Paying for his sins
A superhero story of self-sacrifice is marred by R-rated content in 'Logan'
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Most of the media focus on Logan, the latest movie featuring Hugh Jackman as X-Men member Wolverine, has been on how 20th Century Fox decided to pursue an R rating. It’s an unusual choice for a superhero flick, where the PG-13 niche is still seen as most profitable. But it’s growing more common.
Since 2016’s raunchy, irreverent Deadpool became the top-grossing R movie of all time, trends have been shifting. Popular, edgy Netflix dramas based on Marvel comic books like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage have further pushed a genre that once was aimed squarely at adolescent boys toward older (though, in the case of Deadpool, no less adolescent) viewers.
By and large, critics are also hailing Logan’s R rating as welcome progress for superhero movies. While Logan is centered on a strong, classic story, the addition of R-rated material was still a mistake. And not just because I find moral fault with the content.
Screenwriter Scott Frank described to Recode Media his mindset working on Logan: “On this one, we’re never talking about being a superhero. … [We’re telling] an adult story about growing old, about paying for your sins.”
Logan (played by Jackman for the ninth and reportedly last time) has a lot of sins he believes he should pay for. Over the course of the X-Men series, Wolverine has been used as a weapon of violence. But he’s also a man of conscience, and the two cannot live comfortably side by side. Thus, when we find him in the year 2029, he’s a down-on-his-luck hustler, drowning his pain in alcohol and drugs. With the exception of Professor X (played again by Patrick Stewart), there’s not a life in the world he cares about enough to save, including his own. That is, until he stumbles across a young girl with looks and characteristics disquietingly similar to his own.
There’s no question that director James Mangold, who also helmed one of the 21st century’s best Western remakes, 3:10 to Yuma, intentionally draws on the dusty outlaw archetype. If Clint Eastwood had ever played a superhero, it would have been Logan. We recognize in him a hero from an older age—beat down, selfish, cynical—who ultimately finds renewed purpose through self-sacrifice.
With this time-honored setup and a gang leader as fantastically reprehensible as anyone John Wayne or Alan Ladd ever faced, Logan could have been one of the best superhero films ever made. It misses the mark by spending so much time indulging the freedom of its rating.
When you see Wolverine stab the first head with his metal claws, it’s shocking. By the time he gets to the fourth or fifth, the reaction is more like, “Oh yawn, Wolverine is stabbing heads again.” Again and again when the film could have used its already-long running time to delve further into its central relationships and emotional conflict, it instead gives us more blood spatter during increasingly boring action sequences.
Logan does take worthwhile risks and breaks some good ground in superhero storytelling. To have a hero saving not the world but a single girl brings greater depth to the plot while reminding us that rescuing one being led away to death is every bit as noble as rescuing thousands. Likewise, Logan’s search for meaning is fulfilled only in the role of personal, protective father. These are timeless lessons that boys once learned from stories of the Old West. It would be nice if they could learn them now from the near future. Sadly, the enormous level of violence, language, and brief but totally gratuitous nudity won’t allow it.
Perhaps the most moving moment in the film comes during the credits, which roll as Johnny Cash sings his brilliant Judgment Day ballad, “The Man Comes Around.” If Logan’s closing symbol doesn’t convince you that Mangold intentionally links Wolverine’s redemptive story to that found in the Gospels, its closing song will.
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