James Mangold’s Logan arrives at a pivotal moment for Hollywood, where blockbusters are cresting the same melt-up crescendo as startups in the stock market. Over the last five years, superhero films have become IPOs: can’t-miss opportunities surrounded by a pride of hungry investors looking for gassed returns. The potential profit margins are astonishing, and by the percentages, comparable to front-page unicorns like Snapchat. Jordan Peele’s Get Out — currently showing alongside Logan — is an instructive example: produced by Jason Blum of the Paranormal Activity franchise, it has already delivered a 2500% return on the film’s $4.5 million budget, which is “initial investor in Amazon” territory.
The latest in a lineage of X-Men films stretching back to 1999, Logan is the third major entry in the series since Joss Whedon’s The Avengers trebled stakes for all superhero movies. To that point, $500 million was the ceiling for a comic book smash, with Nolan’s Dark Knight a $1 billion outlier. Released in April 2012, Avengers went on to top $1.5 billion, and when Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 repeated the feat a year later, Wall Street returned to the strip in droves. Early returns indicate Logan has already tripled its $100 million budget, which is no surprise, as it is perfectly attuned to the desires of its audience. It is the sort of movie that gets you to the movies, but it’s not Superman II.
As a film, Logan is a sometimes-pandering exercise in Catholic guilt offset by a clutch of subtextual admissions to its own inanity. Few have missed how it echoes the predictable sweep of Mel Gibson’s self-martyring melodramas, but this is a superhero flick. There’s no disbelief to suspend here: you suspended it when you bought a ticket. Logan acknowledges this, and other editorial concerns around whether superhero movies can ever be serious art, a discussion urged on by the consistent and wide-reaching success of these behemoths. For example: before its climactic battle sequence, Wolverine injects magical mutant steroids on screen, conceding that the franchise, the character, and the actor imprisoned by it are so desiccated by nearly two decades of typecast dialog and grimacing as to require performance-enhancing drugs to continue.
Jackman agreed to Logan on three principle grounds: a hard R rating, the death of the titular character, and the return of Mangold, who helmed the last Wolverine vehicle, plaintively titled The Wolverine. Cinematically, The Wolverine was light-years ahead of X-Men Origins: Wolverine — arguably the worst superhero movie of the digital age — but the self-titled 2013 film shouldered an exhausting, often nauseating Asian fetish from the first frame. Logan is similarly indebted to the Wild West, which has its mirror in Jackman’s native Outback, and is likewise mined for all it’s worth.
With Patrick Stewart in tow (again as mutant patriarch Charles Xavier), the timeworn duo keep things light with some solid comic patter. Their predicament — being trapped in these roles — is even cutely alluded to in a running joke about the two of them buying a yacht and chucking it all. Nursing our broke-down leads is Stephen Merchant, a potentially excellent character actor almost totally wasted as the fragile albino mutant Caliban (a McGuffin invented in the 1980s so that someone other than Charles Xavier could detect mutants). The bounds of such a pro forma role — he is incessantly referred to as a “tracker” — are hardly tested in Logan, though Merchant delivers both the only great throwaway line, and the most convincing moment of pathos in the film.
Merchant’s screen time is chewed up by cap-toothed cardboard baddie Boyd Holbrook, as the mutant bounty hunter Pierce, a role so obviously written for Michael Pitt as to render Holbrook a pitiable dogsbody. It is distracting to the point of unseating the film as an experience; you wince foggily, wondering who the guy playing Pierce is. You know that guy, it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t place him, because he’s not the guy — Pitt — the film is visually and behaviorally trying to present to you.
Worse, Logan throws a pair of dire plot grenades in its second act. The first and most egregious is a wholesome black family of sensitive post-racial homesteaders, who are serially terrorized by chaw-spittin’ inbred shit-kickers trying to drive hard-working honest folk off corporate-owned lands they police in scary outsize pickup trucks (or as Jackman would say, utes).
It’s here the film sinks to levels of procedural sci-fi gimmickry and dialog unknown since Ang Lee’s Hulk, and sadly, it’s slung on the estimable shoulders of Richard E. Grant, in a checked-out turn as a jaundiced mad scientist trying to harness forces beyond his control. His ward is an indomitable Wolverine doppelganger called X-24, a character staged by a ten-second cutaway to a screensaver — with voiceover. In the annals of unsympathetic, inert super-villains, he is up there with Hulk’s CGI poodle.
