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Fathers and Wolverines

For some comic fans, ‘Logan’ is a film they’ve been waiting for their whole lives

(20th Century Fox/Marvel/Ringer illustration)
(20th Century Fox/Marvel/Ringer illustration)

I cried during Logan, and I wasn’t really expecting to, although I really should have seen it coming. To explain, I’m going to have to go back to the beginning of time, so bear with me:

There used to be this dusty, translucent 70-quart storage bin hidden away in the garage of the house I grew up in, right behind the table saw, between the air compressor and this big, red rolling toolbox. It was full to overflowing with X-Men comics my dad had collected over the years — the original X-Men, Uncanny, Vol. 2, later New Mutants, Cable, and of course Wolverine. Traveling to soccer and basketball tournaments all over the Southeast when I was younger, I would grab a handful to read on the way to Pensacola, Memphis, Houston, or points in between.

Because they were such a random selection of titles and issues, the stories were difficult to follow, and probably brain-addling to explain to a finicky 11-year-old. So, rather than get bogged down in the frankly impossible plot, OG Peters would lean back on the larger themes: about how the right thing is rarely the easiest thing; the importance of curbing the impulse to do wrong when hope is in short supply; avoiding dating your coworkers. I should say here that my dad loves me and I him, but we had our struggles finding common ground and breaking uncomfortable silences, just like anyone else. When our conversations veered toward more trivial things like, say, who Joe Gilliam was, or why Magneto had a different haircut in Uncanny and seemed to be nicer to people (or less prone toward genocide, at least), those are the times when dad was most engaging.

Above all else, dad appreciated that the superpowered world-beaters in the X-Men stories were also flawed, and felt conflicted, too. “They’re complicated,” he’d say. “None of the villains are all bad, and the heroes aren’t just, all good.”

Not that there were ever any illusions about Wolverine being all good. There’ll be some spoilers to follow, so if you haven’t seen Logan yet you should leave, but enjoy this montage of Wolverine savagely killing people before you go.

Logan began the same way The Wolverine did: the titular character in disrepair, wallowing in his own filth. But 2013’s Jesus-bearded Wolverine looked like a frustrated session player for Iron & Wine, with director James Mangold playing up the idea that our reluctant hero just wanted to be left alone, to cartoonish extremes. He slept in the woods with a fifth of Jack and a faulty AM radio; befriended an actual bear. 2017’s version of Logan is more rooted in reality, or rather, weighed down by it. We find him grayed, jaundiced, and withering in a wrinkled, sweat-stained shirt, drooling into the backseat of his car at a drive-in somewhere in south Texas. He coughs himself awake, ambles around with a limp, and he can’t count on all three claws to come out at the same time anymore. It’s clear that Logan is too old and too tired for this shit — both literally and existentially. He still brutally murders a gang of people, but not without considerable effort, and reluctance.

The threat in The Wolverine was a dying titan of industry attempting to siphon more life out of Wolverine using a massive mech-samurai suit. In X-Men, Magneto attempted to mutate every foreign dignitary using the Statue of Liberty as a conduit. Other X-Men films dealt with otherworldly and frankly silly, impossible stakes, which was fine — sometimes great — but eschewed meaningful exploration of what was most interesting: the interactions between characters. In Logan, previous movies get passing nods from a nonagenarian “Chuck” Xavier and a katana hanging forgotten above the sink, but the new film deftly avoids the issues of scale by leaning into intimacy, examining the forming, maintenance, and demise of relationships.

When Logan begins, there’s any number of directions it could take — a sullen cogitation on violence (what do 10-inch, razor-sharp claws really do to human flesh?); a protest piece in the age of Trumpism (it’s not a coincidence that most non-Wolverine characters are young, nonwhite, and targeted); a prestige drama about death and loss. It is all of these at various points, but the film it chooses to be makes it the superhero movie I’ve been waiting 17 years for: At its core, Logan is about hard-earned pessimism, the inertia in which it suspends you, and the practical difficulty of overcoming both.

The vehicle for overcoming that pessimism and inertia is fatherhood. About a quarter into the movie, Logan is charged with caring for a young girl with adamantium claws who, like him, is given to fits of homicidal rage. Exhausted by life and waiting impatiently to die, he doesn’t want to be the one to teach Laura Kinney — or “X-23” (played by excellent newcomer Dafne Keen) — how to quell those urges, but there’s no one else to do the job. The scene that appears in the trailer, where Charles croaks from the backseat that “someone has come along,” turns out to be in reference to a family whose truck was run off the road. But really, it’s an epigram for the movie: a call to lead by example.

Laura’s only ever known the tiled walls of a military research facility, and her understanding of the world is informed mostly by comic books. She fills in the gaps with her baser instincts. Someone has to teach her that there’s more to it than that — to be better than that. These lessons all happen on the road to a mythical safe haven for mutants that Logan isn’t even sure exists, but the destination isn’t what’s most important. The journey itself might not even be what’s most important.

Logan’s being present is, and for him, that’s the hardest part. His story has, until now, largely consisted of barging in, fucking shit up, and leaving. “I suck at this,” he says in one of the movie’s more tender moments. The bad things happen to everyone I care about superhero trope is a tired one when deployed in the context of onscreen romantic relationships — pick any Batman movie — but between father and child, it basically sings.

I can count the number of times I’ve seen my dad cry on one hand, and I wouldn’t even need to use all of my fingers. The last I can vividly remember was 11 whole years ago, when we went to see X-Men: The Last Stand at the Citiplace theater in Baton Rouge. Just like we did the previous two installments. It was a Saturday.

Professor Xavier dies in that movie toward the end, but he doesn’t so much “die” as get telekinetically atomized by Dark Phoenix, a one-woman psychic apocalypse. While getting mentally drawn and quartered, Charles gasps out one last piece of wisdom to the Jean Grey still buried somewhere deep inside that all-consuming power: “Don’t let it control you.”

I can say now that Last Stand was a truly ridiculous and bad movie, but in 2006 I didn’t know that, and I was distraught. When I looked to my dad to make it stop, I saw a single tear roll down his cheek. Comics handle weighty issues with kids gloves for the most part — “ice cream for bedwetters,” as Logan describes them — but the deeper you dive into the characters, the less the impossibility of it all matters to you, the more attached to the characters you become. Watching those characters turn the final page of their career, then, is a profoundly sad experience. Particularly because you’ve been there — issue in, anthology out — turning the pages on these outsider allegories since the beginning. In a way, my dad was watching the death of a childhood guidance counselor.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

By that same token, watching Hugh Jackman, who’s been Wolverine for most of my life, wheeze and plod toward certain death wasn’t easy.

At the end of Logan, Logan, nearing his end, gasps out one last piece of wisdom to his pupil: “Don’t be what they made you.” Laura then repeats that monologue from Shane, the classic Western she and Charles watched on TV in that Oklahoma casino. “Now run on home to your mother,” she squeezes out between stifled sobs, as if to say that she knows Logan did the best he could. But he was already gone, and she couldn’t be sure anyone was listening. I shrank into my seat and pulled my shirt up over my nose, drowning in my feelings.

Suddenly I was back at Citiplace, and I realized I needed to call my dad.