I’ve given myself a few days to think things over concerning the film Logan, and my initial reactions seem to be much the same, suggesting it made quite a strong and distinctive impact on me. I’m not alone. I haven’t seen a single truly negative reaction to the film, though I have been surprised that Kong: Skull Island thrashed it in terms of profits in the box office on opening weekend. That’s not to say the film hasn’t done well, but it is a reminder that Logan is a film for X-Men fans primarily and if others see it, they will no doubt enjoy it and find it interesting, but it won’t carry all of the same emotional weight as it would for a fan. And if people are not already X-Men fans, they might not enter that theater door in the first place.
Because the film has been so widely acclaimed among fans, rather than saying something new about the film, I’ll round up the most essential reactions that speak to the significance of the movie. As the title to this piece suggests, Logan is to the Wolverine character what the Lego Batman Movie is to the Batman character. If you haven’t seen The Lego Batman Movie, that’s ok–the idea is pretty simple.
The unexpected critical reaction from viewers who have seen The Lego Batman Movie is that despite how vastly different the film is from all the live action Batman movies that have been made, the film still manages to compile all the elements of Batman’s personality through time and different forms of media in such a way that it gives the truest portrait of the character that we’ve yet seen. It is the most Batman-tastic of films because it takes all the films into account, as well as the comics, animated series, and more. It creates an unprecedented melting pot of traits that help us step back and say “Yep, that’s who Batman is”, even while using humor to do so. Which in the tradition of the Dark Knight, is really an unexpected achievement.
So, when it comes to Wolverine, we’re not getting a technicolor plastic romp, though seeing a Wolverine Lego Movie could be quite interesting, but we are getting a film that attempts to take into account all the previous films featuring Logan, as well as many of the comics, and condense down the main traits of the character in a way that makes him the most recognizable he has ever been. And just like Batman, Wolverine has always been a recognizable and fairly well-defined character, but over time, as variations emerge, trying to step back and ask yourself who he is again is a useful thing to do.
Particularly if you love the character, as many of us do. Why do you love him? Trying to track my own Logan fandom goes very far back into the 80’s, when fellow fans assure me he was a really big deal and it would have been hard to escape him. I wasn’t aware of how popular he was at the time–his personality just struck me in a meteoric way. He was an angry man who could be good but could also be very dangerous who seemed to cut through a lot of the ambiguity inherent in the X-Men universe. It was a confusing universe for me where things were often not clearly or neatly wrong or right, but there were two constants–there would always be bickering and infighting among the X-Men, and Wolverine would always be angry. Why would that appeal to a kid? I think it was just his consistency. I’m not sure I would have explored the X-Men universe without him. I needed a fixed point. Also, of course, kids are angry and enthusiastic about characters who express rage without constraint. My brother was a huge Hulk and Punisher fan, still is, and I went for Wolverine.
Back to the film, Logan, this pertains. Let’s make no bones about the fact that reactions to the various X-Men films in which Logan has appeared have had mixed reactions. There’s not a huge amount of support for X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)and there was plenty of complaint about The Wolverine (2013), though less than Origins. Filmmakers were aware, clearly, that Logan is a natural lead for a film focused on a particular member of the X-Men. He also played a major role in the wider X-Men films, and in the particularly well-like Days of Future Past. But casting Logan as the central character in those two previous films tried in different ways to bring out the essence of his personality and defining traits, first by telling us how he came to be, and second by pitting him against elements from his past in an isolated way. Whatever you may think of those films, when you see the film Logan, you are likely to agree that this film did those things but succeeded where the others, to some extent, failed. Why did it succeed?
The environment in which Logan is placed in this new film is the most natural to him, as awful as that sounds for poor Logan. The most natural environment for someone with adamantium claws is a savage environment, a predatory, lawless environment. Seeing Logan operate in the strange wasteland of his life as a hired driver during this film is in some ways unbearable, but you’d be hard pressed not to laugh occasionally. It’s god-awful that he has to serve the dregs of society to scrape some cash together for a secret dream of buying a boat and escaping the world onto open water, but in some ways it’s so right that you know you are seeing a true depiction of a character you’ve known your whole life. It is an environment where we can see how Logan operates most naturally. As the story progresses, and Logan is asked to battle for survival against increasingly impossible odds, we are more and more aware that we are seeing the most basic and essential version of this character in action.
Another thing that makes this film more accurate at bringing out Logan’s essential characteristics is that it pares down to an almost archetypal or elemental level what he cares about. Since there’s so little left of the X-Men or of the world they used to know, that becomes simpler, but a lot rides on doing this well. Logan cares about Xavier. Logan cares about survival. Logan doesn’t care about the rest of the world enough to stay and try to get revenge. And gradually, as the film progresses, he is challenged not so much to care about the future, but to care about survival for specific individuals, like Laura, who faces the same predatory world he has faced. The trails Logan has been through in his life have reduced his own sense of priorities to the bare essentials. He’s at the end of his rope and so he has a clear course of action. Going up against that certaintly–that he will not help Laura because he’s already set on his course–is part of the conflict of the film. And that illuminates what we know about Logan and works because we know what few things he cares about at this point in his life.
The last thing that makes this film the most Wolverine-tastic of Wolverine films is the trickiest–we see what we perceive to be his most essential characteristics being taken away and then we get to see what remains behind. In this case, we see Logan’s powers of regeneration on the wane. He is “Old Man Logan” because his healing powers are declining. He’s ill, poisoned by his adamantium skeleton, and things are not looking good for him in that regard. We could spend a lot of time talking about the ways in which this film is actually a Western and why that contributes to its overall success since Logan + Western = Yes, but instead let’s talk about the tendency in Westerns to be concerned about the aging hero with a little fight left in him who wants to go out in a blaze of glory. Logan doesn’t have that attitude–so we can leave that to the side. But he does have that epic appeal of putting all his chips on the table for one last gamble.
And as he loses the thing that has given him the advantage, we are aware that there is more to him than his powers. We probably wouldn’t like the character so much if we didn’t think that to be true, but to see it to be true in a two hour film is a significant experience for Wolverine fans. What’s left? A strangely massive chunk of real humanity in that guy. Being a mutant operating in a world of often cold and predatory, definitely terrified humans for decades might have stripped that away, but no. Once he commits to something he does not back down. Once he cares about something, there’s no way he can stop caring about it.
We may have thought we knew who Logan was before now, but seeing this film will make you feel like you were wrong, and only now really know him. And so all the different ways in which we’ve been able to view Logan over the years, from comics to film have never really presented such an accurate picture on their own as this film, but like The Lego Batman Movie, the film needed those precursors to work with in order to boil things down to their most essential and get the character right in all the ways possible at once.
Logan is currently in theaters. You should really see it.
You should, however, definitely not take your children. This is an extremely violent and potentially disturbing film. Please don’t take that warning lightly.