Friday, March 31, 2017

No more mutants


There's greatness within it, even if it falls apart almost as often as it comes together.

Directed by James Mangold
Written by Scott Frank, Michael Green, and James Mangold
With Hugh Jackman (Logan), Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier), Dafne Keen (Laura), Stephen Merchant (Caliban), and Boyd Holbrook (Donald Pierce)

Spoiler alert: high, though no moreso than every other review out there

Considering the critical wave that's embraced the thing as All-New and All-Different, it really does bear pointing out that, at heart, Logan is still probably best-described as just another iteration of one of the two major, pre-existing Wolverine stories.

You know the one, or at least you do if you've ever read comics: it's the story of the mutant with the healing factor and the adamantium skeleton, who finds himself driven to distraction by an obsession with his murkily tragic past, and by the conviction that his future will just be more of the same, until the day he meets a young woman whom he is obliged to shepherd and save, and who changes his perspective in return, giving him back his sense of hope—until such time, of course, as his writers forget about any personal growth he's experienced, and cycle back to the other major Wolverine story, the one where Wolverine confronts that aforementioned murky and tragic past, and it turns out the Weapon X program that created him involved more people than Canada actually has.  (For Wolverine shall always be Canadian, even though it has become easy to forget this minor detail.)  Now, there are other Wolverine stories (Wolverine fights ninjas and/or samurai in a fantasia of Japan, for example), but they're the minor ones; or, in any event, adapting middling superhero movies out of them certainly hasn't made them any bigger.

But it's right to call this one "major," even if it has been done many times before—like, a hundred times before, only sometimes the girl's name was Kitty Pryde, sometimes it was Jubilee, and, notably, when they did a variation upon Wolverine Story No. 1 to kick off this very film series, her name was Rogue.

Well, this time her name is Laura—or, as comic nerds might prefer to address her, X-23, though for the purposes of this film she's been de-aged to around eleven years old.  It presents an especially excruciating case of fridge logic once you realize that she's been bred as a super-soldier and subjected to the same adamantium-bonding process as Wolverine (which means she's got a half-yard's worth of femur and spine to go before adulthood); but let's ignore that, because otherwise, you couldn't ask for a better Wolverine sidekick than the one Logan gives you.  Partly, that's because there's enormous joy to be taken in watching a child behead grown men (even if the movie doesn't want you to take it, but more on that below).  Partly, it's because Dafne Keene's half-feral, mostly-mute performance is arguably better than either one of her distinguished co-leads' (in fact, it's inarguably better than Patrick Stewart's, hamstrung by a script that only intermittently understands his character).  Above all, it's because now it actually matters.  There shall be no circling back to Weapon X, or to Japan, or to embarrassing himself in front of Cyclops and Jean Grey for our beloved Wolverine this time, because dead men don't forget what they've learned.

So there's some kind of novelty here, after all.  The difference between this particular Lone Wolverine and Cub tale, versus all the ones to come before it, is that this time they mean it.  Director and co-writer James Mangold?  He means it.  As for Logan's star, the man who would be Wolverine, Hugh Jackman?  Dude, he really means it.

But like any new adaptation of an old story, it has its own details.  So let us set the stage: in the mightiest Marvel manner, this tenth X-Men film damns continuity once again, in order to offer yet another inconsistent timeline, plunking us down in the middle of 2029.  Less than a decade after the coda of Days of Future Past assured us that the X-Men would all be okay, what we see instead is a worn-out and desolate near-future that looks, depressingly, more like the present.

E is for... Election?

The mutant race has practically vanished—most of the ones we knew are dead, while it turns out that even the X-gene within humanity has gone dormant, too, for no new mutants have been conceived (or, at least, naturally conceived) in years.  But amidst extinction, the ultimate survivor persists, if only barely: poisoned by the metal they fused to his skeleton, and eking out an existence as a limo driver (of all things) down in Texas, Logan spends too much of his time these days crossing over the border into Mexico, for that's where he tends to one of the other last members of his fading race, our old friend Charles Xavier.  Charles has seen better days himself; as the deadliest brain in the world enters its ninth decade, the only thing keeping him even partway in control of his terrifying power is the medication which Logan slips across the border and reluctantly administers to his ailing mentor.  It is not a good life, nor even a sustainable one; but Logan expects it should all come to an end soon enough.

