Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) is one of my favorite films of all time, easily my favorite of the Western genre, because it recontextualized the Western film in a time when the Western film was already dying. Eastwood, having played numerous cowboys throughout his storied career, was now a grizzled former gunslinger living in the middle of nowhere, trying to care for his family and repent his bloody past. As Eastwood ostensibly represents the Western genre, this domesticated role reversal and his subsequent call back into action make Unforgiven a reflection on the Western, dramatically criticizing the typical Western use of violence that promotes false ideals of manhood and subjugating women and minorities. As such, it’s no wonder that 2017’s Logan, itself a reflection on the superhero genre, would take several cues from Unforgiven.
All big movie genres have life cycles: they’re born, they become popular, they exhaust themselves, and, if they’re important enough, they transform. The Western genre is an easily identifiable example of this, as its visible boom from the 1930s to the 1960s and ensuing decline towards the turn of the century are indicative of this trend. Likewise, Hugh Jackman’s tenure as Wolverine in the X-Men films bookends two important milestones in the superhero genre. X-Men (2000) was the start of the superhero craze that has come to dominate Hollywood for the last two decades, and 2017’s Logan represents a response to the public’s exhaustion with that dominance. Logan borrows quite a bit from the revisionist Western as a result—after all, the myth of the superhero is in many ways the same as the myth of the gunslinger—showcasing a famous hero outside the law entering a grey world in which the concepts of right and wrong have become blurred, effectively transforming the way we will continue to watch superhero movies from now on. Where Logan mirrors Unforgiven in its tone, it also does so in its purpose. Unforgiven signaled the death of the Western genre, while looking back on it in a new light. Logan does the same for superheroes.
Logan is the product of a modern genre system which draws influence from motion pictures’ past while looking to the future. It’s an X-Men movie, deconstructed and then fastened back together with the sinew of the Western. The thematic meat is aimed at the appetite of moviegoers who are tired of having to suffer through the latest serialized go-around of faux end-of-the-world stakes. Here is a self-contained narrative that seeks to ring closure not only to several iconic characters’ existences, but to an era in the lives of fans who have watched the last seventeen years of Hugh Jackman donning adamantium claws in the iconic role.
The film’s premise seems pessimistic at first. Twelve years from where we stand, mutants are no longer born and America is a scorching hell-scape for the few that remain. Violence is the fabric of America in 2029. The only sensible recourse, as the gods of irony would have it, is to escape back to Canada where it all began. But Logan wants no part of a new community. He moonlights as a limo driver to save up enough money to live out at sea, where neither he nor his ailing mentor can cause people harm, away from the world the X-Men failed to preserve. He may have Caliban and Xavier in tow, invalids whose powers involve tracking down any mutants the world has left—a last-ditch effort at community—but to him their function is merely to help each other live out their final days. In a sense, Logan is alone. He was once kind of a hero. Once kind of a good guy, who went on adventures. Once kind of a father, who helped Rogue find safety and guided her towards finding herself. Now he’s a myth. A shell of himself. A drifter without a purpose. The Wolverine exists in the pages of comics, but Logan struggles to retain that heroism. The world has given up on all those like him. He’s giving up on it in return. So, it seems that this dysfunctional family is all he has left.
But Logan is not the dour film this setup would indicate. It is undoubtedly a film about lonely and morose people, and a violent one to boot, but it’s about the good these people do in their final days. More importantly, it’s about how they’re pushed to do it; how they find the things and people that make life worth living again, no matter how briefly. It’s about reaching into the darkness of their pasts and finding a light worth sharing. It’s about the things that birthed us and made us who we are – the pain, the trauma, the unforgiving ugliness that we inflict on each other and on ourselves – but it’s also about where we go from there.
At the beginning of any story, we wonder whether our protagonist will be a hero, whether man will become myth, even if it’s just for a moment. In this story, Logan has been a hero before: he’s a kind of celebrity, his good deeds have been embellished, they are already folklore. The presence of actual X-Men comics in the film is more than just a wink to the audience. It not only creates a rift between Wolverine, the myth, and Logan, the flesh & blood, but to some it provides a means of escape (both literal and metaphorical, considering the condition of the dehumanized youths of the Weapon X program). Logan is less film about a character finding out who he is, and more about remembering who he once was. And then, Logan becomes that hero once again for us, one last time.
