When I was a child making my way through stacks upon stacks of superhero comics, few characters left a mark like Wolverine. Superman was an example of hope that I recognized more as an abstract ideal than something I could meaningfully connect with. Spider-Man, who many kids loved precisely because they could connect with the nerdy high school kid, never quite pulled me in that way. And Batman was cool — the one I most wanted to be — but I still felt like I was reading his stories from afar.
But Wolverine was something altogether different.
A part of that was simply that Wolverine’s bad-ass attitude, claws, and healing powers were fucking cool. But what really drew me in was that Logan, this man without a past (for a while, anyway), was always teetering on the edge. There was so much hurt and anger and confusion brimming just beneath his surface. The other comic book heroes certainly weren’t without their own trauma, but those traumas only seemed to show themselves occasionally and fleetingly. But Logan’s trauma was always there and, in the early days of my reading those X-Men comics, I found it generally gripping. Then my mother died and this was no longer some general thing. It was very specific and very real because in the blink of an eye, hurt and anger and confusion was something I suddenly really connected with. I didn’t want to be Logan, but I wanted to understand how he was able to live with his pain, to live with that mess swirling inside him.
And that’s exactly what director/co-writer James Mangold explores with 2017’s Logan. Early in the film, Logan comments that “the Statue of Liberty was a long time ago, Charles, a long time.” And indeed, Logan is the end to a story started a long time ago (cinematically speaking), back in 2000’s X-Men. Over the span of eighteen years, Hugh Jackman would bare his claws nine times (albeit two appearances were cameos), creating an indelible cinematic character that often rose well above the quality of the film itself. But with this final chapter, Jackman gets to deliver his best performance in something altogether different, a contemplative Western about a broken man who has succumbed to the inevitability of his pain, not realizing that there’s one more redemptive story left to tell.
Ever-so-loosely based on the excellent “Old Man Logan” comics, the film introduces us to a very different Logan than we’ve seen before. This is a Logan who readily gives into his anger, killing some guys just for trying to steal his hubcaps. This is a Logan who no longer cares about helping strangers, who is willing to ditch a small girl because she’s someone else’s trouble. This is a Logan who, like many a Western (anti)hero that came before him, is old, weary, and worn-down. He’s broken physically and emotionally, and seemingly only staying alive (albeit with an adamantium bullet/exit ticket in his pocket) to care for the ailing Charles Xavier.
It’s only when that small girl, Laura (Dafne Keen, in a fierce big-screen debut), reveals her claws that Logan wakes and begins a journey back to the Logan we used to know. And this specific journey is one that, on paper, seems like it shouldn’t work. At various points the film is a family dramedy, a road trip flick, a ’70s-noir reflective character piece, and a futuristic Western with mutant superpowers. It should be a muddled mess, yet it all serves to get Logan to those final moments in the North Dakota mountains.
The real key to those final moments comes earlier, in yet another pastiche where the film feels like an indie drama. Logan, Charles and Laura befriend the Munson family and spend a pleasant and quiet evening (for a while) with them, an evening Charles will later call “the most perfect night I’ve had in very long time.” Charles tells Logan that “this is what life looks like, a home … you still have time.” When Logan protests that the Eden being sought by Laura isn’t real, Charles replies, “it is for Laura, it is for Laura.” Not long after, Charles and his dreams are dead. But they planted a hope in Logan. Even if Logan is beyond being able to hope for himself, he can believe in Laura’s hope, and the hope that this person so very much like him can have a life that goes a better way. This is the hope that is sparked in those North Dakota mountains, as Logan sees Transigen’s drones going after Laura and her friends.
That same portion of the film that sparks Logan’s eventual hope is also the most tragic part of the film. Because Logan is also the final chapter for Charles Xavier (in a perfect final performance from Patrick Stewart), and Charles does not live to see Logan’s final redemption. Early in the film, just as we met a very different Logan, we meet Charles unlike what we’ve seen before. This is a man practically drowning in the type of confused anger that often comes with degenerative brain disease, traits that are all too familiar to those of us who have seen the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It leads to moments of comedy, as those diseases often do, and the man we knew is still there and able to surface from time to time. But it also means that memories come and go, and in Charles’ final moments, just before X-24 fatally stabs him, the cruelest memories come rushing back to Charles:
“You know Logan? This was without a doubt the most perfect night I’ve had in a very long time … but I don’t deserve it, do I? I did something. Something unspeakable. I’ve remembered what happened in Westchester. This is not the first time I’ve hurt people. Until today, I didn’t know. You wouldn’t tell me. So we just kept on running away from it. I think I finally understand you.”
Here in his final moments, Charles comes to understand Logan because he suddenly understands crippling remorse. The kind of pain that you can seemingly only deal with by running from it.
…Jesus Christ, this is supposed to be a comic book movie!
But that’s what this film gets about Logan. They key to the character isn’t that he runs around with mutant abilities, it’s the lifetime he’s suffered because of those abilities. And so Logan doesn’t present itself as a “traditional” comic book movie, although it does offer some stunning action set pieces, including the magnificent Vegas seizure scene and several scenes showcasing an exhilarating and terrifying ferocity from Wolverine and X-23 that we have rarely seen in prior X-Men (or any superhero) films. Instead, Mangold uses the tropes of a comic book movie — “great power…great responsibility,” etc. — to study the concepts of hope and regret.
Earlier in the film, in fact, Mangold makes it clear what story he’s really trying to tell. In a Vegas hotel room, Charles and Laura are watching 1953’s Shane. Look at some snippets of how Roger Ebert described Shane’s main character in his 2000 review:
The movie is conventionally seen as … a lone rider helping a settler hold onto his land in the face of hired thugs. Look a little more carefully and you find that … Shane is touched by the admiration of young Joey…. Yes, on the surface, Shane is the gunfighter who wants to leave his past behind him…. There is a little of the samurai in him, and the medieval knight. He has a code. And yet - there’s something else suggested by his behavior, his personality, his whole tone.
Sound familiar? And of course, as Laura puts Logan to his final rest in the film’s epilogue, she recites the same monologue she heard while watching Shane with Xavier, eulogizing:
A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. There’s no living with the killing. There’s no going back. Right or wrong it’s a brand. A brand that sticks. Now you run on home to your mother, you tell her everything’s all right. There are no more guns in the valley.
Earlier in the film we were given the gut-punch of Xavier’s death, his final moment one of painful remorse. But Logan, who lived so much of his life haunted by his past, dies looking into a hopeful future. He dies looking at Laura, telling her that she doesn’t have to be what They made her, she doesn’t have to fight anymore. And so Laura puts him to rest with a monologue that is intentionally ironic, because of course he did manage to break the mold and become so much more than what They made him. Because that is how you deal with the tragedy and trauma of your past. You don’t run from it, you run to it and find your way out the other side. That other side is the hope of the future. And now, finally, Logan doesn’t need to fight anymore, because this next version of him has been delivered peace. There are no more guns in the valley.
This piece is part of Pajiba’s Favorite Movies of the 2010s series.
Header Image Source: 20th Century Fox