Another cinematic precursor leaps from the screen at various points: Stephen King’s Firestarter (1984), one of the first hard-R films starring a child actor in danger. Granted, that child was Drew Barrymore, who by eight years old had more Hollywood experience than most actors compile in a lifetime, but the recent uptick in Firestarter propositions — where kids are placed in graphic, adult situations — is remarkable. Super 8, the video game The Last of Us, and more obviously Stranger Things have expanded on the singular place Barrymore occupied in the early 1980s, when she was The Kid onscreen, representing all the kids watching as grown-ups argued, screamed at each other and scolded her. From giggly curses in E.T. she graduated to immolating government spooks — and George C. Scott — with her mind, in Firestarter.
Fast-forward to 2017, and eleven year-old Dafne Keen is throwing decapitated heads at people in Logan. Plot-wise, she’s the same supernatural preteen damsel in distress: Laura, a mutant made from Wolverine’s DNA (in the comics she is known as X-23, a divisive character dating from the early 2000s). It’s Keen’s second major role, positioning her for breakout stardom on the back of a celebrated turn in the post-apocalyptic BBC/Atresmedia series Refugees. Logan compensates for Keen’s limited English and developing acting skills with its reliance on scowling, screaming, and toe blades, which Patrick Stewart is at pains to tell us make complete genetic sense, because, you see, female lions have them, don’t you know, and they use their rear claws to kick out at…she’s got knives in her feet, whatever.
Assigning Laura a mute/PTSD condition for the first three-quarters of the film is a practical rather than cynical choice, but Keen’s opportunity to shine is left far too late. By the time she’s supposed to chart the emotional course of Logan’s finale, we are still grasping for a feel of her character, and that yearning has become harder to resolve, as she’s been reabsorbed into a Lord of the Flies/Goonies gang of tween mutants marching toward freedom (more specifically toward Canada, where even in Fox’s X-Men universe, everyone qualifies for public health care).
As it fades to black, Logan begs the viewer to gauge its worth alongside the last twenty years of Peak Superhero cinema. Part of this is down to the currently popular suggestion that it transcends the superhero genre, and is somehow a Real Film where, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is merely CGI popcorn-fodder. Given that characters in this film breathe ice, freeze time and survive being shot sixty-odd times, I was not prompted to compare it to Unforgiven or True Grit, though not for the director’s lack of trying. Deep nods to the classic morality fable Shane pepper — and conclude — the film, which ultimately means it rents most of its dramatic sweep from a superior example.
This decision is the literal inverse of what you would need to accomplish to transcend your genre, a face-on concession that Logan is subordinate to a Real Film. The tonal zenith of Logan — its best and last chance to declare its cinematic value — is Laura’s tearful eulogy for Wolverine. Yet the speech is lifted wholesale from Shane, as shown earlier on a hotel TV. It makes you wonder whether Mangold considers this a legitimate form of emotional callback, simply reciting old words by rote.
Fortunately for its canonical prospects, Logan resolves in a beautifully-considered final shot. Within the filmic universe it serves, Logan stages a conclusion that is simultaneously poetic, historic, clever, and deeply moving.
Year-over-year improvements in computer-assisted cinematography ensure superhero films will continue to dazzle at the least their initial audiences — and surely their investors — but the trend has gone on long enough that the film-going public is essentially pre-programmed to fix their place in the canon as a final act of participation. Part of the process of enjoying superhero movies today is codifying your affinity for them. Are they true to the source material, like Guardians? Too dark (Iron Man 3), or not dark enough (Age of Ultron)? Too silly (Ant Man), or not silly enough (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)?
Films are often negatively affected by the public process of annotating genre entries’ relative worth, as socially-connected directors and writers begin to doubt their ideas, and lose confidence to the point where they’ll insert, “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” into X-Men: The Last Stand, which endures as a cautionary tale for filmmakers of all genres. Logan is not compositely cheapened by any appeal to this process, instead offering a handful of pithy internal jokes as a trail of nerd kibble. Mangold is vocal about the struggle to balance these, as well as political concerns, in a new interview with Vulture.
Logan is in places a grind, but never a slog: it both understands and accomplishes its task, leaving us with a lasting standalone tribute to Wolverine, whose presence and presentation in the X-Men universe has been wildly inconsistent. Like Hulk in the Avengers series, Wolverine has worked best in small doses, as vengeance and rage are hard to sustain for two hours. The character’s endurance is down to Jackman’s emotional availability as damaged goods, whether in the daddy-issues scenes with Anna Paquin (Rogue) or the lone drifter subtext with Famke Janssen (Jean Grey/Phoenix). Outside these moments, he’s been good for just two things: glowering, and ripping up bad guys. In his last dance with the role, Jackman explores its impact — good and bad — on his own path as an actor, and perhaps even as a man.
Searching for resolution, Mangold and Jackman fix on the suicidal, alcoholic drifter Wolverine’s variously been, concluding he would always end up that way, as a man at the end of the world, at the end of his rope. He finds redemption exactly as the original tortured superhero did: nailed to a piece of wood.