Sunday, April 16, 2017


Alternate Title:  Requiem for a Wolverine
One sentence synopsis:   In a dystopian future bereft of all mutants, Logan and Charles Xavier must protect a young mutant from a PMC intent on taking her into custody.

Things Havoc liked:  For seventeen years and ten films, the X-men movies have existed in one form or another. Seventeen years and ten films, some good (X-Men 2, First Class, Days of Future Past, Deadpool), some execrable (Origins, The Wolverine, X-Men 3, Apocalypse). If nothing else, here at the end of all things, it's worth stopping and recognizing just how long and how important this series has been in the ongoing godzilla-like rampage of Superhero movies at the box office. And while the question of whether or not Logan represents an end to the entire affair is more open than I anticipated when I first saw the movie, for whatever it's worth, Logan feels like an ending to a series of weight and importance, and deserves to be judged as such. The promises of the ad campaign that preceded it were that we had never before seen a superhero movie like this, and that, for better or worse, was no lie.

The year is 2029, a dystopian time of brown skies, corporate dominance, and wind-blown grit. Logan (Hugh Jackman), AKA the Wolverine, is an old man at last, his body ravaged by the abuse he has suffered over the years (centuries if you believe X-Men Origins, but I can understanding why one would not), and by the fact that his unbreakable adamantium skeleton is finally starting to poison him to death. Kept going only by his preternatural healing factor and the need to care for a nonagenarian Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose brilliant mind is finally disintegrating under the weight of raw age and raw despair. Together with a new-to-the-series precognitive mutant named Caliban (a barely-recognizable Stephen Merchant), these three may well be the last mutants on Earth, due to a combination of an unexplained cessation in mutant births some twenty-five years ago, and a horrible accident, only hinted at in the story, in which Xavier's faltering mind obliterated a large number of mutants and humans some years previously. I normally try not to go so deep into plot matters in these reviews, but what's important here is how distinct this setup is from anything else we've ever seen in X-men movies, or really in comic book movies whatsoever. The style is not high adventure, as is the common theme for these films, nor mystery or thriller or heist or space opera, as in many of Marvel's recent outings, but modern western, ala Hell or High Water or No Country for Old Men. The scenes are elongated, the characters exhausted and worn, the tone funereal and bleak, the shot selection (by Kingdom of Heaven and X-Men: First Class' cinematographer John Mathieson) positively Coenesque. If only by sheer novelty, in consequence, Logan is a revelation for the entire Superhero genre, an application of dramatic cinematic language to a genre still dismissed by many critics as having no soul. I've never seen someone try to adapt a Cormac McCarthy book to the screen with superheroes in it, but if I ever do, I expect it will look exactly like Logan.

The director of Logan, James Mangold, also directed Wolverine's last solo instalment, 2013's The Wolverine, which was distinguished only in that it was better than its predecessor. For Logan, though, Mangold has chosen a very tight story, wrapped closely around three characters, trusting that the actors involved will sell the material themselves, as they have been doing for the better part of two decades now. It's a wise decision. Jackman has always been the original genius-casting for a superhero character, even in the worst of all movies. Here, he's given an opportunity to dig down into the soul of the character in a way he was only ever allowed to hint at before, and the result is everything it should be. He plays Wolverine like a broken, beaten man going through the motions because he doesn't know what else to do, who has grown accustomed to losing, and whose primal rage is no longer sufficient to carry him through. Stewart meanwhile, in the character he defined, is the picture of sadness, his high-minded ideals in ashes, his life's work a failure. The sudden shift to an R-Rating (a first for the X-men series if you don't count Deadpool, and you shouldn't), only re-enforces things, as listening to Professor Xavier, the grandfatherly mentor of the mutants of old, cursing and weeping in a deserted steel foundry that has become his jail cell and hospice room is a more startling image than I expected it to be, accustomed as we are to seeing the character in a totally different context. And with none of the rest of the panoply of X-men characters on-hand or even mentioned, much of the film is given over to the interplay between Logan and Xavier, as though in the end of this epochal series, we have returned at last to its original roots. But the final element the film cores itself around is a new addition, a young mutant girl named X-23 (Laura, eventually), lab-grown by the inevitable evil super-corporation, and now on the run from their army of paramilitary hitmen, played by Spanish-English child actress Dafne Keen. There's a lot of you out there who, upon hearing that Wolverine was to be paired with a child sidekick, no doubt reached for vomit bags, but let me assure you, this girl, and this character, are goddamned incredible. Entirely mute for most of the film save for guttural growls of tempestuous rage, and possessed of a violent potency that makes Hit-Girl look like Kit Kittredge (the introduction to her mutant powers involves a freshly-severed head), this is not your average child sidekick, but a violent blender in the shape of a pint-sized girl, and Keen, whether speaking in English, Spanish, or not at all, is transcendently-good in the film, not merely the physicality demanded by the action, but also in holding her own against two titans of the superhero genre in the quieter, more desolate scenes that the movie is replete with.

