Films of the year 2017: Logan (8th place)
Spoilers for Logan lie ahead…
2017 was a great year for comic book movies – Thor: Ragnarok made the end of the world hilarious, Wonder Woman was great and finally put to bed the idea that bad films are bad because women are leading them, Spiderman: Homecoming proved that apparently we did want to go see yet another incarnation of Spidey, and Justice League… was a film that came out. However, one film stood out even in such an exciting crowd as a truly brilliant piece of film-making based on a comic book – the latest instalment in Fox’s X-Men universe, Logan.
It would be very easy to draw up a simple list of reasons that Logan is so good. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it takes beloved characters in unexpected directions, it offers a contrast with the also excellent but very different brighter interpretations of comic book characters currently popular. But, as is becoming increasingly clear, being ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ by itself is not an indicator of quality. Adding a bit more death and destruction and making your characters miserable, is not, in and of itself, great art. Logan succeeds not simply because it tells a darker story than X-Men films usually do, but because it knows exactly what it wants to do and does it really well.
One aspect of the film that is handled very well is its violence. Logan is far from the first film based on a comic book or graphic novel to be given an R rating, and an R rating is not inherently necessary to tell a violent story – The Hunger Games, for example, tells an extremely violent story without quite enough blood on screen to need such a rating. What makes Logan stand out is how well it deploys that level of violence and onscreen gore. For the first time, the film depicts how someone with the sort of weapons Logan has to hand (heh heh) might fight and the sort of damage they might inflict. It’s a visceral experience that plunges the viewer thoroughly into Logan’s violent world. It’s also an important story decision. So much of the plot of the film focuses on Logan’s physical decline, and the giving and receiving of physical pain, and we are really made to feel every blow, kick and slice in a way we haven’t in the other X-Men movies.
There is so much more to this film, though, that just a bit of the old ultra-violence. The X-Men franchise has been supported, since its inception in 2000, by the performances of some great actors, foremost among them Hugh Jackman (who appears in some form in all 10 films, albeit the 10th is on a magazine cover) and Patrick Stewart (who appears in 7). This film is their farewell, and what a farewell it is. One ending is utterly shocking, hitting the audience like a punch in the gut; the other is anticipated, offering more closure, rounding out both the film and the franchise to date. Both are the end of long journeys we’ve taken with these people. The characters will go on – Charles Xavier will reappear once again in the form of James McAvoy next year, and Wolverine/Logan will inevitably follow in a new incarnation eventually – but these versions of these characters, played by these actors, are given a farewell to remember here.
They are also surrounded by a group of fantastic performances from newer faces. We know that Patrick Stewart can act everyone around him off the screen – part of the appeal of the X-Men movies is matching him up with Ian McKellen and giving him someone equally brilliant to bounce off from. While McKellen may be sadly absent from this film, Dafne Keen makes a stunning debut and brings a fresh new dynamic to Stewart and Jackman’s well-worn familiarity. Jackman himself is as strong and as likeable as ever (despite Logan’s being at an even lower point than we’ve seen before) and Stephen Merchant rounds out the X-cast with a wonderfully nervous performance as Caliban.
Logan is not an unending exercise in misery – there is black humour here, and while the lead characters may all be prickly in the extreme, we still like them and care about them. What makes the film work is that there is still heart in these people and in the story. The experience of watching the film is tense and shocking in places, with a middle section that feels like it’s dropped straight out of a horror film and into this franchise. But there is love and hope there too, and reason enough to want to see these characters keep fighting, and to see some kind of light at the end of a very dark tunnel. The whole thing comes together to produce a really beautiful, gut-wrenching work of art.