Friday, April 7, 2017

Logan: The CBM First Revisionist Superhero Film

Directed by James Mangold Screenplay by Scott Frank James Mangold Michael Green Story by James Mangold Cinematography John Mathieson Edited by Michael McCusker

I’ve come to view the X-Men film franchise as the spine of the superhero film genre, a bit crooked in terms of quality. It kicked this modern era off July 2000, and has followed or created the trends these sorts of franchise follow. X3 (2006) showed that third movies tend to falter for reasons. X-Men: Origins: Wolverine (2009) was a real stab at spinning characters out into solo features. Days of Future Past (2014) was a brazen act to retroactively course correct itself into a a “proper” cinematic universe in a post-Avengers (2012) world (and is still the most comic book thing it or any of these franchises have done). Before throwing away whatever good will it generated with whatever X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) was. So it feels fitting that Logan (2017) is this genres first honest revisionist superhero film. Yes, postmodern themes inspired by the comic book source material have become more prevalent recently (BvS/Cap: Civil War), but those films are either too tied to the commercial apparatus that have made this genre the bed rock of 21st century Hollywood or reveal why playing with the postmodern before establishing a context when actualizing those themes is fraught. Inspired by revisionist westerns like Unforgiven (1992), and quoting Shane (1953) – itself pointing towards revisionist western – Logan reflects on the genre’s most well-known icon and actor pairing since Christopher Reeves and Superman.

Logan and the X-Men, but more specifically Hugh Jackman and his eponymous character have over 17 years and 8 appearances have developed that necessary historical context that allows this kind of revision and reflection to feel appropriate. Even as Logan takes place in a theoretical future removed from whatever jumbled mess the current X-Film continuity currently is, you can’t help but think of past experiences with Jackman and his character.  Like Clint Eastwood, he may be playing “William Munny”, but it comes on the back of numerous other outings in the genre. When mixed with the normally box office weakening, ‘R’ rating, the film is sufficiently positioned outside of the mainstream superhero industrial complex, and allowed to be a movie, not a $500+ million grosser meant to spinout half a decade’s worth of features. Sufficiently insulated, director James Mangold, co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green, and Jackman get to reflect the myth of one of superhero cinemas most consistent and recognizable icons.

The year is 2029 and the future sucks. Not the Terminator inspired fantasy of Days of Future Past, but a more mundane near future dystopia of genetic engineering, human rights degradation, and general malaise. “Mutants … they’re gone now” the visibly aged, eternally cranky, Logan explains to an ailing Professor Charles Xavier early in the film. The pair along with Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are among the few adult mutants left, eking out a frustrating and deteriorating existence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Logan chauffeurs for annoying white people, and hustles for drugs to help Professor X. Logan dreams of buying a Sunseeker and living out at sea away from it all, until they inevitably die or kill one another. Whatever existence they maintained is disrupted by the appearance of Laura (Dafne Keen), a female clone of the Wolverine and, functionally, his unwanted daughter. She sparks a cross country road trip a la Stagecoach (1939) in search of Eden, a place straight out of a comic book. Pursuing them are the cybernetic Reavers led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and their corporate masters.

Removed from the main continuity as it might be, that doesn’t stop audiences and Jackman from drawing on this ambiguous source of history to sketch out and define the weariness of the aged former hero. Jackman, and his character contend with their own myths. Jackman is covered in old age makeup, costumed in material meant to give him a flabbier appearance. A hollow shell of his ever-bulging-low-percent-body-fat self-from previous film entries. His character continually haunted by the costs of centuries of bloodletting and the brand of killing, no matter how righteous in appearance. He eventually runs into a group of young mutants who idolize The Wolverine, the commercialized folk lore that sprung up around he and the missing X-Men. With so much baggage from actor and viewer, and Mangolds restrained quiet approach overall, it’s hard to imagine a better performance Jackman has given.

This movie is dark and sad, but it is also immensely warm around this surly familial unit. There is humor and joy, largely a byproduct of Laura’s presence and a cantankerous Patrick Stewart. Laura reminds them what they were supposed to be fighting for as she ruthlessly and powerfully guts those who wish to control her. I don’t think Hollywood can provide this actress with more roles like this, but her largely mute and bilingual performance shows that she has “it.”

For all its revisionist posturing, the film never falls into the trap of postmodern irony. James Mangold, in a recent interview, thinks himself incapable of that kind of work and Logan is an example of why. As referential as this film is, stopping for several minutes to let Laura and Professor X watch the finale to Shane, it isn’t a wink and a nod joke. It’s an earnest drawing of thematic lines, on the nose it may be. While it presents the forum to argue for ambiguity, Logan, for all its depression can’t help but be hopeful in the end as everyone is slowly revitalized by the presence of this special little girl. It is, after all, an X-Men and superhero film. That X-Meness at its core unites this deeply human story of seemingly inhuman characters, who try to be their best selves and defy the hegemonic forces that attempt to define them. Mangold shifts the metaphoric emphasis from mutankind as LGBTQ+ analogues to a timely immigrant one. Lead Evil Scientist Zander Rice, speaks in a manner that sounds like the white nationalist policies of Richard Spencer.

Stripped of the requirements of the block busting, apocalyptic, oeuvre of the genre, Mangold is afforded to make a quite character piece. Well, as quite as a movie can get when it features two people who sprout indestructible metal claws, chased by cybernetic mercenaries. It’s still incredibly small, focused squarely on its trio of characters with everyone else giving able stock character performances. There are several moments of silence and more astonishingly stillness; as these beaten characters become emotionally vulnerable to one another for the first time in ages. It is a reminder that the popularity and best of these movies wrest on smart, engaging, character work not CGI driven fantasy spectacular.

The film more than earns its ‘R’ rating, with multiple expletives, a bit of nudity, and copious amounts of violence. By the end of action sequences, Logan and Laura are covered in the drying blood of their victims. Unlike prior ‘R’ rated comic book films like Deadpool (2016) or Kick Ass (2010), this one does not use its rating for ironic shock humor and gore. Those films made a mockery of the inherent violence beneath the surface of the genre and the audiences that clamored for that spectacle without thinking it through. Going in I was afraid that the film would produce the kind of bloody, consequence free, thoughtless, violence fans continually called for in regards to Wolverine. The CGI blood splatter of the uncut, The Wolverine(2013), worked counter to that films thematics, creating another fantasy that reinforced the spectacular masculinity of the lead not his vulnerability. There is one sequence, it’s mostly a tracking shot as Logan charges through to forest and dispatches several Reavers with berserker ferocity, it is spectacular. It is also a byproduct of a knowingly untenable position. While not without its moments of shocking bodily harm, violence is used to show the spiritual cost a lifetime of bloodletting achieves. At one point Laura dismisses the nightmares and any red on her young ledger as a byproduct of just killing “bad people”, but that doesn’t change the fact they are still people and she’s like 10. At the tail end of the film, a group of young mutants unleash their rage and powers on their tormentors. One gets turned to bloody mist, another much worse. The film cuts between these acts of violence with monstrous low angle shots of these enfant terrible. The movie ends on a somber but hopeful note, but I can’t help but wonder if the world has already infected this new generation.

Logan deserves to be placed next to The Dark Knight(2008) as a high watermark and sign post for this genre. Director James Mangold and his brand of diverse genre emphasis finally has a signature feature. Hugh Jackman is finally given the material that allows him to mine and show the depths of the character that made him a star when he first met Rogue. Finally, the X-Franchise have another good film to add to the roster. I hope FOX and others take the right ques from the critical praise and burgeoning financial success. This movie is good because it is well crafted, not because it is rated R and has blood and cursing. 

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