Logan: A man comes around

Published by marco on

Logan is, from start to finish, a fantastic movie. It is enriched by knowing more of the back-story. It is the finale the series deserves, the denouement Wolverine has earned. The story is minimalist, in the best tradition of science fiction and cinematic storytelling, filling in only little details, letting incidental comments tell whole swaths of history.

On the surface, it’s at least partially an action movie. That is what many will see, to the exclusion of the film that I saw. Those seeking only standard superhero fare will likely be bored. Those shocked by raw violence will turn away as well.

But the movie has so much more, even on the surface. It’s a real movie, a real story, with pathos strung on the skeleton of a science-fictional world, a world with mutants and a world that had heroes, but discarded them. It’s about the futility of existence, about the bastards winning, grinding down, with inexorable, stubborn mindlessness, all that is good—all that which gives hope and purpose, a reason for going on. It is the story of a man longer in years than any since Biblical times, seeing that he came from nothing and will end in nothing. He is heroic, but unnoticed, of no consequence. He keeps fighting the windmills, the whirlwind. Why? Because it’s there. Life is pain, stoically borne.

I can’t stop thinking about this movie, about the implications, the context, the references. It is one of those movies whose success and depth is very much contingent on the context that you bring to it, I think.

I have been a fan of Wolverine since early days (almost four decades). In this movie, I see another connection with Logan: he is, at heart, an existentialist. He continued for so long despite not believing in any real purpose. Or having every purpose he believed in blown away by reality. Watching friends come and die in undeserved ignominy.

This, despite suspecting—knowing—that nearly every action was futile, that life was pain. My own life is a walk in the park compared to Logan’s—hell, compared to most people. But I feel this pressure—evinced in this meandering review—to think, to dissect, to examine, to elicit meaning, to build towers of conjecture, from whose crenellations distant meaning can perhaps be espied. Or mirages imagined.

This is, in its way, a compulsion, an unquenchable juggernaut that is an affliction akin to Wolverine’s healing ability. He couldn’t stop living, no matter how badly he wanted to leave a cruel and incomprehensible world—and I can’t stop chewing things over and trying desperately to infer meaning and sense from chaos. I can’t stop fighting the windmills either, fighting the whirlwind, the chaos. As in Logan, there is meaning and hope in pockets—as the scene at the farm—but the big picture does not inspire confidence. So that’s the context within which I framed this movie. Your mileage may vary.

Spoilers, obviously.

The year is 2029. Logan is no longer an X-Man. There is no longer such a thing as The X-Men. There is no longer really such a thing as mutants. They are deep in hiding, living out a shadow existence, hiding from the purges that took so many of their comrades. This hiding is exemplified in Caliban, an albino mutant who shies from the omnipresent southwestern sun.

Logan drives a car service in the desert, ferrying drunken kids to proms and wealthy widows to funerals. He is a servant-for-hire of debauched wealth. He drinks a lot, probably to forget, probably to quell the pain of nearly two centuries of memories, of knowing all that has been lost, of seeing what the world became despite his having thrown off the cloak of cynicism and anger to really try to make something, believing in Charles Xavier and being part of something with the X-Men.

But the world didn’t care. The world hated instead. The world wanted to control, and to own. The world did what the world always does: its leaders did what they always do. Irrational fear was stoked and manipulated to support the mutant pogroms.

America has become a crass place, filled with thieves and liars and mercenary henchmen. Midlands Oklahoma City has become a giant casino. This is what happens in places without hope, places from which the last drops of life are squeezed. In the movie, that is. Only 12 years in our future.

Logan lives with Caliban and Professor Xavier in a remote encampment, using his sparse pay to get medication to suppress Charles’s mental storms, telepathic quakes that are the result of seizures. He has what appears to be Alzheimer’s but is mostly lucid.

Logan’s life is pain. He doesn’t die, but he suffers like nearly no other. His mutant power seems to be waning, he is slowly being poisoned by his own skeleton as his body can no longer fight the intrusion. His power has always simply allowed him to weather this deterioration better than others, but always at a cost, never without a haze of pain that experience and training have taught him to push to the background. Caliban notices that Logan no longer sleeps, most likely due to the pain his powers can no longer control. The alcohol helps a little, but not much.

When Xavier’s mindquakes paralyze everyone else, Logan can continue to function, but the pain is visceral. He wears a rictus of agony, but perseveres. How long must he do so? Why? You see him fighting forward, being knocked back and fighting forward, inching toward the next goal, agony in every movement.

