Logan: A Film Fighting With Itself

It’s telling that Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine after playing the character for 17 years, heavily references a moment in Shane, the legendary 1953 Western. Specifically, it references the moment when gunfighter Shane tells Joey, the young son of some local ranchers, “Joey, there’s no living with, with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks. There’s no going back.” It’s one of the most famous indictments of violence in cinema history, and by citing it, James Mangold’s Logan clearly hopes to suggest that it, too, is challenging traditional notions of violence and masculinity.

This desire comes through in so many facets of Logan. This film does away with the glossy, sanitized brand of violence we’ve come to expect from so many superhero films, including many of the X-Men films, in which characters in tights have time for banter and wisecracks and the violence they engage in rarely leaves a lasting mark. Logan feels more like a Western itself, and Logan, as the violent, grizzled hero of this particular Western, is a figure genre audiences are all too familiar with: the brutal, emotionally closed off man who has disconnected himself from the world, but who forges a new connection with a younger person that peels away the layers to reveal that somewhere deep inside, he still has a beating heart. He shares some cinematic DNA with figures ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 in Terminator 2 to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea, but because of the beard, the gruff attitude, the parental relationship he forges with a young girl and the long journey the two of them take, it was Joel from the game The Last of Us who Logan reminded me of most.

Logan is a film at odds with itself

The film’s setup works well. It’s been years since the events of the last X-Men film. Logan, old, tired, grizzled, and utterly broken in every way, is trying to stay under the radar. A montage shows Logan driving a limo for an Uber-like service, drinking on the job and sizing up his customers with disdain: business executives, a bachelor party, a group of drunken frat boys chanting “USA! USA!” outside the limo roof while a border patrol officer looks on without a care. But this time it’s not about Logan just trying to stay away from everyone he cares or could care about. On the contrary, he is working to raise money to protect his old friend Charles Xavier, who has a degenerative disease that causes him to be one of the deadliest weapons in the world.

This movie is not light. It’s heavy all the way through, weighed down with time, loss, and grief, and any levity we encounter is in the sharp banter that exists between Logan and Xavier, two men who love each other in that frustrating way only family can, a relationship in which Logan has shifted from student to caregiver. Neither Xavier nor Logan are entirely comfortable with their new roles, and at one point Xavier tells Logan, “I wish I could say you were a good pupil but the words would choke me!” It’s biting, funny and sad all at once.

Chaos ensues when Logan extremely reluctantly takes on the responsibility of protecting a new mutant named Laura, once he discovers that she is just like him: bred with his genes, she heals just like he does, and just like he was, she was surgically “enhanced” with adamantium claws, born and bred to be a little killing machine. Unlike Wolverine, however, she also has blades that emerge from her feet, which the film justifies with some nonsense about how female lions are the hunters and protectors of their species. As Logan and Laura journey together, we see him actively keeping his distance from her, being short with her, not letting himself get attached to her. I bet you can guess how that ends up.

The violence in the film is atrociously gruesome, from the very beginning all the way to the end. There were so many claws through skulls that I lost track. Heads go flying, limbs get severed, blood spurts everywhere. Wolverine may explain to his young protege that violence is damaging to one’s psyche whether the victims are “bad guys” or not, and the film repeatedly reminds us of Shane’s words to young Joey, but this is also a film in which the action sequences are beautifully choreographed and meant to thrill and tantalize. Some of them would have looked right at home in George Miller’s symphony of glorified violence, Mad Max: Fury Road. So Logan is a film at odds with itself, telling us one thing about violence while showing us another.

Watching a young girl single-handedly destroy an army of men twists my brain up in knots. It is incredible to watch and satisfying because it challenges the feelings of weakness and frailty that girls learn to internalize. At the same time, it’s horrifying that this child or any child would be capable of such emotionless violence. Laura embodies a trope we’ve seen a few times in recent years, most notably in Hit Girl from Kick-Ass. But while I found the gleeful, comedic, psychological abuse of Hit Girl’s formation into a violent child assassin revolting, Laura’s story arc is presented more seriously and with a bit more respect. She was bred to be a military monster, and if the movie went on any longer we’d probably see her actively grappling with what that violence has done to her and how, or if, she can ever overcome that trauma.

I really wanted to see the movie this was supposed to be

Significantly, Laura was born in Mexico, and like her, all the children bred as mutant killing machines by the evil Transigen corporation are children of color, born to Mexican mothers who have since been disappeared. There was an opportunity here for the film to say so much about race, about corporations unscrupulously exploiting people in other countries, but Logan doesn’t seize that opportunity. On the contrary, its racial politics are typical and troubling.

Logan is introduced to us in an altercation with a group of stereotypical “cholos” whom he slaughters. The disappeared mothers of the mutant children receive only a passing mention in the film, concerns about their fates out of sight and out of mind. The Mexican nurse who risks her life to bring Laura to Logan in the hope that he might protect the child is murdered, her death serving to fuel his angst and uncertainty. Later, an entire black family is killed after offering Logan, Laura and Charles a place to stay for the night. People of color are introduced just to die, sacrificed to represent the inescapability of the violence that Logan has cultivated as a way of life. The film’s one and only saving grace here is the children themselves, who do survive; we can speculate that perhaps they are able to carve out a new, more peaceful kind of life for themselves, but whatever their fate, it happens offscreen. It’s not what this film is actually about.

It’s about Logan being tough and brooding as audiences expect of him, even as he is rotting from the inside out, swinging his claws even when he can barely stand up, resisting any ounce of human companionship. This is not anything new. It’s just packaged differently. During one scene in the film, three different groups of men vie for dominance, each trying to out-masculine the other, and it’s clear that one group is out of their league in the contest to be the most violent and manly of them all, and their “inferior” masculinity is played for laughs. But perhaps the greatest symbol of just how internally conflicted this film is about its own attitudes around violence is the fact that Logan must face a clone of himself, the soulless X-24, and the battles between them are the most relentlessly savage in the entire movie.

I didn’t hate Logan. It was entertaining, peculiar, and even kind of touching at moments when I wasn’t jerking my eyes away from the screen after a particularly gruesome butchering sequence. But I really wanted to see the movie this was supposed to be. The one buried deep inside, the one that explores how toxic masculinity and violence destroyed this man, and maybe even how men can change. Even old, curmudgeonly, cold-hearted men.