When I was a kid, I absolutely loved the X-Men comics. And sure, there were the powers, and some great fights…but honestly, I found myself more swept up in the stories, and the way they seemed to be introducing me slowly to bigger, more universal, more adult themes. No, not sex, really, but themes like discrimination, hatred, parent-child relationships, forgiveness, mercy. These were big ideas, and in the best X-Men issues, the stories and the characters worked together to convey those ideas.
I say this because seeing Logan – not only the best Marvel movie to date, bar none, but a legitimately good movie, full stop – helped clarify for me much of what I’ve found frustrating about the Marvel films on the whole. When your stories are entirely focused on some bland “big bad,” there’s no substance, no ideas. It’s all empty flash and style, and while that can be fun for a while, it loses something quickly. It’s why even the best Marvel films – Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy – often fall apart during the requisite “final battle”. There’s no ideas, no themes, no moral battle – just superpowers being hurled at each other. And who cares anymore?
Which brings us back to Logan, a superhero film that succeeds by having almost no interest in being a superhero film, and instead, just wants to be a film. There are no costumes, no heroic speeches, no villains in a column of light destroying the world. (Indeed, the film’s biggest villain is all the more unsettling for his calm rationality and his lack of any physical threat. His threat comes in the form of ideas.) And our hero here…isn’t a hero. And I don’t mean that he’s an antihero, like Deadpool, or lovable rascals like the Guardians. No, when the film opens, Logan is old – there’s grey throughout his beard, he wears glasses to read, he limps, and he drinks. He just wants to be left alone, and live with his sins. And Charles Xavier, the once proud mutant leader? He shows signs of dementia, and is kept locked away from the world for not his own safety, but the safety of others. No, our heroes aren’t heroes anymore. They’re old men, and they’re nearing their deaths, and need to reckon with their lives.
Hugh Jackman, James Mangold, and numerous others have been quick to point out how much Logan feels like the Marvel universe’s take on Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and the resemblances are obvious. Logan is undeniably a Western, with its bleached desert settings, its rugged heroes, its one-on-one showdowns. But there’s another touchstone that Jackman has named, and it’s equally important to understanding Logan – Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which follows a broken, beaten professional wrestler who’s still doing his best to make his way in a job that he’s rapidly getting too old for, and making his peace with the broken relationships he’s left behind. And to me, that’s the more important touchstone for Logan, because Logan is not a typical Marvel movie. It’s melancholy, and bitter, and feels like a paean to a once-iconic figure who’s trying to figure out what his life was even all about, now that he’s nearing the end of it. In other words, it’s a film about aging and mortality, and never shies away from that fact.
It is also, like Unforgiven, a film about violence and the toll it takes on you. When Logan‘s R-rating was first announced, I wondered if it wasn’t going to fall into the “grimdark” category – being basically a generic superhero film, but full of angst and over the top violence without purpose. Instead, Logan is merely unflinching. The violence is undeniably brutal, but it’s never glamorous, never fun. We’re not meant to cheer as Logan disembowels these men – it’s just a sense that violence is his life, and all he can do anymore. Like Clint Eastwood’s aged gunfighter in Unforgiven, he’s a man who’s made his way with violence, and has learned to live with the consequences.
What all this adds up to is a legitimately powerful, rich Marvel film, a film that’s not just good as a comic book movie, but good as a film. There are no tie-ins, no set-ups for the next story, no cute in-jokes. There’s humor, but it springs from the characters, and their rapport. (Jackman and Stewart are a joy together in this film, and it makes me wish that Logan wasn’t so clearly a final chapter in this story; this pairing of them feels human and rich in a way that almost no Marvel movie ever has to me, and single-handedly elevates the film to another level.) Yes, there’s a plot, but it’s a simple one, like Unforgiven – an iconic figure, trying to hide from the world, gets drawn into the fight one last time – and one that’s more interested in its characters than it ever is in its story. (Indeed, I love how the brief explanation we get of the villain’s plan is almost entirely in the background, as though it barely matters.) And yes, there’s a final fight, and in many ways, it’s the least interesting aspect of the film, although the symbolic importance is obvious in how it’s handled.
But really, what lingers with Logan is the mood and tone of it all – the hushed, melancholy, elegiac feel as characters look back at their lives and question what it means. That’s a hard set of questions, and far scarier than any supervillain who’s trying to destroy the world. What’s more, how do we keep fighting for a world that’s largely moved on without us, and doesn’t seem to want our help – or care what it does to us? Logan takes these on and takes them seriously, giving us a comic book film that’s interested in telling an adult story – not in a childish or ridiculous way, but in a thoughtful, effective one. It’s a reminder of why I loved comic books in the first place, and a rich piece of filmmaking, showing that not every comic book movie has to be all quips and cosmic stakes. After all, what’s far scarier is being faced to wonder whether you’ve ever been the hero everyone thought you were.