A Film Commentary
Directed by James Mangold
(Twentieth Century Fox, 2017)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Logan.**
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Few actors have become so intrinsically tied to a character they’ve played like Hugh Jackman and his portrayal of James Howlett, better known as Logan, the Wolverine. A central figure in 20th Century Fox’s long-running X-Men film series, Logan is a mutant with an accelerated healing ability and a bad temper who sprouts bony, claw-like protrusions from his hands when it comes time for some down-and-dirty knuckle-dusting. His mutant abilities ensure that he’s been around for a lot longer than most people, as well as put him on the military’s radar as they seek to hone him into a finely tuned killing machine through a secret project dubbed “Weapon X.” When he has a fictional metal known as “adamantium” grafted onto his bones, he becomes nigh-on indestructible — until age finally catches up to him. As his body begins to break down after nearly two centuries of trauma, Logan trudges on toward the finish line, finally ready to be done with this life in which everything and everyone he loves passes on while he remains.
But life has a way of not letting any of us get out cleanly.
Modern Mythologies. Modern superheroes have a fascinating history rooted in the early pulps, whose characters such as the Phantom, the Black Bat, Zorro, and Flash Gordon inspired later pop culture icons as varied as Batman and Star Wars. These characters and the stories they inhabit play in the realm of mythology, capturing young minds and imaginations with outlandish stories of seemingly inhuman bravery and derring-do. In Superman we find shades of Zeus, the all-powerful king of the gods and winner of the skies, and even Herakles, the legendary strongman hero of Greek mythology. In Batman we find a kind of modern Hades, sulking around his Batcave like the god of the underworld. Aquaman draws no uncertain parallels with Poseidon, the sea-king (he even wields a trident). Wonder Woman is a literal Amazonian warrior. The Flash’s winged feet are a not-so-subtle nod to Hermes, the lightning-quick messenger of the gods. And Thanos, though a masculine Greek name, looks suspiciously like a syncope of Thanatos — the very personification of death in Greek mythology.
The mythological imagery captures us, sustains our imaginations, speaks to us in ways that are familiar. The comic book medium leans heavily into this imagery, and modern comic book movies capitalize on these parallels in spades through the plots and stories they tell. When we are young, we revel in the stories of Herakles’s bravery, pick up our sticks and set off to slay whatever hydra haunts our imaginations. But the remoteness of those stories lost in some distant past eventually give way to newer models of heroes, the ones in slicker, sexier tights and who wear capes. Modern heroes, like the old gods, never die and are perpetually young in appearance.
And it is for this reason that Logan (2017), directed by James Mangold, is both an instant classic of the genre and not a film to be seen by children. See, we tend to forget that in the old stories, heroes died. They made mistakes. Bellerophon slays the chimera, but his hubris dares him to ascend to Olympus, only for him to face the wrath of Zeus and be hurled back to earth where he spends his last days crippled and alone. Herakles, after his legendary exploits, is poisoned and dies being burnt alive on a funeral pyre he built with his own hands. These are the parts of those stories we tend to overlook as children and give us pause as adults. Because these are the parts of the stories in which our heroes die. In Mangold’s Logan, heroes die. Unexpectedly and unspectacularly.
A Tragic Hero. Jackman’s portrayal of Logan spanned nearly twenty years. He took the character through the highs and lows of the Hollywood machine, from terrible prequels to breathtaking sequels. When far less committed actors would likely have walked away after a bad review or a critical flop, Jackman stuck with the character, and his pairing with James Mangold in 2013’s The Wolverine finally signaled a resurgence in strong, character-driven storytelling that continued in Logan.
Mangold was interested in excavating Logan’s motivations alongside an actor who was aging. Together, Mangold and Jackman rescued a character that had become something of a caricature of himself. They took the cigar-chomping, motorcycle-riding jerk, and gave him some real emotions. Logan suddenly felt remorse for his actions, became haunted by lost loves, and grew weary of watching the world around him change and the people he loved die while he remained ageless. They took every trope of the superhero genre and flipped it on its head by telling the part of Logan’s story that the rest of us would probably rather have skipped over. They tell the story of the Wolverine’s death — and it is a tragedy of epic proportions.
