My friend Geoff Klock and I first started talking about X-Men way back in 2004, when I emailed him about an article he wrote about that same run of New X-Men comics. Like Wolverine, we haven’t ever really stopped. It’s a subject that is hardwired into our DNA, always just one easy transition or inside joke away in any given conversation. A few years ago, we collaborated on this piece about The Wolverine.
The following represents our combined thoughts on the film Logan, the masterpiece of the X-Men franchise, as parsed out over a year’s worth of texts, conversations and short writings. There are parts that are mostly by him and parts that are mostly by me, but since this was developed in collaboration exact attribution is basically impossible at this point.
**SPOILERS FOR LOGAN AND OTHER X-MEN STUFF, OBVIOUSLY**
In the New X-Men scene mentioned above, Cyclops’ remark about Wolverine stopping refers to him slashing into a Sentinel, but the import of the line is that readers need a break from the repetition. Super hero movies too often hit the same beats – everything falls out of the sky for Act 3; Iron Man and Doctor Strange are both egotistical rich goateed white-guys who need to learn to care for others; Spider-Man has been rebooted twice in the last two decades; Martha and Thomas Wayne die over and over and over; resurrections abound: Jean Grey, Professor X, Loki (twice), Bucky, Agent Coulson, Nick Fury, Groot, Superman.
This emphasis on repetition has made it impossible for film franchises to move forward, especially in terms of generations. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is supposed to be passing the baton to the kids, but it has a lot of trouble doing so. The final image if the film is ironically the younger generation trying to pass the “baton” back where it came from and it’s a microcosm for the overall film, which returns to old conflicts in a terribly depressing way: all the gains made at the end of the original trilogy – the defeat of the space Nazis and the establishment of the republic – are wiped out in the first sequence of The Force Awakens and it’s the start of A New Hope all over again: a tiny band of rebels and against a new breed of space Nazis. The Big Bad’s main problem is can he sufficiently repeat his grandfather, Darth Vader (and it’s the filmmakers’ problem: can they repeat the story so it is satisfying like last time).
The modern super hero trend began sort of with Blade in 1998 but mostly with X-Men in 2000. Having gotten there first, X-Men is the movie franchise with the most history behind it and so the first to evolve the form, appropriately enough since the double-edged sword of evolution is one of the franchise’s main themes. After a few vestigial limbs (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and evolutionary dead ends (X-Men: Apocalpyse) along the way, the X-Men movie brand has recently mutated in four wildly idiosyncratic directions: the fourth-wall breaking satire of Deadpool, the psychedelic insanity of the FX TV series Legion, the upcoming horror movie New Mutants, and the road trip Logan, the apotheosis of the genre.
The X-Men movies are especially egregious in terms of repetition: Professor X and Magneto have had the same discussion about the nature of humanity in six movies. Logan is partly about repetition: as with Sabertooth, Lady Deathstrike, Mystique-as-Wolverine, razor-armed proto-Deadpool, and an adamantium robot, in Logan Wolverine fights a version of himself, the clone X-24. But, like the aging Professor X, we “know a damned speciation” when we see one. Here, Logan engages with repetition to break from it. In fighting his younger clone we track how far he has come.
In style Logan is radically different from other superhero fare and other Wolverine incarnations – it feels like an indie movie rather than a slick blockbuster. It keeps a small cast and everyone looks haggard and dresses normally and lives in a recognizable world, barely futuristic. Easter eggs are minimal. It has an actual human center, a family at a dinner table. The relationship between Logan and the aging Charles Xavier has a lived-in quality, and it has a sense of humor mixed in with the seriousness. Filmed in 2016, Logan’s content is eerily connected to real life in the first year of the Trump presidency: an undocumented Mexican girl is being chased through an over-corporatized nightmare America to get to the Canadian border. It is Wolverine by way of Cormac McCarthy’s darkly poetic The Road. Traveling with an old man (who he calls “Pop” at one point) and a kid he recognizes as his daughter, it is also connected to deepest myth: Wolverine is Virgil’s Aeneas, leading his father and child out of a burning city to find a new home, to find the future.
Most important is Wolverine’s relationship to his own history. The samurai sword from The Wolverine is in the background, and surprisingly the adamantium bullet from the execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine plays a major role. But as in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, this old super hero has returned not just to add one more story to the chain but to capitalize on the extensive history of the character and revise all that has come before.
The family of films built around The Avengers have revolutionized blockbuster filmmaking, defining it as a vast interconnected, unending and frequently repetitive franchise. (DC has tried — and often failed — to follow suit with Justice League.) But they have instituted a house-style where everything that happened is canon and in which Edgar Wright, the idiosyncratic initial director of Ant-Man known for Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, for example, didn’t fit and was replaced. James Mangold, director of Logan, breaks from the house-style model radically, and not just in terms of style. The girl Logan watches over has X-Men comics and he tells her “Maybe a quarter of it happened and not like this.” He means that her comics don’t cover his history accurately, but his statement reverberates through the ten X-Men movies we have seen; this seems like a rejection by the director of everything that didn’t work in them, and an apology of sorts for the really bad ones. Logan implies that the movies we watched were maybe just kid’s versions of what “really happened.” Logan, by that contrast, is the “real deal.”
That break with continuity is what allows Logan to look to the future, to evolve. Notice that the villain here, scientist Zander Rice, is against free form evolution, change he cannot make money off of, and the X-23 children are to him intellectual property, literally things that can be copyrighted; he destroys natural evolution through smart product placement which we see all throughout the movie: drinks filled with genetically engineered corn syrup wipe out the mutant gene. Professor X and Wolverine, the two generations older than Laura, are in some sense battling to be allowed to actually die, not to be resurrected, and they get it: the actors are done. There is no post-credits scene advertising the next film. Quoting Shane, the 1953 Western they watched together, Laura says over Logan’s grave that “There’s no going back. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.” She is ostensibly talking about killing, comparing it to a cattle brand, but the X-Men corporate brand, the cross over his grave, is one that will forever define Hugh Jackman and his 17-year 9-movie commitment to this character (“like Boyhood, but with more violence” someone on Twitter quipped).