The legend of the Wolverine dies hard, however, and out of nowhere comes a woman who begs Logan to escort her young charge, a certain Laura, to the Canadian border.  Like him, she's a mutant, and, like him, she's in the sights of a shadowy conspiracy.  Certainly, it would be wiser for Logan to simply walk away and let the conspiracy's redneck cyborg mercenaries have her.  But he doesn't—partly because Charles, serving as his conscience, will not let him—and thus begins Logan's quest: taking Laura across the hostile reaches of the United States to a place called "Eden," that may exist, but probably doesn't, because the girl's inevitably-dead "mother" only learned about Eden from an ancient comic book.

It could be just another adventure—and, in some respects, it is.  After all, it's one more X-Men tale where the most interesting biomedical conspiracy the writers can come up with for a mutant with a healing factor is for a private military corporation to turn her into one more Goddamned super-soldier.  And, oddly, it's an X-Men tale that forgets that you don't have to spend vital screentime explaining why there aren't many mutants left in any given dystopian X-Men future, whereas there probably wouldn't be all that much to recommend the convoluted explanation for Logan's Children of Men-esque mutant dwindling, even if the movie itself seemed to remotely care about it.  But the very oddest thing, I think, is the idea that the U.S. government—or the corporations that seem to have practically replaced it—have no apparent interest in finding and terminating Charles, explicitly described in-dialogue as a human WMD, and currently wading through the third act of the one major Professor X story, rendered to us here as the grim-and-gritty retelling of all those times he went evil and/or mad.  (And, yes, one might well wonder what Magneto thinks of this sorry state of affairs.  One assumes he's been dead for years, but one might have also preferred to at least hear tell of Erik's presumptive blaze of glory.  Oh well.)

There's not much of an abiding sense of control to Logan's script, then, but there's certainly no denying that there were some very real ambitions that went into turning it into movie.  Logan represents something almost unique in blockbuster cinema: the unexpected (even unexpectable) decision of a film studio to lay the most popular character of its most popular franchise to rest, at least for a while.  Here, you get the unfamiliar, almost frightening sensation that this was not solely out of respect for Fox's headlining actor, but—and this is the really unbelievable part—out of the pursuit of actual art.

And so Logan becomes the culmination of one of the most successful long-form performances in movie history, not to mention one of the most deliberately final chapters ever written for an open-ended film series, wrestling as fully as any film of this genre has with the actual realities of aging and exhaustion—take that, Dark Knight Rises.  It could've been called Superhero Fatigue: The Movie; but it could've been called The Death of Wolverine, and no surprises would have been spoiled.  And it could not have ended on any more dignified note than the one it does.

The very final shot of what we're supposed to believe—and what we now even want to believe—shall be Jackman's last ride as the Wolverine is self-consciously the final panel of a comic book: we find ourselves at a shallow grave, dug by prepubescent children and marked thoughtlessly with a cross, until the young girl whose survival represents Logan's legacy stops to say goodbye, and upon giving this unsatisfactory marker a moment's consideration, moves it a one-eighth turn, so that it forms the only symbol that might have ever meant the slightest thing to the annihilated old man in the ground below, who now, at long last, may have found peace.

It marks one of two moments in nine movies—and although I have not seen it, I think I'm safe in assuming that X-Men Origins: Wolverine would not provide a third—that could possibly make you shed a tear.  (The other, of course, occurs in DoFP, this franchise's beyond-obvious pinnacle.)  Nothing that Logan does wrong can take anything away from the perfection of its final beat.  And that's good.  There's a fair amount that it does do wrong, in spite of its rapturous reception.

