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Categories: Features

A breakdown of the themes and influences that make James Mangold’s Logan one of the best American westerns of recent years.

The critical and financial success that Logan was able to carve out in a remarkably oversaturated market is in no small part due to its impressive balancing act with various tropes from various distinct genres.

Whilst it’s definitely a comic book film, clearly inspired by the Old Man Logan series from Marvel Comics, it contains the detective, noir, elements that director James Mangold infused into his previous take on the character, The Wolverine, in 2013.

In a lot of ways, Logan is the same film remade by Mangold; only with far fewer big-budget compromises. This being said, Logan’s most prevalent aesthetic is grounded in a genre never seen before in one of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men films, or any superhero film for that matter: Westerns.

It’s a bold choice but one with a specific thematic reason behind it. Westerns can take on a great many guises, and tackle a vast range of subjects, but, in one way or another, all true Westerns are about death; and Logan is a film about the death of a great many things.

One Last Time

Of Logan’s many influences, the one which the film tethers itself to most strongly is George Stevens’ 1953 western Shane. A logical choice given Shane’s reputation as the film where the titular, and mononymous, hero dies at the end (for anyone who doubts the validity of this, please take the time to listen to Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey debate this very point in F. Gary Gray’s The Negotiator).

The idea that this would be the film where Wolverine dies was established from day one. Jackman announced the project in July 2015 with a tweet marked with the hashtag #OneLastTime and went on to confirm in subsequent interviews that year that this would be his final performance as the character (the film’s poster even bears the tagline “His time has come”) and the significance of the decision can’t be understated.

Jackman debuted his iteration of the character 17 years previously in Bryan Singer’s X-Men and, ever since, the two have shared a somewhat symbiotic relationship. One which forged both Jackman’s career as a star in Hollywood and the success of a franchise which began the comic book film craze of today. Jackman’s tenure as the character is perhaps the greatest modern example of Hollywood stardom, so why stop now?

Interviewed in 2015, Jackman stated that the decision was a creative one: “It’s not about finishing on top, necessarily, but making sure you’ve, creatively, still got something left”. In other words: it’s not just about the relevance of the character to the actor, it’s about the relevance of the character to the audience; and if Logan’s success has proven anything it’s that his death is very relevant indeed.

As film critic, and academic, Richard Dyer once wrote: the “charismatic appeal [of a star] is effective especially when the social order is uncertain, unstable and ambiguous and when the charismatic figure or group offers a value, order or stability to counterpoise this”. Jackman’s performance was able to help reconcile “contradictions in the culture”, as Dyer puts it, which many audience members were experiencing during the time in which they viewed the film.

He was able to truly let his star persona shine in this moment because, as Dyer wrote, “the star’s status depends upon her/his not having any institutional political power” and the contradictions in the culture that people needed to process were deeply political.  

“They’re waiting for you at the Statue of Liberty”

One of the things that set X-Men apart from similar adaptations of the time (and has persisted in the X-Men film canon, even in Singer’s absence as director) is their metaphorical value. No matter the format, the X-Men have always been generally interpreted as being representative of marginalised people in society. Singer connected his outcasts to the experiences of the LGBT community in the United States and as the times have changed so too has the metaphor.    

In early March of 2017, when Logan was released, America, and a lot of the rest of the world, was beginning to come to terms with the reality of a full four years under a Donald Trump presidency. What Logan offers to the modern film viewer is either consciously, or subconsciously, connected to this and, due to many creative choices, it comes off as a film perfectly in tune with public sentiments and fears.

It may seem very odd that people politicize films like this but it’s important to bear in mind that comic books are, in themselves, very political for a number of reasons.

Prolific comic book writer Dennis O’Neil explained it best in 1988 when he wrote a response to the uproar caused by the death of another infamous comic book character, Jason Todd.

