This film is indeed all about catharsis, ours certainly but mostly Logan’s: liberating violence alongside liberal use of profanity, both underpinned by what we know to have been eighteen long years of pain, pent-up sexual frustration (he pulls out his malfunctioning claw by hand!), and repression (it’s no coincidence that there are no more references to or dreams about the love he cannot have, Jean Grey).
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In the denouement of the latest installment of the X-Men franchise, Logan (2017), Wolverine is finally, supposedly, put to rest. I say “supposedly” because Wolverine has died ten times in the world of comics, a fact that has certainly contributed to his increasingly gloomy demeanor over the years. He has not yet come back from his latest comic book death – enshrined in the very metal that made him lethal, adamantium – so perhaps after almost twenty years spent in the film series, he may actually stay dead. Compared to the adamantium death in The Death of Wolverine (issue #4, 2014), Logan offers an equally suggestive ending by reversing the role that adamantium plays: it does not kill Wolverine from the outside but from within. Over the years, there have been mentions in the comics about the poisonous effect the metal has on Wolverine’s ever-healing body, and Logan does in fact refer to the metal as “poison” in this installment. However, the poison that really kills off Logan, or rather James Howlett, his onomatopoeic birth name from Origins (2009), is certainly not something as tangible as metal. Rather, it is the unbearable guilt and split of his conscience that have followed him throughout the series. What kills him from the inside is the interminable fight between Good and Evil, between Good Wolverine and Bad Wolverine. And director James Mangold’s Logan displays both the metaphorical and the literal, as two possible versions of Logan collide before our very eyes in the film.
Unlike the previous installments in the series, the violence in this film feels hyperbolized. The adamantium claws penetrate several skulls in close-up shots, as Wolverine fully unleashes hell at last. Verbally as well, both Charles and Logan swear copiously in the R-rated film – we can thank the success of Deadpool (2016) for that – to the satisfaction of the audience. Indeed, it is satisfying because with Charles it seems improper, giving the character another humanizing dimension, and with Logan it seems liberating, as if his mouth finally catches up with the drinking, smoking, and killing. There is also a sense of fulfilment that comes with the two characters bickering after anchoring this series for almost two decades. They really do act like a stereotypical old married couple; there is love and affection in the way Logan carries Charles around, but also animosity and disillusionment: “What a disappointment you are,” whispers Charles to Logan at one point. The X-Men have often been considered an allegory for LGBTQ and civil rights, most forcefully in X2: X-Men United (2003) with its proposed mutant “cure” and the pointedly misguided question that Iceman’s mother asks, “Have you tried … not being a mutant?” One finds such instances peppered throughout the series. For example, Beast alludes to the infamous policy of the US military by saying, “You didn’t ask, so I didn’t tell,” in X-Men: First Class (2011). But in spite of all opposition, the two men are still standing (well, not really; one is in a wheelchair, while the other limps). They made it very far together, and it feels cathartic. This film is indeed all about catharsis, ours certainly but mostly Logan’s: liberating violence alongside liberal use of profanity, both underpinned by what we know to have been eighteen long years of pain, pent-up sexual frustration (he pulls out his malfunctioning claw by hand!), and repression (it’s no coincidence that there are no more references to or dreams about the love he cannot have, Jean Grey).
But let’s backtrack a bit. The world we are introduced to in Logan feels apocalyptic. There are very few mutants left. Mexico and the United States are separated by a wall that coalesces a fantasy world with the bitter realities of our current lives. A despondent Logan makes a living by driving a limo. He safe-keeps Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in a desolate farm south of the border, where he is helped by the Shakespearean Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who has the ability to track other mutants. Their world is further turned upside down when a mysterious girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), appears, needing help to get to Eden, a supposed sanctuary for mutants in North Dakota. She turns out to be Logan’s daughter, engineered in a laboratory from his genes, and like Logan, she endures an operation to have her claws coated with adamantium (though not her still growing bones). The plot of the film then boils down to these characters being on the run from Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), his army of Reavers (humans with bionic implants), and a surprise villain.
