“Logan” Mostly Satisfies, as Superhero Movie Meets Bloody Western

“Logan” Mostly Satisfies, as Superhero Movie Meets Bloody Western March 5, 2017
Hugh Jackman, as the title character in "Logan"
Hugh Jackman as the title character, in “Logan”

In 2029, Wolverine and Professor X are tired and almost obsolete.  Logan (aka Wolverine) is scarred and limping, the adamantium reinforcing his skeleton now wearing him down like an autoimmune disease.  Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) is in his 90s, a neurodegenerative disorder making his telepathic skills more likely to deliver inadvertent harm than rescue.

Together, they live in secret near the Tex-Mex border, along with the albino mutant Caliban (a solemn Stephen Merchant, taking a break from his usual comedic roles).  The three of them are relics of another era, as Caliban’s mutant-detecting abilities have been coming up empty, revealing no natural-born mutants for several years.  Logan passes his days as a chauffeur, scoring symptom-numbing drugs for Charles with his earnings.

Their existentially barren routine is disrupted when Gabriela (Orange Is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez) interrupts Logan on the job, beseeching him for aid.  A nurse from Mexico City, Gabriela is protecting a child named Laura (movie newcomer Dafne Keen), who’s being hunted by a group of mysterious thugs.  Gabriela alleges a connection between Laura and Logan, asserting that only he can escort her to Eden, a possibly mythic sanctuary in North Dakota.

Dafne Keen as Laura, in "Logan"
Dafne Keen as Laura, in “Logan”

Of course, much violence ensues, as the villains – led by a heartless, part-metal baddie named Pierce – pursue their quarry.  What else would one expect from a superhero movie, after all?  However, Logan possesses qualities that distinguish it from the stale predictability of most Marvel or DC Comics cinema fare.

For starters, Logan is close kin to the reluctant protector of many Westerns, needing strong persuasion to end his self-imposed, self-absorbed retirement.  Director and co-writer James Mangold makes this homage clear by highlighting climactic segments of the classic Western Shane, which happens to be playing in a hotel room that our protagonists shareLike this film’s eponymous lead, Logan’s savage history has made him a lonely outcast, for whom there’s “no living with the killing.”

Mangold has previously shown his proficiency in the genre, with his 3:10 to Yuma remake being one of my favorite Westerns from the past decade (and with whom his latest work shares a “sociopaths in hot pursuit” motif).  For much of Logan, too, the setting befits the genre, with its arid browns and sparsely populated burgs that time has forgotten.

Unlike the superhero movies featuring the Avengers together or apart, the characters in Logan feel more flesh-and-blood, more realized.  The conflicts between Logan and Charles are less contrived than, say, the tussles between Captain America and Iron Man.  No doubt, this is helped by the wider thespian range of Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, compared to the monochromatic portrayals by Chris Evans and Robert Downey, Jr.  (Dafne Keen’s Laura is an intriguing character, too; the reasons for her disturbingly feral wordlessness emerge only slowly.)

Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman, together in "Logan"
Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman, together in “Logan”

Logan, in addition, takes advantage of its R rating to make its battles graphic and more consequential.  People we care about get hurt and face mortality.  Logan’s world is crueler, dirtier, and thankfully free of the antiseptic vacuity of so many superhero films.

The R rating has its downside, though.  Some of the f-bombs and the brief flashes of nudity are gratuitous and adolescent, with a “look what we’re getting away with” quality to them.  However, these qualities are not as extreme as they were in Deadpool, a movie whose ostensibly comedic, transgressive charms escaped me utterly.

This Marvel entry also feels timely in its social commentary.  The villains’ view of Laura and the other members of her Mexican cohort as disposable and possessing value only as material commodities meshes with the dehumanization of non-Americans by our current Republican “leadership.”  Just as significantly, Logan first meets up with Laura and Gabriela at the Liberty Motel, whose Statue of Liberty neon signage is partly burned out.  The USA offers no sure refuge for this movie’s good hombres.

Besides its uniquely autumnal and elegiac texture, Logan mercifully lacks the tedious bloat of Thor, Captain America, and the Avengers films.  The efforts of its heroes to stay one step ahead of Pierce and company maintain an intelligently judged tempo.  Even if a few of the plot turns were predictable (with one element telegraphed well ahead of its inevitability), Logan remains a mostly satisfying movie experience.

3 out of 5 stars

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