“There are no more guns in the valley,” Laura says in her eulogy. She and her band of mutants are no longer on the run but their safety, much like their hopes of a future, come at a cost. The line is a reference to the 1953 Western Shane, a film that operates as key thematic influence in Logan, a film within a film. Logan itself is a film within a larger film universe and an ever-expanding Marvel brand, which, like it’s overt film referencing, is all but impossible to ignore. Logan stands tall as an outlier, doing away with end-of-the-world plots, superhero team-ups, and allusions to future installments, servicing an even greater payoff that not only honors its comic book origins, but transcends them.
Post-Apocalypse, Logan is living in a self-imposed exile on the Mexican border, caring for an ailing Charles Xavier whose once powerful brain has become a liability. Both the film’s premise and desert setting feel post-apocalyptic, barren, bleak. The same could be said of their existence. The year 2029. No new mutants have been born. Charles is living in an overturned water tower that has echoes of Cerebro, and Logan, who has seen better days, has ignominiously become a limousine driver. He dreams of buying a boat so he and Charles alone can sail off into the sunset. As fate would have it, someone comes along.
Laura is representative of a new generation primed to take over. The X-Men franchise finds itself in an ideal position for change, perhaps now more than ever (the lackluster Apocalypse clearly showing a need for reinvention). If the X-Men films were about lost youths finding their way and growing into leaders, then Laura and her generation are destined to inherit the mantle. And who better than Logan to shepherd these children to their destiny.
The plot of Logan bears a striking resemblance to films like Children of Men and Mad Max: Fury Road (especially Beyond Thunderdome), complemented by a similar linear trajectory. Early on, Logan wonders if mutants truly are God’s mistake (a haunting meditation in Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian sci-fi thriller, and a lingering thread from The Wolverine). Laura, too, is seen as nothing more than property (Dr. Rice essentially a surrogate for Immortan Joe). Neither Mad Max: Fury Road nor Children of Men are directly referenced here as, say, a movie that’s literally quoted in Logan. But the inter-texts are there, perhaps more than they’ve ever been in an X-Men movie, and this enriches the film as a hybrid genre experience. Because Logan isn’t just a comic book movie anymore.
“We’ve got ourselves an X-Men fan,” Logan says of Laura, unironically holding an X-Men comic. It’s a moment that presents the film as being self-aware, but what Logan has in his hands is a comic set within context of the movie – an exaggerated depiction of their glory days as X-Men which Logan dismisses as untrue. It’s not so much that the film is disregarding its source material so much as the film is liberating itself from expectation.
We are living in the golden age of superhero movies. We know how they work; we are fluent in their language, films that play by the rules of a shared universe – an intricate web of interconnectedness with allusions to the next installment, replete with end-of-the-world scenarios, action-heavy third acts, gratuitous cameos, etc. It’s a structure in which these films are beholden to. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with formula especially if that formula works. But as these films increase in frequency, such tropes begin to feel tiresome. And since these films are broadly connected, it’s next to impossible to discuss one of them without discussing all of them. Rather than adhere to formula, Logan looks to other genres beyond itself for inspiration.
The film references Shane, a 1953 Western about a gunman trying to live a normal life, only to have his violent past catch up to him. Violence has long been an aesthetic of cinema, much like it’s been the recurring element of Wolverine’s entire life story. He’s defined by his untamed rage. Logan has a history of violence, and a long and storied one at that. (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, to borrow the title, is also a story about a man reckoning with his past.) This genre reference is clearly intended. Director James Mangold, after all, directed the 3:10 to Yuma remake and deliberately draws parallels to other great Westerns and lone samurai tales. (The Man with No Name trilogy, Unforgiven, and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo) Logan not only wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, it ostensibly becomes one.
The story of Shane is essentially the story of Logan, a character who has spent his life trying to escape his past, only to have his past come back to haunt him. We’ve seen Logan try to escape each iteration of the past in Alkali Lake, in William Stryker, and especially in Jean Grey. He’s hung up his claws, or so he thinks. History brutally repeats itself at the Munson farm house. Logan, Charles, and Laura break bread with the Munson family, chatting, laughing amongst themselves. If we didn’t know any better, it looks as if they belong. It’s but a brief taste of the life Logan can never have. Because violence and civility don’t belong under one roof, the same way guns don’t belong at the dinner table, Logan’s past serving to remind him of that. Logan may be yearning for his ride off into the sunset, but as the lone gunslinger, he’s doomed to trudge through the desert of his own ruin.
Logan is ultimately a journey within. He has to come to terms with himself. As Shane tells a young Joey, “A man has to be what he is.” For the first time, Logan’s rage is put under the microscope. We have the film’s R-rating to thank for that, which not only changes the nature of the violence on display but also how we look at it, sometimes in brutal and violent closeup, other times from afar. The violence here on out is no longer glorified; it’s grotesque, fatalistic, which is perhaps why it’s used so sparingly. Characters die and they stay dead. Rage is all-consuming, an eviscerating storm. Logan’s pent-up rage takes the form of guilt, which then expresses itself through abuse and self-harm. He may have come a long way from Alberta – the town in which he and Rogue first met, but Logan has and always will be a caged animal.
He’s killed people. Good or bad, all the same. For the first time, we see the toll it’s taken on him. Old and gray, he is a portrait of exhaustion, grief, and despair. Previous X-Men films played like an over-the-top celebration of Logan’s ability to kill, which makes Logan all the more sobering. This is the end of the line and he, more than anyone, craves that ending. Logan, a mutant with a healing factor, but isn’t invulnerable to suffering. The Wolverine succeeded in making Logan a character again. Logan succeeds by making him painfully human.
Logan may be a killer, but by no means is he a mindless killing machine because he bears the burden of what he’s done. X-24 is the embodiment of that soulless characterization. If The Wolverinewas an emotional battle within, then Logan is the continuation and end of what has always been Logan’s ultimate struggle. He is his own greatest foe, which means he cannot survive this fight. He mustn’t.
“Don’t be what they made you,” Logan’s plea to Laura, a father to a daughter. It seems like the antithesis of Shane’s famous line, but in fact it’s a sentiment for a new beginning, for there are no more guns in the valley. The X-Men films were always Wolverine-centered, so in many ways we have been watching the story of Logan unfold. Like a lone gunman galloping into town, ridding the town of the bandits who have taken over, all before his fateful ride into the fading horizon. Seventeen years running, the X-Men franchise isn’t just another cog in the superhero subgenre. X-Men was the big bang that started it all, defining the superhero for the modern age. Fitting, then, that Logan re-contextualizes the superhero in its golden age.