A Manly Film About Adolescent Trash – Logan (James Mangold, 2017)

In a time when the movie industry seems to stay afloat according to two extremes and very little middle ground, it’d be nice if a movie were to come along—like the ones from the old times—that had a little something for everyone in it.  Logan is not this movie.  Yet Logan doesn’t completely exist at either end of Hollywood’s extremes, either.

I’m talking about the unabashed and shameless high-budget cash-ins on sequels and franchises for bloated, special-effects heavy blockbusters on one end, and the faux-artsy, self-indulgent Hollywood fetishization of tragedy and its fellation of actors as artists on the other.  The former extreme exists hopefully to keep the industry afloat financially.  The latter for the virtue-signaling and the award ceremonies, so our entertainers can pretend they’re important people and not just idiots that are paid to make faces, wear dresses, and recite lines off of a script.

So with that in mind, Logan’s ambivalence for either extreme is something of a breath of fresh air amid an otherwise stagnant and insultingly uninteresting winter of filmmaking that started more than a decade ago.  The movie takes place in the future, for instance, but there aren’t any huge, sprawling action set-pieces comprised mostly of CGI for the audience to yawn at in a couple of years.  And it’s a movie about comic book characters too, yet nobody puts on a funny costume or makes some asinine off-the-cuff quip in the middle of a scene of chaos that would leave anyone else with PTSD.  Oh, and it was made as something of an action movie, despite its estimated budget coming in at a ‘mere’ ninety-six million dollars—a stark contrast to just about every other superhero movie made in the last couple of years, many of which now stretch into the two-hundred fifty million range even before marketing expenses.

Set about ten or fifteen years in the future, Logan’s story begins with our familiar characters having reached the end of their respective ropes.  Logan himself gets by as a limousine driver, drinking himself to sleep when he isn’t working or drugging Xavier into what might as well be a grave.  The caretaking is an attempt to medicate the nonagenarian’s degenerative brain disease which is destroying both Xavier’s sanity and his ability to control his psychic powers.  Logan is thrust into a real story when care of a new young mutant is forced upon him, involving both he and Xavier in the meddling of Transigen, a corporation intent on creating mutant breeds of super-soldiers.

The film takes place predominately in North American backcountry, first on the Texas/Mexico border, and later in the Dakotas, with the narrative perfectly mirroring the terrain around them.  Whereas 2013’s The Wolverine could have been more appropriately titled The Wolverine Visits Japan, Logan could just as easily be explained as The Wolverine Ends Up Trapped In A Cormac McCarthy Novel, at least for the first two thirds of the film or so.  As with the Japanese escapades of the earlier movie lending The Wolverine a certain schlockish charm as a backdrop to the conflict in Logan’s character as he faced death and destiny, Logan’s backdrop of a crime-riddled city overrun with despair, abandoned desert installations, and long roads bordered on either side with cornfields serve perfectly to boldly underline the crises in the film’s characters.

And this isn’t even getting to the film’s action.  While ostensibly a character drama, Logan’s real highlights are the absolutely intense depictions of visceral carnage.  The action is strong enough to harken back to the days of moviemaking where cameras actually depicted actors performing stunts against one another, where people are visibly hit, characters were perforated with bullets, impaled, cut open, or otherwise eviscerated by increasingly threatening-looking steel claws.  The action alone is Logan’s starkest contrast to the superhero movies of today, which shoot just about everything against a green screen and digitally invent all of the action scenes with CPUs and graphics emulators, instead of fight coordinators and stuntmen.

And it’s all good, too.  The story is pretty good.  The action is amazing.  And the performances are some of the strongest I’ve seen from Hugh Jackman and even Patrick Stewart, to say nothing of young Dafne Keen, whose stunning performance as Laura really stole the show.  But all of this is sort of the problem.  It’s a good movie, it’s a perfect send-off to the X-Men of the old franchise, and there’s very little to complain about.  Yet something is still off about it.

For all of its praise by other reviewers as a truly adult film, I think this is the chief point that Logan misses almost entirely.  I’m not sure if this is an issue with the film or with the age, however.  The movie has many hallmarks of an adult story—the violence and grit, certainly, but also the very themes at its heart.  Superhero films might try to struggle with titanic themes involving moral courage or what to do with absolute power, but rarely do they comment on anything so significant as the bonds of family and the obligations of manhood.  Yet Logan’s whole story revolves around our hero’s struggle with his radical self-indulgence as an independent man at odds with his roles as a son and a father—the former a role he only begrudgingly fulfilled and the latter a role he had never even had reason to prepare for.

