Logan is a powerful piece of blockbuster cinema, an R-rated feature film that recognises the distinction between “adult” and “mature.”
Logan is unashamedly a comic book movie. There is no getting around that. It features all manner of fantastic trappings, from Charles Xavier’s telepathy to self-driving trucks to clones to cyborgs. Logan is a film that revels in its superhero trappings, in particular the genre’s tendency to appropriate imagery and iconography from wider popular culture to fashion something unique and distinct. Logan is a superhero post-apocalyptic western road movie, and is unapologetic about that.
However, Logan never lets any of that get in the way of what is essentially a very intimate and personal story about a surrogate family unit and what it means to be a parent in a cruel and uncaring world. Logan is very much character-driven, using a very simple story to delve into its characters in a way that feels earned and nuanced. As much as Logan is proud of its more outlandish elements, it never allows them to crowd out a simple story about growing up and growing old.
Logan is a superb piece of cinema, one that knows when to go quiet and when to go loud, approaching its central character with considerable empathy and dignity.
It has become customary to discuss contemporary films in the context of the modern political climate. There is simply no way around it. After all, the current President of the United States and the shock of Brexit represent such a shattering of cultural and social norms that they reverberate through popular culture. It is impossible to escape Donald Trump, even sneaking to the cinema to watch a two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie about a dude with knives in his knuckles.
Part of this is a reflection of the anxiety working its way through popular culture, the way that race relations and immigration have become hot-button issues that cannot be escaped. There is a certain amount of merit to this, to asking how giving the angry white stoicism of Manchester by the Sea or the romantic white nostalgia of La La Land play in a political climate that was radically different from that in which they were produced. It is human nature to search out reasons and patterns in the world, and there is a lot of merit to that.
However, there is a lot of Logan that feels rooted in this particular moment. The film was produced in 2016, and feels anchored in that cultural anxiety in a number of ways that stretch beyond the obvious. After all, Logan all but invites the audience to reflect on what the film has to say about contemporary America. It is a story that begins with an illegal Mexican immigrant pleading with our hero for help, features a key sequence which relies on a broken desert fence, and plays into the broader themes of the X-Men franchise about race and otherness.
Still, there is more to it than that. Logan unfolds in 2029, a little over a decade from the present day. This obviously provides a nice framework for the story’s funereal tone, with Logan seeming much older than his last appearances in X-Men: Days of Future Past or X-Men: Apocalypse and Professor Charles Xavier in retirement at the age of “f$%kin’ ninety.” Indeed, the pseudo-futuristic setting invites comparison to other post-apocalyptic stories and even the franchise’s long-standing affinity for “bad futures.”
However, what is most striking about the future as presented in Logan is the fact that it is not explicitly post-apocalyptic. The world has not died, and society has not collapsed into roving bands of murderers. The title character now operates a limousine service along the Mexican border, revealing that this hellish future still plays host to drunken fratboys in suits chanting “U.S.A!!!” and bachelorette parties out for a good time. Oklahoma is still a functioning city, and borders between nation states still exist. The world has not died, consumed in atomic fire.
Instead, the tragedy of the future presented in Logan is one of wasted potential. The version of 2029 reflected in Logan is a very wry and self-aware reference to the tease in the original X-Men. After all, that story was set in the hazy and undefined “not-too-distant future.” Released at the turn of the millennium, the original X-Men suggested that the future was one of infinite possibilities in which everything might change. The original X-Men spoke to that unconscious certainty that the future would be different, that things would change.
In its opening act, Logan reveals that this belief was sorely mistaken. The radical change promised by X-Men never materialised. The franchise promised that “mutants” would change the world, but the true horror of Logan lies in the fact that they did not. Mutants faded into history, disappearing from sight and from consciousness. They were not the next step in evolution as teased by Charles Xavier in X-Men: First Class. They were an evolutionary blip, a candle extinguished in an evolutionary nanosecond.
