Monday, March 27, 2017

Logan

Logan is the way the cinematic Wolverine saga had to end. It's gritty, dark, and sobering not just in the violence and language (it earns its R rating) but in the overall atmosphere. If you have seen the previews with Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" playing in the background, you have a pretty good idea of how the movie feels.  The story doesn't end the same way the comic book arc does, but it is a movie that makes sense as the final installment in Wolverine's cinematic movieverse.

In the comics, Wolverine is something of a sacrificial lamb. He’s the best there is at what he does so others don't have to be. In more recent years he has looked at his past and thought, "Fate has put me through these things, so I know why I have to protect those in my charge." He eventually replaces Professor Xavier as both the physical and moral leader of the X-Men. He's the guy who has seen and done the worst things in humanity and has come through it.

Not so in the cinematic universe. Logan was never a hero in the grandest sense of the word. He was a monster channeled toward the good, a weapon of mass destruction aimed toward causes that were often just. There was always an edge to him – but that’s the appeal of the Wolverine, right? He wasn’t a tame wolverine. The instincts of the Law Of Tooth And Claw always coursed through his veins.

Xavier harnessed him; various women tamed him for a time; he had a soft spot for protecting vulnerable children. We occasionally glimpsed a tender soul buried beneath the muscle, hair and adamantium-bound bone. He was a guy you wanted on your side: he was durable and loyal; he didn’t mess around when there was a job to be done; he was willing to be the monster when he needed to be and sheathe his claws when he didn’t.

But he was always a monster. There were always demons lurking beneath the surface. "There's no living with a killing," Shane says in one scene. "There's no going back." Logan makes that reality very clear. The X-Men kept Wolverine in check; they certainly played a part in his his moral and relational formation. He was a better man for having sided with them, but he was always a monster.

In Logan, we see the real Logan re-emerge.

An aging Logan is watching over an old Xavier, who apparently killed the X-Men when his unstable mind knocked them off in a mental terrorist attack (which also killed some children). The senile professor doesn’t remember. Logan does, and he keeps Xavier stashed away in a metal prison so that he can’t kill again. Logan eeks out a living as limo driver, albeit a deadly one who at times seeks out violence when it doesn’t find him.

However much he and Xavier are trying to hide, they aren’t very successful. When a young girl turns up who is very much like Logan, he doesn’t care that Laura may be related to him or that her life is in danger. He just wants to be left alone. He would have abandoned her to her fate had not Professor Xavier insisted he look out for her. So they go on the run, looking desperately for a haven for the girl - and peace for a dying Logan.

* * * * *

Logan (the movie) takes the glamour away from the Wolverine. For most of his life, Logan has killed people close up by slicing them to death. One does not just walk away from that untouched physically, mentally or emotionally. Logan is an angry, cynical, hardened moral nihilist who has seen the worst the world has to give – and contributed to it. He’s protecting a mass murder, for crying out loud. At any time the good professor could slaughter thousands (and he almost does at one point). But don’t worry – Logan is bribing someone to steal drugs from a hospital so Professor X won’t destroy the world.

There is no moral high ground he’s trying to claim anymore. The dissipation of his moral compass has matched the failure of Xavier’s influence. The Wolverine has never been good at being good. He’s just been good at surrounding himself with good people who bring out the better angels of his nature.

He is full self-preservation mode now, others be damned. When he goes on the run with Xavier and the girl, he sacrifices a family of wonderful farmers to the forces of evil chasing him. Granted, it's possible he didn't know.  Xavier begged him to rest there; they didn't know Caliban was still alive and being forced to track them. Maybe it's just terrible bad luck. But I get the impression that Logan was at least aware of the possible danger that always seems to haunts his steps. He openly admits that everyone around him dies. Logan is a harbinger of destruction – he always has been - and now he’s dying with no way to atone for the monstrous things he has done.

When the professor dies, Logan sees a final shot at redemption. He decides to do what the professor would have wanted and help Laura find her haven, even though he is convinced it is a dream.

He comes through in the end, of course. This is how all great stories must end. There is a soul embedded in Logan that will not let him simply be the Wolverine. There is a reason the children they meet up with trust him. They know that, in spite of all the terrible things he has done, he will not hurt them. They might have wondered if he would help them in the end, but no one in the theater did. 