Not to say that a rapturous reception wasn't, in its way, deserved.  For Logan surely does a whole hell of a lot right, including several things which this series (whether one means "the X-Men series" or "the Wolverine series") have routinely (and even intentionally) avoided doing right.  Most noticeably, Logan is the first superhero movie of the genre's main lines to dip into the R-rated end of the pool for its theatrical release, and practically the film's very first gesture, besides some dour white-on-black credits, is to show what an R-rating means when your superhero's most salient superpower is the ability to shoot knives out of his fists.  Freed of any restrictions but the ones Mangold decided to impose upon himself, it is inevitably glorious—but now we find ourselves already bucking right up against those "things Logan does wrong," and while one would hate to sound too ungrateful about the awe-inspiring bloodletting that defines Logan's choicest cuts, it only comes in the context of Mangold's unsparingly grave tone, which dominates a movie that judges you if you enjoy it.  (Whilst the film's comic relief tends to come with the other side of its R-rated coin, the wearying spectacle of Jean-Luc Picard cussing.)

This is Wolverine's morally-condescending face.  Not pictured: Patrick Stewart in a wheelchair, saying "fuck."

Logan, you know, has violence on its mind—particularly the spiritual consequences of violence upon the men who inflict it—and this isn't exactly new ground for a Wolverine story to explore, either, though at the very least it might have been less in-your-face about how very much it reminds Mangold of revisionist Westerns.  The unstated influence of Unforgiven is, well, forgiveable; but something like five minutes of Logan is devoted to either watching Shane on a hotel television, or upon reciting lines from its third act, all while the movie itself is already generally recapitulating Shane's plot; and all this could very easily have been done without.  (And in case that metanarrative wasn't overbearing enough, there's another one here for your delectation, and while the existence of X-Men comics is probably not the single least-interesting way to establish the basis of Logan's quest plot, it raises a host of annoying questions about the culture of a post-mutant world that this film isn't even halfway-interested in answering.  Plus, one suspects that they, too, mainly exist because illustrated stories of "heroes" were a subplot in Unforgiven.)

Logan, perhaps needless to say, does not get to be Unforgiven—if for no other reason, then because Jackman's Wolverine movies have not heretofore provided the unironic ecstasies of killing men that Clint Eastwood's had, by the time he made his movie about being sad, old, and hard.  Altogether, there's something outright disingenuous about the way Logan's dead-souled themes and Logan's mondo ultraviolence interact: it's a movie that wants to make you feel like violence is bad (it doesn't work), and its chief selling point, and arguably its most crucial achievement as a work of cinema, is that it's a movie where Wolverine (and his childish ward) can finally puncture, eviscerate, and decapitate their enemies on-camera, which is frankly what every single person who bought a ticket to Logan came to see in the first place.  Mangold, unable to conceive of an actual solution for the conundrum at the heart of his cinematic exercise, threw some brutalist editing and a few sorrowful speeches at it, hoping it would fade away.  To his credit, sometimes it does, but even the most rousing, inventive sequence (the moment where Charles' time-stopping trick is perverted into a harrowing maelstrom of out-of-control telepathy that only Logan and Logan's claws can navigate) is intended to be as formally and emotionally abrasive as blockbusterly possible, sneaking right up to edge of "not-fun" while still being, frankly, pretty awesome anyway.

But, clearly, Mangold did not bother trying to justify his movie's sour mood by putting a good and effective villain into it (again, the points go to Unforgiven), even though such villains are right there: the principal antagonists facing Wolverine, Professor X, and X-23 in Logan are the Reavers, who, in this movie, amount to nothing much more than their cyborg headman Donald Piece's hicksploitative bluster.  (You know, I'm not even of the opinion that Bucky Barnes represents an especially excellent use of a robot arm in a superhero movie, but at least it represents "any use.")  It's a particular shame, considering that Boyd Holbrook's white trash reinterpretation of Pierce is actually interesting, and considering further that this is a Wolverine movie with a 130 minute runtime, an R-rating, and Reavers, yet it still refuses to replicate Wolverine's most disastrous confrontation with those half-machine mercenaries—specifically, Logan's legendary crucifixion.  They might as well have thrown in it in there: the middle stretch of Logan, which explores the question of how badly the hospitality of naive supporting characters can go awry if your heroes are self-centered assholes, certainly wouldn't be any less dark (or less arbitrary) if it had included it.  On the other hand, this same middle act clumsily sidesteps what seemed like Logan's own grimmest inevitability—the fate of Charles Xavier—in a sequence that practically reaches out to slap you in face with its sheer cowardice.  So maybe a crucifixion was really never in the cards anyway.