And that's... more or less Logan in a nutshell, folks, an experiment in character and tone and the capabilities of superhero violence, as the R-rating allows the movie to get sublimely brutal with its action, befitting the darker tone of the movie and thrilling any long-time fan of ultra-violence (hi). Snapshots of Americana, such as an extended sequence with a black farming family somewhere in Kansas (headed by ER's Eriq LaSalle) are interspersed with moments of quiet desolation, allowing the characters to reflect on the irrecoverable ruin that their lives have become. The classic comic relief that comes naturally when a character as broody as Wolverine is forcibly paired with small children breaks up the tension now and again in the right spots, but the film is overall a dark and funereal mediation on the end of dreams, on the grim side of human nature, and on the human condition in its most agonizing forms.

Things Havoc disliked:  That does not make it a good movie.

I wanted to like Logan. I wanted to love it. I wanted to use it as ammunition against every snobbish artistic oligarch who have been spitting on this entire genre for twenty years, and implicitly or explicitly on those who enjoy them. I wanted to herald it as a sea-change in the makeup of Superhero filmmaking, as proof positive that these films are the Greek Myths of our modern world, re-shaped and re-packaged to deliver the universal truths of the human condition by exaggerating what it is to be human. I wanted Logan to blow me out of my seat, and to leave the theater showering it with praise. And maybe that was my mistake in the first place, because for all of the very good things in Logan... I didn't like it at all.

Why not? Well, let's see if I can illustrate.

Logan wishes, very very much, to be its own film, to be viewed as its own film, unrestrained by the decisions and canon of the nine movies that preceded it. To an extent, I understand. Ten films is a lot of films, particularly if you are not Marvel, and have not been comprehensively building your cinematic universe in a holistic manner. We've already retconned one film (X-men 3) out of existence entirely, after all, and I can fully understand the desire to break with tradition in this regard. The problem though, is that the movie wants to have its cake and eat it too. It relies entirely on those previous movies for the establishment of the characters of Logan and Xavier, to give weight to what's actually going on here. Otherwise we're just watching two ornery old men snap at one another for two hours with no context. And yet, having invited us to remember all of the previous adventures of Xavier and Logan and their band of merry mutants, the film expects us to selectively forget everything else in those movies, from Magneto to Mystique to the X-men to the fundamental themes of the X-men movies themselves, all without comment. That is a huge order for any franchise, the equivalent of releasing a Star Wars movie that has no spaceships, no Jedi, no Empire or Rebellion, no Force, no aliens, no adventure, and no fun, and then pretending that any confusion that results is the fault of viewers who are afraid of change.

Where, for instance, are the X-Men? This is not an unreasonable question to ask given that the plot of the movie is entirely contingent on the fact that they no longer exist, and that nine previous films were entirely or in part about the X-men in one form or another. I'm not asking that the movie be identical to First Class or Days of Future Past, or upset that Cyclops and Jean Grey didn't get cameos. I'm annoyed that the question of where all the mutants are is not answered in any manner save by one of the most perfunctory, stupid, and ill-thought-out plot excuses imaginable. This isn't a minor question. The entire series was built around mutants' position in society, as allegories for homosexuality or other forms of discrimination. I don't expect Logan to chain itself to the themes of previous films, but if it's going to position itself as the last word to a twenty-year series of films, it has a goddamned obligation to remember that they existed, at the very least. But no, those movies are entirely separate from this one, except for when we say so. Or indicate so. Or decide retroactively that it is so. And it doesn't stop with that question alone, indeed Logan seems almost perversely uninterested in answering any questions, whether brought up by previous films or by its own plot. If Wolverine's adamantium is poisoning him to death, then doesn't that indicate that Laura, who is established to also have Adamantium grafted to her skeleton, is also at risk of being so-poisoned? Never addressed. If the X-men have been destroyed (which I think is where the movie is going, but it hardly makes things clear), then what happened to all the other mutants of the world, particularly the world-shattering ones that the X-men fought? Never addressed. How is it that a PMC is operating throughout Mexico, Canada, and the US with massive military deployments, utterly unchecked by even a modicum of government oversight, up-to-and-including drone strikes and massive civilian casualties? Never addressed. These aren't minor nitpicks, like how Laura's growing skeleton is going to respond to adamantium grafts, or why evil corporations always think that living-weapon super-soldiers are going to pay for themselves despite their propensity to kill everyone nearby (I call this the Wayland-Yutani Paradox), these are core elements of the story, logical questions that anyone, let alone the fans of the series that the movie has gone out of its way to attract, would wonder at the instant the subjects were brought up. And the film's response is to ignore them all entirely as unimportant, because they might take valuable time away from the misery on screen.