The entire piece is short, and incredibly informative for anyone looking to learn more about the vastness of comic book culture and history, but the most interesting part comes in the closing few paragraphs:

“Sometimes we [comic book writers] forget what is usually the most gratifying part of the work we do, the involvement of our audience in our stories. Commentators who have called super-hero sagas modern mythology are, I think, mistaken, because mythology involves religion in some form or another. But these sagas are more than just entertainments, at least to many readers; they are the post-industrial equivalent of folk tales and as such, they have gone pretty deeply into a lot of psyches… But, like traditional folk tales, they must evolve. If they don’t, they may become irrelevant to the real world they mirror, and thus lose their power to satisfy and amuse; they risk degenerating into mere curiosities instead of remaining vital fiction.”

It’s a fascinating way to look at both comic books and comic book films. As escapist as they may be, they’re something that we connect to our everyday lives. Both The Dark Knight and The Winter Soldier are prime examples, both being noted for providing a commentary on topical issues regarding surveillance and counter-terrorism.

Folk tales such as these though are built much more around their folk heroes than anything else, so what is it about the eponymous Logan that speaks to people now? Well, let’s break it down into the simplest, realest, terms we can.

Logan is a Canadian living in America being played by an Australian who has found career success as an American actor. Along for the ride is an aged liberal American, who talks like a Brit and is played by a Scotsman (who, at the time of the film’s release, was openly stating his intentions to apply for American citizenship to better fight against the Trump presidency), and a young Mexican girl played by a British-Spanish actor. But the film is about America. A vision of America which many fear the Trump era signals the demise of: America as a nation of immigrants, believers who are united by their common faith in “the American dream” to own land and live new lives of peace and plenty for all.

It escaped few people how the Mexican born mutants of the film were being mercilessly hunted by a man with a fashy haircut named Donald, but it’s also important to note the geography of their journey.

The pilgrimage to a promised land, an “Eden”, in Canada is representative of Logan’s emotional journey back to his native country, leaving it after experiencing a childhood trauma, to bring the character “full circle”, so to speak, but it also has direct political and social connotations.

In the months following Trump’s victory, news stories began to circulate regarding a dramatic surge in undocumented Mexican immigrants and refugees, who had come to America as small children (so-called “dreamers”), who were fleeing across the border to Canada because they no longer felt safe in the US.

Beginning at the Statue of Liberty Motel (again, significant not just because of the circle it draws around Logan’s journey back to the heroism which he experiences atop the actual Statue of Liberty during the climax of the first X-Men film but also as perhaps the most iconic symbol relating to immigration in existence) the journey is an emotional and spiritual one, a pilgrimage of sorts, which delivers revelations for both Logan and his daughter, Laura.

The Man Comes Around

Revelation is a big part of Logan. As the film plays itself out to Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” (famous for being one of the last songs written before his death), it’s hard not to remember the film’s first, and most widely utilised, trailer which featured Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” (also famous for its proximity to Cash’s death).

Each song is a reminder of, as Charles puts it, “life’s impermanence” but also contains allusions to themes within the film, beyond just Mangold’s connection to Cash as the director of the famous biopic Walk The Line. “Hurt” with its obvious themes of pain and drug use and “The Man Comes Around” with direct references to the Book of Revelation.

It’s important to note at this point, again, that Logan was not made in a vacuum. It was set up by a post-credits scene in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, in which Jackman cameoed, which too made thematic reference to the Book of Revelation and the coming of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as Cash’s song does.

It may sound like a strenuous connection but it’s crucial to bear in mind that, even if O’Neil is correct in his assertion that superhero comics aren’t that connected to religion, superhero films are steeped in religious themes and iconography. Logan being no exception.

So, if we take Singer’s film as a depiction of the coming of the Four Horsemen, then we must also infer that Logan is about the subsequent arrival of “the man” (Christ) from Cash’s song, with Logan himself as the Christ figure.

Comparing the hero to Christ is something astoundingly common in superhero films (from effectively all of the Superman films right up to even the ending of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 later in 2017, with Michael Rooker’s redeemed sinner floating in the crucifix position after his sacrifice) but it takes on a slightly newer meaning within the context of Logan.