By the time Logan begins, most every friend he has ever known is dead. He is numb and apathetic. Only a frail, mentally unstable Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) remains, and these days he looks more like a ghost. Logan’s existence, due to new stigmas against mutants, fallout from an incident involving Xavier losing control of his powers, has been reduced to looking for a way for them to die peacefully without bringing further harm to the human population. But even a quiet death seems poised to elude him, as Logan learns that the adamantium making his bones indestructible is slowly poisoning him. He is a man without hope, a shell of a human being.
That is, until he finds himself the guardian of a girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who possesses abilities startlingly similar to his own. Laura has a vision of a mythical haven — literally called Eden — for mutants that she’s gleaned from reading old stories and comic books. Logan believes it all a fantasy, but at Xavier’s insistence, they strike out on a fool’s errand to bring the girl to safety. It is not hard to see where this story goes. His attachment to the girl breaks him open in profound ways. Logan, who had retreated into himself, learns to care for other people, the “innocent,” while still punching the bad guys in the face.
The plot feels like every other antihero-learns-to-be-good story we’ve seen before. They even come across a family to share a meal with, a family that, so we think, will inevitably be put in harm’s way and must be saved. And this is the genius of Logan’s final chapter — it teases us with that predictable story right up until the moment it yanks the rug out from under our feet. Danger does indeed come for that family — and Logan fails to save them. Xavier is killed abruptly, and Logan is brought to the edge of his humanity as he realizes he is now, truly, alone in the world, and Laura is depending on him for her very existence.
Deconstructing a Genre. Though Logan invokes the spirit of the classic western Shane (1953) at multiple junctures, one cannot shake the feeling that the film has more to do with Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre, Unforgiven (1992). Screenwriter John August once said of David Webb Peoples’s script for Eastwood’s brilliant film:
I think the script takes our expectations of what a western is supposed to do and what the hero of a western is supposed to do and what the tropes of a western are supposed to do. It explores them and ultimately sort of rips them apart and sort of lays bare the pain and the suffering that’s underneath all of that and sort of tries to get back to the common humanity that underlies all the sort of mythic heroes that we have coming out of the western genre. I don’t [think] you can make Unforgiven without a good knowledge of all of the westerns that came before it. And the audience’s expectations about what’s supposed to happen in a western. It’s not sort of playing with the tropes as much as sort of just lighting them on fire and watching them burn away.1
I can think of no better analysis for Logan, a film that masterfully deconstructs the superhero film genre, unmaking and profoundly humanizing its central hero. By embracing the mythic dimensions of tragic heroes, Logan subverts audience expectations at every corner to tell a seemingly new story through the rediscovery of classic mythological tropes. Indeed, Rolling Stone argues that Logan goes out of its way to “kill” the modern superhero genre, suggesting that the film alone has the potential to change audience expectations for the genre altogether. 2 Yet the film does not relish entirely in the breaking down of long-established tropes, because Logan actually does have something profound to say that speaks to the very core of what these kinds of mythic stories stir in the human imagination.
With death looming, Logan realizes he is never going to get that peaceful end he has long sought. His friends are dead. His loves are gone. If he thought he was alone before, he is truly alone now. And everything, it seems to him, has been lost for the fantastic visions of a sort of mythical Eden for mutants, a spark of hope that exists in the mind of a child and in the pages of old stories. Knowing he has reached the end of the line, with the villains closing in, Logan faces his final decision — let the girl continue on her own against unsurmountable odds, or finally lay down his own life in the hope of a future that he knows he will never see?
Hope and Sacrifice. Logan makes his choice and it takes him to his death. It is far from peaceful, but by sacrificing himself, he gives Laura and the next generation of mutants a chance to see their hope realized. And herein lies the brilliance of Logan’s final chapter — the hero dies but dies in hope. Somehow, Logan takes the tragic hero of the old myths, and imbues him with an ending that is downright biblical.
