesn’t that things go awry, as an extended stay at a family ranch, a critical point for many of the film’s blossoming plot threads, demonstrates. There’s no lasting peace in a movie like this. One might be tempted to call the scenes at the ranch predictable, but that would be missing the point. Logan isn’t out to reinvent basic storytelling but the limitations of the superhero genre, which have been rather strict. Watchmen and Deadpool, another (loose) X-Men property, should be credited with starting the push for A Better Superhero Film, but Logan should be regarded as the one that really expanded the playfield once all is said and done. It employs tropes like the troubled hero, the moment of respite shattered by violence, the father-daughter relationship, and the redemptive arc not out of laziness, but to make the point that the superhero genre can function as more than an origin-story generator or smash-’em-up showcase while still including elements of both.
Not to say that there aren’t some missteps along the way. They don’t always detract from the experience, and in some way enhance what’s special about Logan, but they deserve mention all the same. One trope Logan can’t shake is the superhero movie’s insistence on spotlighting every freaky superpower with annoying, lingering close-ups. The X-Men movies has always been pretty shameless about this, though admittedly, there are a lot of diverse and interesting mutants with diverse and interesting superpowers. It’s just that most of them didn’t make it into this movie. Sometime in the third act, we’re introduced to a horde of mutants who each get half a minute or so to show off their powers...right in the middle of the climactic battle. It’s jarring and clownish after almost two hours of serious filmmaking, and it’s difficult to tell whether they’re supposed to be callbacks to Singer’s franchise or the result of studio intervention. The girl with the frost breath and the other girl who can...control wood splinters or something, are the worst offenders, and it’s even more disappointing that these subpar mutants take down most of the film’s antagonists - which isn’t saying much, actually, since there is a surprising deficit of personality among them. The organization that created X-23 is clearly dangerous and adequately fills the villain spot, but after two almost-back-to-back viewings, I still have trouble remembering any of their names apart from X-24. I won’t spoil his character for those who haven’t seen Logan yet, for whatever reason.
Luckily, this isn’t a movie that requires larger-than-life adversaries. It may go without saying that Logan is one of the good guys, but in the tradition of the western, the distinction isn’t clear-cut in the world of the film. It even states this point for us in the words of an actual western playing on a hotel TV: “good and bad is a brand.” There’s more to the quote, but these words are vital: the distinction between hero and villain, human and monster, amount to projection, perspective, and semantics. Actions are just actions, and their meaning is ours to supply. It’s not a new idea, but it’s nearly revolutionary in the context of a superhero movie, especially one connected to a franchise that’s never really worked with anything but absolutes - and in its exploration of this ambiguity, it is truer to the tormented character of the Wolverine than any film before or, we pretty confidently predict, since.
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