09 March 2017

First Impressions: Logan

To all the world, the Internet is abuzz with the buzz about Logan (2017), and I think a lot of that is justified based on where we are in cultural history. We've had an onslaught of superhero films ranging from completely misguided and idiotic smash-ups (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice [2016]), competent same-ness (Doctor Strange [2016]), and the campy bloated arrogance (X-Men: Apocalypse [2016]), and that was just 2016. That last one is notable, even if it feels like Deadpool (2016) was our last X-outing, Apocalypse was really the last time we saw a lot of these characters, and Logan has been so warmly received in many ways because it's so contrary to that film, along with the dozens of other sub-par city-destroying, beam-of-light shooting, mindless fan-yanking crap that's been pushed down our throats for the past ten years.

But it's not really a great movie. It's a very good movie. But not great.
Road trip!

Let me back up a bit, because there are parts that work really well, and even as I sit here after digesting the flick for the past few days and collect my thoughts I wander between its good and poor qualities. As we go through this you'll find that most of its horrible qualities involve some heavy SPOILERS while most of its spectacular qualities are things we've seen, heard, and been amped about. Those all ring pretty true, and the film delivers in many satisfying ways, although my biggest gripe is how it falls apart thematically and surprisingly, its lack of nerdiness. I am literally too nerdy for my own good, which has hampered my enjoyment of this thing. It's awful. So let's start with some background and go from there:

Did we really need a ninth Wolverine film? Somehow yes, since 1/4 of the main X-men films is unforgivingly bad and his solo outings are about 1/2, and that's being generous to the overrated The Wolverine (2013). For Logan the Hugh Jackman / James Mangold team decided to strip away all the clutter of every big superhero movie and focus on a small story with some great, genuine action, and an extremely hard-R rating. All of that works, don't get me wrong. There is a fine story in here, but it's muddled. Not in an X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) sort of crapshoot muddled, but just barely misses the mark. Let's concentrate on what worked for a second:

It was amazingly shocking and refreshing to see the Hard-R violence and swearing at work. I suppose we have Deadpool to thank for showing that it's viable on screen, but the tone here is drastically different than Ryan Reynolds' opus. Here it's all desperation and exhaustion, a beaten hero at the end of his rope, muttering "ughh...fuck" as the opening line of the film as if he has no desire to do this shit again. It's fantastic to finally see what a man with knives coming out of his knuckles can do and see that it's really violent to cut up people and live a life of constant fighting. Hearing Professor X drop f-bomb after f-bomb is also amazing, fitting in with the theme that everything that was once great about this universe is kaput.

This character work is really what sells the movie, and that's stellar because we've spent an awful long time with these characters. Somehow Logan finds something new in these people. Wolverine is battered and broken, snarly still but not quite the animal he was. I think Jackman has often played Wolverine too erudite rather than on the brink of insanity, and that's why when the doppelganger comes along it's a little miffed, but more on that later. Pat Stewart is freer and looser than ever before jumping into Professor X, but there's still the kind teacher inside, which he maintains through the hell they're put through. Finally, newcomer Dafne Keen balances the third leg of the triangle as the fiesty Laura Kinney aka X-23, the liddle widdle clone of Wolverine who is also the most badass character maybe in X-history. Once the film devolves to just the two of them you get this feeling that this is really how Wolverine would raise his kids - him yelling "SHUT THE FUCK UP!" and her punching him in the face. Christmas memories.

That surrogate family dynamic is what makes Logan work, particularly as they get a glimpse of what non-superhero life could be like. It's a luxury that isn't really afforded to heroes, which is an interesting and under-seen ramification. We had Hawkeye's secret family in Age of Ultron (2015), but that's probably it for a stable, domestic homelife. There's this feeling that the lives of the X-men are on the edge of society, more than ever before, not only in literal terms, but now to the point where they can't even conceive of sitting down to a nice family meal together. Professor X in his naive wisdom is insistent in slowing down and enjoying the experience, although the irony is that of course, this leads to their deaths.

