Directed by James Mangold
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Dafne Keen
James Mangold, the director of Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, has woven together elements of the Western, film noir, and Marvel comics, to create an Oscar-quality drama that doubles as a superb action flick.
Hugh Jackman’s performance as an aging Wolverine, broken and haunted by a life of violence, and by the apparent victory of evil over good, is disturbing and convincing. Patrick’s Stewart’s portrayal of a 90-year old Charles Xavier suffering from Alzheimer’s has critics discussing a Best Supporting Actor award. The film’s technical chops are matched by its subject matter: the importance of the family, the sacrificial role of the father, and the cost of saving a soul.
Yes, you read that correctly. Logan is an explicitly theological tale of how one soul, too wounded for this world, was finally saved.
Please take note. First, Logan is a profanity-filled and violent film that deserves its R rating. Second, there is a brief moment of easily-anticipated nudity at about the 20-minute mark when the protagonist is transporting some women in a limousine. Third, this review contains spoilers.
Wolverine’s history could be divided into three major stages. The first stage finds Logan as a practically indestructible, feral creature, a mutant and a product of cruel military experiments, with the charismatic and optimistic Charles Xavier trying to help the poor man become whole again.
In the second stage, Logan has a physical vulnerability to match his psychological vulnerability, making the character both more human, and more bestial. In the third stage, Logan’s true origins are finally revealed: a life of tragedy, violence, and brokenness that preceded his eventual discovery by Professor Xavier.
At every stage, three elements have remained constant: his own woundedness and violence, the calming and transforming effect of his father figure Charles Xavier, and the ennobling effect of protecting a young woman who acts as Logan’s surrogate daughter.
In this film these elements are woven into a single story, giving us a Logan whose healing powers are waning, whose strained relationship with Xavier may be the only thing keeping him alive, and who is confronted with the prospect of protecting yet another daughter.
To make matters worse, Logan has lived to see everything he fought for disintegrate. It’s a world where the bad guys refer to themselves as “the good guys”, and where there is no one with the moral authority to contradict them. Worse still, Xavier, and perhaps even Logan, have played some role in the X-Men’s demise in an accident whose details the audience must piece together.
Wolverine starts the film in a very dark place, and, when not even an innocent girl’s need for help, nor Charles’ newfound happiness in helping her have any apparent effect on him, we begin to worry. By breaking Logan so completely, Mangold sets a very high bar for his redemption.
A nurse named Gabriella, pictured in one scene with an image of the Blessed Virgin in the background, makes the annunciation to Logan that he has a daughter. “She is not my daughter, but I love her. You do not love her, but she is your daughter.”
The daughter, Laura, played brilliantly by newcomer Dafne Keen, is Logan’s child according to the flesh, but not according to nature. Like Logan, she is the violent product of military-industrial experimentation.
Though he tries to refuse the call, fate and Charles Xavier have other ideas. Soon all three are on their way to a place called Eden pursued by paramilitary types who have been sent to recover a pharmaceutical company’s “investment”.
These scenes between Charles, Logan, and Laura are the real meat of the film. Again and again, a half-mad but still charismatic Xavier tries to penetrate the morbidity in which Logan has encased himself, and though we witness no change in Logan, we also see Charles’ beautiful ability to keep warm the few remaining embers of goodness in his pupil’s heart.
Meanwhile Dafne Keen wows as a laboratory child out in the world for the first time. Without speaking a word, her wonder-filled eyes are shockingly communicative. Entirely against Logan’s will, the three become a strange family, as if the structure of family were so firmly embedded in reality that no amount of violence against nature could truly uproot it.
Over and over again, the experience of family washing over Logan undermines the false safety of his despair. “This is what life looks like,” says Charles. “People who love each other. A home. You should take a moment. Feel it.”
Sadly, there is all too much evidence to confirm Logan’s fears. Wherever he goes, violence follows. The film makes clear that there are forces in the world, banal, anonymous, cynical, that threaten to destroy natural and familial things, and yet, the film argues that it is the home, more so than the world, that the hero is called to protect.
When he takes up the mantle once more, it is not as savior of the world, but as protector of his family. Mangold shows clearly that the mantle of fatherhood is the mantle of priesthood. His decision to take responsibility for the lives of others is beautiful and sacrificial.
Wolverine is not Superman. He is far more like Sampson, brought forth blinded and witless from the dungeons, one last time. The scene in which Logan runs up the mountainside, old, exhausted, gasping for air, and struggling desperately against the limitations of his frail body for the sake of the others, is so poignant that it puts every other superhero movie to shame. We know what is coming, and we know it will be awful.
That scene, and the one that follows, also embody one of the most important questions that the film raises: what is the path of happiness, salvation, or normalcy for a person as broken as Logan, or for a world as wounded as the one in which he lives?
Early in the film, before there is any hope of a change in him, Logan comes upon Charles as he babbles incoherently, repeating whatever he’s heard on the radio that day. “Friends! Good news!” shouts Charles, “you can’t live up to God’s laws. He knows you can’t! It’s okay, we’re imperfect.” Later, the villain, Donald Pierce, asks the mutant Caliban why he stopped helping the “good guys” and started helping Xavier. “What happened? You get religion?” “I have a theory,” continues Pierce, “that people don’t really change.”
The change in Logan comes slowly, painfully, and almost invisibly, until he is willing to make a definitive choice to say yes to the risk of fatherhood, even though he knows he is unworthy of the task.
Logan embodies a very powerful truth that a purely secular humanism cannot accept, because it confuses it with despair: human strength alone is not enough. There on the mountaintop, when all his strength is spent, we perceive a subtle change from the man whose violent rage in the film’s first scene was aimed at protecting himself and his own small hope for comfort, to a man whose rage has taken on the aspect of a father lion defending his cubs against a pack of hyenas.
Logan is a harsh but beautiful film. Those who see no point in cinematic violence or who want a story that answers every question, or who reject on principle the idea that there can be a serious film based on a comic book, should avoid it.
But a film that points so directly to the family as the essential element of society and of the well-lived life, that links the meaning of male-heroism to fatherhood, fatherhood to sacrifice, and sacrifice to the transcendent purpose of human existence, should not be dismissed. While not perfect, Logan is one of a kind. One can only say a hearty “Thank you!” to the filmmakers for giving the Wolverine such a send-off. May he rest in peace.
Joseph Breslin teaches at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.