Logan is a superhero film without heroes

“This is what life looks like.”

Roughly halfway through Logan (2017), Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) utters the line that will by the movie’s end personify it. He is lying on a bed in a country house, sick but at peace in one of the film’s only calm moments, attempting to break through the Logan/Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) outer shell to find what remains of the broken man underneath.

Wolverine has been the centerpiece of the X-Men cinematic universe since Hugh Jackman first donned his adamantium claws in Bryan Singer’s exemplary 2000 series debut. Seventeen years and six films later (not counting the First Class trilogy) and Logan is beaten and tired. The other X-Men are dead or gone and mutants have become a discarded footnote in society. Xavier spends his days drugged in a silo; Logan drives for Uber.

In its grim opening moments, in which Logan massacres a gang attempting to steal his hubcaps, writer and director James Mangold makes it brutally clear that this is not another Wolverine movie. Logan is intimate and honest in a way previous X-Men films only showed glimpses of. Gone are the jumpsuits, origin story flashbacks, larger-than-life villains, and super group the size of a fighting game roster. Logan is not a movie about superheroes, it’s about what comes after.

Parallels can and certainly will be drawn between Logan and both Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us (which in turn took ample influence from The Road). All three offer a glimpse of what happens when people are pushed into impossible situations – be it a cataclysmic disaster, zombie fungus outbreak, or superhuman mutation – and then forced to be more than themselves for the sake of another. Like The Road before it, Logan is deeply concerned with the nature of fatherhood and the difficulty in putting a child before yourself even to the point of tremendous suffering. Logan’s central plot involves the titular character escorting Laura (Dafne Keen) – a young girl who shares his mutations – across the country to safety, dogged the whole way by the same group that grafted adamantium onto Logan’s skeleton.

Aside from Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004), few superhero movies have so much as dipped their toes into the realm of family and parentage. Logan shares few similarities with Brad Bird’s classic, but it is perhaps the first film of its kind to truly explore the psychological impact of a life of solitary heroism. Early in the film, Xavier pleads with Logan to help Laura, saying that he gave him a family with the X-Men. Dysfunctional and cobbled together though they were, the X-Men were always connected by a shared struggle as mutants, and now that they’re gone Logan is faced with how much they actually meant to him.

Logan’s interactions with Laura form the backbone of the film’s emotional core and are some of the most painfully honest scenes to ever find their way into a summer blockbuster. Keen’s performance is almost entirely wordless, but through simple gestures and subtle moments of connection with Logan, both characters develop not as mutants but as humans. Broken, angry humans to be sure, but humans nevertheless. It is a testament to the creative freedom Mangold was given that so much of the film is made up of long, silent scenes of characters simply existing with one another, but these moments more than any other sell these characters as people struggling just to exist in a world that doesn’t stop when the fight is over.

As the first R-rated Wolverine film hot on the footsteps of Deadpool (2016), it would be easy to imagine Mangold simply using his newfound freedom as an excuse to go all out with the gore in a way similar to X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s (2009) gruesome M-rated video game tie-in. But while Logan wholly earns its rating, it also makes a case for why it’s warranted. Violence in Logan is never “fun” in the way a comparatively extreme grindhouse film is. Fights are dirty and terrifying in their brutality, emphasizing not only how comically sanitized the fights of previous X-Men movies were, but also the internal damage such constant violence has on a person. Every element of Logan is positioned to reflect the character’s shattered humanity and mental instability, and to remind us that underneath his abilities, Logan is still human.

In some ways, Logan can almost be viewed as showing what happened off camera during the other X-Men films, and the person Logan really is. The times when he snapped and ripped a car in half or almost killed a man; when he crumbled and begged for the ability to die. Logan is uncompromisingly raw in its depiction of emotional pain and trauma and never wavers in its decision for this to be the end.

If Jackman and Stewart were playing superheroes in previous films, now they are simply playing people. All pretenses are stripped away and there is the feeling that what we are seeing is not only the evolution of a character, but a character as portrayed by a specific actor. It is difficult to imagine either Logan or Xavier as anyone other than Jackman and Stewart, and that inseparability is reflected in how entirely both actors embody their character. There are no scenes of dutiful gravitas – no lofty moral speeches or dramatic sendoffs as are so commonplace in superhero films – but there are many highlighting the tiny ordinary moments that make up the lives of these characters. Logan carrying Xavier out of his wheelchair up a flight of stairs; Logan’s visible uncomfortableness sitting at a dinner table. More than the fight scenes or the escort plot, these moments are what make Logan so exceptional.

It would have been easy to make another X-Men Origins or The Wolverine and have it serve as Jackman and Stewart’s sendoff from the franchise. But Logan is more than a mere epilogue for other films. It is a small, personal, painfully intimate character study that never worries about actually being a superhero movie. Logan is just a person – a person with extraordinary abilities, but a person all the same – and rather than treat his humanity for blunt dramatic effect, Mangold has created an entire film focused simply on exploring what exactly being so extraordinary does to a person. It’s a small wonder a film of this nature ever got past executive meddling, but it is hard to imagine a better way to say goodbye to one of Hollywood and Marvel’s most memorable characters.


This post was made possible through the generosity of John Kiernan and my other Patreon subscribers!

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