So, we might as well talk about what I hated most in this movie, which is the evil Wolverine clone. Listen, I really was just immediately reminded of Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) with Galvatron and the rest of the evil KSI soul-less Transformers. There's literally the same line said by Richard E. Grant's Zander Price "A weapon with no soul!" What the fuck is this shit. I just get annoyed when villains are the exact same as the hero, in this case, very literally so. The Iron Man films are particularly plagued by this, as are most of the Marvel films. Hero/Villain dynamics work so much better when they're in inverse - whether it be ideologically like Batman/Joker or in ability like Thor/Loki. Those are who are truly memorable.

This line of thinking is also flawed, though, because there's so much symbolism at work here. Evil Wolverine (or Wolverevil, or Evilrine) is a slice of Logan's psyche. He's the pure animal, unfeeling, killing monster. As I've said, though, we didn't really get a full glimpse of this enough to have it hit home as much as it could have been. There is this outer conflict of Logan battling Evilrine that should reflect his conflict with his inner self, and to some extent that's true, if only in the sense that he's a loner asshole. It's fitting that he's defeated and succumbs to the animal only to be saved by Laura - that is, the family he never had. It makes for a fitting and moving final death scene where he finally gets the briefest of moments to enjoy the life he could have had. To be fair, this seems to stick sort of with previous continuity, although the X-Franchise has always played fast and loose with itself. In the cinematic universe, Wolverine was born in 1845 Canada and has been fighting ever since, and that's a tough life to end in the year 2029 with about 35 seconds of comforting happiness to cap it off.

It may be a subtle, unrelated nod, but I was impressed that Evilrine resembled Sabretooth, at least in the X-Men Origins mold, which I actually always thought was well-done. I would have liked to have seen Liev Schreiber return as his ultimate enemy, because I think he was a great Victor Creed, but I can see for obvious reasons why they wanted to stay away from Origins. On the rest of the cast / villains they actually did use, Boyd Holbrook is amazing as Donald Pierce, fierce, ruthless, and a cunning adversary more in that opposite vein. I would have liked to see him get a more satisfying death and the Reavers to more closely resemble their comic origins (no, not tank bodies), but composed of a bunch of dudes who had lost limbs to Wolverine in the past. That would have just pushed that adversary narrative a bit further.
Following the great lineage of the Winter Soldier, Furiosa,
Darth Vader, and  Inspector Kemp.

Finally, let's talk the aforementioned Richard E. Grant as Zander Price. Yes, no one knows who that is. No body cares. He's Mr. Sinister in all but name and pasty white skin, and I'm still irritated that Mangold went the "realistic and grounded" route instead of the nutty route. You could just call him Nate Essex and be done with it. It's such a blueballing to eagerly await one of the greatest heretofore unseen X-Men villains and for it to turn out to just be like, fucking Alkali Lake again. I'm so sick of the humans vs. mutants narrative, although in this case the destruction of mutants seemed more an accidental by-product. There is a bit in there about ingesting chemicals that fuck with our bodies in corn syrup and stuff, which is a lot more important to the plot than it's actually treated in the film, but I'll give the bad dude props for doing what Stryker or Trask could never do (even if the latter was actually successful, he didn't count on Kitty Pryde's time travel powers. What a fool.), and to be way more cunning and evil about it. So no Sinister. No Omega Red. No Cyber. But we did get a quick look at Sauron! I cheered. See, I can't just sit down and watch this, my decades of nerdy comic knowledge has doomed me forever.

And it's not like they should force every single character in that they can. This is exactly what X-Men Origins did. I naturally do just want to see some additional characters on the big screen that can fit roles that the filmmakers either made up or gave to lesser characters. It's not like that really detracts from the movie experience, but it detracts from my own personal nerd experience. What is our Easter Egg here? Rictor? Finally, fucking Rictor on the big screen. That's great.