Mangold underlines the real time component of the X-Men movies with some intertextual citations to Jackman’s career, Patrick Stewart’s and his own. The second act of the film takes place in Oklahoma, and when Logan and a farmer he has befriended are confronted with some aggressive yokels, Logan says, “Go play Okie dickhead somewhere else.” All of this is funny considering Jackman’s only prominent credit prior to X-Men was as Curly, the prototypical “Okie,” in a 1999 London production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma that was filmed for PBS. The first words of Patrick Stewart’s aging Xavier are from Julius Caesar, fitting for the knighted Royal Shakespeare Company trained actor. And Mangold, the director of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, makes smart use of two tracks from Cash’s album American IV: The Man Comes Around: “Hurt,” a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song, in the trailer and “The Man Comes Around” over the final credits. Both songs were recorded near the end of Cash’s career and life. The first song is a gentler western revision of an aggressive industrial piece written by a younger man. The second song, written by Cash, contains language referencing the end of the world and the second coming. That Mangold found a space for all of this, laid it all out end to end and used them all as signposts for an EXISTENTIAL SUPER HERO STORY ABOUT AGING, TRANSFORMATION, AND DEATH is frankly staggering.
Another of the wild departures of Logan from the X-Men films that come before it, is that it acknowledges the impact of X-Men on its fandom and incorporates it into the narrative of the movie. In the world of the movie, there are comics recounting the X-Men’s adventures. The main purpose of these comics, read by Laura, the other X-23 kids and her nurse Gabriela, is to show that the disillusioned Logan is trying to distance himself from who he used to be and who the world thinks he is. He dismisses the events of the comics and calls them “ice cream for bedwetters.” (Notice that his dismissal of the X-Men’s comic adventures here mirrors his apprehension of the codenames, costumes and other trappings of the X-Men back in the very first X-Men movie from 2000.) But the comics are there for another reason, to show us the impact they have on Laura and her friends from the X-23 program.
The overarching story of X-Men has been equated to numerous real world social issues over the years by correlating its eponymous mutants with the stories of various disenfranchised minorities. For this reason, reading an X-Men comic or seeing an X-Men movie becomes an aspirational act for anyone who feels like an outsider, where they are able to imagine themselves joining a special school and having their specific weirdness cherished by a rich peer group of larger than life characters.
For the X-23 kids in Logan, the legend of the Wolverine looms as large as it does for fans in the real world. When Logan is unconscious, the kids shave his beard into his signature sideburns, so that he looks more like the character they know from the comics. The practical effect of this is that he goes into the final battle in his most iconic “costume” from the movies — not his black leather X-Men suit, but mutton chops in a white tank top with jeans. At the end of the film, as Laura buries Logan, one of the other kids cradles an action figure of Logan in his yellow and blue costume from the comics. Even Donald Pierce, one of the chief antagonists in Logan, ends his first conversation with Logan by saying, “I’m a fan by the way.” He is also the first character in 17 years of X-Men movies to call him “Wolvie.”
For Logan, the X-Men comics in the story are a watered down version of the real life suffering he endured. The comics are — and boy does this expression have more a tad more weight at right this moment — Disney-fied versions of his hard life. For all we know, there were never really any X-Men in the world of Logan, maybe there were just these comics. The comics and the idea of the X-Men mean something very different to the kids. Logan was leading Laura to a destination listed in one of her comic books, and he told her it was bullshit. But it was real in a way he could not understand. It was real not because the comic books are real but because the kids were inspired by the comics to chose it as a meeting point. They are making this fictional thing they loved into a real place.
X-Men readers have long been exposed to an ideology light-years beyond the world we know, a kind of nonchalant progressiveness that embraces true racial and gender equality and kaleidoscopic definitions of identity as a goddamn afterthought. Logan posits a nice idea, that we can bring into the real world the ideas of acceptance and adaptability that are the hallmark of the X-Men comics and movies. In this way, Logan is not just an ending for the characters of Logan and Professor X. Not just an epilogue to the 17-year film series. Not just a graceful and well-earned exit for Hugh Jackman. It is a philosophical call to action. X-Men has shown us the future: a harsh world that we can only live in through education and responsible use of our unique talents. But this future is not out there for us to find; it’s not real. Like the kids in Logan, we will have to build it.
Logan’s death — when he finally does, as Cyclops suggests, “stop doing that” — is what allows the children (the kids in the New Mutants movie spiritually become the kids Logan saved), the franchise (Legion and Deadpool) and us (the real world “kids” who read X-Men) to look to the future, to evolve.
It was the insight of the much maligned Yale poetry critic Harold Bloom that strong poetry (and the other arts including comic books) is “antithetical,” that it evolves by aggressively making space for itself, by being critical of the tradition that it participates in, and thus justifies its own existence. “Every poem,” writes Bloom, “is a misinterpretation of a parent poem… Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance.” Death, imaginative death, is repetition, pointlessness, one more fucking Death Star. Just as the child must break from the parent to have her own identity, strong art must break from its influences in order to be audacious, new, powerful, persuasive, unique.
It must evolve or die.
Geoff Klock (D.Phil., Oxford) is a tenured associate professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at the City University of New York, where he teaches comp, literature appreciation, literary theory, film and old British literature. He is the author of three books about poetry and comics and his new book is about Hannibal Lecter and Oscar Wilde.