And unlike many comic book movies, which feature relatively carefree heroes gallivanting across the world or universe to save all of creation from some brightly-colored glittering foe voice-acted by some sinister-sounding Brit, the story in Logan is as limited in scope as the cabins of the vehicles that most of the story takes place in.  At first a busted-up limousine, then a truck, and then finally a stolen jeep—in each, the closeness of the characters in proximity counterbalances their emotional distance from one another.  In Logan, it’s obviously his drive to stay removed from everyone, a hermit if not by location than at least by alcohol and his own personal crutches.  In Xavier, it’s his disease and his senility.  And for their mysterious charge, her mere presence is alienating.

All of this seems adult enough, and the depictions of it all is certainly nuanced, as comic book movies go.  Yet these themes and the growth of these characters lack a relevancy that could otherwise be found in the same story with human beings.  Logan’s narrative could easily have been told as a crime story involving a retired old mobster caring for a young charge—itself an old stereotype of a crime drama that can be found in various westerns and film noir.  But instead it had to be about Wolverine.  It had to have Xavier.  And mutant children.  And evil corporations.

The Wolverine was about a man losing his mind to guilt and grief, finally offered a chance to die in battle, only for him to discover that he was wasting the gift of his life and that he didn’t want to die after all.  But at the end of the day, it was still a movie about a quasi-immortal madman fighting a giant robot at the end, peppered with yakuza, ninjas, and cute Japanese girls.  Logan runs into the same problem, albeit with a significantly less upbeat ending.  It’s about a man struggling with his past and unwilling to accept things as they are, using grief as a crutch to limp along through life so he doesn’t have to recognize what’s in front of his face.  But, again, at the end of the day, it’s still a movie about a slightly-less-immortal madman fighting a clone of himself at the end, peppered with secret medical experiments, super-soldiers, and badass mutant children.  The only difference is that Logan plays it even straighter than its predecessor.  The story was limited by its very genre.

I mentioned above that this might have been a problem with the age more than with the movie.  I don’t think Hollywood can create adult movies anymore.  Not like they had in the past.  Certainly, you’ll always have your directors that break the mold, but those exceptions are generally few and far between.  In today’s polarized Hollywood output, where if a movie isn’t a bloated blockbuster action-comedy, then it’s a self-congratulatory pseudo-indie film about degenerate characters killing themselves, the sort of insight required to make an ‘adult story’ come to life on screen simply doesn’t seem to exist.  The writers and directors are more interested in either appealing to the lowest common denominator, or they’re busy patting themselves on the back with the empty existential suffering of their Oscar-bait nominees.  The stories have become flat, the tone single-noted, and the movies bumbling without purpose.  You can’t point to one that’s really artful in any meaningful sense; only movies that are interesting or fun to watch.

It’s refreshing to see that Logan doesn’t neatly fall into either camp, being fundamentally of the same blockbuster action ilk as the likes of Terminator before it, but with the same attempts at levity as the more arty, serious, award-winning movies that dominated the Oscars this year.  But it seems like a contrivance all the same.  It’s as if it’s trying to be the Western that it references a few times in the movie, trying to outgrow the genre it was born into.  But Logan ultimately doesn’t do so.  It can’t.  It’s still an adolescent film—an edgy, slightly more mature one than The Avengers, perhaps—pretending to be one that’s grown-up.  But so-called adult stories in films don’t actually solve their conflict with fist-claws piercing ten or fifteen skulls while fighting clones of themselves in the woods surrounded by high-tech mercenaries—or if they do, they haven’t managed to pull it off yet.  They reveal insight in the script, not just by relying on the actors’ performances to carry it through.  They give the audience something to mull over and walk away with, something grand to appreciate, some pieces of story to appeal to a core set values shared between the audience and the filmmakers; with Logan, all you get are the pretenses, with, at best, inklings of something greater, but they’re never really carried through.

In spite of my complaints, it’s still very much worth watching.  Try to catch it before it leaves theaters.

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