Several early reviews of the film have described it as a (successful) departure from the comic book genre, reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s reboot of Batman and thus more prone to darkness, grittiness, and existential angst. While all that may be true, most of the “darkness” comes from finally being given full access to the character, to his feelings, fears, and unbending desire to die. Logan has been around a long time, and he is now so tired and sick that he falls over himself. He is beaten down, scarred, dirty, ugly – hell, he is darkness. Aesthetically, Logan hardly qualifies as a film noir, but the character has always fit the parameters of the noir hero: a man with a hazy past, generally on the side of the law but of ambiguous morals. Moreover, noir thrives on internal conflict and a grim perspective on human nature, both cynical (Logan derides the idealistic messages from comic books) and pessimistic (Logan, again, challenges Professor X on whether or not mutants are God’s mistake). Cynicism and pessimism lead right into alienation and questioning the absurdity of life, which in the case of Logan has been amplified with gargantuan intensity, given his interminable life. It is, then, not existential angst that defines Wolverine, but rather absurdism: he is less of an existentialist descendant of Jean-Paul Sartre and more of an absurd Sisyphus; not the Greek, robotic one, but the version proposed by Albert Camus, the one capable of reflecting on his fate while he goes down the mountain to retrieve the boulder and carry it back up to the summit.
However, as is often the case these days in Hollywood, Logan amounts to pastiche that goes beyond just shades of film noir and existentialism. For example, in a self-deprecating moment, Caliban references the German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu (1922). There is also a sustained presence of the western genre. Logan is the archetypal lonely cowboy, the Man with No Name from the spaghetti westerns, who cannot settle down or accept the value and reward of family life, even when Charles pushes him to believe that “there is still time.” The same Charles waxes poetic to Laura as they watch extended scenes from George Stevens’ seminal Shane (1953), which features a glum cowboy with a mysterious past. At the end of the film, Laura recites lines from Shane by Logan’s grave, and then, in the last shot, she takes out the cross at the top of the grave and places it back sideways, transforming it into an X. It is a sweet moment of homage to Logan the X-Man and the now-defunct Wolverine series, but it also echoes Wolverine’s crucifixion by the Reavers on an X-shaped cross (Uncanny X-Men, issue #251, 1989). It’s not the first time the series makes an allusion to that other figure of suffering and self-sacrifice, Jesus: in the first X-Men (2000), Magneto raises Wolverine up and spreads his arms in a cross before flinging him away.
Given the misery that plagues this character, it’s no surprise that Logan repeatedly refers to something eating away at him from inside, perhaps the adamantium, perhaps an unnamed disease. It’s never clearly explained what ails him, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t care to know. When Laura takes him to a doctor after he had collapsed in the street, he naturally scoffs at the suggestion that he should check himself into a hospital. Of course, Logan does not need to know what is wrong with him. It is not physical, and so he deflects and denies. He already knows what is wrong – incommensurable guilt. The above-mentioned split in his conscience reoccurs throughout the entire series. Logan often wonders about the “beast” within, about being the “bad guy,” and that discourse only amps up in this film. When he wakes up screaming, Laura tells him she gets nightmares too, because she had been hurt by people in the past. Logan’s retort is that he has experienced the opposite, that it is he who has hurt people. This is not quite true, because Wolverine is easily the superhero who suffers the most both physically (he survives multiple deaths and Stryker’s excruciating experiment) and emotionally (unrequited love): he is Sisyphus and Jesus wrapped in Frankenstein’s monster.
All of Logan’s hurt from the comics and the films comes to a halting and violent end in the climactic scene of this film, as Logan’s split conscience takes on a material twist. On the one hand, there is his spawn, Laura: aggressive and stubborn, yet charming, big-hearted, and perhaps still innocent (although it’s hard to call her innocent after we are first introduced to her fighting skills when she rolls a severed head at the bad guys). On the other hand, there is Dr. Rice’s surprise, another lab creation yielded from Logan’s genes. He is a project weapon, a soldier who looks like a younger version of Logan, but one stripped of all personality, empathy, and morality. In place of all that he is given enhanced levels of aggression. This “Bad Wolverine” represents the other side of the spectrum – the pure animal. He is clearly the embodiment of Logan’s worst fears about himself, something that he literally fights throughout the film and something that bests him over and over again. So, Logan’s internal fight that drives the plot of the film forward manifests itself in the actual fight between the two polar opposite characters that have literally emerged from his genes. On the ground, tired and almost defeated, Logan watches the two spar. He intervenes one more time but is quickly put down, as Bad Wolverine slams him into the trunk of a tree. In a departure from the overall dark tone of the film, the girl (and Logan’s good side) ends the fight by blowing Bad Wolverine’s head off with the adamantium bullet that Good Wolverine had kept while working up the courage to kill himself. Which makes us ask: Why didn’t Wolverine’s head explode in Origins when shot with an adamantium bullet, but rather merely lost his memory? Well, let’s not argue about the logic of comic books, but I’m inclined to believe it’s probably because he actually cannot die. So I look forward to his next resurrection.
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Unless otherwise stated, images are screenshots from trailers freely available on YouTube.