Thursday 2 March 2017

Claws of death: "Logan"

One wonders if, at long, long last, something interesting is about to happen within the superhero genre - and whether we might have the ne plus ultra Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman to thank for it. Last month's The Lego Batman Movie reframed the po-faced business of caped escapism as a joke; new release Logan, spinning off from the X-Men universe, regards it as a terrible dead end, and no kind of consolation whatsoever. In James Mangold's film, the future is worn down, beat-up, and hope is so thin on the ground as to have become a valuable commodity. If there's one more Warner Bros. release that might have paved the way for this one, it's last year's Mad Max: Fury Road.

The year is 2029, and as signalled by the unkempt Mel Gibson beard he's grown since last we encountered him, Hugh Jackman's Logan - the artist formerly known as Wolverine - has entered a very bad place: working as an Uber driver (modern media's latest shorthand for bottoming out) around the U.S.-Mexico border, his claws killing him as much as they do anybody else, and driving him in turn to heavy self-medication. Logan has exiled himself hereabouts for a reason: he's assumed the responsibility of caring for the increasingly senile Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), tucked away inside an upturned water silo with his plants as the powers that once lit up the movie screen begin to sputter and fade.

In other words, Mangold and his fellow scribes (including Out of Sight's Scott Frank) have hit upon a workable metaphor for the way these series wax and wane, and how their constituent effects tend to wear off with age: after the underperformance of last summer's X-Men: Apocalypse (and we might note how quickly the series has cycled from Origins to any such Apocalypse), there is a sense here that the end is very definitely nigh. These things remain relative, but Logan stands as the most adult X-Men movie in tone. The 15 certificate allows the characters to spit desperate, frustrated, ferocious curses at one another, and frees Mangold up to show the damage those adamantium claws can do, rather than having to hack and slash around it in the edit to attain the family-friendly PG-13 rating.

Better yet: it allows for a certain flexibility as to what kind of movie this X-movie will be. Logan begins in Frank-ish P.I. territory, with the washed-up Wolfie being recruited by a mysterious senora to look after a young girl (the inscrutable Dafne Keen), then opens out into a sundown road movie, before arriving at a place of abject horror as the leads and their relentless, ruthless pursuers converge on an isolated farmhouse. Never just straightforward spectacle, more of a shifting character study, this is the first of these mutant movies you can actually witness mutating before your eyes, which is why the result feels like some strange, disconcerting vision instead of the usual committee-generated, cookie-cutter product.

Most atypically of all, the biggest effect Mangold has at his disposal is a carefully applied realism. The decision to downplay the usual VFX pyrotechnics leaves Logan looking a shade analogue in places: when Xavier has one of his spells, it cues outbreaks of that old-school wobblycam traditionally associated with the TV Star Trek, necessitating that everybody on screen start acting Very Slowly. Yet leaving the blue and green screens behind to shoot on dusty, lived-in locations - the milieu of Mangold's breakthrough indie Heavy, all those moons ago - serves to ground these relationships, and the action, in some kind of reality, and to further point up the leads' vulnerability. Removed of their protective digital shields, these X-Men don't seem especially well-equipped as they travel towards a final reckoning.

I've written elsewhere about how the X-Men series has remained among the most savvily produced of franchises: the characters we're reintroduced to in 2017 are played by the same actors we first met back in 2000, which speaks at the very least to careful, conscientious contract negotiation, sparing us the endless reboots that have given us two Supermen and three Spider-Men in that time. Here, you feel everyone taking a chance or two with the colossal sums of money afforded these productions, and going off the established superhero route map in the hunt for something more permanent than billion-dollar distraction: rather than labouring towards the standard final-act citytrashing, Logan ventures further out, beyond the realms of civilisation, to a point where Return of the Jedi can be spliced with Lord of the Flies. Whether the fanbase goes along with it remains to be seen, but for an event movie, it's bold, adventurous and unusually heavy-hitting when it needs to be.

Logan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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