A superhero walks into a bar. Couldn’t be helped — the bar was low.
That’s not to say that James Mangold’s Logan, out Friday, merely clears the hurdle. It’s a statement about our expectations. The movie is Hugh Jackman’s last hurrah as the adamantium-clawed X-Man named Wolverine, a character he’s been playing for 17 years. It’s the Wolverine feature to end all Wolverine features, a brash farewell that one-ups most superhero fare by trying to stand alone, both aesthetically and topically. Rather than to make a superhero movie, Mangold’s studio directive must have been: make a movie. Not a movie-length preview for an inevitable sequel, nor a mere episode in the overblown season of TV that most movie franchises nowadays seemingly want to become, but a complete feature unto itself, satisfying on its own terms. Does that alone make it a good movie? No, but it happens to be one — and it’s going to be a hit, in part because it’s a satisfying piece of entertainment aimed squarely at adults, but mostly because most superhero movies are neither satisfying nor adult, and because our expectations have been adjusted accordingly.
Logan, as singular and sinewy as the man it’s about, will undoubtedly be graded on a curve. It doesn’t need the help. Mangold gives us a Wolverine who’s an addict, grizzled and hapless, working as a limousine driver in El Paso. It’s 2029, and it’s no country for old mutants. Most have been dead or hidden away for 25 years thanks to laws that have marked them as dangerous. Accordingly, Wolverine, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and Caliban (Stephen Merchant, an albino mutant capable of tracking other mutants), make a point of staying out of the public eye. They’re all a bit worse for wear. Professor X, supposedly dead but more accurately alive and deadly, is prone to violent seizures that are so destructive the government has deemed his brain a lethal weapon. Caliban, his wizened caretaker, looks as if he’s been subject to a few too many of those seizures. Logan is Logan, meanwhile, only more Man on Fire than X-Man, with a claw that won’t fully protract and a tempestuous attitude that makes his loneliness all the more self-explanatory. He can still put up quite a fight, though, as if coasting on old anger and anguish. He still spits bullets out of his body, too, and can automatically heal his own injuries. But not like he used to. This is a “Nothing is as it used to be” kind of movie.
Not exactly a winning trio of characters, but then, this isn’t a movie about winning. It’s about carrying on. Logan ventures to all the places superhero movies have tended not to go. Toward graphic violence, for example. Toward occasionally intriguing social ideas. Most of all, toward the brutal, irresolvable fact of death. The seed of all the action is a random encounter between Logan and a group of contractors who somehow know who he is, and who somehow know he’s been contacted by a woman looking for a ride to a place called Eden. That woman is a whistle-blowing nurse who has defected from a secret project that’s been using young women in Mexico to give birth to a clan of child soldiers spawned from the DNA of dead mutants. These are kids kept in cages and raised in labs. When Tranisgen, the company overseeing the project, decides it’d rather build a weapon without a soul, the kids are eventually marked for death. One of those children is a girl named Laura — a.k.a. X-23 — who has claws like Logan’s, who’s mean like Logan, and who kicks ass as well as, if not better than, Logan himself. Played with remarkable ferocity by newcomer Dafne Keen, Laura is a torrent of child rage — which, more than even the claws, is how you know Logan’s her genetic father. “You may not love her,” the nurse says, “but she is your child.”
We learn all of this in a cellphone video secreted by the nurse from the lab. It’s political imagery: tellingly self-serious and catnip for those hungry to turn every bit of culture into allegory, but also a breath of fresh air for the genre. I’d been wondering when superhero movies, with their constant nods to contemporary world events, would begin to feel more blatantly political. Why not? As of Age of Ultron, the Avengers are practically taking on the NSA, and the Batman of Christopher Nolan’s movies is as much a defense contractor as a masked vigilante. Logan, meanwhile, seems ripe for sparking conversations about immigration and empathy at a time when ICE raids are decimating the lives of our own nation’s immigrants. The movie becomes something of a road Western in the process. Why aren’t more superhero movies Westerns? Or thrillers, noirs, outright melodramas, or whatever else?
I’ve been wondering when superhero movies would stop treating superheroes like a genre unto themselves and instead subject them to the tropes and styles that have defined nearly every other kind of movie hero since the beginning of cinema. It isn’t so much that current superhero movies are some radical new form. It’s that the need to get them out — the studio mandate that requires they exist — has flattened out the weird pleasures that true genre can afford. For fantasies, superhero movies are not especially fantastical. For action movies, their sense of excitement can be fairly indistinct, as if what matters most is the mere existence of action scenes rather than what’s actually happening therein.
Marvel Studios movies, which dominate the field, are a case in point. The Avengers movies are known for their action-comedy, “hangout” vibe, but they’re also known for having too many big battles in Atlanta parking lots. The assembly-line facts of their production are hardly ever obscured. Thank God, in that sense, for offshoots like Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Ant-Man and Doctor Strange, which, as lower-stakes investments, seem to have escaped some of the harsher quality control of the main Marvel slate. Even then, the house style suffocates. Ant-Man was directed by Peyton Reed, the filmmaker behind such comedic confections as Down With Love and Yes Man — but even his Marvel movie looks, in some ways, like everyone else’s.
Logan at least has the benefit of not being a Marvel Studios movie, despite being about a Marvel character. Mangold’s interest in the aesthetics of violence is genuine; this is the first time, seeing Wolverine fight, that I’ve been pressed to think in a fundamental way about just how fucked up his claws look when, say, slicing a skull open. It’s also one of the first times a superhero movie has moved me. That’s the kind of thing that makes Logan seem altogether more sophisticated than the rest, by default. It’s interesting less for raising the bar than for clarifying where it is. I want superhero movies to become the inventive, original features they’re straining to become. I also want the rest of us to stop being such easy marks, overinvesting ourselves in every small act of genre transgression. Logan doesn’t break from form. But it may be enough that it livens things up.