The following article contains SPOILERS for Logan. - editor
Logan is tearing up both the box office and provoking sharp, positive reviews from critics around the country. Logan is a lean, emotionally taught film. I’ll add my voice to the round of recommendations.
Critics and scholars commonly call Superhero movies our contemporary Westerns, meaning the genre does for present-day audiences what Oaters did for audiences in the post-WWII 1950s. Then, the generation of Americans who had been trained in war came home and had to settle down, and they watched movies about men in similar circumstances, albeit set seventy years earlier post-Civil War instead of post-WWII. At the core of the Western genre is a conflict between the Frontier with its individualistic, kill-or-be-killed ethos and Civilization, where the community and jurisprudence reign supreme. Though violence, like war, might be necessary from time to time to maintain peace, there is ultimately no place for the “gun” in the home, so every Western hero rides off into the sunset at the end, away from the settled peoples he just saved. The Western genre entered its revisionist phase in the 1960s as society realized that violence—in often subtle forms—was the way of civilization too.
The in-process Superhero genre is a post-9/11 genre, as Chris Lopez and I explored on a recent podcast series. The films externalize and hyperbolize the anxieties of a contemporary society reckoning with the realities of living under a constant threat of terrorist attack, both foreign and domestic. Lopez contends that, because the genre has more than a half-century of ready-made lore to draw from in its source material, the genre has proven remarkably agile at adapting to the ever-shifting anxieties of our time. Whether it’s domestic terrorism in The Dark Knight, skyscraper-leveling aircraft in The Avengers, the surveillance state in Captain America: Winter Soldier, biological warfare and racism in the X-Men films, or religious fundamentalism in Doctor Strange (to name only a few), the Superhero genre wraps our fears in a crowd-pleasing package and enables us to test our responses in a safe place.
Logan suggests that writer/director James Mangold is aware of the Superhero genre’s functional similarity to the Western genre. (Mangold, also, is no stranger to Westerns – he directed the 2007 remake of 3:10 To Yuma.) Among other things, the film is an ode to prominent Westerns. You don’t need to recognize the key Western films referenced in Logan to find the film both thrilling and emotionally affective—the charisma of Hugh Jackman goes a long way to accomplishing both all on its own—but knowing the particular Westerns at play here does add a fun wrinkle to the film’s grizzled visage. I’d like to write briefly about the four main referents I noticed in hopes of enhancing your enjoyment of Logan, encouraging you to watch a few great films from the past, and to get at the film’s potential theological imports.
Logan’s main referent is, of course, Shane. Xavier and Laura even watch the film while laying low in an Oklahoma casino, and the film uses Shane’s final monologue as a benediction of sorts. Shane is the Western par excellance. It’s pure. The conflict between Frontier (the free range cattlemen) and Civilization (the farmers) is writ as large as the Teton range that forms the story’s backdrop, and the titular character’s arc from friendly, mysterious loner to violent protector of the community to man without a place is as emblematic as they come.
Mangold uses the film to remind us who Wolverine was when we met him in X-Men, who he has been since we’ve been watching him for the past seventeen years, and ultimately, who he will always be in this genre – he’s the Superhero par excellance – violent, rogue-ish, sadly necessary and ultimately Good, but we’re going to have to get along without him in the end. Considering that Logan is Jackman’s last rampage as James “Wolverine” Howlett, you’d be forgiven for crying, “Come back, James!” as the movie’s credits roll.
The next most prominent referent in Logan is to one of John Wayne’s final roles, as the deteriorating rancher Wil Anderson in 1972’s The Cowboys. In the film, Anderson reluctantly hires a group of schoolboys to help him drive his cattle to Montana. Along the way, Anderson assumes a fatherly role amongst the boys and helps them grow into men. They prove their manliness by enacting violent revenge on the man who kills Anderson at the film’s second act climax.
Similarly, Wolverine’s health is deteriorating throughout Logan, and, as usual with the character, he reluctantly takes young mutants under his muscled arms and helps them mature. Wolverine’s tutelage-ing of younger mutants is a stable of his character, providing the innocence-grace note to Wolverine’s aberrant personality. The ending of both films is so similar, I wondered if The Cowboys’ scribe William Dale Jennings didn’t deserve a story-by credit. The generational torch-passing is an essential part of Logan’s story, and Jackman is the “John Wayne” of the genre. The Cowboys is an apt progenitor.
Speaking of John Wayne, Logan also kind of works as an inversion of The Searchers. This was the first Western I thought of while watching Logan, because the basic story of Logan concerns the need of a grizzled veteran of the mutant wars (Wolverine) to take a young, liberated girl to Canada to escape prejudiced men bent on subjugating her. The Searchers is about a deeply prejudiced veteran who journeys to Canada and back to find a young girl kidnapped by subjugated people. In The Searchers, Wayne’s character, “Ethan Edwards,” longs for a peaceful home life, but is unable to have it because of his propensity toward violence. In Logan, "Wolverine" resists the family life offered to him because he is too aware of his violent ways. “You hurt people,” one might justly accuse Ethan in denying him love. “I hurt people,” is Wolverine’s defense against love. Interestingly, the (qualified) redemption of both characters happens when they each gather their respective wards in their arms and carry them to safety instead of retreating into their hitherto self-preservational instincts.
Exploring the prejudice inherent in both genres is a hallmark of both The Searchers and the X-Men franchise, and by referencing The Searchers here, Logan highlights how Wolverine fits into that theme. His prejudice is self-focused. He doesn’t like mutants, because he doesn’t like himself. This betrays his deep belief that mutants are somehow unpure, and he’d likely have killed himself long ago had his self-healing power not stood in his way. Similarly in The Searchers, Ethan hates Native Americans so intensely, he tries to kill his niece, Debbie, once she’s been “tribalized” by her captors. Wolverine believes he deserves the pain he endures; and Ethan believes Debbie deserves to die to protect the purity of the white race. It’s dark and disturbing, but it’s also a true critique of the way we humans interact with those different than us. In their last-minute insistence that prejudiced people can move past their predilections and put the wellbeing of others ahead of themselves, Wolverine’s saga and The Searchers are scarcely hopeful cautionary tales.