There is something harrowing in this idea, a grim reminder that progress is not a given. Evolution does not move in straight lines, whether in a biological or a sociological sense. Sometimes things change for the better, sometimes they change for the worst. Sometimes, things remain pretty much the same as they are, even if that is far from ideal. There is something quite powerful about that idea at this exact cultural moment, at a point in time in which an entire generation has come to realise that things do not always get better and that change is often suffocated.
In its own way, the apocalypse presented in Logan is existential in nature. It eschews the bombast and power of conventional apocalyptic narratives that at least offer the potential to upturn the existing social structures and the potential that something worthwhile might possibly be built in the ruins of the world. Instead, Logan suggests that the world limps on in life support, suffering and whimpering. Indeed, the mutants are not murdered by villains or massacred by the government; according to characters, “they just disappeared.”
There is no epic narrative. Unlike other stories about the challenges facing mutantkind, there is no sense of scale or scope. There is no mutant registration, as threatened in X-Men. There are no mutant hunting robots, as teased in Days of Future Past. There is no killer virus, no variation of the “Legacy” virus that caused so much trouble in nineties comic books. There is no all-powerful mutant whispering “no more mutants”, as in House of M. There is no war for with other evolutionary off-shoots, as in Inhumans vs. X-Men. It seems mutants just… fizzled out.
The future presented in Logan is very much an extrapolation of the present. In earlier X-Men films, the United States government and the military industrial complex were treated as enemies of the people, and potential oppressors; Senator Robert Kelly or General William Stryker. In Logan, it is repeatedly suggested that the real enemy is commercialism run amok. Logan pits its central characters against “the Reavers”, a bunch of bounty hunters working for omniglobal mega-corporation Transigen.
Repeatedly, Logan eschews the traditional mythology-driven set-up of such superhero narratives. Donald Pierce and the Reavers are very much comic book characters, but they rank firmly in the lower tier of X-Men villains and Logan affords them no particular respect. Indeed, Boyd Holbrook’s Donald Pierce is especially memorable as a comic book villain because the film goes so far out of its way to emasculate and diminish him. Pierce is constantly retreating, or slipping, or falling, or being incapacitated.
Holbrook does good work in the role, but Pierce works so well because both Holbrook and Mangold eschew genre conventions in defining the character. Pierce is undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, with his gold tooth and his sunglasses, but he is also a pathetic individual. He is certainly nothing on par with Sabretooth or the Silver Samurai. He probably couldn’t even compete with the grounded chessmaster version of Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. Despite his cybernetic implants, Pierce is presented as the most banal form of evil.
The major villains of Logan are relatively anonymous. Transigen has not roots in the larger X-Men mythology, despite the teaser tying them to Nathaniel Essex at the end of Apocalypse. Their name is instead thematic, with Logan forced to confront how transigent the mythic mutant superhero narrative really was. When Richard E. Grant reveals himself as a major antagonist, Logan makes a point of avoiding any obvious nods to X-Men mythology. Grant is not playing Abraham Cornelius or Nathaniel Essex.
There is something very powerful in the way that Logan looks at the world, watching the potential for hope and change extinguished as the world dies by inches rather than as part of some insanely complicated supervillain scheme. After all, there is a fascinating second-act diversion in which Logan and his fellow travellers wander into the lives of a small rural family. Logan finds his own narrative playing out in miniature, as the family finds itself at war with the smaller “Canewood” corporation. Logan’s struggle is not superheroic. It is common.
Logan repeatedly suggests that the title character is no longer necessary. In a world without mutants or supervillains, what point does a superhero serve? In fact, redundancy is one of the strongest and most potent recurring themes of the film. Logan marvels at the “autotrucks” that drive without the need for human beings. Touring a farm, he notices gigantic automated harvesters that do the work that used to be reserved for farmers. The world is changing, and there is a sense that mankind itself might be rendered as redundant as mutants have been.
