Following its premiere at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, Logan received the best reviews of any X-Men film, and was proclaimed by some critics to be the finest superhero film ever made. Whatever you make of that hype four years down the line, it has to be agreed it was a fitting send-off to Hugh Jackman, who stuck with the character through a number of increasingly ridiculous outings en route to this final chapter.
The thing is, it wasn’t just Jackman who stuck with the character. If audiences hadn’t proven so ready to re-engage with the Wolverine persona, it probably would have been shelved the moment Will I Am got involved. So, what was it that made the character click with audiences for 17 years of swings and misses – before the final triumphant passage of Logan’s legend?
For one thing, it helps that unlike the billionaire dickheads that populate most of Marvel’s Avengers, the X-Men are the conduits for a number of historical battles for justice. The contrast between Magneto and Professor X has often been compared to that of civil rights giants Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Junior; and whether it is best to answer hate with love, or to fight your oppressor by any means necessary, while in a famous interview in 2014, Sir Ian McKellen said the plight of the mutants in X-Men represents that of the LGBT+ community, paraphrasing director Bryan Singer, who sold McKellen on the project by saying, “Mutants are like gays. They are cast out by society for no good reason.”
Mutants have also been compared to those with disabilities, with migrants and asylum seekers, and these are not conflicting interpretations, because what for me always marked out the X-Men as the height of the superhero genre was that they can be all of these and more. Mutants are comic-book short-hand for all of those marginalised by modern society. The apex of this is the lone figure of the Wolverine – and his vulnerability of being ‘invulnerable,’ suffering a prolonged life of perpetual agony. After years of this just being treated as ‘badass,’ rather than the exploitative torture it is, James Mangold’s film finally allowed for a proper examination of this.
Logan is exactly the right essay to accompany Jackman’s tear-stained resignation from the mantle he has so ably carried since X-Men in 2000. Jackman himself delivers a suitably grizzled yet exposed performance, which finally penetrates through the character’s self-defensive façade of gruff nihilism, to hit you with 17 years of pent-up emotion. Because no matter how red-meat-and-beer a Jackman performance gets, never doubt for one second, he can still make you cry.
What we had received before from the horrendous Wolverine Origins and the bizarre The Wolverine was the assertion that Logan had a bad case of Anne Rice syndrome. As an apparent immortal, Wolverine was tortured by the inevitable loss of those he loved most, and chose to live in solitude to avoid that pain (although even then he ended up sharing a cave with an ill-fated bear). But that’s never been what is really at the heart of the tragedy of the character.
While earlier films treated Wolverine as un-killable, it had never been determined how old he was, or how he might age. Rediscovering the character’s mortality sees Logan finally realise his potential as an avatar for the plight of the working class. What we get in Logan, is less a tired rehash of the tortured soul story, and more a portrait of the rapid degeneration of a human being as a result of extended exploitation.
And I know, a bunch of you literally just sighed at that last sentence; but this is not a case of me reading things into it that aren’t there. The whole two hours of Logan shows us a human body used up by greed, exploited by war-mongers looking for the perfect killing machine and profiteers hungry for eternal youth and greater control. Wolverine’s historical encounters have seen his once boundless physical wealth drained time and again by the interests of the powerful – and though each time he gets back up and goes again, we finally understand the price he pays for that, and we see the fully-fledged horror of old age that we have seen our ailing loved ones live out, blown up and writ large on the silver screen.
A working class hero is something to be
In the uncomfortably close future of 2029, where large corporations openly attack people in modern land-grabs, self-driving freight vehicles litter the highway and tigers are extinct, mutants have allegedly ceased to be born – the result of social engineering by a corporation with links to the military states of Mexico and the US, who have turned mutant births into a defence contract patent. Meanwhile a haggard Logan is eking out a living as a limo driver to vile Pitbull-listening, money-pissing clients, who chant “USA, USA” at the sight of the US-Mexico border. Logan, reminiscent of the “old, broken-down piece of meat” Mickey Rourke describes himself as in The Wrestler, lives in an abandoned industrial facility in the desert, where he is caring for Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who has developed some form of dementia.
Logan and Xavier here play out a kind of not-for-laughs Steptoe and Son, as the old man refuses to let Logan move beyond their past, while throwing around accusations of “You’re just waiting for me to die!” that left with a lesser actor would be comical. As it is, Stewart – who for years seemed so ageless – is almost unrecognisable here, delivering a heart-wrenching performance as the black-eyed and trembling nonagenarian. There is an audible lump in his throat on multiple occasions when he momentarily succumbs to Logan’s long-standing cynicism as he stands on the precipice of his own end. He spends his moments of lucidity reflecting on his legacy with mutants on the brink of extinction, or dreading what happens when he loses control of his once unparalleled telekinetic powers.
Like Logan, Xavier has spent a lifetime being exploited and worn down by institutional oppression and the exploitation of his talents. In the time we spend with the pair in this environment, we see the unspoken horror which awaits us all at the end of a life spent selling our life-force to survive. We live out our final days as parodic reversals of our former selves; the fiercest of intellects will fade into confusion and paranoia, while those possessing great physical strength will collapse into decrepit husks. There is no sugar-coating this, and Mangold’s story does nothing to seek out a magical reversal of the degeneration of individuals. It’s not a spoiler to say that you should go into this film without the expectation for a death-bed recovery from anyone.
What there is instead, as with the concluding chapters of every great legend, is a hope for the future world that our heroes leave behind. From the epics of Beowulf and Robin Hood, through to classic gunslinging Western Shane (which even features in the finale) or V for Vendetta, those who suffer to deliver a new society are damaged beyond repair by the experience, instead bequeathing a new era to the next, uncorrupted generation.
Laura, a young Latinx mutant on the run from researchers who had attempted to weaponise her abilities, seeks help from Xavier and Logan, at which point the film becomes a dark road movie. Even when they’re only symbolic father figures, our elders can’t help but drive from the back-seat.
Laura has Logan’s same abilities, but she is still young enough not to have acquired the same mental and physical war-wounds, as well as to believe in ideals the world-weary Logan has written off as childish fiction. It would be criminal of me to go into any more detail regarding the plot than this, as it needs to be seen as widely as possible, but as Logan builds to that classical legend trope of living on through the society we leave behind, the film and the character impart a message for the world beyond the one which produced and crushed the Wolverine. Don’t be what they made you.
We are all damaged goods now, maybe that’s why our imaginations seem to have died to the extent we can only imagine an end of the world as an end to capitalism. Probably the most horrendous thing that we rarely admit, is that capitalism has fucked us up, it has beaten us, broken us down, given us generations worth of physical and mental scar tissue that will never quite heal, even if we manage to change things. While it is too late for us though, we should not resign ourselves to cynicism and nihilistic self-pity.
I think we owe it to those who come after us to use our energies to build something to free them from this process, in spite of the possibility we might never live to see it ourselves. That’s what Logan does, in the perfect final chapter to a modern legend.