No Country For Old X-Men
The opening word of 'Logan' is Fuck, so you know it's for grown-ups. Nearly two and a half hours later, the film closes with a character taking hold of a makeshift wooden cross at the head of a grave, rotating it 90 degrees to form an X. Again, the meaning is clear: this movie comes not to praise Bryan Singer and his family-friendly franchise entries, but to bury him.
‘Logan’, like its hero, is not inherently bad. The action scenes are punishing, and enjoyably visceral, if a squizz limited: in one scene Logan manages to stab some dudes through the head in three different ways (from the front; from the back; up through the chin); scatter in a couple of limb-loppings and the odd decapitation and you’ve pretty much got his full set of moves (the camera does not linger as long on the violence dealt by fugitive weaponised mutant child Laura – played malevolently and troublingly by Dafne Keen – which is probably just as well). Patrick Stewart is an absolute delight, alternately babbling senselessly, looking wistfully into the distance, swearing heartily, and relishing finally getting his mouth round some X-Men dialogue that isn't total cobblers. After a prolonged run of incredibly high-concept, high-stakes superhero movies, the rawness and humanity of this one makes for a welcome change: the core cast of characters is admirably concise; the scale is personal; there is no shying away from the human impact of violence on a psychological and corporeal level (nor that of ageing, for that matter). It is also a blessed relief to watch a movie based on this sort of existing IP that doesn’t end by teeing up a sequel, or feel like a link in a something longer. This is the end of the chain; this is a headstone.
Unfortunately, though, ‘Logan’, like its hero, is not wholly good either. And this is a problem, because what ‘Logan’ really, transparently wants to be is good. Not good as in adequate – like I said, it’s fine – but good as in a measure of quality and prestige: mature art, adult art, the sort of art – like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road – that gets a black and white remaster. It thinks good in this sense means dark, and violent, and profane; world-weary and caustic and washed out. It does some back-of-the-envelope maths and realises that the people who first saw X-Men and X-2 in cinemas are probably now long past thirty; it panders to a posited millennial malaise shamelessly, getting all Gen-X on the bleak ironic in-jokes: the X-Men comic exists in the world of the movie, for example, but it’s explicitly dismissed as the sort of thing only dumb kids believe in (geddit?! Someone play me out with the guitar riff from ‘Come As You Are’!).
In narrowing its focus down to Old Man Who’s Seen Too Much Dying Too Slowly porn, the film misses the opportunity to tell so many stories that would be more interesting. It throws out a potpourri of Big Ideas – Big Agriculture, US-Mexico foreign policy, addiction, fatherhood, the self-defeating logic of violence as the solution to violence – and then just leaves them there, uninterrogated, as though their mere presence in the script is enough to tick an imaginary box. It does nothing with its setting a decade-plus in the future; it does precious little with the plot point that a US corporation is outsourcing its shadiest practices to facilities on foreign soil. It is also astonishingly dude-centric, relegating women and girls to supporting and / or basically mute roles; genuine talk of strong Oscars prospects reveals how the industry at large can still be seduced by this sort of high-handed male seriousness, even when it is actually to the detriment of a movie that would fail the Bechdel test even harder than Logan would fail a DUI at any point in its narrative.
I’m not sure it even tells its central story – borrowed, in big handfuls at least, from the ‘Old Man Logan’ run in the comics – all that well. Wolverine / Logan is a fantastic protagonist for this sort of story – a character who is functionally pretty much immortal cannot help but outlast his friends and foes and be forced to live with the consequences; part of the reason the chills-inducing first trailer had me so psyched to see the film in the first place was the prospect of Jackman and P-Stew chewing post-apocalyptic scenery in the world’s highest-budget reimaginging of Endgame. But – one suspiciously Beckettian piece of millinery aside – it never reaches those heights, or seems especially interested in them – not when it could show another toughly real fight or chase scene. The Charles Xavier it presents has a degenerative brain disease, rendering a previously benevolent telepath something the government now classifies as a weapon of mass destruction; throughout the movie we glean hints that he may have done something terrible, unforgivable, to his kind. Give me Chuck’s Last Tape, Patrick Stewart sitting in a wheelchair for 120 minutes trying to come to terms with the appalling black irony of that – don’t purport to be a movie for adults and then show the same old superhero movie shit: people surviving explosions, spec ops soldiers who cannot aim a weapon, Hugh Jackman fighting against an evil Wolverine clone also played by Hugh Jackman helpfully dressed in black (you’re right, film crit bro, this is a very good and subtle evocation of raw id).
‘Logan’ is far from the worst comic book movie out there; graded on that specific curve – not an especially challenging one, as K. Austin Collins has observed: “A superhero walks into a bar. Couldn’t be helped – the bar was low” – it might be one of the Top 10. But it never threatens to succeed purely as a movie, which it has to do before it can assail the genuine classics of the genre. Its thematic concerns – and one particular scene of pissed-up frat bros giving the finger to huddled masses along a suspiciously Trumpian border wall – suggest it wants to be the post-11/9 version of The Dark Knight’s post-9/11 allegory, but it essentially leaves American behind in the final reel in favour of a fight in the woods. Some strong comic work from Jackman and a genuinely good script put it into a "best written" bracket with Guardians of the Galaxy, but lacklustre villains and a couple of ill-advised detours mean it lacks that movie’s giddy momentum and its tonal cohesion. It violence is not as stylised, or as beautiful, as the Grand Guignol gore in Blade; its human heart does not beat as affectingly as the one under the sternum of Unbreakable.
It’s good enough, I guess – both audiences and critics seem to think so, at any rate. But I dread what is coming, now that its box office has Hulked out. Hollywood will, as ever, find a way to learn the wrong lessons from this success, to focus on the bits that didn’t work but which were front and centre rather than the more affecting, less obvious stuff that did. I’d pay ten times as much to see the movie I thought I was going to see: a cross between Mad Max, Children of Men, and Unforgiven. People will argue that’s exactly what I got, but they’re missing the point. It’s not enough to pin your influences to your chest like a badge of honour; you have to engage with ideas, not gesture towards them. When you have adamantium claws in your hands, there are plenty of different ways in which you can slice things. This version of ‘Logan’ feels like the most uninteresting cut of all.