“Logan” tries really hard to transcend the superhero genre. The stakes are fairly small, the film is very character centric, there are more dramatic scenes than there are action scenes, and the tone is a steady diet of gritty sadness. While some of the action is “cool” in the traditional sense, this isn’t a movie one would describe as “fun”, for the most part. If you were to judge this film by the first act alone, “Logan” really is more of a neo-western than a superhero film. That act, where we see Logan older and bitter, more tired and sicker than we’ve ever seen him, is truly phenomenal. After an opening bit of violence, the film settles in to wading into the sadness of Logan (Hugh Jackman) as he works as a limo driver, trying to raise enough money to buy a boat so that he, an ever-sickening Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and former mutant-tracker-turned-caretaker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) can set out to sea, away from a slowly dying world.
Before the film forgets about its setting, we are told the year is 2029, and much like the afterlife for suicide victims in “Wristcutters: A Love Story”, the world is similar to our own world now, but slightly worse. We get some background details that the anti-immigrant sentiment is high, and that the effects of global warming are getting worse and worse. A main plot point involving GMOs comes up later, and sadly the film plays into anti-GMO sentiment (GMOs are safe, all scientific evidence points to them being safe, and it is sad that some people on the Left are ignorantly against them because the Left is supposed to be pro-science and rely on empirical evidence and not conspiracy theories, but I digress), but the surface reason for genetically modified corn is to deal with climate change’s effects on crops (as it is in real life). When we later find out that ***SPOILER ALERT*** mutants were eradicated by genetically modifying corn to poison those with mutant genes into extinction, it’s a very disappointing anti-science twist. ***SPOILERS END**
The story picks up when a woman, Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez), tries to hire Logan to drive her and a mute little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota. While no new mutants have supposedly been born in years, Laura is a young mutant with the same healing powers, and grafted adamantium skeleton, as Logan. Gabriella wants Logan to take the two of them to North Dakota, so that they may cross into Canada where there is, supposedly, a safe haven for mutants (shades of “I Am Legend” and “Waterworld” here with a mythical safe haven as the McGuffin plot driver). Logan doesn’t want anything to do with it, merely hoping to care for Xavier, who has some sort of degenerative brain illness which, went left unchecked, causes him to have seizures that, with his powers, tend to paralyze and hurt those within a certain radius.
There are, of course, shadowy corporate mercenaries after Laura, seemingly lead by Donald Pierce (Lloyd Holbrook), who has a cybernetic arm and, despite having knowledge of Logan and Xavier, is really only interested in Laura. Unless you haven’t seen an X-Men movie before, it’s not a spoiler to tell you that the evil corporation has been experimenting on children to turn them into mutants so that they can be used as soldiers, because of course they would be. Laura was an escapee, and Gabriella was a nurse at the Mexican facility where the experiments were being done. The film goes out of its way to tell us that these kinds of experiments are illegal in the United States and Canada, but not Mexico, so the American-based corporation set up shop there (shades of outsourcing commentary here). The movie proceeds from this point on to be less of a neo-western and more of a road movie, with some scenes tipping into action and even one sequence which is almost horror movie-like.
The story of “Logan” is pretty predictable, and you know where it is going all the time. You know a special bullet will be used on a special villain in act three. You know the nice family that takes in Logan and the gang are going to suffer because of it. For a movie that seemingly wants to eschew the common tropes of a comic book movie, it sure hits all of the story beats in a traditional fashion. Sure, that first act is fairly original in structure and tone, and the second act is a lot of fun and features one absolutely extraordinary sequence involving a hotel/casino and one of Xavier’s seizures. The problem is that by the third act, we’re watching a traditional and kind of lazy X-Men film, when the first act set this up with the potential to be so much more.
I also have major problems with the Laura character. It is beginning to be something of a quasi-sexist trope to have these ass-kicking, young mute female characters. I am immediately thinking of Eleven from “Stranger Things”, but also River from “Firefly”/”Serenity”. The reason why I mind those characters less is because they have had an entire season of TV episodes to develop into fleshed out characters, whereas Laura has only a two hour movie to be an undeveloped character who is little more than a young, murdering plot device. While it is understandable that a young girl who is abused and experimented on to become a weapon (like River and Eleven) would be mute, this film lazily has her begin to speak for no internal movie reason other than the plot requires her to, and because the film needs comic relief after a very sad sequence of events. Then she speaks Spanish, which makes sense since she is Mexican, but she also has the ability to speak English and is attempting to communicate with Logan, who is not bilingual. So is the flurry of Spanish speech just for humor? If so it is semi-racist humor. “Oh, how silly of her to speak in her native language so fast. Speak English, you stupid little girl. Otherwise we just laugh at you.”
Also, despite the film trying really hard to make us feel something, it really doesn’t. While it makes sense for Xavier to be a shadow of his former self given his illness, the film doesn’t let us know what happened for him to hate himself. Granted, we can guess what happened from the details, and in some ways not knowing the full story is better and more in keeping with the western tradition, but it also keeps us from feeling the full brunt of the guilt he feels, and lets us not feel as sad when he meets the end of his character arc. As it stands, his character is a sad old man who gets an innocent family killed (which also might have resonated more if we knew what happened before, as it would be more tragic if he repeated past mistakes while trying to do good). As for whatever connection Logan and Laura are supposed to have, the film never really makes us feel it. They don’t connect as much as, say, the Terminator and young John Conner do in “Terminator 2”, another action-road movie of similar design to this one. I almost felt a little something with the Xavier arc, because Patrick Stewart is so damn good, but otherwise this supposedly emotional film didn’t moisten the eyes one bit.
If I seem like I’m being harsh it’s only because this film had the potential for greatness. The structure and tone of the first act is some of the best stuff I’ve seen in a superhero film. The second act, while not as tight, contains probably the best sequence in any X-Men film. But the character of Laura is fatally flawed and cliched, and the third act feels like it was written on autopilot. I don’t mind the traditional weak comic book villain that is a given for any Marvel film these days, but the way the climactic battle unfolds is exactly as you’d expect it to, with the mild exception of a villain’s expository speech being cut short with a bullet. If “Logan” had followed in the mold of its first act, and developed Laura into a character as opposed to a plot device that generates occasional humor, and if we had been allowed to feel more of the emotional burden placed on Xavier and on Logan (relying on the previous films is not enough, especially went one of them, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, is probably the worst Marvel film of the past 20 years).
Still, this is a fitting end to the Logan character, if indeed this is the end of Jackman playing the character. After the bad taste left in our mouths from “X-Men: Apocalypse”, it was nice to see an X-Men film that is actually of reasonably high quality (“Deadpool” functions as part comic book film and part satire of them, so I’m discounting that as an X-Men film, but I also enjoyed that one). “Logan” suffers from high expectations, and it starts off too damn good for where it ends up. B