The Reavers underscore this thematic point. These mercenaries have had their limbs replaced by cybernetic implants to render them more effective, although there is also a faint suggestion that staff dealing with people who have knives in their knuckles are liable to need the occasionally replacement arm. The Reavers were explicitly designed by Transigen as a replacement for the idea of mutant soldiers, a very literal supplanting of the biological with the technological, flesh and bone giving way to cold metal and mechanical gears.
(Of course, they also serve as an extension of the original “Weapon X” programme. Although seldom discussed in these terms, Logan’s transformation into Wolverine was also a fusion of the biological and the technological. After all, the character’s skeleton is coated in an unbreakable metal that protrudes from beneath his skin. The Reavers are just more explicit in their cyberpunk stylings, placing their metallic enhancements over (or sometimes even in place of) their flesh and blood.)
As much as any of the plot focusing on immigration and persecution, this recurring theme feels very much of the cultural moment. After all, much has been written about how the current polarised political climate is driven by a fear that industrial labour is being left behind in an era of automation and technological advancement. Contemporary society will have to confront the possibility that manual labour may be redundant within a generation, a challenge that is very much beyond the scope of contemporary political discourse.
Logan plays with this idea of literal and existential redundancy, suggesting a world in which even superheroes have found themselves surplus to requirement. Logan suggests a world in which mankind has refused to confront this reality and come to terms with it, suggesting a slow rot (or a creeping apocalypse) that threatens to consume the planet. It is a cancer that eats away at the fictional future version of America presented in Logan.
After all, the superhero genre provides a compelling exploration of the American psyche, of how the nation sees itself and how it relates to its own fears and uncertainties. It could legitimately be argued that The Dark Knight was the first truly great post-9/11 film, while that trauma plays out time and time again across films like The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World and Man of Steel. Superheroes are expressions of American identity and ideals, and Logan understands that.
Indeed, there are points at which the movie’s symbolism seems almost cheekily heavy-handed. Sitting in the middle of the desert, unable to come to terms with his own sins, Charles Xavier suffers from a hazily-defined neurological condition. The past and the future blur for the powerful psychic. At one point, he recalls the climax of the original X-Men. Logan corrects him, “The Statue of Liberty was a long time ago.” At another point, Logan finds unlikely hope at “the Liberty Motel.” Of course, even the sign is broken. Liberty seems almost lost.
Logan is a film that understands the mythology in which it operates. One of the most endearing aspects of the larger X-Men film franchise is the weird sense of discontinuity that exists within its shared universe. Obviously, these are the same characters played by the same actors, but it is never clear how the pieces fit together. How can The Wolverine lead into Days of Future Past? How does Apocalypse integrate with X-Men II? What about X-Men III, which exists in a state of limbo between The Wolverine and Days of Future Past?
At a point where other franchises feel suffocated by the demands of the shared universe, the X-Men films are almost cheekily subversive in their refusal to impose a strict house style or continuity. In some ways, the franchise is an excellent reflection of the source material. Logan is consciously ambiguous about how it fits in continuity, being impossible to reconcile with Days of Future Past and seemingly also at odds with the events of X-Men III.Then again, by this point in the franchise, a certain amount of discontinuity is to be expected. But Logan relishes it.
There is something to be said for the way that Fox’s ownership of the X-Men franchise has found new life through abandoning attempts to impose a rigid continuity. Deadpool is arguably one such example, existing entirely at odds with X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. However, Legion is arguably a much better and more recent example of this loose approach to continuity, with the story cleverly and cheekily riffing on X-Men mythology without feeling beholden to the particulars of continuity.
Like Logan, Legion exists in a weird and hazy continuity. It draws upon the iconography of the franchise, albeit it in a relaxed and abstract way. In Legion, concepts and ideas clearly stand in for other concepts and ideas. Syd Barrett is very much a riff on Rogue; Melanie Bird borrows certain details from Emma Frost; Summerville evokes Xavier’s School for Gifted Youths, incorporating the name of the classic Summers family. Logan does something similar. The film even heaps on metafiction, revealing an in-universe X-Men comic book.