That is why Logan’s timing and effectiveness are so perfect. The film revels as both a longing for and a criticism of the superhero genre. Conventions of the superhero genre are tried and true, and the film accordingly follows some and upends others. But more importantly, in this last outing of the Wolverine, Logan begs to answer the question of what occurs when genre conventions become so well known that the audience demands something new. What form does that change take?
Nostalgia, for starters, is quite omnipresent actually in today’s Hollywood where every blockbuster has some connection to a popular movie from the past. However, nostalgia is not, by any means, a bad thing, because memory is such a strong signifier for emotional connection. But rather than throwing out the occasional reference, Logan evokes a romanticized past and updates the tried and true storylines with contemporary elements, making audiences aware of this relationship between the past and present. Logan furthermore demythologizes the superhero genre, as it subjects popular myths and conventions to a reality that undercuts and exposes them as inadequate or even harmful. The whole movie is a meditation of the violence that all superhero films imply, as it shows a visceral brutality that complicates the heroics of Logan’s past, as well as those of all superheroes. The film goes to show that no personal moral code can wield power without risking devastation. Logan himself expresses that people who get close to him always end up dying, but the ailing Charles Xavier moreover makes this theme painfully clear as the narrative implies that his aging mind is responsible for the unintentional death of many innocent mutants. Logan’s past exploits of heroism from the previous films even reemerge as trauma and nightmares.
But in the end, there is still a reaffirmation of the myth, which is the most interesting aspect of this entire endeavor. Logan does subvert the genre but, in the end, chooses to reaffirm the myth as something that we need to believe in. Both the film and the character make one last final act of sacrificial heroics that reaffirms the genre myths after exposing them as inadequate, but embracing once again the greatness and hopefulness inspired by superheroes. Superhero films have always accentuated the choice to act heroically even in times of adversity, but what proves the most powerful is witnessing someone finally learning to live with his decisions. Logan no longer has any reason to see good in the world, but he comes back fighting to see it for someone’s sake. He returns as a warrior, finally at peace with what he leaves behind: the death, the pain, the trauma, the suffering—but also, inextinguishable light.
The dog tags, the samurai sword, the adventures on printed pages; these are all symbols of events we witnessed during this seventeen-year saga. They are reminders of a series that was at once disappointing and iconic, much like its protagonist. But here, as this final chapter comes to a close, bringing with it the missing weight of all the death and prejudice that were once mere noise and color, Logan and his final film appearance serve a far greater purpose. They remind us that no matter what’s come before, no matter the journey we’ve taken or the mistakes we’ve made or the things we deeply regret, there is still a way to move forward when our wounds refuse to heal. There is still a way to make the world better for someone who might need it. And perhaps, at the end of the day, that’s the ultimate theme of the superhero genre. Many superhero films have been plagued in recent years by the stereotypical beam-in-the-sky climax, but turning that skybeam off and beating the bad guys is what makes the world better in that situation. In Logan, it’s just on a more personal level, invoking an empathy which provides a lens to recontextualize that overarching theme.
Still, in its efforts to examine the superhero genre, Logan comes out as one of the best comic books movies of all time, and certainly my favorite film of this year. It’s the best work that both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have done in the X-Men series, and maybe their entire careers. Marco Beltrami’s haunting score, Francois Audouy’s dusty, consumerist nightmare production design, John Mathieson’s painterly frames, and James Mangold’s fearlessness to unleash all our bloody fantasies while allowing Logan’s primal core to scream out create an exceedingly entertaining and thoughtful final film for one of cinema’s most significant heroes, one of tragedy and hope that ends softly, rather than with a bang. Yeah, that’s all great. But on top of that, the movie is a conversation between nostalgia for the genre and our increasing frustration with its limits. It’s a contemplation on where superheroes have failed and prevailed, and consequently how we should all continue to hope despite the imbalance.
Logan is the next turning point for the comic book film, an attempt to interrogate the contours of the superhero myth in order to see if there are any interesting directions left to go and to urge us to be hopeful rather than disappointed when the time comes to embrace the coming death of the superhero genre.
Image Credits: Flickr