The American frontier is a formative myth, one that permeates popular culture.
The cowboy is an American icon, as much as the gangster or the superhero. The archetype embodies a set of ideals that inform the country’s perception of itself. Indeed, part of the charm of Logan is seeing that archetype evolution rendered explicit. If The Wolverine posited its central character as a lost samurai who had evolved into a superhero, then James Mangold’s follow-up positions the character as a lost cowboy in a western wasteland. The third and final film in this series has been described as “Unforgiven, with claws.” It is a label that fits. A brand that sticks.
Logan even offers its closing judgment on the character by quoting directly from Shane, a very literal example of the superhero genre quoting from westerns. Mutants are not just an evolution of mankind, they also represent a storytelling evolution. Of course, the western has been evolving for quite some time. Many prognosticators announced the death of the western some time in the seventies, perhaps coinciding with the loss of faith in American institutions (and perhaps mythology) coinciding with the twin blows of Watergate and Vietnam.
Of course, the western film never really went away. There were always westerns lurking in the background, even after Heaven’s Gate was erected as gigantic tombstone to the genre in 1980. Pale Rider, Silverado, Dances with Wolves, Unforgiven, Tombstone. However, the many of the more successful (and impactful) westerns of the era tended to have a very mournful and funeral tone to them. There is also something to be said about the success of playful or deconstructed westerns, from Young Guns to The Three Amigos to City Slickers.
Many prognosticators would argue that superhero films came to take the ideological place of the western, accessible entertainment for large audiences built on an American archetype. However, the twenty-first century found the western creeping back into cultural awareness. This took many forms; the neo-westerns of films like No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water; the self-aware Tarantino scripts for Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight; the prestige picture charm of The Revenant; the cultural smash of Westworld.
There were any number of interesting observations that might be made about these films. Most obviously, there was a recurring sense of horror to these reimaginings of the American west, whether reflected in the human-like form of Anton Chigurh or the zombie movie aesthetic of Ira Glass’ journey back to civilisation. However, there was also a very strong apocalyptic vibe to these modern westerns. Many classic westerns lamented the death of wilderness crushed beneath the heel of advancing civilisation. Modern westerns seem to fear the opposite.
To be fair, this is a slight generalisation. There are plenty of classic westerns about the breakdown of an established social order, with perhaps Blazing Saddles coming to mind as the best example of an established community disrupted by an outside element. However, by and large, the western genre is built upon the foundational myth of the European settlers imposing civilisation upon a chaotic and untamed frontier. This is the subtext of the classic westerns vilifying Native Americans, from Northwest Passage to The Searchers.
In many of the later period westerns, it seems that the cowboys and outlaws are just as likely to find themselves disenfranchised as the Native Americans. Shane comes to mind, with its closing reflection that “there aren’t any more guns in the valley.” In The Searchers, Ethan cannot be a part of the family he has restores. The cowboy is himself rendered as an outcast, a relic that served a pragmatic purpose in bringing order to the chaos of the wilderness, but whose violence and bloodshed has paved the way for civilisation to take root.
Even the more contemplative and mindful classic westerns tend to suggest that civilisation is pushing westwards, although they are perhaps more cynical about what “civilisation” means. The revisionist spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone come to mind, candidly acknowledging that “civilisation” is a loaded term referring to the unchecked industrialisation and capitalism that the European Settlers have imported. This is literalised in Once Upon a Time in the West, with the last cowboys riding off into the distance just as the (literal train) engine of progress arrives on the homestead.
This perspective makes a great deal of sense. The United States was still a young country when these westerns were produced. Many of these classic films were produced in the interregnum between the end of the Second World War and the turn of the Vietnam War, at a point when America had emerged as a major global power but was still unsure of exactly what that meant. Most of these westerns would have been released before the country’s bicentennial celebrations. Time marches onwards.
The revisionist superhero western Logan arrives at a very different time in the life cycle of the United States. There are obvious connections to be made with the nascent Trump administration, but the film was in production before he took office. Instead, the film reflects the general mood of early twenty-first century America, honing in on themes that only became more pronounced and more important in the gap between the end of production and the release of the film. It is after the Cold War, after more than half a century of the United States as a dominant social power.
Logan is very much a western in style and tone. Indeed, the film arguably owes more to James Mangold’s work on 3:10 to Yuma as it does to X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. There are bounty hunters, with their posses. There is a long chase interrupted by an even longer train. There is desert. There are two grizzled old men, unsure whether the world still has a place for them. In a particularly subtly touch, both men dream of escaping to the water, perhaps hoping for a peace evocative of the Pacific Ocean as the limit of westward expansion.
