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'Logan' uses all the conventional X-Men movies to help make a great one

For its 5th anniversary, we're celebrating how Logan uses the conventional X-Men films that came before it to tell an unconventional superhero story.

By James Grebey
Logan YT

There had been R-rated superhero movies before, and there had been serious superhero movies before, but there hadn't been a superhero movie like Logan.

James Mangold's 2017 Oscar-nominated film, which celebrates its 5-year anniversary today, felt weightier at the time than any of its caped companions at the box office. In Logan, Hugh Jackman's worn-down Wolverine wasn't fighting some supervillain to save the world. This hero was fighting off despair and the inevitability of death for the first time. This was a broken man in a broken world who searched for — and eventually found — a reason to live. It's a far cry from the mainstream superhero movies that had come before it, the ones based on big, bankable Marvel or DC characters, and we haven't really seen anything like it since.

And yet, even though Logan stands out amongst the rest of the films in the various cinematic superhero universes, it isn't so far afield from them. In fact, Logan is beholden to the X-Men/Marvel franchise and the history that came before it. It's an interesting wrinkle to consider on this anniversary. Logan feels so different from all the other superhero movies, and at the same time, it derives most of its power from the very films it distinguishes itself from.

(Full disclosure: I haven't seen Logan in a couple of years and I'm writing this from memory because I now have a two-month-old daughter and if watching Logan made me absolutely break down in tears before I was a father, I am afraid of what it will do to me now.)

The film, a loose adaptation of Marvel's "Old Man Logan" comics (which earned the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), sees Wolverine living in a dusty, desolate outpost near the Mexican border. Set many years after the events of the proper X-Men movie timeline, mutants are virtually extinct, most of the X-Men are dead, and Logan's healing powers are failing him. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) appears to have dementia — a dangerous thing when you're the most powerful telepath on the planet. Logan, once a cool and swaggering hero who saved the day on multiple occasions, is basically a day drunk just biding his time until he dies. It's not until he encounters Laura (Dafne Keen), a young clone of him who is on the run from an evil organization, that Logan begrudgingly picks up the hero mantle again.

While most superhero movies concern themselves with big stakes that threaten cities, the world, or even (as is increasingly the case) the multiverse, Logan's stakes were smaller and more personal. More emotional. The narrative plays out like a Western, a thematic comparison that Logan makes explicit with mentions of the 1953 classic Shane. The film's margins hint toward larger evil forces at play, but Logan isn't trying to save them or undo past damage, which is ironic given the character's healing factor. All he can do is get this girl and her friends to safety, and, if at all possible, try to find some peace for himself in the process. One last redemptive act for a hero whose actions in battle have left him feeling unworthy of such redemption.

Logan is the first X-Men movie to fully embrace the violent world of its titular hero; for the first time, we see the blood and dismemberment that comes when slashing people with a trio of adamantium claws. There are earned character deaths and dramatic moments of real growth and pathos. And while the movie's tone is a grim one, the moments of comic levity actually feel like relief from the sad aura that hangs over the movie rather than regularly scheduled quips. Logan is fundamentally trying to tell a different sort of story than almost every other superhero movie. It is able to do that so effectively, though, because of those past movies.

Jackman, who has been a terrific Wolverine even in terrible movies (see: X-Men Origins), delivers his best performance as the character yet in this film. (Though, to be fair, that's mostly due to Logan giving him more to do as an actor than in any previous X-Men installment.) It's a fitting swan song for the character and the actor, and it's difficult to watch Logan in a vacuum without remembering that Jackman spent 17 years playing the role. When the original X-Men movie came out and he went "snikt" for the first time, Dafne Keen, Jackman's future Logan co-star, had yet to be born.

It's this history — both the fictional one concerning everything we've seen Wolverine endure and accomplish and the real-world history of knowing that Jackman has played this one character for nearly two decades — that gives Logan considerable weight. Make this same movie about a different character, one without previous big-screen appearances, and it would not have the same impact. Make this same movie with a different actor, and it would lack the visceral emotion of seeing the same man playing the same role as an older, changed anti-hero. The same goes for Stewart, who plays Charles Xavier for the last time here (unless the next Doctor Strange movie changes that). In Logan, Charles is hardly the cool and commanding presence he was in previous films. The leader of the X-Men, their trusted protector, has become a sad and dying old man who is arguably happier feeling senile than when he's lucid because, when he's mindful and aware, he can remember the damage that he caused.

Logan further draws strength from the X-Men series' continuity by purposefully distancing itself from it. The messiness of that franchise's timeline is, as usual, both bug and feature. We've already seen post-apocalyptic endings before (as in Days of Future Past), we've seen characters die before as well (Professor X dies in X3), and there's no shortage of multiple timelines. This makes it easier for the continuity-obsessed viewer to just safely treat Logan as its own thing without worrying too much about where or how exactly it fits in. At the same time, the grief Logan feels at having lost everyone he cared about is easier for viewers to relate to because we also know and care about those people. We watched Logan's relationship with the now-deceased Jean Grey reach a tragic conclusion over the course of several movies. We saw the X-Men in their prime, and that contrast here makes it all the sadder and more effective when they're nothing but a painful memory in Logan's timeline.

Logan tells a different story about the X-Men, one that the previous entries never did. (In fact, in the world of Logan, the X-Men are alive and well in comics form, which invests the film with a subtle and inspired meta touch.) Unlike previous outings, the fights are brutal and not-especially fantastical. (As the script notes in its early pages, the action is devoid of "CG-f**k-athon" set pieces). Superpowered skillsets are largely limited to physical abilities like healing and cutting, rather than shooting laser beams or turning into a CGI ragdoll to fly across the sky. Three of our four main characters die pretty horribly, and the one survivor is a child who (hopefully) escapes a life of violence but will no doubt retain scars that even she can't heal from. It's not your typical superhero movie, but it does stand on the shoulders of the standard PG-13 fare that came before it.

In the five years since its release, there hasn't really been a movie like Logan. It's hard to recreate from scratch this kind of depth of knowledge and as intimate a relationship with a story or characters. Franchise superhero movies have made steps towards it — the bleak ending of Infinity War or tragic sacrifices of Endgame or Spider-Man: No Way Home come to mind — but all of those blockbusters are still very much in the superhero mold. They're telling straightforward, day-saving stories (with the intention of having sequels) that are also cashing in on the emotional familiarity audiences have with the chapters and heroics that lead up to these epic installments. The much-derided Eternals oddly makes attempts at reaching the levels of intimacy and weight of Logan, but it doesn't have any of the history, so it ultimately fails. Imagine if Logan had to summarize every previous X-Men movie for audiences for the first time. That's what Eternals tried to do in order to get to its big dramatic climax. Your mileage may vary on how much it worked, but it was no Logan.

Joker is probably the closest we've come to another Logan, but even then, the comparison feels off. Audiences are familiar with the character of the Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix's take on the character is new, and we're still learning about his origin rather than his ending. Our knowledge of Joker as a character is supplementary and lurking around the margins, rather than directly impacting how we relate to the film, as is the case with Logan.

Logan remains, then, an impressive, singular film half a decade since it came out. It's a shining example of what rewards can come when you try to make a superhero movie that's not like other superhero movies.

And, at the same time, it's a testament to the power of franchise filmmaking and shared history.