We do get Caliban, but wasn't Caliban already in Apocalypse? That's not like, an old do-over like they did with Emma Frost in First Class (2011), that movie came out last year in the same new timeline. Maybe it wasn't notable enough. I honestly didn't even remember him in that film. He doesn't do too much here. Also I mostly remember Caliban for being a huge monster badass. Stephen Merchant does a fine job here, though.

Now, a big to do was made about this being more a Western film than a Superhero film and a lot of that is true. There is even a scene where they all cozy up in a hotel room and watch Shane (1953). The intertextuality is a bit on the nose, but valid. There's also quite a few similarities to the one last ride of the hero a la Unforgiven (1992), although I don't think Logan says anything as coherent about age and violence as either of these films. I mean, sure it is violent, and the aging of our heroes is a critical moment, but thematically there isn't a lot to say beyond that.

There are some great bits about how the aging of superheros is terrible. Logan has trouble extending his claws and has to literally pull them out with his other hand. Prof X's time freeze powers have gone haywire and he's a danger to everyone around him. Wolverine's Adamantium is actually beginning to poison him and kill him by preoccupying his healing factor. This has been present for a long time in the comics, but to see the real effects of the strain these powers have had over a lifetime is awe-inducing.

By the way, we ought to mention Old Man Logan, where this film ostensibly draws inspiration. There's no real thematic alignment, but plenty of inspiration. The roadtrip setting, the post-apocalyptic feeling (it's not really post-apocalyptic, but actually is for Mutants), and most importantly, the death of the X-Men by one of their own are all apparent. Of course, in the film it's Professor X, not Wolverine, which makes things somehow a bit worse and painful for everyone involved.

I do love the commentary they had on the X-Men through the introduction of the fact that in this world, comic books actually exist featuring real-life characters like Wolverine and Kitty Pryde and Sauron. Sauron is real, right? It's cool to reflect on X-history and the many zany battles they went through. There's actually quite a few references to X-Men (2000), which is cool and often forgotten in the pantheon of superhero films. It also came out an astounding seventeen years ago.

So some last bits here - towards the end there's this kind of weird moment where old ass Wolverine essentially pops some mutant power steroids, which begs the question, are steroids...good? There's no critical evaluation or dramatic tension when he injects himself. It's like a Popeye moment, except instead of spinach (I suppose the Wolverine equivalent would be a cigar and a beer) it's a hypodermic needle full of NyQuil. There needs to be something more said there.

And finally, finally, the reason why we all came here: Eriq La Salle! I actually did not know he was in this movie until his name came on screen during the opening credits. LET YOUR SSOOOOUUL GLOW! I really wanted one fist pump. Just one. His family dying sucked.

But, exactly - don't we need some more Logan guilt over that? Over everything? There's a great bit later on where he ruminates that everyone close to him dies, and Laura goes "Well, I guess I'll be okay, then!" but to really cement all the Shane themes they were going for, this film needed another level, another temptation, some huge regrettable act, something that is EXACTLY what Old Man Logan gave us. I suppose introducing Mysterio would have been over the top, right?

The big question now, then is what's next? We have Deadpool 2 (2018), which we got to see a nice tease for, still promising Nate Summers without any sort of casting announcement so far. It would be nice to see Hugh and Ryan share a screen together, but that's apparently in the dirt. To be fair, we did actually get them both in X-Men Origins, which we seem to forget, mostly because of how forgettable that was. There's not a ton of room forward with Logan, unless we're going to get the Kid Adventures of the New X-Men! (2019), but it's set so far in the future that there is plenty of room to add more to the timeline, especially with the franchise's pension for making more films set in the past rather than present day. And when they catch up to 2029, who cares anyway, this series has never bothered with strict continuity of any kind.

So there is a lot of good stuff here and a lot of stuff that could probably have been better. My final judgment is that it's a pretty fine film but maybe not that Comic Book gold standard we all wanted it to be. What did you think?

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