Logan even quotes extensively from Shane. There is an extended sequence in the middle of the film when Charles Xavier and Laura catch the movie playing in a hotel. Charles talks about the movie with some sense of nostalgia, recalling his first time seeing it on the big screen. There is a sense that Shane represents a bygone age, both in the ideas that it represents and as a cultural object of itself. Later, Laura quotes explicitly from the film in her eulogy for Logan, giving him a send-off steeped in cowboy iconography.
Undoubtedly, Logan’s character arc is lifted directly from a cowboy film. His life in retirement evokes that of William Munney in Unforgiven, right down to his repeated protests that he is not the man that he used to be. His character arc even mirrors that of eponymous character in Shane, leading a bunch of children towards a paradise (literally named “Eden”) that lies beyond his own reach. There are no more claws in the valley. In a potent bit of symbolism, he fails to cross the border into Canada, the place where his journey began. He cannot go home again.
However, while Logan’s central character arc is lifted more-or-less directly from a western, the broader thematic arcs are consciously inverted. Logan is not a western about a renegade cowboy who finds himself redundant as civilisation marches upon him. Logan never suggests that the world has become too civilised or too ordered to allow for an aberration like Logan. In fact, the film suggests pretty much the exact opposite. Logan insists that the world (or the United States, at least) is too bleak and too cynical to allow for a real old-fashioned hero.
The future of Logan suggests a world in which civilisation is in decay, if not outright collapse. However, it is far removed from the apocalyptic meltdown of films like Mad Max: Fury Road, however heavy an influence that film might be on this vision. There are still hen parties and frat trips. Roadside service stations still operate. Oklahoma still exists. However, there is a recurring suggestion that the institutions of government have broken down, eroded by the interests of the same capitalist corporations that pressed west in those earlier epics.
When the Reavers show up to apprehend Laura, they are supported by Mexican authorities. However, it is quite clear who is in charge of the operation, with Donald Pierce even interrupting the senior officer on site to make his speech. Similarly, Xander Rice makes use of a military base to house the dead following a botched military operation on American soil. When a military official insists that Rice cannot operate like that on American soil, Rice brushes him off. There is a sense that the nation state that emerged in those classic westerns is now slipping away.
(Interestingly, the borders in Logan seem suspiciously porous. There are early shots of Logan crossing border control with a minimum amount of fuss, getting waved by casually by officials. Later on in the film, Logan is able to escape into the United States driving a bullet-riddled limousine and escorting a well-known figure whose brain has been categorised as “a weapon of mass destruction.” The border between the United States and Canada is just as elastic, with no official policing. Instead, the border is enforced by a private militia overseen by a shadowy corporate entity.)
There is something apocalyptic in all of this, imagining the collapse of a civilisation in a manner less sensationalist or dramatic than classic post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man or Planet of the Apes. Logan does not wander through the atomic ashes of a sunken world, the ruins of a civilisation devastated by nuclear bomb or viral plague. Instead, Logan imagines the collapse of civilisation in more mundane terms, the breakdown of social order that is so subtle mankind can still sleepwalk through familiar routines and indulge the trappings of civilisation without its substance.
This is a recurring preoccupation of the film. “The Statue of Liberty was a long time ago,” Logan advises Xavier early in the film, specifically referencing the events of X-Men but also providing an important thematic framework to a movie about immigrants traveling through a hostile United States. When Logan goes to visit Gabriella, he visits the Liberty motel. Tellingly, a few of the letters in the sign are broken. This is no world for liberty. The power of superhero movies lies in their symbolism, in their ability to convey core themes through overt imagery.
This breakdown of social order in Logan is a recurring theme of many contemporary westerns, whether set in the present day or the distant past. Hell or High Water suggests that the civilisation built by the white settlers is being brushed aside as brutally as they brushed aside that of the Native Americans, the mortgage crisis serving as a twenty-first-century land. No Country for Old Men confronts Ed Tom Bell with a world that he no longer recognises. The Hateful Eight imagines the collapse of civilisation in an isolated haberdashery, if it ever existed.
As such, Logan positions itself as a bookend to Shane, not so much quoting the film as recontextualising its themes. Shane was the story of a cowboy rendered redundant in an increasingly ordered world, while Logan is the tale of a hero out of place in an increasingly chaotic world.