Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2017


What was old is new again

On the predetermined legacies of mutant bodies, reluctant lone-wolf heroes, and the dubious legacy of the serious-minded superhero film

20th Century Fox
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green, based on characters created by Len Wein, John Romita Sr., Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Eriq La Salle, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Richard E. Grant
Rated R / 2 hours, 17 minutes / 2.35:1
March 3, 2017
(out of four)

Either this will be a turning point or it won't be. It will be a change for the better or no change at all. We've been here before.

You'll forgive me for being circumspect, but the narrative surrounding Logan - divorced from the considerable qualities of the film itself - is guilty of a whole lot of assumptions. That other filmmakers will want to - and be able to - follow its lead. That its success will necessarily push studios into making smaller, quieter or more personal comic-book movies. That it opens a new door or proves an unproven point. That an R-rating for a superhero movie is a greater promise of quality than the alternative. That the formula of a single film is enough to substantively shift customs and practices of an entrenched business model.

We can hope there is truth to any or all of these assumptions, but hope and expectation are two very different things.

It's true that Logan is, more or less, where superhero movies should be headed. A decade-and-a-half of mostly broad-based, mostly PG-13, mostly similar, mostly safe, frequently impersonal adaptations has been tiresome. Emphasizing drama over spectacle, having more authorial voice, being unencumbered by a specific rating - all positive signs and good aspirations. There's no question there will be an increase in R-rated superhero films - Deadpool saw to that, and that movie sucked. But Logan - the Wolverine's third standalone entry - being heralded as the new direction is a dubious presumption. The last time we saw such a game-changer was Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, beginning in 2005. Less comic book, more crime saga. Less fantastical, more practical. Less wish fulfillment, more self-examination. But when people collectively decided to start really taking that franchise seriously with 2008's The Dark Knight, the genre itself was simultaneously moving in a completely different - essentially opposite - direction. That film was released within three months of Iron Man, which kickstarted a Marvel machine that's still humming, for better or worse, today.

There are so many ironies of Nolan's comic-book success. That even as his trilogy became the most artistically significant, critically celebrated, fanboy-approved and even Oscar-decorated in the genre's history, what he was doing with the form never became the industry model. (Just the opposite, in fact.) That the very movies that legitimized the genre - still only a few years ago - would never be able to get made today. (They'd be required to be mere parts of a larger whole, table-setters for other properties, distinct but interconnected chapters in an anthology with too many authors.) That those Batman movies have had a greater aesthetic and storytelling impact on other types of films and franchises - James Bond, Planet of the Apes - than on the type of franchise they defined.

The largely unrealized dream of the personal, serious-minded superhero film has been rekindled in the form of Logan, but with this character in particular, it feels more than a little redundant. The film positions itself in the tradition of Westerns, with Logan himself as a Shane-type figure. This is not all that much of a leap from the way we've seen him in the past; he's always been the lone wolf of the X-Men series. His story in this movie isn't such a dramatic departure from his last solo outing, 2013's The Wolverine, which began with him alone in the Alaskan wilderness and continued with him on the run protecting a young woman from ninja gangsters. Logan begins with him alone in the desert along the U.S./Mexico border and continues with him on the run protecting a young girl from cyborg commandos. Wolverine has always been a de-facto gunslinger or samurai; this movie just puts a finer point on it.

The film's Western bonafides are ultimately more ornamental than fundamental. In the tradition of weary, reluctant tough guys, Hugh Jackman's Logan fits in nicely, and director James Mangold's atmosphere of dry loneliness - his pauses, staring at a woebegone Jackman's mournful yet mighty stature, effectively underlining the hostility of a world the Wolverine no longer has much use for - makes for a convincing frontier facsimile. Yet the film as a whole doesn't quite have the discipline to be the patient, reflective drama it's itching to be. Which is to say, it's still really preoccupied with the various ways in which Wolverine can slice the hell out of bad guys who happen to cross his path. This is most evident in a terrible opening scene in which he cuts down an entire crew of would-be car thieves. Not quite the way to set the tone for a film otherwise trying to make its violence more meaningful. It seems to exist mostly to reassure certain segments of the audience. Don't worry, this movie won't be TOO good; we'll still have plenty of cheapo scenes where Wolverine beats up some ruffians for no particular reason.

But even as Logan struggles with an uneasy balance between action and introspection - between reinforcing genre expectations and rewriting them - it's effortlessly comfortable with the character himself. For that matter, it has a keen awareness of the mythologies and expectations that surround all of its characters. This is where the kind of mythos associated with Westerns - the name-dropped Shane among them - finds the most significance. There aren't many mutants left by this point (the film takes place in 2029), but for those still in existence, the identities they've been defined by still follow them. They have been objectified, co-opted as symbols, turned into high-powered tools. Comic books have immortalized them as cartoon exaggerations. Corporations have been built to imprison and exploit them. That's where Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) comes in, having dispatched Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his team of soldiers to retrieve some escaped property.

The mutants in this film simply want to be left alone, unshackled from what everyone wants from them. Yet their legacies - their predefined purposes - always catch up to them. Most of all Logan, who after all his years - and he's finally showing them - would like to finally be done with the responsibility he's always been reluctant to take on anyway. His 11-year-old load of unexpected baggage, Laura (Dafne Keen, excellent), has never even had the opportunity to define her own identity. Freedom, for her, is somewhere in North Dakota near the border. (Natch.) Caliban (Stephen Merchant) has done everything in his power to erase, or atone for, his past as a mutant hunter, yet it still inexorably circles back on him.

With all that struggle for peace and autonomy, it only makes sense that Logan is the unofficially official swan song for Jackman's incarnation of the character. Time to let him rest. After featured roles in seven different films, we've gotten about as much as we could get out of him. Mangold, who helmed both this movie and its similarly strong predecessor (let's agree to just ignore Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine), has done a lovely job getting to the cinematic heart of the character, and the actor playing him.

Jackman's physical energy propels everything, and he's surrounded by a supporting cast of standouts - particularly Keen, who may be able to claim the film's best action moments; and Holbrook, who yanks the film out of Jackman's control every time he appears on screen. His commanding presence and careful modulation of his villainous character - his voice a scratchy, charming twang that never bleeds into sugary manipulation; tough and intimidating without feeling the need to oversell it - are the stuff of star confidence. (I was only passably familiar with him going in, but I believe he's going to be a big deal pretty soon.)

The film hits plenty of bumps along the way. There's an absolute nightmare of an information dump at one point (an entire detailed backstory nonsensically relayed via cell-phone video). And in the action scenes, some of the framing is so awkwardly tight that I genuinely thought the movie was being projected in the wrong aspect ratio. Logan is less of a risk than it wants you to believe, its differences even to its own character's other films are overstated, and the idea that this is going to be a game-changer seems like a specious overreaction. But there's also a very real thrust of personal statement here - in a way that rarely comes across in other superhero sagas. When we hear that nasty wet sound of blood spilling from cut after cut of Wolverine's blade - that blood being one of the few palpable differences between this film and its contemporaries - it feels like Logan has earned each drop.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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