Friday, March 03, 2017

Zaki's Review: Logan

Superhero movies were on life support at the turn of the century. Sure, the Marvel Comics-based Blade was a hit for New Line in 1998, but that one seemed to do everything possible to run away from its comic book connection, as did Men in Black in ‘97. The Batman franchise was dead after being dragged to the depths of campy, day-glo excess (it got better), Superman hadn’t flown on the big screen since the Reagan era, and Spider-Man was tied up in legal limbo with various factions all trying to claim a piece of the pie.

But everything changed in summer of 2000 thanks to a fan favorite comic franchise finally getting a turn at celluloid glory, and an unknown Australian who wasn’t even the producers’ first choice getting the starring role. It’s easy to see with the benefit of hindsight how auspicious the selection of Hugh Jackman as the X-Men’s Wolverine was, but at that moment he was even more of a blank slate than original pick Dougray Scott, sidelined due to delays shooting Mission: Impossible 2.

And while the quality of the various X-Men entries over the past decade-and-change have varied wildly tonally, creatively, and qualitatively, what remains undeniable is the indelible mark Jackman made with his entree on the superhero scene -- so instant a star making turn that it birthed not only an entire franchise, but also shot adrenaline into the somnambulant genre in the process. From then to now, there have been two Batmans, three Hulks, three Supermans, three Spider-Mans, two Daredevils, and even two Professor X and Magnetos.

But only one Wolverine.

A fan favorite from virtually the moment he was introduced in the comic books forty-three years ago, Wolverine’s continued appeal can be attributed to his “loner with a heart of gold” persona and a take-no-guff attitude. But for seventeen of those years he’s been inextricably linked with the actor tasked with embodying him, a long enough time that the distinction between performer and character became virtually nonexistent for many in the audience.

As such, it’s impossible to view Logan -- Jackman’s swan song from his longtime alter ego -- separately from the remarkable legacy that trails in its wake. The weight of real world and in-story history have all commingled for those of us who’ve been along for the ride this whole time, and the film (written and directed by James Mangold for his second Wolverine offering) effectively leans on that accumulated history for maximum emotional impact. It knows that we know this the end.

In the very first X-Men movie there’s an amusing aside where Wolverine makes a snide comment about the black leather uniforms that passed for superhero costumes back then. In response, Cyclops (James Marsden) asks if he’d prefer yellow spandex instead. This was a reference to the suit that Wolverine has worn in the comics since in his inception in 1974, while also poking fun at the notion that such a look could ever be realized believably onscreen.

Of course, several phases of adventures set in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe featuring characters like Iron Man and Captain America and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man cavorting in colorful suits right out of the books belies that idea, but the paradox is that it was X-Men’s out of the blue success in 2000 that paved the road for the eventual Marvel Cinematic Universe happening at all. Jackman’s Logan never did put on that yellow spandex, and as the years went on he slowly began to lose his other comic book aspects as well.

Eventually, even the distinctive pointy-headed hairstyle of the comics went away, and finally it was the actor’s mere presence in the role that was the most iconic thing about him. This is the Wolverine we meet in Logan. With salt-and-pepper hair and a thick, shaggy beard, the most “Wolverine” thing about him is Jackman’s face under the beard and the metal claws under his knuckles. In fact, even the X-Men mythology itself is more of a vague, dreamlike backstory here, without names or details.

Set in 2029, years after some unseen and only vaguely alluded-to crisis claimed the lives of the other X-Men, Logan posits a Wolverine whose legendary healing factor is breaking down rapidly. The same metal skeleton that rendered his bones unbreakable is slowly killing him, and he spends his days caring for the aged Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, making his seventh and final appearance in the role), whose famed mental powers have faded with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Working as a driver-for-hire, Wolverine (a.k.a. Logan, a.k.a James Howlett) left his hero days behind, but is drafted back into duty when he comes across a young girl name Laura (Dafne Keen) with some curiously familiar mutant abilities of her own, and is asked to take her across the country to a purported “Eden” for endangered mutantkind. Soon enough, Logan is being pursued by cybernetic assassins called Reavers (led by Boyd Holbrook’s Donald Pierce) even as he and the ailing Xavier try to keep the girl alive.

In many ways, Logan is a hard movie to watch. He draws his claws early, and often. For the first time, the action is bloody, intense, and earns every bit of its “R” rating. But beyond that, it’s also not easy to see Logan and Xavier, two beloved heroes with whom we’ve spent so much time, depicted with such a high degree of vulnerability. Mangold has made a pointed, concerted effort to imbue the proceedings with an air of finality that flies in the face of the established “nothing ever ends” aesthetic inherent of most superhero pictures.

Logan has its eye on the horizon in a way that lends real poignancy to the characters and their journey. This poignancy, in turn, helps paper over some of the structural flaws (including a soggy middle section and some unfocused, repetitive action beats in the third act). Blissfully free of giant robots and blue beams shooting into the sky, the story instead claws drama from the essential tragedy of a man whose longevity curses him with seeing people he cares about constantly ripped away. Even the stripped-down title exemplifies this character-driven approach.

Logan manages the unique task of transcending its comic book roots without ever being dismissive of them. By the time the credits begin to roll, the realization begins to sink in that not only does this mark the close of Jackman’s (and Stewart’s -- he’s been Professor X longer than he was Captain Jean-Luc Picard!) tenures in their respective roles, but it’s also an elegy of sorts for the entire X-Men series up to this point.

We know, of course, that the many-pronged mutant franchise will continue on given how much of a moneymaker it is for home studio Fox (Hi, Deadpool 2!), but Logan is nonetheless an undeniable ending. And as Jackman exits his career-defining role, let’s temper our sadness by taking a moment to step back and acknowledge the staggering, mammoth achievement of his accomplishment -- something unprecedented in the history of the genre: Seventeen years. Nine films.

One Wolverine.

B+

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