But all of this I might have forgiven if not for the ending of the film, an ending that is so deliberately unfulfilling that it can only have been intentionally designed that way. After an hour-and-a-half of confusing but interesting buildup, of morbidly funereal tone, of the nadirs of human experience being showcased on screen, we get to the end of the film, and the filmmakers reveal that there was no point to any of it save to wallow in the misery of human suffering. Make no mistake, there are great movies that exist solely to wallow in the misery of human suffering, as films as diverse as Requiem for a Dream, Grave of the Fireflies, Dancer in the Dark, or Breaking the Waves can attest to. But those movies were trying to make a statement about their characters, their world, and what it is to be human. Logan is not, in fact Logan rejects the notion of such things so violently as to appear contemptuous of them. Not only does it seek to end the X-men movies with a whimper, but it implies in doing so that the themes around which the previous films lived or died were so unimportant that they aren't worth a mention, and that the movie's own plot, independent of what came before, is similarly unimportant. Nothing is resolved by this film, not from previous installments nor from this one itself. We never even get to know if the purpose that Logan and Xavier drove themselves out of retirement for, the driving force of the entire film, was a success or not. Some might call that decision bold. I call it lazy. And the film ended, I realized that the whole business, the quantum canonicity, the alternating respect for and rejection of the previous works, the wild and unexplained shift in tone, the casual discarding of the hallmarks of the series in favor of something else entirely... all of it spoke to me not of a movie in a series, but of Fanfiction. An experiment in fiction by those who want to take what they want of the canon and discard the rest without comment. And while I remain a stalwart defender of, and yes, even practitioner of the art of Fanfiction (come the fuck at me), Fanfiction is not what I go to the movies to see.

Final thoughts:   Logan is a movie of great paradoxes. It has many admirable qualities to it and many decisions that baffle me even now, a month after seeing it, and it is this paradox that has kept this review so-long delayed (among other things). I cannot, in good conscience, call it a great film, as many others have, though I also do not deny that it is in many ways a daring and admirable experiment in how one may take Superhero movies. As such, I remain of two minds about Logan, as I likely always will be. On the one hand, it is a film that has finally managed to be taken seriously by all and sundry, critics, audiences, and filmmakers alike. It has proven that not only can Superhero movies be serious, but that they can be R-rated and adult-themed and dour and reflective, and still make money at the box office. On the other hand though, it has also, probably inadvertently, sent a message to the critics that Superhero movies can indeed be good films, assuming that they jettison all that childish "superhero" stuff in favor of a grim deconstruction of the genre that borders on the monomaniacal at times. There is a consequent part of me that is concerned at the fact that a movie that many are calling the Greatest Superhero Movie of All Time is a film that regards the genre of Superhero movies as being stupid and lightweight to the point where it does not deserve consideration or thought.

Ultimately, Logan is a movie that many will love, some will despise, and I will not know what to do with for as long as I live. I did not, ultimately, enjoy it particularly, nor do I think that its gross ignorance of the basic conceits of plot, and its palpable contempt for and embarrassment by its predecessors somehow makes it a great film. But like it or not, Logan feels like a sea-change in how Superheros can be represented on the silver screen. I can only hope that the lessons we learn from it are to the genre's credit.

Final Score:  5.5/10

Next Time:  White People:  A Cautionary Tale

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