The writer of Hebrews defines faith itself as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1 KJV, emphasis added). The apostle Paul speaks of the Christian life as one lived in hope of a future marked by a powerful resurrection (Eph. 1:18). But resurrection implies that death must come first. In the epistle to Colossians, Paul also correlates the gospel of Jesus Christ with the hope that is stored up in heaven for those who believe (1:5–8). In Romans, God is described as the God of Hope — both the author and the subject (Rom. 15:13).
Cynicism looks at Logan’s final chapter and says his life amounted to very little. That same cynicism would likely look at the apostle Paul, who, tradition maintains, was beheaded in Rome under Nero, and ask what good came of his life beyond the preservation of his writings. Or even Abraham, who’s possession of the Promised Land remained unfulfilled upon his death. Yet that cynicism falls woefully short of comprehending the centrality of hope to the biblical story, to Logan’s story, and to the Christian life. Perhaps this is why James Mangold himself, the film’s director and story writer, does not see a shred of cynicism in the film’s final haunting moments.3
Perhaps the Christian is tempted to find himself or herself in the character of Logan. I suppose there are shades of all of us in that character, especially at his end. How interesting, though, that we are never told whether or not Logan comes to believe in Laura’s future — in other words, he never professes faith. Though his sacrifice is admirable, his death is no less tragic. His final moments are spent insisting upon Laura that, for all her abilities, she not become like him. Yet he dies because of her faith, because of what her hope has sparked in him.
In truth, the deeper Christian corollary is Laura, whose childlike faith in old stories of unseen things pushes an apathetic and dying man to hope again in a better future. Is this not, to some degree, the responsibility of the Christian in the preaching of the gospel of Christ? Is this not the power of the Bible’s eschatological realization? The story does not end with Christ’s ascension; in fact, the promises made to the Old Testament saints in the early narrative practically demand an ending that sees the Messiah’s physical presence in the New Jerusalem. Christ must return, death must give way, the world must be remade.
Walter Brueggemann, in his book A Gospel of Hope, speaks of hope as producing a “new song” that sings not of the world as it is but “imagines how the world will be in God’s good time to come. The new song is a protest against the way the world is now.”4 Laura’s Eden and the Christian eschaton serve the same purpose in Logan’s story and in the life of the world. For all its deconstructionism, unmaking heroes and showing us a devastating future in which even good men fail, Logan nonetheless stakes its final, profound claim on a gospel of hope, one powerful enough to keep a dying man with however feeble a faith pressing on in expectation of a better tomorrow. Ultimately, it is a hope worth dying for.
It was the great conviction of C. S. Lewis that, even as adults, the world is best seen through the eyes of a child with stories.5 Those stories have the potential to “baptize” the imagination, priming one to receive in faith the mythic dimensions of the biblical story, and therefore the gospel. In the context of its own narrative, Logan understands the power of story to imbue a devastated world with the power to hope. As Christians, that should be reason enough to carry our gospel of hope into a dying world. For Laura, that is a song worth singing. For Logan, it is a song worth listening to.
Cole Burgett is a seminary student, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and an author for the website Christ and Pop Culture.
- John August and Craig Mazin, “Unforgiven,” Scriptnotes, episode 314, podcast audio, August 22, 2017, https://johnaugust.com/2017/unforgiven.
- David Fear, “Why We Needed ‘Logan’ to Kill the Modern Superhero Movie,” Rolling Stone, March 7, 2017, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-news/why-we-needed-logan-to-kill-the-modern-superhero-movie-113324/.
- See Mangold’s comments in Gregory Wakeman, “Why the Logan Ending Is Actually a Happy Ending, According to James Mangold,” CinemaBlend, May 17, 2017, https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1660350/why-the-logan-ending-is-actually-a-happy-ending-according-to-james-mangold.
- Walter Brueggemann, A Gospel of Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 96.
- See C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961).