So I went to see Logan.
And, wow. This movie is a hell of a lot better than it has any right to be.
Seriously. My usual super hero movie review is “better than you might have been lead to believe,” or “good… for a super hero movie.” But there won’t be any of that here. Because Logan is just a good film, period. It’s still very much a film in the super hero genre, with all the punching and kicking and derring-do that implies. But it’s a super hero film in the same way that Unforgiven is a western: it transcends its genre while still very much remaining a part of it.
Unforgiven is maybe the best comparison to make, in fact. Like that classic Clint Eastwood Western, Logan is a film about an aging bad ass called unwillingly back into the bad ass game. It’s also a film that meditates on the mythology of its own genre while exploding that mythology without mercy. So, yes. Logan is the Unforgiven of super hero movies. It’s just as powerful, just as violent…
…and maybe? Just as good? Hmm. I must admit, I hesitate to make that call. I was so surprised by how good Logan actually is that I may be overestimating it. Calling something as good as Unforgiven, after all, is a pretty big claim. I’m going to need to see Logan again to really be sure. So I’m not quite willing to go out on that limb just yet.
One thing I am willing to say, though, is that it’s easily the best super hero movie I’ve ever seen. It deals intelligently with the high personal cost of violence, and the equally high cost of hope. It puts forth the possibility that neither of those two pillars of the super hero genre will net you anything good in the long run. And it does all that through character drama that unfolds slowly over time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The premise is important here, too. Without delving into spoilers, Logan is set in the near-future of 2029, when all the X-Men are dead, and no new mutants have been born for 25 years. The sole survivors of the mutant purge would seem to be Wolverine, the albino Caliban, and a 90-year-old Charles Xavier, who’s suffering from a degenerative brain disease. Enter a young girl named Laura, who has all of Logan’s savagery, all his mutant powers, and his adamantium claws.
Laura is on the run from an evil mutant-hunting corporation and their private army of cyborg mercenaries, and comes to Logan for protection. But he’s got his own problems. His healing factor is slowly failing him, leaving him aging, hurting, and trying to drink the pain away. He’s supporting himself, Caliban, and Xavier by driving a limo, the great mutant bad ass become the average working stiff. But he’s grown weary of professional violence, so he really has no other choice. He’s in bad shape, barely coping with the life he’s found himself living, and in no mood whatsoever to deal with a kid. Especially not a kid who comes with a whole heap of trouble on her tail. Even if she does appear to be his own daughter.
So that’s the situation, and from it Logan wrings unexpected greatness. And it does that, as I said, through its characters and their relationships. Xavier’s faith is juxtaposed against Logan’s hopelessness, which in turn is juxtaposed against his own devotion to Xavier, even as his belief in that great man’s dream has turned to dust. Laura stands between them, as angry and animalistic as Logan ever was, but also still young enough to hope. It’s well-written and entertaining, at turns funny and sad, and utterly disarming. It’s such an unsentimental movie for most of its running time that when the sentiment hits, it blindsides you. I won’t mention specific scenes, but I laughed and (yes) got choked up at stuff I would have rolled my eyes at in a movie that did less to earn it.
Beyond the excellent writing, a lot of Logan’s effectiveness also comes down to some fine interplay between its three lead actors: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen, the 11-year-old cast in the role of Laura. I’ll get back to Jackman and Stewart’s performances in a second, but I wanted to praise young Miss Keen first. Laura is a pretty complicated character. Equal parts innocence and savagery, tough and needy all at once. And mute, to top it off. So Keen is left to convey all of Laura’s conflicting emotions through expression only, and she does an impressive job of it. If she can do this at 11, how good is she going to be when she grows up?
But back to Jackman and Stewart.
A great deal of Logan‘s appeal hinges on their relationship as Logan and Xavier. They have an understated estranged-father-and-son dynamic going, one with obvious fondness, but a bitterness, too. Just the way they look at each other speaks volumes, and that renders both characters more relatable, and more… ironically, I suppose… human than they’ve ever been.
They’re good individually, too. Jackman, while not stepping too far outside his comfort zone, turns in a fine performance as the conflicted, exhausted, desperate Wolverine. Logan is not always very heroic in this movie, and Jackman’s able to make the audience understand why, even before he says it out loud. He looks tired. He looks hurt. He looks like a man without much left to live for, who’s clinging to what little he does have with the tenacity of the animal he’s named for. Of course, Logan IS a hero, and proves it on multiple occasions. But Jackman’s wounded performance tells us everything we need to know about why he doesn’t think that matters.
But if Hugh Jackman is effectively sad here, Patrick Stewart is downright heartbreaking. His elderly Charles Xavier is dealing with the infirmities of old age and a magnificent brain that is slowly but surely betraying him. We’ve seen Stewart do the “weak old man” thing before. He did it on Star Trek more than once, and in a few Shakespearean productions, as well. So we know it’s something he’s good at. But here, with Stewart somewhat elderly in real life, the frailty and weakness he brings to Xavier is all the more real. It’s hard to watch him, feeble and with shaking hands, repeating himself in the back seat of a car while Logan ignores his spiritual father’s appeals to his own better self. Even in his lighter moments – and Xavier is responsible for some of the film’s biggest laughs – it hurts a little to see Captain Picard/Gurney Halleck/Professor X reduced to this.
But I don’t want to give the impression that Logan is just a depressing meditation on aging and the pointlessness of heroism. It’s also one hell of a super hero movie, with exciting (and brutal) action sequences, vile villains, and a cool-ass approach to super powers. It’s in this last bit that the film really shines as a super hero story, to me. No spoilers, but there’s dozens of neat little touches sprinkled throughout the film, and one really big idea that still, two days later, blows me away. It even manage to make me like the Reavers (those cyborg mercenaries I mentioned earlier), which… Holy crap. In the comics? Those guys are a big ball of suck!
The film’s not as bleak as I’m making it sound, either. There are numerous funny moments, and its relationship to heroism is as complex as Logan’s. While it continually undercuts optimism, its attitude toward heroism and basic human decency is far brighter. It even has some nice things to say about family. The end result is a balanced tone that’s neither unduly cheery nor unbearably dour. I’d call it realistic, bordering on positive. Which is a nice balance to strike.
The comedy also isn’t of the jokey, glib, overly self-conscious variety I hate in so many modern genre films. It’s natural humor, arising from situation. It reveals character and moves the plot forward, and is carefully placed to provide a needed catharsis to all the heavy drama. It’s good writing, in other words, something that’s pretty shocking to see in a big-budget major studio corporate spandex flick.
So that’s Logan. I laughed, I cried, I thrilled to the action. It’s the best super hero movie ever made, and it makes the competition look particularly poor in comparison. Seriously. It’s not seamless. I could nit-pick a few minor points here and there, if I were of a mind to. But it’s not a film I feel the need to apologize for. There’s no, “That’s just super heroes, man.” And that’s what makes it so very, very good.
Now. I’ve strained mightily thus far to avoid true spoilers. I walked into Logan almost entirely cold, having only seen a few glowing headlines, and my viewing experience was better because of it. But, man. MAAAANNN. There’s so much to discuss in this film, so many nice touches, so many themes to pick apart. So once I’ve had time to take all the stuff I cut out of this review and shape it into something readable… check back with us. In a couple of days, I’ll post a more analytical (and completely, deliriously, spoilery) second review.
Hope to see you then. But in the meantime… I’m gonna go make myself a Logan soundtrack made up entirely of late-career Johnny Cash…