My prelude to watching Logan was a CBC news report on Emerson, Alberta where hundreds of asylum seekers from the United States have been crossing the border illegally. There was an unavoidable twist of irony here, considering the most recent last installment of the X-Men franchise (and purportedly last movie featuring Hugh Jackman as the eponymous Wolverine character) has as its central premise the protagonists fleeing across the continental United States to some Eden-esque sanctuary across the Canadian border. And although perhaps unintentionally topical, there is definitely a grittiness to this next chapter in the Marvel Universe, not just in its portrayal of violence – achieving an 18-A rating at my local cinema – but also tonally.
The timeline for Logan takes place in 2029 following some vague sequence of events that has seen a decline in new mutants exhibiting powers, the subsequent dissolution of the Xavier Institute, and the scattering – and, if we’re led to believe, eradication – of mutants in general. Logan, aka James Howlett, works as a driver for a limo company and in his off-time drinks heavily and makes frequent pilgrimages across the Mexican border to an isolated compound. Here the albino mutant Caliban watches over a dwindling Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who has been confined to the gutted echo-chamber of a renovated water tower in order to contain his powerful – and dangerously unstable – psionic powers. Xavier, we learn, is suffering from a degenerative brain disease that causes seizures, and with a mind as powerful as his creates a cascading paralysis on everyone in proximity.
And yet, during moments of lucidity, the Professor confides that he has been in contact with another mutant, someone who needs their help. Enter X-23, aka Laura Kinney, a young 11-year-old girl created in a lab using Logan’s DNA, who is being hunted by the shady pharmaceutical company Transigen who wants to use her and her kind as weapons. Reluctantly, Logan takes accepts the job of helping her across to the Canadian border where she and her friends will be safe. And here I have to confess: ever since I watched the first X-Men back in 2000, and being a fan of the Marvel Universe in general, I’d been waiting for X-23/Laura to debut.
There are a number of reasons it was a good idea to wait this long to have her character show up now, and part of it has to do with what I’ve already pointed out. As a send-off to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Logan is much darker, much grittier, much bloodier, and in this respect it’s a rather harsh departure from other movies in the franchise – while its predecessors endeavored to accommodate the comic-book sheen of costumed do-gooders, familiar but relatable tropes of good versus evil, PG-13 confrontations, and a hygienic concept of heroism, Logan actively steps back and effaces itself to the reality outside of neatly printed panels and comfortable dialogue. In one scene Logan even picks up some of Laura’s dog-eared X-Men comics and admonishes the drivel and embellishments he finds between the pages, commenting that maybe a quarter of it happened and certainly not like that. As an audience member, we’re constantly having a proverbial bucket of cold water dumped on our heads to dispel the romanticism of the superhero genre, to wake us to the present, and remind us that – as the Professor sagely reminds us – this is what life looks like.
America is a wasteland beset by drought and GMO crops. The characters swear profusely. They kill, violently and deliberately, in an extensive array of fight scenes, and the fighting is not so much stylistic as efficient, punctual, uncomfortably clinical in its execution. There’s no censorship when it comes to the brutality of the world they find themselves in. Familiar faces like Logan and the Professor are fallen. One is lonely and unhinged by dementia, the other is angry and suicidal, and both are wracked by guilt, haunted by the things they’ve done and the people they’ve lost. And this is precisely the sort of environment that gave birth to X-32/Laura’s character in the Marvel canon.
In the comics, with her first appearance in the NYX series, she was a disgruntled teenager with all the emotional temperance of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and suffering a morally ambivalent safety valve when it came to unleashing her adamantium claws on mobsters in the underground New York scene. She represented a darker flavor in the superhero spectrum, one which didn’t shy away from real-world struggles like depression, sex work, mental illness, abandonment, torture, and self-abuse. While Logan’s version veers slightly from this depiction, actress Dafne Keenr excels in her role – not just in terms of portraying the naïveté of a young girl exposed to the outside world for the first time (she’s enthralled by a coin-operated horse), but also in conveying the character’s manic sensibilities parallel to a tenderness and vulnerability that elicits our sympathy. Not an easy task, either, when your character is mute for half the movie.
But X-23/Laura’s role goes beyond that, I think. The beauty of Mangold’s storytelling is in leaving certain elements to their implicit insinuation, never forcing exposition but letting us see how the characters react to it, showing us the wounds but never their incident. Even as Logan and the Professor try to outrun Transigen and protect Laura, they’re also running from their own demons – and in her own way, Laura begins to act as a vehicle for their atonement. A final opportunity for them to rise above the squalor and imminence of their rage and guilt and the imminence of death, and to engender one last time the qualities that once made them heroes by shepherding her to safety. Even if that goal necessitates the inexorable massacring of legions of contract mercenaries in a visceral fresco of bloody encounters that takes John Wick 2 to task in terms of body count.
Nevertheless, the action never stands in the way of the story, and if anything the physical brutality is what gives the movies permission to be as naked as it is when it comes to gut emotion. By the third act, there is the distinct impression that Logan is acting as both as an epilogue to the golden age of X-Men and as a cliff-hanger for whatever new generation is destined to follow in their footsteps. And whether you hate it for its brazen disregard for convention or love it for the implications of its social critique on outcasts and America’s decline, whether you admire the tenacity of its rawness or squirm at its gratuity, there is something thematically appropriate about Jackman’s final portrayal of the beloved hero – a character whose seen enough death to last a lifetime, who has grown weary and embittered, and who finally has a chance to reconcile his own conscience.
And if we’re to believe that involves the bequeathal of his legacy to Laura – in terms of blood and mutant abilities as her genetic-sire, or in terms of his legend as Wolverine – then the success of Logan isn’t so much as a superhero movie, but as a movie about redemption set in the superhero universe.