In one of the film’s most inspired touches, the plot is largely driven by this comic book and the in-universe mythology of “the Wolverine.” There is a sense that Logan is not just a retired superhero, but also a figure who exists in a world between our own and something altogether stranger. The road trip that drives the plot is rooted in these old comic books, a classic story that finds the X-Men wandering in search of “Eden… or the End.” Such symbolism could seem heavy-handed, if Logan weren’t so aware of its own identity and sense of self. The ambiguity is deliberate, and effective.
“Maybe a quarter of it happened,” Logan concedes, leafing through a comic book. “But not like this.” There is something decidedly cheeky in this refusal to bow to the demands of a shared universe, asking the audience to accept that it “kinda” or “sorta” fits within an existing framework without any real context or clarification. It is a very flexible approach, on that adds to the mythic tone of the film. Despite the fact that he lives in a world without heroes, Logan is still shrouded in mystery and myth.
In fact, Logan is charmingly vague about its own internal continuity. The film very cleverly and very shrewdly eschews heavy-handed exposition, trusting the audience to follow along without devoting voice-over or clumsy explanations to filling in all the gaps. It is never explained exactly what happened to Charles Xavier, but enough context is provided for the audience to work it out. It is never explicitly stated how his “seizures” are affecting the real world, but the film trusts the audience to follow the internal logic.
At the same time, Logan draws heavily upon the imagery and iconography of the film franchise and the character’s continuity in a way that does not require encyclopedic knowledge, but which adds a sense of gravity and closure to the tale. It is never explicitly stated that Logan comes from Canada over the course of the film. However, while this information is not necessary to understand the plot, it lends mythic a mythic quality to his mission to cross the border; it contextualises Logan as the grand hero returning home.
Logan repeated draws upon the more memorable beats of previous films. A mission to save a close friend from a brutal mercenary attack plays out like a slow motion version of the mansion attack from X-Men II, with the camera lingering on the consequences of that violence this time around. Similarly, the encounter with a farming family plays as an homage to a sequence from X-Men: Origins – Wolverine that plays much better than the original material. Even a forest showdown recalls a memorable action beat from X-Men III.
The characters are consciously moving to close their larger arcs, a very effective way of bringing closure to this grand saga without leaning too heavily on pre-existing continuity. “None of this seems familiar to you?” Charlex Xavier teases at one point during their unlikely roadtrip. “Driving in a car with a young mutant, on your way to meet a group of other mutants?” Charles is, of course, alluding to the introduction of Wolverine in X-Men, driving in a car with Rogue before being interrupted by Magneto’s henchmen.
At the same time, there is actual movement and development to these arcs, rather than just a sense or repetition or playing the greatest hits. Logan feels like it offers linear progression to its central character, allowing Logan to become something more than he was at the start of the franchise. Logan was redeemed by Charles Xavier over X-Men and X-Men II, and Logan offers him a similar opportunity to redeem another character in turn. It is a character arc suggested by his interactions with young!Xavier and young!Magneto in Days of Future Past, but fully developed here.
In some ways, Logan feels like a rich remix of the source material. There are certainly shades of Jason Aaron’s interpretation of the character to be seen in the version presented in Logan, suggesting that Logan is a logical successor to Charles Xavier. Aaron mapped out a clear arc for the character over the course of his work on Weapon X, Wolverine and Wolverine and the X-Men, suggesting Wolverine had finally grown from a reckless student to an unlikely father figure. This approach to Wolverine represents a clear evolution for the character, an example of organic growth.
