Logan Finds the Emotion Missing in Superhero Films

Logan,” the newest film in the “X-Men” series, offers something few superhero films to date have been able to provide: a sense of emotional resonance. It’s a refreshing comic book movie seemingly without precedent. At a time when the genre is full of creaky clichés and tired heroes, “Logan” is revelatory.

The movie’s title comes from the given name of the superhero known as Wolverine. In the parlance of Marvel comics, Logan is a mutant. He has knife-like claws that protrude from his knuckles when he’s threatened. More importantly, he’s blessed with the ability to heal incredibly fast—his wounds disappear within seconds. Logan’s healing abilities have allowed him to age incredibly slowly (he was born in the mid 19th century).

But at the opening of “Logan,” the titular character (Hugh Jackman) has suddenly started to feel the impact of the years. He’s wearier now, scarred and frail, with a limp. His once-dark hair is speckled with gray. Something has gone wrong. When Logan wakes up to find some hoodlums trying to steal his hubcaps at the beginning of the film, he ends up (literally) slicing them to pieces, but not without being wounded in ways previously impossible. His healing abilities are disappearing, returning him to a state of mortal weakness.

After the fight with the car thieves, the details of Logan’s world begin to take shape. It’s the not-too-distant 2029, and all mutants have seemingly been eradicated. None have been born in years, and the X-Men are all dead. The only survivors are Logan, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino who cares for Xavier and who has the ability to locate other mutants. The movie’s version of a future United States is an eerie vision of what the country might look like if it follows its current political path for years to come. For most people, everyday life is perfectly normal; it’s the marginalized people (like mutants) who truly suffer in this version of America.

“Logan” introduces a new mutant character, Laura (Dafne Keen). The 11-year-old is seemingly the only new mutant born in decades, and her special abilities are nearly identical to Logan’s. He’s tasked with delivering her to Eden, a community in North Dakota for mutants that may not even exist. But the journey north from Logan’s hiding place in Mexico becomes complicated when paramilitary forces pursue them across the country in an attempt to recapture Laura for nefarious purposes.

And then there’s Charles Xavier. He’s a far different version of the character than has been shown in any of the previous “X-Men” films. Now in his 90s, Xavier is suffering from some kind of dementia that not only diminishes his memory, but severely limits his ability to control his own telekinetic powers. He suffers from occasional seizures that are (poorly) controlled by medicine that is increasingly hard for Logan to find. These seizures affect everyone within a couple hundred feet of Xavier and are potentially fatal.

Much has been made of the violence in “Logan,” and it’s certainly a bloody film, but only compared to most superhero movies. Hugh Jackman’s previous X-Men outings featured mostly bloodless fights that underplayed the destruction possible by someone with giant razors attached to his hands. This time, the blood and shredded flesh aren’t sanitized, but compared to R-rated action thrillers or horror films, the movie’s gore is still relatively tame, though essential. The Wolverine character has always existed at the crossroads between an easily aroused blood lust and a desire to abandon violence (and the world that fosters it). It’s necessary for the audience to see the true extent of the damage Logan metes out in order to also comprehend his desire to leave it all behind.

That internal conflict was what made Wolverine the most interesting of all the X-Men and guaranteed that he was the only character to have his own series of solo films. “Logan” is directed by James Mangold, who previously made “The Wolverine” with Jackman, the strong follow-up to the execrable “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” That film dealt with Logan’s loss of his friends and loved ones, and the current film continues to explore that theme. This time, though, it’s Xavier that Logan is losing.

Death is clearly not far off for Xavier, and Stewart masterfully plays a man wracked by guilt and struggling to stay afloat in his own tempestuous mind. There’s a bittersweet moment in the film when Logan refers to Xavier as his father when breaking bread with strangers. It makes text what has always been subtext in the X-Men films, that Xavier was always the father figure for his many students. Logan was more of a wayward child, but Xavier’s slow descent finally legitimizes their familial relationship and puts Logan in the caretaker role.

More than any other superhero film, “Logan” is an intensely sad film. Having seen one grandfather made unrecognizable by the dementia that would eventually kill him and now watching another struggle with its early symptoms, it was hard to divorce my own reality from Stewart’s performance as a weakened Xavier (Matt Zoller Seitz writes movingly about a similar experience). It’s hard to think of anyone who has starred in superhero movies in the last two decades who commands the kind of emotional connection that Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman do with their respective characters, and the film uses that connection to its benefit.

“Logan” most closely resembles Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, both in its more adult themes and acknowledgement of the darker side of humanity. But Nolan’s films only partly succeeded: they were beautifully made, and presented a version of Bruce Wayne that was a refreshing departure from the campiness of earlier performances, but they never bored deeply enough into his heart. We could be amazed by the audacity of Nolan’s vision, but we could never love his Batman. “Logan” cares enough about its survivors to share that affection with us.

“Logan” is often brutal, but affecting in an exhilarating way. After the emotional turmoil of seeing the film, it’s hard to leave the theater without the cathartic sense of having seen something new, something special. Mangold, Hackman and Stewart had to slog through a series of mostly failed films to get to the point where they could make something as powerful as this movie, but it finally paid off. Upcoming comic book films should be on watch—everything they do will now be compared to the successes of “Logan.”

Watch the trailer below:

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