In its look at human frailty and death, James Mangold’s Logan is unlike any superhero film ever produced—and it just may change the genre for good.
As it happens, Logan also works as a spiritual sequel to the director’s 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Making a name for himself with songs that exalted “heroic all-American Lazaruses,” Cash reveled in larger-than-life legends and outlaws whose grand exploits and staggering fables live long past their deaths. Later in life, however, a newfound humility would come to dictate the country singer’s twilight recordings. For example, in his 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Cash laments an Ecclesiastian life lived in pursuit of future and fame. And, in one of the last songs he penned before his death, “The Man Comes Around,” the Man in Black concedes to a greater Man that all—legend and gunslinger alike—will eventually be held accountable to.
Like the characters in Cash’s early discography, Hugh Jackman’s comic-book mutant, Wolverine, is a Lazarus of sorts, too. Armed with metallic claws and regenerative ability, over his eight previous film appearances in the X-Men franchise, audiences have seen him shot, stabbed, and drowned—only to gaze in awe as he rose moments later.
It’s fitting, then, that Logan, a story about a once-invincible superhero now facing the perils of old age, would end with Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” For all its comic lore and surging action pieces, Mangold’s breathtaking project first and foremost functions as a deconstruction of the mythical, impregnable crusader. Logan’s stark message is true, even if we choose not to think about it: All of us, including those once thought indestructible, will lose our physical freedom and fade into helplessness. No individualism or self-realization will offer a life preserver. Myth will be separated from reality.
This is where we meet Wolverine (a.k.a., Logan) at the beginning of the film—broken, bleeding, and with pus squeezing from his knuckles. Set in 2029, Logan’s world is a sun-soaked dustbowl that John Ford might have crafted if he were a baby boomer obsessed with Frank Miller. New mutants stopped appearing 25 years ago, the X-Men are all but gone, and the ones left—Logan and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart)—are slowly losing both their powers and mental fortitude. A chauffeur for rich businessmen and spoiled teenagers, Logan quietly cares for the ailing Xavier, dowsing his sorrows in a steady stream of booze.
Logan’s suppressed empathy wages war against his alcoholic nihilism when a mysterious young mutant named Laura (played with mature confidence by Dafne Keen) elicits his help. As the film’s villain, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook)—a tattooed solider who works for a research corporation named Transigen—arrives to take the girl, the plot shrinks to a small circle. Planet Earth doesn’t hang in the balance—only one seemingly insignificant life.
More a mashup of movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Looper, and the classic western Shane than a Marvel tentpole, Mangold’s creation effectively blends throat-clogging intensity and a gritty tenor with moments of profound stillness and intimacy. Logan bottles the emotional stock accumulated over Wolverine’s other films, but resists the need to connect the story to any wider “universe.” And while most movies of its kind live in a sort of areligious ecosphere, Logan exiles itself to the Island of Patmos—immersed in a Book of Revelation–type language of doom and judgement, rebirth and redemption.
Through its apocalyptic ascetic, Johnny Cash’s themes of heroic mythmaking interlock with Logan’s journey as a character. In one scene, Logan thumbs through an X-Men comic he found in Laura’s backpack. “Maybe a quarter of it happened,” he comments. “And not like this…This is ice cream for bed-wetters.” In Logan, the innocent suffer, and good doesn’t always triumph in the way most summer blockbusters seem to think.
If many comic-book heroes either experience some form of hazy immortality or only die to return in the next movie, Logan ratchets up the tension by fully envisioning its characters’ physical and moral humanity. Xavier, suffering from either a brain tumor or Alzheimer’s, sees his once celebrated mind become a weapon of mass destruction. Frequently disoriented by his condition, Xavier’s words often become a sword to Logan—a pain those who’ve walked with a loved one through a degenerative illness know all too well.
Similarly, the metal exoskeleton bonded to Wolverine’s bones—the same adamantium that once brought him eternal life—now poisons his regenerative abilities. During the last half of the film, Logan takes a nap in nearly every scene (nearly to the story’s fault). In Christian thought, rest is a sign of trust in God’s sovereignty, and Logan’s shuteye consistently feels like a loss in his once supposed self-lordship. When we do eventually watch Jackman become the fully realized, animalistic Wolverine (in what he says is his last time to play the part), the moments of awe, terror, and ferocity soon fade, and he’s back to limping again.
With the Big Sleep drawing near, both Logan and Xavier must also reckon with their past sins—including those done for the ultimate good. After dinner with a modest Christian family, Xavier confesses that the tranquility and peace of the evening is the best he’s experienced in years. As he lays in a bed next to a plump Bible, he cries, admitting, “I don’t deserve it.” For all the virtue he brought to the world, the mistakes of his past and the torment of his present reveal a man who needs something this world can only give in spurts.
Even the film’s R-rating, which it earns in spades, works to develop Wolverine’s disheveled moral state. Logan is a hero when we can’t see the gore fling from his claws (as in his other, tamer, films), but is he still a hero when we watch these same claws pierce a man’s skull? When Laura excuses her violence by claiming those she hurt were bad people, Logan’s response captures his need for absolution: “All the same.”
In this way, Logan authentically communicates the willful ignorance of mortality that the 17th-century mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal once described. Referring to the rich and powerful of his day—those who used their wealth as a distraction from the inevitable—Pascal wrote, “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and misery, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”
Like the characters in Logan, we, as Pascal alludes to, may believe in death’s ticking clock, but either can’t envision it or don’t give it any long thoughts. We enjoy the company of others, sometimes finding meaning and purpose in family and friends (like, say, the X-Men). Perhaps we even numb our minds with films of comic, immortal gods.
But Logan reminds us that as good as these temporary joys may be, they will all pass away. Our brain and bodies, and those of our loved ones, will soon yield to the sway of the universe. It’s then, as judgement nears, that we are faced with the questions we should be asking now—the same questions Cash sang about so charismatically near the end of his life.
Though it’s the most mesmeric, stirring superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, perhaps this is the best way to interpret Logan—not as just another gritty reboot of a childhood fantasy, but as a parable for the fleetingness of life and the hope that can be found in what we do not deserve.
Fitting enough, the last image of the film, just before “The Man Comes Around” begins to play, features a sign of hope—one that carries a special weight for the Christian viewer. Might Logan find the grace he longs for? Superheroes, after all, don’t live forever—and as Cash sings, even the best of us will ultimately be tried by a righteous judgment:
The hairs on your arm will stand up.
At the terror in each sip and in each sup.
Will you partake of that last offered cup,
Or disappear into the potter’s ground?
When the man comes around.
Wade Bearden is the co-host of Seeing and Believing, a film and TV podcast at Christ and Pop Culture that searches for the sacred on screen. He's also a writer, film critic, and adjunct instructor at Southwestern Assemblies of God University. Wade lives in Houston, Texas, with his wife and son. You can follow him on Twitter (@WadeHance)
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