This is the backdrop against which the story unfolds.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are nearly perfect. Jackman’s scarred and grizzled visage was the real Wolverine, the real Logan. He is a man who has given up trying, given up fighting the windmills, who has given up trying to extract meaning from an ineffable world, from a world that doesn’t play by the rules. His ethos is pure, but he cannot win in a world that doesn’t value it. Nor, though, is he allowed he die. At least, not yet. He is resigned to his fate. Beaten down, wanting to be left alone. Purposeless. A modern-day Sisyphus.

The fight choreography was gory, exciting, easily parsed. It was logical and finally appropriate for a man whose powers include extreme fitness and strength, a barely controlled rage and unbreakable, razor-sharp claws. No fight lasts very long.

There was, in hindsight, little dialogue, only the most appropriate lines, delivered pitch-perfect.

There were few characters until about 2/3 of the way through the movie, when we meet the farm family in Oklahoma. They are wonderful, they offer a window in a world that could be, that could have been, that once was. They, too, are slaughtered indiscriminately.

And Logan knew it would happen. The moment Charles said that they should stay the night with that family, he knew it would end badly, but he couldn’t say no to either Charles or to Laura, his daughter.

Oh, yes, Wolverine has a daughter. I’ve gotten this far without even discussing a main plot point: Laura was bred from Wolverine’s DNA and raised as a killing machine in a mutant-soldier program. She even has an adamantium skeleton and both hand and foot claws.

Mutants are nearly gone, except where the elite have enslaved them to military purpose. The gaze of this movie on our world is unflinching. It extrapolates from where we are to 12 years from now and sees only increased inequality, increased fear, increased violence, increased militarization, increased oppression, increasing crassness and futility. All that is good is turned to evil. It is Tolkien’s vision of Mordor with modern trappings. And it’s not wrong. Is it?

Dafne Keen as Laura is amazing. Her fighting style is ruthless, as ruthless as Logan’s. She is believable, made better by staying mute for most of the film.

The movie does not swerve in its purpose. She is fantastic because she really is a copy of Logan. She is wise beyond her years. He is also wise, but slumps and limps and crumbles before our eyes, having learned the lessons of brutal years and myriad poignant losses, buried beneath decades, centuries of suffering, more than any man should have to bear.

However, his will—like his healing ability—allows him—forces him—to forge on, despite the apathy the world has drummed into him with its relentless lessons in futility.

This movie reminded me so much of the best of Japanese and Korean cinema—The Yellow Sea, for example—of action movies with pathos, with plots of consequence. It’s a movie that thinks only of the current movie, not planning for a sequel. It is a tragedy, there is little hope to be had. It tells of a world gone wrong, a world beyond saving, a world enjoyable only for the rapacious killers and conquerors who ruined it for everyone else.

Logan exits the world with no small amount of relief, having fought for a light, a principle that was constantly extinguished by the cruel, the jealous, the stupid, the uncomprehending, the greedy. At the end, he is offered a sliver of redemption, knowing that at least he helped Laura and her friends to an at-least temporary harbor.

Charles was also put of his misery, though he still had joy in his life. Characteristically, that joy was mostly due to onset Alzheimer’s that shielded his prodigious mind from its own memories. This too was eminently sad, that happiness in that world could only be found in the bliss of ignorance. At the very end, he is lucid again, remembering a vaguely hinted-at mindquake that killed many of his students in Westchester. Alzheimer’s was merciful in shielding him from that memory. When it returns, he almost welcomes eternity.

There is no light for anyone else, though there are glimpses of beauty. The simplicity and beauty of the horses inadvertently let loose on the highway, when Logan, Chuck and Laura met the farm family who would invite them in. The stark contrast to the “auto-trucks” that career seemingly heedlessly and autonomously along the highways, blaring their automated horns without slowing as they rush immensely past. The wonderful dinner with the family, a rare moment of lucidity for Charles, a rare square meal for Laura. An island of comfort in the eye of the ravenous, lashing storm of the world.

Reality intrudes this idyll in stages. First, henchmen of the neighboring mega-agri-corporations turning off their water, drawing the father and Logan away from the home. We seem them walk into a darkened cornfield. In the distance are the harsh, roving lamps of monstrous, looming, shadowy machines, sleeplessly working their fields of gene-manipulated crops.

Then mercenaries find them, reluctantly aided by the tortured Caliban, played perfectly by Stephen Merchant. Caliban exits the world by his own hand, taking out several of his captors with two grenades at close quarters. We later see his flayed body being harvested for genetic material, his cruel captors uncaring for the pathos of his existence, uncaring for the loss of his light, uncaring, uncaring, uncaring, seeing only their own greed, their own shallow purpose. They only care that “he was a good tracker.”

