The opening of James Mangold’s Logan bears the film’s fangs right from the get-go, brandishing the titular character’s unruly temperament in an early fight edited in schizophrenic shambles. The scene is treated not as a cleanly delineated pleasure-soaked fight-performance for our amusement but as a brutal, animalistic seizure of uncontrolled violence. Rather than a slow, mysterious secretion of innumerable details building to narrative proportions, Logan quite literally lets itself rip.
It’s provocative, albeit obviously-motivated stuff. Last year’s R-rated Deadpool took the box office by the balls, and Logan is – if we’re honest – little more than Fox’s attempt to conjoin their most popular in-house Marvel character – the one with the metal claws – and the ostensibly adults-only rating that brought them insurmountable glory last year. That this rating also happens to be the path of best fit for a character who, you know, mauls people with claws might actually be an afterthought for Fox. One suspects they could have just as easily done-up Howard the Duck in adult-minded garb if they owned the rights and it could benefit them financially.
But, if a happy accident Logan is, it makes the most of the predicament it has been placed in. The R-rating certainly emancipates the title character from the holy scripture of the PG-13 rating every comic book film is saddled with these days. But Logan wisely treats the R-rating not as an excuse or an allowance to wreak havoc, but as a force that the film is being subjected to, a weight being pressed down on the film, a festering gloom or a salt-air infection it can’t shake. Unlike Deadpool – which was little more than an adolescent, PG-13 film in R-rated clothing – Logan understands that it isn’t merely laundering hoary old thrills in new (literal) blood and viscera. The R is an ethos or a mantra, so to speak, an attitude of dejection and scarred, sacrilegious punishment, a choking humidity that can’t be escaped. It’s a parallel universe for the superhero movie rooted in dysfunction and unsettlement.
Which is to say, Logan cuts right to the bone in more ways than its showy intro immediately suggests. Although it knows its way around flayed flesh, much of Logan plays out like a relic from a bygone time in America known as the 1970s when an atmosphere of atrophied, broken-down malaise was entirely acceptable in a mainstream entertainment. And I’m not referring to Christopher Nolan’s punishingly sacrosanct Urban Gothic A-pictures which wield their Serious Themes like miscarriages of maturity, corporate products to hawk and market and draw in flies. For the most part, Logan is genuine maturity, without the throat-clearing or the constant hemorrhaging of Importance. This is a much brasher, more ornery film than any DC or Marvel film yet released. It depicts a world seared and yellowed with age. Sure, it temporarily ignites into dizzying blurs of bullish mammalian movement. But even the violence carries a dazed and dislocated vibe, as though the blitzkrieg can only be temporary before growing winded and too bruised to continue. Nolan’s films adhered to a kind of analytical melodramatic principle, his themes billowing upward to be seen from miles away, afraid you might not be overwhelmed by their stench of faux-Realpolitik. Logan, iconoclastically, feels too tired and worn-out to underline its themes, which is exactly its greatest achievement.
Logan’s narrative boasts a sinewy but far more vulnerable physique than even the serious Batman films. It shows its malnourished skeleton rather than wrapping itself in an armor of grandeur. It’s a B-movie, basically, and a film about death on the outside both masking and intimating a deeper demise of the soul. But what saves it – absolves it of the crime of explication and over-indulgence – is how tightly-limned and spare, even Spartan, the aesthetic is, how willing Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green are to create a framework that doesn’t insist upon itself.
In 2029, mutants have been reduced to a dwindling cabal of tiny enclaves wandering the landscape without a community or an infrastructure. The aesthetic of the film – barren deserts hungry for more flesh – suggests an apocalypse, but it’s to the film’s credit that this is an apocalypse of mood and not diegesis; the world continues on for humans, but Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) lives an apocalyptic, dormant life by night as he survives a daily nomad routine as a limo-driver. By night, he cares for his old ward Professor X (Patrick Stewart), now 90 and racked with dementia, emanating mental tantrums that severely disturb the physical stability of the world – he is the most powerful brain in existence, after all. One day, Logan is approached by the mother of a young girl (Laura, played by a spellbinding Dafne Keen) who turns out to be “very much like” him, a mutant with claws in her hands and feet. Wolverine is reticent, naturally, but a meaty ex-military type (Boyd Holbrook, ice-cold) follows up, looking for the girl with obviously sinister intent. A crisis of faith prompts Wolverine and Professor X on the road once they learn that Laura was the product of a laboratory breeding mutants for war and that other escaped children are to meet up in North Dakota to cross the border in hopes of finding a semi-mythical mutant colony in Canada.
Thus begins a road-trip of admirable restraint, naturally counter-balanced by the tornado of blood nearly everywhere in the film. With a stripped-down, beaten-up narrative, Mangold and company allow textual relevance to excrete from the natural pores of the material. The gangrenous world fills in via background suggestion, befitting our focus on Wolverine, whose insolent loner self-consciousness doesn’t afford much room to think about the world in the first place. The backstory accrues through insinuation and intimation, most heartbreakingly that one of Professor X’s mental hurricanes resulted in the destruction of his mansion and most of the still-living X-Men. Such flickers of despair loom large over the film but they don’t engulf it. The film preserves a marriage of contradictions, subsisting at the “weight of stillness” as the past tortures the characters, on one hand, and hurtling forward with a murderously undying momentum, on the other, since this is not a world that affords our protagonists the time to wax poetic on the nature of existence. Rather than ramrod everything to the surface, the film asks the audience to confront ashen, dredged-in meaning that doesn’t always want to bubble up. It asks us to attune to the “lower registers”, and with characters this degraded, those particular registers exist in a steady state of decomposition from the get-go.
