SPOILER WARNING: Logan (James Mangold, 2017)
Logan (James Mangold, 2017) functions both as a conclusion to the Hugh Jackman Wolverine narrative and also a retrospective on what the character was and has become. But though the film may appear to be a superhero film, and indeed it fulfills many of the tropes of the genre, the film is more concerned with breaking down exactly what makes the character of the Wolverine work. As the film begins, Logan (Hugh Jackman), or James as is his birth name, is in the same form that the audience has seen him in dozens of times before. (For the sake of clarity this article will refer to Logan as James as to not be confused with the film’s title) Drunk, deposed, and coming off as nothing more than a burned-out loser, James once again pops his claws and sets about proving that he is the best at what he does. Except, this time around, he isn’t. Logan sets out to prove, and it does so in convincing fashion, that its titular character has fallen out of the position of power that he once held. While the Wolverine has never been the most powerful character in any of the films he has appeared it, all of these same films have always carried with them a sense that James will come out on top in the end. Empowered by a healing factor that can allow him to come back from bullets to the head and a skeleton coated by an indestructible metal, the stakes have never been that high for the franchise head of the X-Men series. But all of that has faded in this film. Logan functions as a dissection of the character of the Wolverine, and in doing so it deconstructs the mythos of its lead character.
There cannot be stakes for the character of the Wolverine as long as his healing factor is functioning. And while there can be consequences for those around him while he can still heal from any wound, James himself is always assuring the audience that he will be alright when everything is said and done. The film though, throws James’ healing factor into question in its first thrust to establish that there are stakes in it. But not only is his healing factor on the fritz in the film, it is also established that he is dying as a result of the metal on his bones. The Wolverine is dying as a result of part of what made him what he is. But the film does not mourn for its dying lead character, and neither does James himself. Both the film and the man have more important issues to worry about. No one stops to mourn for anyone. James knows that he is living on borrowed time just as he knows he cannot stop to bemoan his impending demise. But even James’ own failing body is not enough for the film to gain stakes enough to have tension. And so the character of Laura (Dafne Keen) enters the film.
Laura is an interesting challenge for the film. A miniature Wolverine in her own right, there is little that can actually threaten her mortality. Unlike the older version of her, Laura’s healing factor is functioning to its full potential and she does not harbor any qualms about killing whomever she must to survive. But it is the latter feature that the film chooses to focus on in order to elevate stakes for the character. Prodded on by the ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), James, as well as the audience, is encouraged to be concerned for the future of this child. And as the film continues Laura’s actions speak for themselves. Violence surrounds Laura. Whether she is committing it herself or it is being committed against her, the film does not hide the brutality of the violence that is occurring. This feature is present throughout the entire film, and though Logan never outright condemns the violence, its futility and the endlessness of it becomes apparent as the film continues. Laura is more animal than child as her prowess is first displayed. She screams and roars as she disembowels dozens of nameless henchmen. Even Professor Xavier goes so far to compare her to a lioness. But the film does not play her as a primal and noble hunter, but rather as a feral child James must attempt to corral.
Herein lies the most complex aspect of the film. Sitting in a hotel room, Xavier and Laura find themselves watching Shane (George Stevens, 1953). As Xavier lauds the film as one of the greatest he has ever seen, it seems that James is meant to fill the role of the lead of the classic Western. He has filled the role before after all. X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) saw James appearing out of the wilderness, defeating the established evil, and then riding away in the end. The character of Rogue (Anna Paquin) even served as the Joey (Brandon De Wilde) type of sorts, as she is devoted to the Wolverine throughout the film. But there is no room for James to fulfill this role in his final outing. Riding off into the sunset it out of the question for the Wolverine, and he does not show any interest in fulfilling this role either. It is Professor Xavier that envisions James as a modern-day Shane, not James himself. Even though he knows the consequences of taking a life, he is ill-equipped to be a hero, just as Laura is ill-equipped to be enamored by him. All of the romance of the western and superhero genres has vanished in Logan as it gives way to the gritty consequences that ground its characters throughout the film.
James is less enigmatic of Shane (Alan Ladd) of the film of the same name as he is of Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) of Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992). He has seen everything and done just as much, and he is not necessarily the better for it. When he talks of killing, he seems more at home stating “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have” than Shane’s warning about killing being like a brand. But though neither of the speeches are wrong, the former brings with it the weight of raw experience that now dwells within James as well. Even though he dons a gun in the final confrontation of the film just so he can take down his final enemy, James is not Shane, nor does he pretend to be. Though Laura may stand over James’ grave and quote Shane’s famous final speech to Billy, it is not James’ words that she recites. Instead, she recites what has been imparted to her by the man whom originally tried to save James: Professor Xavier.
Laura may be James’ redemption, but not in the sense that he is the one saving her. Instead, she serves as a second chance for him, a version of him that has been imparted with the wisdom that he did not receive until it was far too late for his fate to be changed. James’ death in the film’s conclusion is less of a tragedy as it is a release. After countless years of failed redemptions and drawing blood from untold of number of enemies, and friends, the Wolverine can finally have peace. His final conflict is with a literal younger version of himself, and it is telling that he cannot win this fight. Instead, it takes Laura, harnessing a bullet James kept as an insurance policy of sorts, to put down the part of the Wolverine that made him what he was. When Laura quotes Shane she is not reciting her learned wisdom so much as she is eulogizing a man to whom this knowledge came too little too late. In the same way, James does not mourn for what he has become, because he knows that it will not change him. Instead, he begrudgingly turns his attention to Laura, in whom a better future is possible. Whenever the hero rides into the sunset, not only is another adventure teased as possible, but also is the possibility for future growth of that character. James as reached the end of himself, and so Logan leaves him buried beneath the earth, in the only peace that the world can grant him.