Logan has always been lurking inside the Wolverine, rising up to be the man the world needs him to be, racking up his sins so that others can be free of moral and physical scars he takes upon himself. There is a prophecy in the comics that he will die with his heart in his hands. This prophecy is fulfilled in the movie not in a literal sense, but in the way that matters most. 

As he nears death and his body loses the ability to regenerate, his scars begin to emerge. It’s a horribly sobering reminder of the punishment he has endured throughout his life. His life was never fun and exciting; it was always hell. I am reminded of how I felt watching Casino Royale: finally, a Bond movie that showed how terrible a life Bond lived – and how ruthless and cold he really was. This was not a glamorous Bond with a life of adrenalin, women and booze. This was a user and abuse of women, a man who left dead bodies of friend and foe alike in his wake. He was badly damaged goods. Casino Royale finally looked beyond the fa├žade.

That’s how Logan felt to me. Honest. Brutal but true. There was never going to be a happy ending for The Wolverine. Rory says in The Devil’s Own, “Don't look for a happy ending. It's not an American story. It's an Irish one.” This is not a Captain America story. It’s a Wolverine one.  It’s not going to end happily even if it ends well.

That’s also why I liked it. I want a story that is not afraid to be gritty when grit is called for. I want a story that does not shy away from seeing the toll of our lives. I like a story that offers the hope that we can end well even if we have journeyed badly.


* * * * *

While I appreciated the honest portrayal of Logan, I was more intrigued by how the movie addressed ongoing religious and social themes that have always been present in the X-Men movie franchise.

 Laura is looking for Eden, a place of refuge for mutants. Logan shows her that it was just part of a comic book story. She insists that it is a real place revealed in the comics, and why wouldn't she think so? Logan is also in the comics. They may have distorted who he was, but he wasn't fictional. Logan is just as insistent that Eden is a mythical place. At one point he snarls to Xavier, “There is no Eden.” Charles responds that that may be true for Logan, but not for Laura. It gives her hope; why not let her believe?

Around the same time, they stay with the Christian family that is happy, peaceful, generous and kind – all the things Logan is not but longs to be. I don’t think it’s an accident that the discussion of Eden and the Christian family are placed together in the movie. We are meant to make a connection. Add to that Laura's memorization of the Lord's Prayer (after watching Shane on a TV) and Logan and Xavier's argument about whether mutants are God's plan or God's mistake, and the implied religious correlations seem undeniable. To Logan, Heaven is Eden. It’s a mythical place that gives people hope, so what’s the problem? It’s a useful fiction. 

But by the end of the movie it’s not at all clear that Eden is fictional. The movie does not resolve the question, but it clearly allows that Eden is real even if it is known through the unlikely revelation of a dime store comic. Perhaps there is a fulfillment to the wish. Maybe that for which we long really is true.

Logan’s life ends with what looks a lot like a makeshift crucifixion. The more I have thought about this, I can’t shake the image of the thief on the cross. The thief and Logan are both men who have done bad things, men who find themselves in their final moments of life begging for some kind of redemption. For Logan, it’s found in doing what Boromir does in Lord Of The Rings – giving his life so that others could live.

In the Magnificent Seven, Goodnight Robicheaux, in a moment of shame, says, “Don’t remember me as I am; remember me as I was.” Logan’s final moments invert this: “Don’t remember me as I was; remember me as I am.” It’s a noble end to an often ignoble life.

It’s a good reminder that it’s never too late to turn around. At one point Logan tells Laura, "Don't be what they made you." In the end, he too finds a way to transcend how he was made. He's not a soulless meat machine; he's a man. He is not fated to dance to his DNA or succumb to the moral ravages of his past. He can rise above it. Plugged In notes: 
Implicitly, Logan's story is one of redemption—one, perhaps, of salvation. Our protagonist is, after all, a wreck of a man when we first meet him, a beaten-down superhero with nothing left to save and no will to save it. Against his better judgment, against his own will, he discovers he does care. He finds someone to love, to save. And in the process, perhaps he saves himself.
It's not a story of ultimate redemption - do we really have it in our power to atone for all our sins? -  but it's a poignant story of another kind of redemption, one that reminds us there is always still time to choose a path of self-sacrifice and goodness that points toward the Eden that beckons us from just over the horizon.


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Recommended Reviews
Roger Ebert, "Logan."
Plugged In, "Logan"

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