We are introduced here to a clone of Wolverine, a rapacious, mute killer barely controlled by the mercenaries. How much hope can you have now? They can create these killing machines at will. Logan is on his last legs, coughing and shambling. He manages to stave off the initial attack—with help from the mortally wounded father (Eriq LaSalle) of the farm family.

The father turns from the Wolverine clone to shoot Logan as well. Logan looks at him as if urging him to do it, to put him out of his misery, end the guilt of the three newly dead people whom he’d befriended and who had also now died because of their association with him.

The man pointing the gun was dead already, and his round could never have killed Logan anyway, but the chamber is empty, clicking loudly before he falls to the ground, his body finally acknowledging his own death. The world didn’t even see fit to give either of them the satisfaction. Logan would have welcomed that pain, that punishment. Logan doesn’t have the psychic energy to be disappointed, except perhaps as a flicker across his face as he adds another death to a burden of guilt that stretches back centuries.

More friends claimed by the insatiable maw of this hellish world.

The tsunami wave of heartless and callous reality crashes over their idyll, shattering and flattening another bloom as so many before. As a weary, battered Logan knew that it would.

He prevails once again, at great cost. Charles cannot be saved. But we knew that already. He was a husk at the beginning of the movie, doomed. Logan buries him in a glade by a pond, of aching beauty. There is water, the water Logan had promised him with their dream of buy a “Sunseeker” boat, to ply the ocean away from the humans Xavier could harm with his failing powers. Even in this dream, there was the cruel irony that Caliban—extremely averse to sunlight—would not have been able to journey with them.

Logan and Laura continue on their way, to the chimeric mirage of Eden, another bauble dangled by an inexhaustibly cruel world. Logan doesn’t believe in it, his capacity for belief buried beneath jaded cynicism, beneath endless strata of dashed hopes. But Laura does, not having had her light beaten out of her by even the miserable existence she’d been offered so far. She is, after all, still a child, despite her wisdom and stoicism. She also turns out to be right.

Their relationship is more as compatriots, not father and daughter. In this, the movie also does not waver, does not veer into sentiment unworthy of either of these noble characters. Logan drives until he falls unconscious; Laura slides one of his legs out of the way and uses the other as a booster seat to continue on.

With the help of a mutant booster—a superpower adrenalin shot—Logan manages a last-ditch effort to save a group of mutant kids, one last time rising up to be the Wolverine we remember. He ferries them through deep forests—his native lands, from the comic books—to the Canadian border, where they would be safe from the marauding U.S. mercenaries and border patrols. He sacrifices his failing body and finally succumbs to wounds too grievous for his failing power to heal. He seems relieved that, at long last, he can rest.

In the end, they all accomplished nothing. Laura survives with her group of friends, but their future is very uncertain. They banged their wills against the walls of the world and the world didn’t care: it didn’t want them, not on their terms. It wanted only to use them, to dictate terms set by its cruel rulers. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.” The world won’t even notice that they are gone—it barely even remembered or knew that they existed—and can’t even acknowledge the loss of a light that it never treasured, that it couldn’t understand. Charles Xavier—the world’s most powerful telepath—and Logan—a man who’d borne so much—both died in anonymity, discarded by an uncaring and uncomprehending world.

“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5 by William Shakespeare

Johnny Cash’s A Man Comes Around[1] plays over the initial credits. The perfect song to end a movie that transcended the superhero genre to become a great movie.[2]

“And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying,
‘Come and see.’ and I saw, and behold, a white horse”

“There’s a man goin’ ‘round takin’ names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won’t be treated all the same
There’ll be a golden ladder reachin’ down
When the man comes around

“[…]

“And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked, and behold a pale horse
And his name that sat on him was death, and hell followed with him”

A Man Comes Around by Johnny Cash


[1] The Wikipedia entry for this song speaks of “the man” as Jesus Christ, but I don’t believe at all that that’s what Cash meant. The man is clearly Death. Death rides a pale (“white”) horse. Death is one of the four horseman of the Apocalypse. Death is he who comes around at the end. Death is “the man” who finally came around for Logan. Cash even names him in the last verse. In the song as well, “hell followed with him”, emphasizing the movie’s sentiment that all that will follow this twilight chapter of the X-Men is a world impoverished of hope, of meaning—Hell.
[2] Perhaps tellingly, it was the first Marvel movie without a cameo by Stan Lee, whose only credit is as executive producer.