Without disfiguring all the goodwill I’ve built up for the film, I must say that Logan’s renegade project is also frustratingly incomplete. Or perhaps, more accurately, it completes its mission as intended but reveals the limits of that mission in the process. For all its manifest strengths and refusal to sanction the good cheer myths of the superhero genre, Logan eventually runs head-first into the brick wall laid decades ago by Unforgiven. As wonderfully willing to spend its company in the presence of the despondent as it is, this particularly stray cat only transgresses the rules of superhero entertainment to ensconce itself into a much older, more storied tradition that birthed the superhero arc in the first place: the logic of the individual wanderer, the supreme loner. Hell, Mangold even makes a show of it, explicitly referencing Shane which anticipates not only Unforgiven and our current subject but decades of revisionist Westerns that have made names for themselves bending genre standards without ever truly shattering them. Anointed with the “maturity” stamp by society also means that films like Logan still succumb to that society’s will in one form or another to earn that respect, to meet that society’s definition of “mature”. In Logan’s case, like in the case of most revisionist Western, maturity is found in the old can-violence-save-the-soul-of-a- violent-man chestnut so ubiquitous in the respectable cinema cannon.
Really, then, Logan is an old soul much like its titular character, a film much indebted to a well-worn strain of crestfallen white males galvanizing their uncertain inner demons through external action. Even if these movies dare suggest that the moralities of these characters may be a notch or two grayer than the classical hero’s, they still retrain themselves on the agency narrative, verifying the ability of the individual to affect the world. Mangold’s film valiantly surmises that Logan’s façade of individualism is, as with every such instance in American culture, just another way of submitting to the ethos of the me-against-the-world post-Enlightenment Western society, where the individual is sacrosanct above all. He is the ur-Individual in society, the ultimate embodiment of the American social code, so his belief that he bucks society’s wishes is fundamentally compromised. That belief, in fact, is exactly why he fits into America’s sense-of-self, its cultural moorings. But, although the film understands this about Logan, it doesn’t always critique itself for being complicit in this individualism. Logan still boils down to a narrative of accomplishment and consequence, of conclusion and decision, of action even if it is sometimes a mental action backed by sudden spasms of extreme physical violence.
It’s still a goal-oriented narrative when the day is done, no matter how much the shape and temperature of the film act to disabuse us of heroic action. It isn’t slavishly devoted to the classic superhero moral structure of action and agency in service of virtue – Logan instead presents action and agency in search of uncertain virtue – but this sun-spoiled film is still captive to the sanctions its genre places on it, still content to deal in the triumphs and tribulations of a lone wanderer, to worship at the cult of the individual. B-picture spirit or not, that A-picture money sticks like tar, necessitating certain restrictions, especially when the end of the film bursts into merely a bloodier variant of the heroic set-piece every other superhero film traffics in. It still must end in accomplishment, in a world that has been, in some small manner, changed by the action of the individual. True freedom from these narrative bedrocks is a mirage when you have that much freedom of the monetary variety.
And, of course, need it be said that the young non-white girl only serves to facilitate a descent into the mind of the white male hero? If the film wasn’t explicit enough in making Laura an even more feral and unhinged facsimile of Jackman’s character, a simulacrum of himself to parent/teach/protect for the good of his own soul, a late film reveal only literalizes and chrome-plates the Logan-dueling-his-darker-impulses metaphor for us. Logan’s name doesn’t lie. This is his story, a story that serves to validate him as a hero. If anything, Logan’s compromised attempt to mature its genre only lacquers the individual-agency narrative in a pernicious and self-protective air of quasi-critique. Not unlike Logan himself, the wounds the film inflicts on it genre only allow it to keep on trucking all the stronger.
The audiences claiming that Logan is truly deconstructive would do well to mosey on over to a filmmaker like Robert Altman and gander at McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a much more courageous dismantling of the agency narrative that refuses to protectively dress itself in tortured-soul tropes. Mangold essentially asks us to like a bruised and violent man. Contrarily, Altman’s film even dismantles the presupposition of revelatory access to characters with coherent, and thus actionable, subjectivities at all. Logan’s world is run-down and grimy but essentially accessible to an omniscient camera, as in 99% of all films. Comparatively, McCabe’s is downright intangible, something like a half-remembered figment we confront through a haze of tenuous historiography and a century of lost time. Its fragility boils down to its very cinematic bones; the pre-flashed film stock glimpses the Western world through an opium-haze, pointedly challenging our ability even to access content-meaning in the traditional sense. Logan is a very sharp, cunning, wonderfully haggard tooth-and-nail production, but do not expect an architect of a brave new world so much as a callback to an old, forlorn one. It’s a very, very good film, in other words, but within its idiom rather than beyond it.
At its best, however, the film does suggest that Logan’s runaway rebel routine is doomed not only because society will squash him but because this routine is immanently self-paradoxical. His self-appointed placement as an outcast and outsider, a critic of American society who cannot be contained by that society, cannot but mark him as an embodiment of a much older American tradition, a fetish for rustic individualism and liberal uproot. Rogues and rapscallions, in this sense, dissent from American society, but the language of their dissent is the very rhetoric America has given them: self-sovereignty, autonomy, authenticity. In other words, their sanctimonious journey not only casts them as false prophets and failed liberators but victims of a nation whose most devilish and cunning joke has always been to trick would-be revolutionaries into “fighting” from within the system until, more often than not, they simply become it. Because the lone individual is America in being against America, they can only fight themselves. True escape, in this sense, would require a rhetoric not of individual libertarianism, but collective anarchism, and the finale, however flawed, gestures toward Wolverine’s personal failings while proposing at least the possibility of the latter’s eventual blossoming into a true alternative.
Score: 8/10 (look, criticisms aside, it’s still really good)