The film’s religiosity always comes back to the Western genre’s favourite concepts of salvation and redemption. Most of the religious symbolism throughout the film pertaining to the crucifixion (the cleverest perhaps being Charles’ wheelchair stamped “property of Calvary Hospital”).

It’s a peculiar turn for the character, even if Jackman is openly Christian, but, as mentioned before, a fitting one concerning not only its place within a wider story but also the film’s decision to portray Logan as a personification of America itself.

Wheezing, tired, polluted, poisoned, depressed, old. He needs to die so that he can be reborn (Logan may not die in the crucifix position but he is ultimately killed by a spearing of his side). A theme not uncommon in post-Trump political interpretation of Hollywood film. The chief example being the political undertones in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as highlighted by screenwriters Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta. It’s about legacy and what you inspire others to do, even if you pay the ultimate price. Much like Shane imparting his wisdom to young Joey before riding off towards the crucifixes in the cemetery, never to return. The same words which Laura speaks as a eulogy over Logan’s grave. Westerns, as either narratives of conservatism or subversion, are about what you leave behind.

All the best cowboys have daddy issues

Sadly, though, Logan is unable to give as poignant and personal a speech in his final moments as Shane gives to Joey. The breakthrough of his character comes in the quieter form of him simply being able to appear emotionally vulnerable again, one last time in his life, by holding his daughter’s hand; a gesture he rebuffs earlier in the film during Charles’ funeral.

Part of our understanding of Logan as “the man” must be literal. He is a representation of cartoonish masculinity, not an uncommon sight in Westerns. Rugged, scarred, stoic and matter-of-fact. So much of Logan’s character revolves around his fear of emotional openness in the face of a life spent losing everyone he cares for. The surrogate father/son relationship between Logan and Charles, brought to the fore in this film, is emblematic of this.

As the film’s plot reveals itself, the audience begins to understand the lengths that the grizzled caretaker has silently gone to to protect his father figure from his own mistakes. As he pulls his hand away from Laura’s (herself simply trying to recreate the mannequin scene she sees in the hotel lobby, the only picture of parental affection that she has) and leaves the scene of the makeshift funeral to convert his grief into a violent rage taken out on the broken down truck, it becomes apparent to the audience, and to Laura, how incapable Logan is of processing emotion, even when he’s forced to. But it’s not played judgmentally. The return of “the man” is something positive.  

Laura comes to understand her father in his final moments and the words from Shane at his funeral are as much for her as they are for him. “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold”. So much of the masculine identity of heroes in Westerns hinges upon this notion that a man strives to create a better world that he, himself, could not live in.

CHARLES: She can learn to be better.

LOGAN: You mean better than me?

CHARLES: Actually, yes.

To be “the man” is an act of sacrifice, not superiority. Though one which requires the hero to face the negative version of themselves; a purely animalistic clone of Logan with a black tank top opposed to Logan’s white one (another nod to Westerns and the trope of the hero wearing a white hat and the villain a back one, hence the classic term “black hat”) and a similarly distinct, but understated, father/son connection/motivation with Dr Rice.

As the film ends with the safety of the innocent children guaranteed, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the ending of maybe the most famous Western ever made, John Ford’s The Searchers, where John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards walks away from the jubilant reunion of mother and daughter, alone and into the desert. He has done his duty, but he cannot share in the peace that he helped create.

But for all its allusions to classic Westerns about frontier life, Logan has one major, contrasting, difference. Those Westerns were about life in a burgeoning nation. Logan is about a nation in decline.

“Eden or the end?”

The fictitious nature of the Eden that Laura searches for is, as the film states, in reference to the inspirational yet utterly ridiculous nature of comic books, but it also carries with it the more literal interpretation as the biblical Garden of Eden.

As mentioned, the film is littered with references to Christianity but the more crucial reading of the word is in a botanical sense. Because it isn’t just the dream of owning land that’s dying in this vision of a future America, it’s the land itself too.

