Thursday, June 20, 2024

Logan is a Fitting Tribute to the End of an Era

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Logan is a great movie. It is a great comic book movie. There are some who say Logan transcends the comic book movie genre. It does not do that, for a myriad of reasons, the biggest one is there is at least one clone. Clones are a classic comic book staple. Just ask Dr. Doom or Nick Fury.

James Mangold’s movie is a breed apart from previous comic book movies. If only for the aura of finality about the film. Both in films and in print comic books have always treated death as a plot device. One of the dozens of pleasures of the movie is how astonishing adult it is. Not in language or how much gore but by the simple notion that death is permanent.

Without giving too much away people die and there’s no sense of they will be back again for a sequel. There are pain and anger expressed when someone dies. People behave erratically because it is a real and traumatizing thing. Death is treated seriously without quips or cheers. There’s a scene toward the end where a remorseless character dies and while it may be satisfying there is a feeling of eeriness about it. We’re not sorry he’s dead, but we don’t feel good about it.

More than anything Mangold has taken the bright and shiny action packed superhero genre where good is good and bad is bad and has decided to show the consequence of a lifestyle given to saving the world and fighting crime. It’s Unforgiven for superheroes.

Set in the future, 2029, the film follows Logan (Hugh Jackman) long past his prime, as he struggles to eek out a living as a limousine driver. He travels back and forth between the United States and Mexico where he lives. John Mathieson, the cinematographer, films the landscapes of the Mexican desert as a gorgeous homage to John Ford westerns. There are a serenity and stark beauty to the windswept vistas surrounding Logan’s home, an abandoned factory of sorts.

We discover that the once great Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) is now fighting a degenerative brain disease. Prone to seizures, which are implied could and have been catastrophic for humanity, Professor X is kept heavily medicated and alone so he can’t hurt anybody. There’s also Caliban (Stephen Merchant) a mutant who acts as a sort of live-in nurse.

It’s soon revealed that they may well be the only Mutants left in the world. What once seemed like the next step in evolution now seems like a freak spike in the evolutionary chain. There have been no new mutants, and the ones who did exist have all died or have been killed. Even the core group of mutants who made up the X-Men seemed to have died as well.

There is no talk of anybody rising from the grave or hopes that someone is really not dead but just in hiding. There are just three old men living together in the desert trying in vain to forget the past. But as the saying goes we may be through with the past; the past is not done with us. Soon Logan is dragged back into the thick of it all, with the promise of a substantial payout, when he is asked by a nurse Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) to help her and her daughter Laura (Dafne Keen) to cross into Canada.

At first, Logan refuses. But then as circumstances tend to do, they get beyond his control. Laura is something Logan hasn’t seen in a very long time. She is a mutant. She also seems to have abilities similar to his. This disturbs Logan both because of the implications of her having his abilities raises and also because if she got them the same way he got his, then someone wants her back.

Sure enough, Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) shows up. With a robotic hand and gold-toothed smile, he promises all he wants is the girl. Logan’s better angel Professor X convinces Logan they can not give her up. So they run. That is all I will tell you about the plot.

More than any comic book or superhero movie, Logan is an emotionally resonant and deeply intriguing philosophical film. It’s not philosophical in the way of the movie has an opinion and then spends the time arguing it. It’s philosophical in the sense that it mediates on themes without giving us answers.

Throughout the movie, both Logan and Charles try to explain to Laura that violence is wrong. That killing is wrong. Except as anyone familiar with the character knows Logan excels both in violence and murder. While Charles may be a pacifist, he has led many a mutant into battle both for his and humanity’s sake. For all of their preaching and sermonizing against violence, both men are steeped in blood.

Mangold and Scott Frank, the screenwriter, never talk down to us. They allow the characters to wrestle with the moral quandary of violence. They also never let us forget the real world consequences of violence either.

Arthur Penn, the director of Bonnie and Clyde once talked about how growing up when people got shot in movies they would grab their chest and fall down. It never made sense to him. “Getting shot is not a sanitized event.” Mangold seems to believe the same thing about superhero movies. When super-powered super humans get in fights with people who are only human, it is not a sanitized event.

There are times where Logan and Charles talk to each other with a brutal honesty laced with deep affection. Like an old married couple, they talk as if nobody else was even paying attention. Stewart and Jackman have never been better as these characters. There are a loss and a melancholy regret to their performance.

The newcomer Dafne Keen as Laura is just astounding. The way she acts with her eyes is equal to her co-stars. I often bemoan when people watch movies within movies because so often the movie the characters are watching is better than the one I am. But here there is a moment where Charles and Laura watch George Stevens’s Shane. Mangold holds his camera both on Charles and Laura as they watch the movie and on the movie itself.

It says a lot about a movie when you can say how much you loved watching two characters watch a movie. Charles recounts his time as a child and tells her about the first time he saw Shane. Logan in the background listening in. It’s such a beautiful moment without so much as a gratuitous moment of business. Their faces say it all.

There’s a melancholy feeling throughout the film. Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine for 17 years. While over the years Wolverine movies have been less than stellar, Jackman was always great. Jackman, more than any other actor, has never shied away from his love of the character that made him famous. Even going so far as to sing it out loud and proud as he hosted the Oscars.

Jackman’s performance in Logan is the performance we always knew he was capable of. His Logan is a regretful, emotionally scarred man who finds himself closer to the end of his life than to the beginning. His face full of wrinkles, gray hair, and puffy skin is fascinating to watch. In some ways, he channels John Wayne himself with the way he hangs to the back of the scene. He allows his presence to dominate without ever having to say a word or move to the foreground.

Logan more than any other superhero movie, even Deadpool, is not for kids. It may not even be for young adults. Its themes are clear, but it never attempts to answer them. This might frustrate the younger set who tend to believe there must be clear answers for everything. It’s a deeply affecting movie full of sadness, love, vitality, armored tanks, mad scientists, and mutants. It’s wild, and it’s feral like its main character and gives no fucks much like Logan himself.

Image courtesy of 20th Century FOX

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