Much has been said about Logan. Many have praised it, discussed its R-rating, and noted that it’s Hugh Jackman’s last turn as a character he’s played for the past seventeen years. The trailers for this film raised my hopes high and the end product more than delivered. But those expecting just another entry in the X-Men franchise will no doubt be disappointed with this unusual film.
Logan a departure from the tried-and-true superhero movie formula, with its pared-down cast, simplified plot, and exploration of some essential questions that have eternally plagued humanity. If this doesn’t sound like X-Men: Days of Future Past, that’s because it’s not. It’s a contemporary western. It’s a character study. And I’d even go so far to say that it’s art.
At their core, westerns are about good versus evil, which is why the classic westerns like High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) still hold up today. Later westerns still explored this theme but moved away from black-and-white morality and served up morally ambiguous leads like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Jackman follows Eastwood’s lead beautifully, presenting us with a man weighing what he’s done against what he must do. Previous X-Men films reveal Logan’s tragic, violent origins and follow his journey to come to terms with his identity. He is gifted with extraordinary destructive power, but chooses to use it for good, as best he can.
Fast-forward to Logan, to the year 2029, where the makeshift family Wolverine built over the years is gone, and the hope that he could change the future for the better has dried up. Gone is the higher calling and the noble causes that Charles Xavier instilled in him. His existence is now about day-to-day survival and dulling the ever-present physical pain that signals his nearing end.
If this sounds unbearably bleak, think of the countless Westerns that begin the same way. The washed-up, once-legendary hero is a mainstay of the genre, as is the introduction of a youth who forces the hero out of his rut and into action again. Enter X-23 (a stellar Dafne Keen), who evokes memories of True Grit‘s Mattie Ross in her ability to keep a grizzled old man in line. While the film (unsurprisingly) doesn’t much indulge in sappy or lighthearted sentimentality, rest assured that it does have its share of laughs and heartwarming moments. Remember another Western mainstay: passing the torch on to the next generation as the old hero rides off into the sunset.
The X-Men films have to date been characterized by an expansive cast of characters and at times convoluted plot-lines (characteristics of stories told across hundreds of comic issues penned by dozens of authors). In Logan, there are big things going on in the background, sinister machinations that threaten the lives of many, but they’re ancillary to the real focus of the film, which is Logan the man. In Logan, we have a flawed individual, extraordinary but fallible, irascible but ultimately caring. We see him at the end of his life, struggling with his mistakes and shortcomings, and seeing his flaws reflected back at him in the form of a young girl. Logan ultimately concerns itself with the fate of this man and this child, which, I think, is what most notably separates it most from the run-of-the-mill “superhero” flick.
Typically, in the Marvel and DC movies we know, the fate of the world is at stake (or at least the fates of hundreds or thousands of lives) and the final act of the film is a big city-destroying showdown that averts the massive crisis du jour. In Logan, we don’t cap things off with a scene of large-scale destruction, nor do we get to know the ultimate fate of the scorched, bleak America of 2029. This is a film set on a much smaller scale, a character study wrapped in a simple narrative. The simplicity of the story (deliver person from Point A to Point B and outrun bad guys) allows the film room to breathe and to ponder some Big Questions.
Humans have always and will always be preoccupied with thoughts of how and when their lives will end. As such, a film about an aging legend facing death is nothing new, but, thanks to the added element of mutant powers, Logan explores this concept through an interesting lens. What happens when a person who is effectively immortal finally starts to succumb to old age and decay? And in the case of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), what does the loss of one’s mind mean to the owner of the most extraordinary mind on the planet?
Fantastical elements aside, Logan tackles age-old questions familiar to anyone with a beating heart. Who are we when we lose what we think defines us? What legacy do our choices leave behind? Will we do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing everything we have? This is why I call this movie artful and even poetic. It raises these difficult questions and explores them, but doesn’t presume to have all the answers. We are left to turn over these questions in our minds after the credits roll, and, really, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Challenge us, make us think? The ability to get at the heart of human existence is what elevates a piece of media and makes it endure throughout the ages.
Logan is no mere “superhero movie.” It’s so much more.