By Travis Trombley
It’s gritty and R-rated-violent, sure, but also intimate. Its scope shies from the superhero epic, preferring instead a limited road film structure with family foundations. It shirks the grand character roster and need to preview future installments and focuses instead on its characters, defined here more by the intersection of their flaws, their hopes, and their ideologies. It’s violence serves a greater narrative purpose rather than stemming from a narrative excuse for a genre requirement. And yet it is a superhero film at heart, telling a very human tale with bouts of flourish.
In other words, James Mangold’s Logan is mature film. And it’s a great one. It proves that superheroes can provide more to the cinematic market than origin story tropes and team-up tales. It proves that these characters can grow up with their audiences in a manner more nuanced than the presence of curse words, bloody beheadings, and self-aware cynicism. And it proves that a superhero film can in fact stand on its own two legs without relying on intertextuality - cameos, guest stars, and references - to carry any narrative weight. It’s human drama, through and through.
The danger of Logan is that critics will be all too quick to define the superhero genre as a whole by the tropes this film avoids. We see this already in the calls for Warner Brothers to release some R-rated DC comics films. But rest assured, no amount of F-bombs or decapitations would have fixed Suicide Squad’s broken narrative or given Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman characters more depth. Logan works not because of it’s rating; rather, Logan works because it’s provides viewers with a viewing experience that takes seriously human pain, and it just so happens to take full advantage of an R rating to do so.
It’s a simple enough western plot weighed down by a depressed Logan’s attempt to care for a senile Charles Xavier who accidentally kills by the hundreds in fits of mental degradation. That is, if Logan doesn’t scrape by enough medication paid for by driving a limousine for bachelorette parties and demagogues in cowboy hats. After a reluctant Logan decides to take a job for a woman who recognizes him as Wolverine, he finds himself in the midst of a government liquidation program of yet another attempt to weaponize mutants in this violent, western future straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
The trek takes the odd family of Logan, Xavier, and Laua across the rural west, with a brief stop in a Vegas. When they aren’t fighting to get away from the cyborg Donald and his goons, Logan deals with a number of family issues: a reluctant daughter with communication issues and fantastical delusions, a senile father figure who’s ranting about what a disappointment Logan is when he doesn’t need help going to the bathroom, and a sort of degenerative illness that’s seeping away his strength and healing abilities. He’s a protector, but a very reluctant one, insistent on convincing others - and himself - that their efforts are futile, but pushing on anyway.
But Laura, silent for most of the film save for grunts and feral screams, is far from defenseless. A test-tube product of Logan’s DNA, making her his biological daughter, Laura shares his healing factor, his adamantium enhancements, and his severity. She spins over foes and flips across the screen like a savage, prepubescent Black Widow. Her debut scene, especially, is a delightful display of stealth-action - a celebration of dissonance, watching a little girl murder grown men with relative ease. Logan’s attacks are similarly bloody - his claws now pierce skulls and sever limbs, taking full advantage of the film’s R-rated allowance.
But this violence always seems grounded. Yes, there’s still a videogame sense to it, as a superpowered protagonist, by nature, demands quantity over quality in enemies, so to speak, slicing through henchmen until a more formidable “boss” appears. But this violence flows naturally from the narrative, never feeling like something planned apart from the plot or that doesn’t move the story forward. As for cinematography, action here is close, favoring extended shots over chopping editing, a style made popular by the Bourne films. And, yes, as per the last few X-Men installments, there is a time stop action scene that’s more brutal than charming than Quicksilver’s in Days of Future Past and the less successful Age of Apocalypse.
The film's setting, subtly crafted and powerful in effect, helps establish the tone of this world. It's roads are primarily populated by self-driving, indiscriminate trucks, it's fields of corn harvested by great machines almost as intimidating as the sentinels from Days of Future Past. It's clear that Mangold and company took great care in these minimalist additions to emphasize the bleakness of this future of human civilization largely bereft of humanity. It's a world much more frightening than any bleak dystopia due to the simple fact that it reeks of very real possibility.
Additionally, the film employs a number of religious motifs, from Xavier briefly channeling a televangelists theologically questionable broadcast (“It’s not about what you do!”) to the names of Laura’s mutant friends - Jonah, Gideon, Delilah, and Rebecca - stemming from the Old Testament. It uses these references and others - including a potentially controversial one at the end - to remind us that this is a world that dares people to believe in something, but to do so in sincerity is a task of great difficulty.
Another part of the thematic and narrative momentum in Logan derives from its self-awareness of superheroes. Unlike the fourth wall breaking Deadpool, the X-Men existed in this universe, then someone turned their stories into the Uncanny X-Men comics with which we as audience are familiar, but here they are a sort of pulpy historical fiction. Logan addresses the comics to tackle some of the tropes and misgivings surrounding the larger superhero context in today’s media. He calls them “ice cream for bed-wetters,” distancing himself - and the film overall - from the seemingly consequenceless reality of superheroes, yet the film ultimately uses their presence to affirm our interaction with such narratives in a rather heartwarming manner.
Logan’s box office and critical success provides some hope for the genre. Not because it reinforces the idea that R-rated superhero stories are the most successful, but because it shows us that there’s still room for superhero films to interrogate the genre and play with our expectations in order to find some sort of meaning beyond popcorn entertainment. Logan is successful because, like the best films - regardless of genre - it makes you feel and care and think.
Go see it.