The kindly Munson family, who take in the weary travellers, explain their troubles with the business giant trying to muscle them out of their land (a clever connection between the modern woes faced by some land owners in the US who have their property seized, often so that a large business interest can develop over it, and the classic Western staple of tyrannical cattle barons who violently chase away homesteaders, often by controlling water, like in the plot of Shane) and, in so doing, casually drop the secret to the film’s plot.

It’s clear that not only in this vision of America are the law enforcement agencies under the command of the wealthiest business interests (“I’m the law out here” says the leader of the heavies trying to force the Munsons off their land by controlling their water flow, coincidentally played by the exact same actor who does the exact same thing to the protagonist in Mangold’s other Western 3:10 to Yuma), allowing them to act with total impunity, the wealthiest are also callously acting against nature (the “reavers” and their metal arms being the clearest visual representation); and it’s all connected to the most unassuming source.

Aside from religion and death, Logan has one almost omnipresent visual reference throughout the film pertaining to the core plot: energy drinks.

Logan creates two fictional beverages, Hypno and MAG. There is a real Hypno energy drink based in Guyana but it’s very unlikely that it’s an intentional tie-in. That being said, Corn Flakes are all too happy to have their cereal box appear in the film, where it is revealed that the Canewood company (the ones giving the kindly Munson family such a hard time) are secretly altering human DNA with their genetically modified corn and corn syrup (Dr Rice specifically lists breakfast cereals as a source of the gene therapy). Those with a real connection to the land, like the Munsons, are on the back foot. The new wild west of America is a place of patents, processed food, eugenics and faceless corporate monsters with the power of armies.

It’s also relevant to note the entirety of the protagonists’ journey, beyond just points A and B. It begins in Mexico moving upwards straight through the heart of America; through Texas and Oklahoma and then presumably Kansas and Nebraska up to the Dakotas (it bears mentioning that Jackman shares an important connection to Oklahoma also; his big break, before X-Men’s breakthrough in 2000, was in a large, recorded, production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” in 1999).

The locations have a thematic significance in relation to hearts and heartlands but their aesthetic purpose is to show America as barren and empty. Almost post-apocalyptic (Logan does, literally, come after Apocalypse in the X-Men storyline). The heart is dying. Positive locations in the film, such as the Munson’s farm and the border crossing, are, on the other hand, lush with vegetation.

Mutants are not the only thing dying out, consequences of a brutish world that is only concerned with profit and control (Donald Pierce mentions, off hand, the extinction of the tiger, a favourite pet of many of the world’s ultra-wealthy).

From the opening montage, where we see a group of drunken young men screaming “USA! USA! USA!” at the bystanders at the heavily walled Mexican border, Mangold and DOP John Mathieson paint a picture of an America in a state of moral and physical decay.

Anxieties over a shift in both foreign and domestic policy that will see non-whites, immigrants and the infirm persecuted (images of white supremacist groups congregating at Confederate statues, seemingly cruel arrests of undocumented immigrants and health care amendment protesters being ripped from their wheelchairs have become common sights) while environmental protections are scaled back immensely (a key component of Donald Trump’s executive actions so far) are reflected in Logan. Allowing the film to become, even if purely by accident, what Dennis O’Neil referred to as “vital fiction”.  

The film‘s message of defiance in the face of insurmountable odds, belief in right and wrong in uncertain times and hope for a better future in a world of extreme prejudice truly struck a chord with people. It makes you think of that famous Spielberg quote from a few years ago, not long after Jackman announced pre-production on what would later be titled Logan, where he said that superhero films would go “the way of the Western”. It was interpreted , at the time, as a quasi-insult. But, as Logan has proved, there could be no higher compliment. Logan has shown that, while superhero films will absolutely one day suffer a large drop off in frequency, they will go on forever. Just like the Western. Re-imagined and retold by different generations in different ways as the post-industrial folk tales that O’Neil wrote of.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on Jun 25, 2017

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