The final Western salted liberally over Logan is “the final Western” – Clint Eastwood’s 1992 film Unforgiven. There isn’t much plot similarity between the two films, but they both share a concern for the ways stories about the worlds of their characters shape the expectations of characters in that world, and, by extrapolation, the ways those stories shape the genre’s audience’s understanding of the real world. In Unforgiven, men vie with the myths created about them and seek to either undercut those myths to protect others or bolster those myths for their own gain. In Logan, Wolverine objects to the comic books written about the X-Men’s exploits because of the ways the myths obscure the truth about the loss he and his friends have experienced and lead fans down dead-end life paths.
Both Wolverine and Unforgiven’s “Bill Munny” are a good/bad men with deadly skills whose legend is maybe truer and more terrible than anyone expects. When Munny finally reverts to his murderous ways, his wrath is terrible. Eastwood’s shark-dead eyes in the movie’s final sequence are one of Western cinema’s most haunting images. Logan is helped in this case by its “R” rating – for the first time ever, we see the brutal truth of Wolverine’s power to savage his enemies with his claws. His is an intimate, bloody, lacerating weapon, and when Wolverine finally reverts to his animalistic ways, Jackman portrays him as a kind of rabid, remorseless beast, all adrenaline-flex and fury.
What people “deserve” given their past sins comes into play in both films as well. Again, the violence is essential here. These characters have all caused great, physical harm to others, guilty and innocent alike, on purpose and by accident. They condemn themselves for what they’ve done, and Unforgiven at least compels the audience to question its enjoyment of watching those violent acts. (Given the enthusiasm with which the movie relishes Laura’s rage, I’m not convinced Logan encourages that kind of reflection.) At one point in Logan, a character bemoans that he “doesn’t deserve” the pleasant evening he just had because of the pain he’s caused others in the past. I half expected another character to growl, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” as Munny growls to Little Bill in Unforgiven. In a way, a character in Logan does just that.
The end sequences in both Unforgiven and Logan are breathtaking too, the kind of scenes you want to see when you go see a movie starring a genre icon like Clint Eastwood or Hugh Jackman, and especially so, since the films are reportedly their last entries in their genres. These scenes feel like culminations of their respective actors’ careers playing these characters (or, in Eastwood’s case, simulacrums). Both Unforgiven and Logan then, are stories about stories, juxtaposing the myth and the reality, that maybe undercut their critiques by adopting a have-your-cake-an-eat-it-too narrative resolution in their third acts. The ambiguity is appropriate though, because the thrill and terror of this kind of violence go hand-in-hand. Logan wouldn’t complete Wolverine’s narrative arc without Unforgiven-like moral complications.
I called Unforgiven “the last Western” above, because it felt then and still feels today like the last Western that needs to be made. It does all the things the genre does best featuring one of the genre’s biggest stars, and puts a period (maybe a question mark) on the genre itself. In truth, every great Western feels like “the last Western,” because Westerns are always about the end of the era of the Frontier and the establishment of the new era of Civilization. Westerns about about “The End.”
The Superhero genre is not given to endings. The end credits and mid-credits tags teasing the next installment in the franchise are an essential part of the genre. The genre’s inability to resolve its tensions is, in my opinion, one of its greatest weaknesses. Westerns helped society move into a time of peace after a time of war. Superhero movies suggest that there is no end to this fear-shrouded present, only further complications. The Superhero genre lacks any telos, let alone a compelling one. It’s propensity to play with time travel suggests that the future is the present anyway, removing even the impetus to define a future worth working toward.
Logan does give us an ending for at least one beloved character, however, and there is something reassuring about seeing a man find individual resolution even if broad resolution remains out-of-reach. Perhaps we’ve moved so far past the Western’s communal vision as a society, that we can only accept this kind of personal peace. That’s a rather melancholy hope, isn’t it?
In the end, that’s what Logan leaves us with though. It’s a less “Christian” vision of “all things right” than what the Western offered. Maybe that’s why, beyond the "X-Men" implication, a Christian symbol is turned on its side to close the film. It’s a kind of acknowledgement, albeit, I’m sure, an inadvertent one, that while there is hope here in this story, it’s a lesser hope than the one that we used to share as a society in finding communal peace as we transitioned from a society guaranteed by individual acts of heroic violence to one guaranteed by mutual love and working together to cultivate the garden we’ve been given.
Or, maybe Wolverine himself symbolizes that less-Christian vision, ergo his tilted cross. Perhaps that why the characters that most clearly represent the Western ideal, the family of farmers, are depicted explicitly as Christians, and their idyll is disrupted by Wolverine’s presence. And the community of children who memorialize Logan represent a return to the kind of corporate vision he was never able to accept or guarantee. Maybe Logan is correct – there is no Eden. But maybe the family and the kids are correct as well – the only Eden that exists is the Eden we make together. And maybe that’s the real reason why the Western is dolloped so liberally throughout this film – it’s a return to the kind of vision the Western offered us when we were optimistic enough about the future to accept it. Logan, unlike its titular main character, hopes that we can transcend this cloud of post-9/11 fear and begin to rebuild the world together. If we can, it’ll be a world where the wolverine lies down with the lamb, where we beat our claws into plowshares, where “there aren’t any more guns in the valley,” because there isn’t a need for them anymore.