Logan is also notable for introducing the character of Laura Kinney, perhaps better known as “X-23.” In keeping with the X-Men continuity pastiche of Logan, Laura is a character who was first introduced in the spin-off animated series X-Men: Evolution by Craig Kyle before being brought into continuity in NYX and later Kyle’s run (with Christopher Yost) on New X-Men. As far as comic book characters go, Laura is a relatively recent addition to the mythos; she first appeared on television in August 2003 and in comics in February 2004.
Laura is an interesting character to feature so heavily in Logan, because of what she represents. Laura is one of the vanguard of a wave of twenty-first century comic book characters designed to diversify the comic book line by serving as the inheritor of a classic superhero mantle. After all, the comic book universes of Marvel and DC were established towards the middle of the twentieth century. The classic comic book characters are predominantly white and male, a product of the times in which they were created. The twenty-first century has seen efforts to remedy that.
Laura is one such example, effectively a female teenage Wolverine. There are countless others. Brian Michael Bendis introduced Miles Morales as an African-Latino Spider-Man, in response to Donald Glover’s frustration at never being able to play the role. In recent years, Marvel have made a clear effort to diversify their line. Captain America has been replaced by a black man; Thor has been recast as a woman; Iron Man has become a black woman. Laura is part of this effort, recently headlining All-New Wolverine, a comic with a very self-explanatory title.
Logan is interesting in part because it grapples rather explicitly with this idea. The Dark Knight Rises touched on the idea with its exploration of the relationship between Bruce Wayne and John Blake, but Christopher Nolan made a point to avoid more explicit exploration of the concept of superhero legacy. Barring a fairly overt nod in the closing montage, John Blake was clearly framed in a manner distinct from other comic book successors to the mantle of the Batman. It is nice to see some of these broader shifts in comic book storytelling reflected on screen.
However, Logan draws upon more than just X-Men mythology. In many ways, superhero narratives represent a clear evolution in terms of pulp storytelling. The western is a stock comparison for superhero stories, for a number of reasons; the obvious thematic overlap leaning of American individualism, the ubiquity of the genre in multiplexes, the use of the genre as a recurring commentary on national identity and character. The superhero did not emerge from nothing, it was the result of a very linear and clear development process within pulp fiction.
One of the most compelling facets of Wolverine lies in the way that he so perfectly embodies this idea of the superhero as an American cultural icon. Wolverine first appeared as a villain in the pages of The Incredible Hulk written by Len Wein, but the character was developed by Chris Claremont as the breakout character in Uncanny X-Men. Claremont suggested of Wolverine as the next step forward from a samurai or a cowboy. Wolverine was a grizzled and cynical loner with a bad attitude and a chip on his shoulder, but a heart of gold.
In fact, some of the most iconic Wolverine stories play with the thematic connection between Logan and those earlier pulp heroes. The character’s first solo comic book was Wolverine, a four-issue miniseries from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller that took the character to Japan. Claremont reinforced that connection with his follow-up miniseries, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. Mark Millar wrote Old Man Logan as a riff on Unforgiven in the Marvel Universe, a story that very clearly informs Logan in a number of interesting ways.
James Mangold built upon the idea of Logan as a twenty-first century American samurai in The Wolverine, taking the character to Japan and embroiling him in a weird hybrid gangster sci-fi samurai story. Logan provides the flipside to that coin, suggesting a thematic duology. The film positions Wolverine as an archetypal western antihero. (Although, to be fair, the character’s samurai sword can plainly be seen hanging in the ruins of his home.) Wolverine is very much a loner and an outcast who just wants a quiet plot of dirt, but cannot avoid the call to heroism.
Logan riffs mercilessly on western iconography. At one point, characters take a time-out from their adventures to watch Shane. Characters flee into the wilderness to escape the clutches of sinister all-powerful corporations with private armies. At another point, a villain is forced to watch the heroes escape his clutches as a train blocks his path. Despite the fact that Wolverine is a hero with knives in his knuckles, the gun is an important recurring thematic image across the film. Logan even meddles in an honest-to-goodness land-grab.
