“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die...” — Ecclesiastes 3
It is an elegiac age that we are living in. The passing away of certain things, like democracy for example, or tree frogs, has become a daily fact. And so it is with X-Men also.
The newest addition to the long-running franchise is director James Mangold’s Logan. If you are a comic book fan of old, bring some tissues and perhaps a lighter to the theatre to flick open at the requisite moment. This is not a pop-coloured fantasia of men and women in skintight onesies shooting laser beams from their eyeballs. Nay, this is a superhero saga for this moment in time, worn out, roughed up and staggering towards the end. All in all, it is fitting.
The story takes place in 2029. The mutant race has been wiped out by a pathogenic virus, engineered by humans to even the playing field. There are only a few remnants of the once mighty X-Men, hiding their identities and living out their end of days drunk, old and sad. One such miserable soul is the man formerly known as Wolverine, a.k.a. James “Logan” Howlett (played, as always, by Hugh Jackman). Vulpine in nature, with an adamantium skeleton grafted onto his bone structure, Logan’s powers include the ability to heal from almost any injury that life can chuck at him. Bullets bounce off; even the occasional heart removal and atomic bomb does little to slow the man down. But his most iconic aspect — elegantly tapered blades that sprout like lethal erections from his knuckles when the going gets rough — still work like they should.
Logan’s better days are far behind him. His famous sideburns have molted into a sad crusty beard and he walks with a limp. He looks like something dragged through a hedge backwards, and his body is not healing like it used to. The dude is looking his age, which is somewhere around 265, I believe. The Wolverine’s day job as a limo driver for drunk party girls who flash their boobies is humiliating enough, but that pales next to the indignity of having to wear reading glasses.
If Logan isn’t bearing up so well, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is looking as old and worn out as Methuselah. His mammoth brain has withered due to a neurodegenerative disorder, and he’s prone to attacks, seizures as Logan terms them, which shake the very foundations of the atmosphere. The old man is kept drugged to the gills and locked up in a collapsed water tower, the better to contain his powers. Another leftover mutant, an albino tracker named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) makes up the third wheel in this sad trio. Their one last ambition is to scrape together enough money to buy a boat and sail away.
But the past is never past, as they say, and it is never content to leave poor Logan alone. When a group of gangster types try to steal his hubcaps, the claws come out and it’s off to the races, and also off with various limbs. (For those of you, with weaker constitutions and an aversion to gore, be warned, there is a lot of it in this film.) The gangland flaying incident attracts the attention of different folk, including a mysterious nurse who is safeguarding a young girl named Laura, as well as some paramilitary types who want to get their hands on little Laura.
In short, an evil corporation called Transigen has been breeding new mutants with the help of original mutant DNA. I had a moment of confusion during the film when I thought that Logan had been visiting the sperm bank to earn a few extra bucks by selling his wares, which brings to mind endless scenarios that are best left to more imaginative folk. However they came by Logan’s materials, Transigen used them to create Laura (Dafne Keen), a dark-eyed girl with the same powers as Wolverine, plus a few new tweaks. Seems the kid can also sprout blades from her feet, which is hell on shoes, but handy when you are slicing apart bad guys.
Having busted out the lab where she and a bunch of other mutant children have been bioengineered to work as soldiers, Laura is on the run, with little more than a backpack and feral savagery that recalls the Tasmanian Devil in a foul mood. The plan is to make it to Canada, with a brief stopover in a place called Eden, where all the runaway mutant kids will reconvene. Before you can scream road trip from hell, Charles, Logan and Laura are on their way to North Dakota, hotly pursued by a convoy of bad men.
There are a few stopovers on the way, including a rather unfortunate moment with a rural farm family where Logan meets his arch-nemesis, a newly bioengineered Wolverine clone (X-24) who was grown in a tank, like so much lethal protein. Evil Wolverine doesn’t speak, but he has the same murderous penchant as the original. Also, he has no pesky soul or human conscience to get in the way of the bloodletting. So cue up the gore, and let the cuisinarting begin.
Logan is a thorough pastiche of other films, referencing somewhat shamelessly from George Stevens' classic western Shane but there are also echoes of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Terminator 2, Children of Men, and a pack of others. The pleasure of the film’s shopworn plot is derived from the combination of new and old.
It wouldn’t be a Wolverine movie without Jackman shouting “YARGHHHHHHH!” at the top of his lungs and racing about in a tank top and muttonchops. The new baby wolverette, Laura, is a chip off the old X-factor, adding her girlish shriek, piercing as a saw blade to the proceedings. The film is full of good old-fashioned cathartic violence. As the slicing and dicing pair churn their way through flesh and bone like so much softened butter, a certain kind of satisfaction ensues. I am not sure exactly why this is, but every time Logan sinks his claws into another tattooed bad guy, it is hard not to let loose a little sigh of happiness.
There are few new elements in this chapter of the X-Men, namely a studied attention to the use of expletives. I feel a faint pop of surprise when Charles Xavier busted out a few choice words. But it is fitting; the world is dingier, dirtier, more vicious and lowdown than it once was. No more high-flying ideologies or grand speeches. Magneto, as played by Michael Fassbender and Sir Ian McKellen, is long gone. But a new generation of plucky little mutants, with nifty skills like freeze breath and the power to control pine needles are here.
As the inevitable, and ultimate, showdown rolls into view, something else occurs — call it the passing of the baton if you will. The end of one thing begets the birth of another. That is the nature of the universe — old, irrefutable and right. It is also requires sacrifice. Here is where the film elevates itself from the others that have preceded it, by allowing something more elemental than simply heroes and villains to enter the frame. This story is about family. It sets in motion a trajectory that engenders new possibilities. I will not tell you about the final scene, but suffice to say there was not a dry eye in the theatre that day. I never thought I would cry in a Wolverine movie, but there it is.
After the final credits rolled and the assorted fan boys and girls dried their eyes and shuffled sadly out the door, what is to be gleaned from this experience? That nothing lasts? That even superheroes get old and wear down, and a new generation supplants them. It sounds like the basis for a John Prine song.
Already the comic boys are busily analyzing the film’s strengths and weaknesses, but they are also, seemingly, undergoing emotional crises. What they grew up with has now come to an end, and it is oddly devastating. There is something quite sweet and sad about watching comic book fans deal with their emotions on their blogs and YouTube channels. I am not making fun of them. I feel it too.
In other words: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” At least for the time being.