Logan: The Darkest Knight Rises

Pop Culture

Logan: The Darkest Knight Rises

Illustration: Juergen D

Towards the end of James Mangold’s Logan, there’s a moment when old, bearded, bruised, and broken Wolverine has to decide whether he cares about Laura, a young pre-teen mutant, created in a lab with his own genetics. “Bad shit happens to people who I care about,” he says. “Then I’ll be fine,” Laura shoots back, before walking away.

The scene, in a nutshell, is indicative of Hugh Jackman’s 17-year run as Wolverine/Logan. Unlike other modern superheroes, saving the world doesn’t quite pique his interest. Logan’s motivations have always been personal, ranging from the one that got away i.e. Jean and his paternal instinct toward keeping the dangerous Rogue safe in the first X-Men trilogy, to his girlfriend in the standalone films, to Charles in Days of Future Past. The moment most symptomatic of this character quirk, which is also my favourite Jackman scene from the nine movies, is his modest “Go fuck yourself” to a request for help from a wide-eyed Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: First Class.

Wolverine’s reluctance to get involved, his ambivalence to a cause, is at the centre of Logan, which desperately needs him to get involved. The year is 2028 and geneticist Dr Rice, son of one of the doctors on the original Wolverine Project, has nearly eliminated all mutants from the face of the earth. He doesn’t hate mutation though, as he’s aiming to “control” it rather than end it. For this, he creates exacerbated mutations in little children, who somehow escape his facility without ever having lived in the outside world.

One of the kids is Laura, played by the astonishing newcomer Dafne Keen, who has Wolverine’s adamantium in her bones and an aching innocence in her heart-breaking gaze. Somehow, she finds her way to a battered, alcoholic Logan and a near-death Professor X. The film then becomes part road movie, part Western, with open skies and endless miles that lead toward a literal Eden, which Logan doesn’t believe in, but which Laura swears by – she had read about it in an old X-Men comic in Dr Rice’s lab.

Logan doesn’t value its heroism by falling aliens and cheering crowds, but by the age-old notion that ploughing through and going the extra mile, is what makes heroes out of ordinary men.

During the near 150-minute runtime of Logan, Mangold takes emotions accumulated by Wolverine over the past 17 years to their logical extreme. Wolverine isn’t just saying that he doesn’t want to be a hero, à la Superman, he actually tries to take his claws out. If the heavy drinking won’t kill him, he carries an adamantium bullet as a fail-safe. His saltiness, desire to be alone, and anger are on the surface for all to see, no longer hidden beneath a veneer of dry humour. After all this time, old person Logan finally becomes Old Man Logan. This transformation from a charismatic supersolider, perhaps the greatest in history, to an old war veteran now working as a chauffeur is painful and jarring, just like the violence he inflicts.

While other superhero movies show life and death in CGI and throw in clever lines before the “eyes close”, Mangold chooses instead to show what actually happens to the human body when it interacts with Logan’s claws. It’s brutal, it’s visceral, and a virulent red. The hurriedness has no time for a violin or to hoist a flag. Violence is only one of the reasons the film has an adult rating. The other is the struggle with moral nihilism, where Logan has to remind Laura time and again of the value of the righteous kill. Marvel or DC films haven’t breached this space, in addition to the grand questions Logan tries to combat: Why are superheroes important? What does it even mean to be a superhero?

Most superflicks will tell you that the world has been ending for 50 years, only to be saved time and time again by our superfriends. It’s a trope tried and tested, which is why Christopher Nolan’s Batman broke through so smoothly with its grit and inner conflict. Marvel came close with Captain America: Civil War, but its need to stay peachy and on-brand – where every film is a grand trailer to the next four – devalued it, if not most of the conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. However hard they try, there are conventions no movie of this kind can escape. The climax must be a grander fight between good and evil, order and chaos, where righteousness is made implicit throughout, mostly via dialogue and not exploration. The end point must be clever and have enough juice to pilot a sequel. Logan uses its advantage of being the last film in a series to get away from these tropes, which The Dark Knight or even The Dark Knight Rises didn’t escape. “What kind of a hero do we need,” asks pretty much every character in the Nolanverse, whereas in Logan, Wolverine is just trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Mangold’s Logan is traditionalist. It doesn’t value its heroism by falling aliens and cheering crowds, but by the age-old notion that ploughing through and going the extra mile, is what makes heroes out of ordinary men. It’s only fitting then, that through the animated TV shows we saw growing up and the innumerable films made in the last 20 years, the last surviving member of the X-Men (Professor X killed all of them, he confesses in Logan) had to be the greatest survivor of them all. The one who never wanted the fight.

In Logan, the lone wolf, freed of all alliances and burdens finally has a chance to be The Lone Wolf. The film wrestles with this until the very end, until a cross has been shifted to seem like an “X”, until Wolverine is provided with an opportunity to go out the only way he was always meant to but had to decide for himself – with his claws out.