The theme of redemption echoes across the film, that most archetypal of western narratives. Logan wonders whether he might ever be a good man, while Charles Xavier wrestles with a horrific transgression and Caliban seeks to atone for past misdeeds. Logan is populated by characters who are broken and dysfunctional, brought together by a desire to escape their past and to find something better (or at least something new) on the frontier.
To be fair, Logan also draws very heavily from all manner of pop culture. One early action sequence is heavily inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road, which makes sense given the desert setting and the apocalyptic tone. The George Miller homage even gives way to a plot point lifted from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome at the climax. The idea of an inter-generational road trip driven by comic book mythology feels like a nod to Midnight Special. Logan is a heady stew of pop culture references and nods.
However, there is more to it than this. There is a conscious effort to position the story and characters in a broader context. When the classic X-Men supporting character Caliban appears, the story employs the character in a way that more consciously harks back to his namesake in The Tempest rather than to his origin as a member of the Moorlocks under the pen of Chris Claremont in the pages of Uncanny X-Men. This is a film that recognises the joy of the superhero genre as a heady and mythic quality.
However, Logan is most effective in its meditations upon violence. Logan is an R-rated film, and it certainly exploits that age restriction to the best of its ability; there is a lot of swearing and a little nudity. However, there is also an absurd amount of violence and bloodshed. It is tempting to dismiss this violence as exploitative, to write off this blood as gratuitous. However, that misses the point of the exercise. Logan is a superhero film that is fascinated with the consequences of violence.
Repeatedly over the course of the film, the audience is shown the aftermath of violence before they are provided with any context. The audience is reintroduced to Charles Xavier hiding out in the desert, rambling incoherently, without any explanation for why he is there. When Logan meets with a woman who needs his help, it takes him a long time to notice that she is bleeding profusely from her arm. Logan frequently arrives too late to the scene of horrific violence, studying the aftermath of brutal carnage.
More than any other X-Men movie, Logan ruminates on the bodycount that the heroes leave in their wake. One of the film’s most powerful action sequences unfolds in slow motion, as Logan effectively (and justifiably, to be clear) murders his way through a bunch of goons who are completely unable to defend themselves. At another point, Logan councils a fellow killing machine on what she has done. “You have to live with that,” he assures her. “They were bad people,” she insists. He simply responds, “All the same.”
More than that, the film returns repeatedly to the idea that time inflicts its own violence upon the characters. More than any other superhero film, Logan is fascinated with age and maturity in a way that evokes formative genre works like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. Indeed, if superhero narratives mythologise the everyday experience, Logan is particularly fascinated with the way that ageing changes a person and turns them into something alien and known even to themselves.
Charles Xavier and Logan might be superheroes, but they also grow old. Charles Xavier finds himself confined to a small shack in the middle of the desert, as an unspecified illness eats away at his mind and he succumbs to dementia. Logan finds himself healing slower. He is difficulty getting his claws all of the way out. There is a sense that even mythic figures must face erosion and decay, that entropy is a universal constant that cannot be vanquished in a fistfight or a CGI-driven finale. In a very real way, Logan pits the protagonist against his own body.
At two hours and twenty minutes, Logan is a very long film for such a straightforward narrative. However, the film justifies its length by investing in these characters. Hugh Jackman has always offer charm and depth in the role of Wolverine, but Logan is designed to capitalise on the stoicism and reflection that Jackman brings to the role. The X-Men franchise has never used Patrick Stewart anywhere near as well. Even newcomer Dafne Keen does superb work as the child who wanders into Logan’s life.
Logan is a charmingly low-key summer blockbuster, one that works in large part for eschewing end-of-the-world narratives in favour of low-key character drama. It is a superhero blockbuster about ageing and maturing, without ever feeling crowded or over-stuffed. It is a fantastic tribute to Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s seventeen years on the X-Men franchise, and a very strong start to the summer season.