A superhero film for young and old
Logan (2017) Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen. Written by Scott Frank, Michael Green, and James Mangold. Directed by James Mangold.
Sequels rarely do more than mimic their predecessors. That's why people were floored when Logan, the 10th installment of the X-Men franchise, turned out to be the freshest, most original film of the entire superhero genre.
Nearly all superhero films to date have centered around heroes in their 30s or 40s. Not younger. Not older. Superman Returns gave us a Superman younger than he was when he left the screen more than a decade earlier. The Dark Knight Rises gave us a Batman who retires, then comes out of retirement, and still isn't old enough to collect social security benefits. Elderly superheroes are almost unheard of, and child heroes are just as rare.
Occasionally, just occasionally, Hollywood has let us glimpse super powers wielded by someone younger than 20, but such characters rarely qualify as heroes. Spider-Man never defeats the bad guys — he merely witnesses them defeating themselves, much as the teenaged Superman does on Smallville. The Amazing Spider-Man amazed us by making the teenaged web-slinger the film's damsel in distress, while the role of hero is claimed by random adults who keep rescuing him.
Leave it to the X-Men franchise to break this mold. The series, about a team of heroes, has always found a little more room for diversity, giving the team a Xavier older than 40 and various characters younger than 20. The younger characters, however, despite their powers, nearly always functioned as damsels in distress or as witnesses to the heroics of older characters.
This film is largely focused on the elderly. It gives us a Logan/Wolverine wrestling with the fact that he's no longer as agile or as strong as he once was. Wolverine this time around is the first superhero ever to use glasses, not to disguise himself, but to read. Furthermore, he has the burden of caring for his father-figure, a Professor Xavier now suffering from a degenerative mind disease. This is a film aimed at older viewers, focusing on concerns older people identify with.
And that makes it all the more remarkable that Logan also managed to give us the best prepubescent superhero that Hollywood has ever let us see – the best by far.
[Expect spoilers throughout the rest of this analysis.]
Laura in Action
Laura, a 12-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, proves to be a better action hero, in fact, than the old and dying Logan.
Many filmmakers' top concern with young characters is that they not be threatening to adults. In action films, young characters rarely get to do anything of importance. They don't beat up or kill off adult bad guys. They just wait to get rescued. Even youth with superpowers are rarely shown besting any adult, even an adult with no powers.
But not this time. Laura fights bad guys as ferociously and as successfully as any action hero ever has. She kills with her claws. In the climax, she even saves Logan by shooting the most threatening adult, with complete disregard for the long-standing taboo against young heroes firing guns under any circumstances. She is a full-fledged action heroine.
Laura in Conversation
For much of the film's running time, Laura is mute. It seemed the filmmakers wanted to Other the girl, make her more feral and less relatable, and deny her any chance to speak for herself. Sadly, none of that is surprising. When she finally does speak, no explanation is given for why she was silent. The whole gimmick seems forced. But when Laura finally gets some dialogue, the film becomes even more groundbreaking.
Near the end of the film, just before the action-packed climax, there are two scenes in which Logan and Laura have quiet conversations, and in some ways, these two scenes are more shocking than all the blood-filled violence elsewhere.
In neither scene is the adult lecturing the child about a mistake she has made nor guiding her with his superior wisdom. Instead, the two characters speak as peers.
Logan, sick and dying, doesn't try to put on an act to look stronger or to create a "safe" rosy view of world for the girl. He admits he has been thinking about suicide. He opens up to her, confessing he feels guilty about people he has hurt.
Laura comforts him by sharing his burden. "I've hurt people, too," she says. In Hollywood films, it is almost always the adult comforting the child, with children portrayed as having nothing to value to give back. Logan reflects the reality that human connection works in two directions, and empathy and kinship from a child can be just as valuable as from an adult.
After Laura shares her own guilt at having hurt people, Logan feels society's pressure on him as an adult to be a voice of wisdom. But the best he can say is, "You're going to have to learn to live with that," effectively admitting that all his additional years have not given him any more wisdom on the subject than Laura has already accumulated. This is not the adult leading or controlling the child; this is two people bonding over a shared experience.
The second conversation comes when Laura finds that Logan is planning to abandon her and the other children. He completed his job, delivering her to the location where the other mutant children are. He's physically weak and has little more he can give. But Laura has bonded with him by now, and she wants him to remain in her company. He is, for all intents and purposes, her father; and she wants from him, not a warrior's withering skills, but a father's love.
What sets this apart from nearly all other movies is that neither Logan nor the filmmakers dismiss the child's wants or trivialize them. Laura's wants are important because she is important. Logan feels Laura's judgment. He gets defensive, even yelling at her: "Hey! I never asked for this!" He offers the sound, logical argument that he has already given her more than he ever agreed to. But deep down, he feels Laura is right. As her father, he owes her more than what a mercenary owes his client. He owes her loyalty and commitment. He sees her viewpoint clearly enough that he changes his argument to one more centered around her needs: "You are better off this way. Because I suck at this. Bad sh¡t happens to people I care about."
In most films, adults assert their superiority over children. This time, the adult admits his lack of confidence. The adult and the child argue as equals, and the filmmakers do not side against the child. Moments like this are far too rare in film.
My Favorite Mistake
There is a scene where a TV is on and Laura sees the western Shane. At Logan's conclusion, Laura quotes lines from Shane when she eulogizes Wolverine. Writer/Director James Mangold admits on the DVD's commentary track that he did this to fit an ageist cliché. He didn't think it was acceptable for a child to speak eloquent words without showing the audience she cribbed those words from another source.
But this actually winds up underscoring what's great about Logan. The clip we see from Shane is the typical movie scene between an adult and a child. The adult is there to dispense wisdom, the child is there to admire the adult and make the adult feel important and nothing more. That typical movie scene contrasts powerfully with Logan giving us a child whose heart makes her as valuable as the adult hero and whose skill make her as consequential.
As Mangold says elsewhere in the commentary track, describing the film's climax, "Logan and Laura [are] fighting together as father and daughter ... He's here for her. He's here to protect her. He's here because he loves her. And he's speaking to her as an equal." That makes Logan differ sharply from Shane and a million other films.