In one of the most memorable lines of the original X-Men film, Wolverine, donning his uniform for the first time, wryly inquires of Scott Summers, “You actually go out in these things?” Cyclops retorts, “Well, what would you prefer, yellow spandex?” It was one of the film’s clearest callbacks to the comics, even as the quip was being utilized to distance the film from the perceived camp of the source material and the many reviled adaptations that proved too flamboyant for general audiences. X-Men debuted only a few short years after Schumacher had nearly singlehandedly destroyed the superhero film before it even had the chance to become a proper genre of its own. Singer was trying very consciously not to recapitulate the Batman franchise, foregoing the Wolverine-equivalent of Adam West and skipping straight to Burton’s Batman, replete with black leather bodysuits to signal such. Nevertheless, sixteen years removed and on the far side of genuine artistic achievements in the genre by Nolan, Wright, and others, the first X-Men now seems campy in compare to those more mature movies for which it paved the way. While other recent entries in the X-Men franchise have tried to emulate the Marvel movies by embracing the four-colored costumes of the source comics, Logan instead takes its cues from the first film, taking Singer’s approach to its logical conclusions.
As such, its reference to the comics which inspired the movie series is more explicit, with similar X-Men comics existing in the world of the film, inspired – in part – by the actual events of its past. But as per Cyclops’ lamshading in the original movie, such are similarly used here to further distance the film from the familiar paradigms of gaudily-garbed good guys versus megalomaniacal malefactors. Repeatedly throughout the film Wolverine expresses a disdain for the floppies featuring the familiar spandex-clad superhero version of himself, specifically because of their disassociation from reality. In this way, the film not only makes a similar but far stronger claim to realism as the first, but goes beyond such in signaling its aspirations as genuine cinema – aspirations to which it succeeds.
Logan does not merely downplay its comic book roots, it repudiates them till it’s so far from superhero fare that it abandons the genre completely, finding a new identity as a modern-day western. If the plethora of cowboy hats and horses didn’t give such away, Logan makes repeated references to one of the most beloved westerns of all time, 1953’s Shane, in which a heroic loner who’s the best at what he does rolls into town, coming to the defense of those suffering injustice and bloodying his hands on those who need killing, all the while forming an emotional bond with a young child. The similarities are evident enough, but become crystal clear as characters in Logan lay about watching scenes from Shane and quote it throughout the film. One extended episode about midway through Logan is particularly reminiscent of a similar scenario in Shane. An independent family of ranchers with a legal right to their land are facing intimidation and harassment by the cowboy cronies of corporation. Wolverine plays the part of white hat, same as Shane, but in making explicit the parallel between the protagonists of both films, Logan better raises the stakes of its true central conflict: whether the fragile bond between Logan and Laura will survive and be strengthened, or whether Logan, like Shane, will allow the guilt of his bloodshed to drive him back to the solidarity in which he began. Indeed, while watching for the first time one almost wonders whether the final shot will be Laura shouting “Logan!” as the later rides off into the distance.
That these are the stakes for the final chapter in Logan’s long life is particularly fitting, tying back to who Wolverine was when we as an audience first met him. For all the belonging he’d found at Xavier’s Institute we find him here all the worse off for its loss. For him to find a measure of peace, attachment, and even a brief taste of ordinary life at last seems a grander challenge than saving the world from some supervillain’s machinations yet again. Logan is not about the titular hero saving a single child – it’s about him saving himself by opening his long-hardened heart to her, his emotional scars being the one wound his healing factor could never mend. Thus, despite the tragedy of Logan’s ultimate demise at the end, the film is a great deal less tragic than Shane specifically because the former is successful in communicating the care he has for his child companion.
The same is true of Xavier. Like Logan, for all the good which he’d accomplished throughout the films he’s in a far worse place than when the series started. X-Men has from the beginning been an allegory about bigotry and prejudice. As such, the measure of the team’s success has always been humanity’s proximity to Xavier dream of a post-species society in with man and mutant lived in harmony together, without distinction or division. That dream had faced existential threats in the past with genophages and genocides, but this film begins with extinction already in the rearview mirror, the brunt of it on Xavier’s own hands. The same randomness of nature that gifted him his mutant mind likewise cursed that brain with a degenerative disease, the end result of which was what Stryker failed to effect occurring all the same without planning or purpose. Among Xavier’s last words before his ignoble end were to (whom he thought to be) Logan: “Now I know what it’s like to be you.” A proper superhero film would have ended Xavier’s seven-film arc with his dream realized or at the very least with the world all the closer to a day when it would be. But Logan is a repudiation of superheroes against their unreality, their fantasy and fictitiousness; here, Xavier’s success is merely for one more mutant child to survive and for one last wayward student to flourish for a short while before he dies.
Logan is visceral in it violence but genuine in its emotion. Both serve to successfully signal its maturity as a film – in both senses of the word, as being suitable only for adults, but also as an artist work which adults ought to appreciate. It is graphic not for the sake of being graphic, nor even to ground the realism of its world, but rather to achieve the same pathos as in the Johnny Cash songs it licensed for its trailers. Like Hurt, it connects potently and powerfully to the pain and angst which few children could know, which only adults who’ve experienced real lose, real tragedy, can connect with. Every bit as much as the recent Lego Batman Movie excels in elevating superhero films along the axis of levity and lightheartedness, Logan succeeds in advancing comic-inspired cinema along the diametrically opposite direction of gravity and seriousness; Logan is the best there is at what it does.