Instead of anything genuinely affecting or even especially cool, you see, Logan drops a brainwashed Wolverine clone into its middle act, which somebody involved probably wanted us to read as a metaphor—indeed, somebody involved probably wanted us to read it as an homage to Wolverine's robo-clone from the comics, Albert, but even my nostalgia doesn't run that deep—and, despite the intent, it reads mostly as uncreative laziness.  Almost everything that doesn't work about Logan stems directly from this decision: the derogation of its primary villain, who actually seems to have a personality; the destruction of the nice farm family whom Charles and Logan idiotically put in harm's way; the weak-kneed half-measure of Charles' death, who by now cannot be satisfactorily put down by anyone but Wolverine, so Mangold assumes that a clone of Wolverine can do the job without the emotional mess; and the fight scenes between a pair of rapidly-healing mutants that, to their credit, are most impressively splatterful, but which start to test your suspension of disbelief a little, once literally every vital organ in their bodies has been destroyed.  (More's the pity, because—ten movies in—it finally seemed like they'd figured out how to use Wolverine's healing factor successfully throughout an entire feature's length.)

But none of the problems, as serious as they all are individually, are quite enough to tip the balance away from everything Logan does so damnably, brilliantly well.  It is bloody and bloody-minded; it offers an ending, when serial entertainment is loathe to ever provide such a thing; and one of the best things it does is create one of the most perfect visions of the slowly-encroaching apocalypse to ever to grace any movie screen.  (It's a rarer beast than you think: offhand, I can only really come up with Mad Max as a competitor, and I don't even like the first Mad Max.  But Logan, between its dusty yellow cinematography and its cunning use of a Middle American landscape dimming into a hateful Third World shithole, gets it exactly right, presenting a 2029 that is terrifying because it is so completely plausible, mutants and cyborgs notwithstanding.)  And I believe I've already mentioned that its very last shot is the most flawless thing.  I don't want them to ever make any more movies in this world—they did it well enough this time.  And so, they probably will.  But let's try not to hold that against Logan's very real accomplishments.

Score: 7/10


  1. Once again, your actual working knowledge of comics is what propels your opinion in the opposite direction from me. I'm not a particularly big fan of Wolverine, just the X-Men in general, but coming at this property completely clean was a wonderful experience for me.

    So far, it's one of my top 3 movies of the year, not that there has been much competition yet. The other two have oddly similar titles: Baby Driver (saw it in a preview screening and it's fabulous) and The Boss Baby (I thought it would be stupid, but it's very visually inventive, and I'm super embarrassed to admit that. Also Lisa Kudrow is in it, which gives any movie +2 stars).

    1. Baby Driver: I'm still willing to give Edgar Wright a line of credit, even though I didn't like World's End very much.

      Boss Baby: if you say so. I haven't seen it. I guess I'll check it out? (If nothing else, could it be your Batman v Superman?)

      Logan: truly, it's not *just* my comics nerdery. They make some very odd choices (Professor X's death is just so, so transparently weak) that undermine the movie even on the level it wants to operate at, namely that of a dour, ugly anti-actioner.

    2. OK, The World's End was a dud, but Baby Driver should be made highest priority.

      As for my feelings about The Boss Baby, I have no clue where they came from. Considering that nobody I know has seen it, I have no benchmark to compare my opinion to. It could very well be a BvS situation, but I feel like SOMEbody has to have seen what I saw. It's definitely juvenile and pitched lower than, say, a Pixar film, but there's a lot of creativity in the presentation of the story that I just wasn't expecting.

      At the very least, it has to be better than Smurfs or Rock Dog, so I feel pretty good about it.