Logan: James Mangold Talks Bringing Wolverine & Superheroes to Their Western Roots

We chat with Logan director James Mangold about Hugh Jackman’s final Wolverine film, and how Westerns laid the groundwork for it.

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman as Laura and Logan
Photo: 20th Century Studios

There is a scene midway through James Mangold’s Logan, the ninth and final film that will feature Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine, which has neither claws shredding into flesh nor psychics using their own devastating superpowers. Yet it is entirely compelling. An aged and relatively senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sits on a bed watching television while Logan is moping in the bathroom. They’re both on a getaway of sorts, being chased by bad men across the American West, and they’re doing it all for a girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), a pint-sized 11-year-old killing machine who’s simultaneously precocious and unforgivingly feral.

On the TV screen, another film about high plains drifters and the childhoods they shape is playing: it’s 1953’s classic Shane. At first, Laura glances at the tube unimpressed, but the aging Charles insists that she sit down and watch the film alongside him—it’s one he’s adored since he saw it in theaters as a boy nearly a century ago. Slowly, she becomes engrossed in a story of stark land and even starker heroes. There’s good, there’s evil, and there are the children caught in between. In fact, if she’d just squint, she could see echoes of the very movie she’s living in.

Indeed, Logan is a fierce, bloody, and unapologetic melding of Western iconography and superhero sensibilities that’ve gone past their sell-by date. Jackman’s anti-hero is now as decrepit and out-of-step as any latter day Clint Eastwood character—or how the titular Shane appeared in his own film. This would make sense, because that picture, and its legendary cinematic heritage, made this March’s Logan possible from its very inception.

I talked about as much with Mangold when we sat down this past weekend during a cold afternoon in New York.

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“It’s been an important movie to me all my life,” Mangold enthusiastically says regarding Shane. It even returned to him while he was deep in the world of mutants and claws on 2013’s much more traditional The Wolverine.

Thinking back to how he took a break during the editing of that picture to give a presentation on the ‘50s Western to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, Mangold recalls, “Shane had been restored, and [director] George Stevens’ son asked me to come and present the film to the Academy… I got to see this new print, and I was blown away once again by just what an amazing film that is. In many ways, it not only set my goals for [Logan], but it defined them in the sense that that film has great action, it’s brutal, but it’s also deeply felt. It’s kind. It’s visually beautiful, but it’s very naturalistic. It doesn’t have a cast of thousands, yet their world means everything to us.”

It also came in handy when discussions began for what a third and final solo Wolverine movie would be for star Hugh Jackman. Obviously having a solid rapport with Mangold (the two first worked together on 2001’s Kate & Leopold), Jackman and the filmmaker essentially started planning Logan during the tail-end of The Wolverine’s global rollout.

“Literally after the world tour on The Wolverine, I think it fell upon us to figure out what was coming next,” Mangold remembers. “And what I fell upon by talking to Hugh a lot was that neither of us was interested in doing this again unless it was really different. And I think the thing we wanted most different was tone.” For Jackman, this meant evoking films like Eastwood’s own subversive swan song to Western heroism, Unforgiven, as well as The Wrestler. For Mangold, it was the aforementioned Westerns, as well as choices as eclectic as Little Miss Sunshine. After all, what else is the story of a dysfunctional family on the road?

“It dawned on me to think about what it was Logan was most frightened of in the world,” Mangold says. “And it wasn’t a villain and it wasn’t death, and it wasn’t the world being destroyed; it was intimacy. So when that kind of hit me, I started constructing in my mind a world in which he’s caring for a dying father, in this case Charles Xavier with a degenerative brain disease. And into his life, and Charles’, comes this little girl. And that would be almost the greatest set of challenges I could throw down at Logan’s feet.”

Mangold has a long history of mixing genres and tones throughout his career. After all, long before he teamed with Jackman for superhero opuses, he’d already tried his hand at more traditional Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and the country music-based Walk the Line (Johnny Cash’s vocals also make an appearance in Logan). He even adapted Susanna Kaysen’s memoir about a young woman forced into a 1968 mental institution with Girl, Interrupted. But by Mangold’s own consideration, they are all related, including Logan, with a thematic preference for clear narrative lines and economic storytelling.

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“I’m a big fan of keeping the story clean. A circumscribed universe, a very clear world, and not getting distracted by too much,” Mangold asserts. This, in many ways, is in direct contradiction with modern superhero movies that tend to get more bloated and overstuffed with tacked on characters and disconnected subplots. They even have video announcements now, almost 18 months in advance, about how many extra superheroes are getting squeezed into the next event.

Considering the current climate, Mangold muses, “I think we’ve gotten into this kind of arms race with these tentpole movies in the last decade in which movies are trying to outbid each other for how much of the world they’re going to destroy, how big their villain is, how many heroes with superpowers will appear.” For the writer-director of Logan, he can respect these choices but thinks sometimes creative real estate starts to wear thin.

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“Suddenly you have characters with an arc of six minutes. Four minutes. For actual dedicated screen time, it’s less than Elmer Fudd gets in a Warner Bros. cartoon.” Eventually, he contends, it’s only a taste of storytelling.

In comparison, Logan looks drastically different from most modern superhero movies, and not just because of its R-rated violence. For the writer-director, he suggests it’s as much the fact that the picture goes to actual sweeping Western landscapes, as it is the notion that it’s set in the West.

“One of the things I did was get us out in the world,” explains Mangold. “This is probably the first in many of these movies that hasn’t been done predominantly on soundstage. There’s something about putting yourself in the real world, you’re shooting on a real highway, a real convenience store, at a real smelting plant, in a real desert, that makes the movie feel alive.”

That life, like the dust that swirls around Jackman’s face as he takes another kick from bad guys south of the border, is a distinguishing quality for Logan, but Mangold might suggest the Western aesthetic is in most superhero films—after all, he uses the comparison of the genres to temper the ever growing cynicism building around the early 21st century’s most saturated big screen fantasy.

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“I think that very often in the world of the Western, the heroes and the villains have almost supernatural abilities,” Mangold reflects. “But I think aside from the presence of superpowers, the forms are really clean and can be more sophisticated than people think… We remember the Westerns more fondly than people sitting in the middle of that moment. Meaning if you were living in 1952 or 1962, every day on television is Maverick, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, every week another movie is coming out. A lot of those Westerns have disappeared. A lot of them were cheesy, but there were some great ones.”

“I think the way people feel about comic book movies, because they’re drowning in them, is similar,” he says. “I think there will come a day, right now you can’t turn on TV any day of the week and not see a comic book themed TV show, you’ve got movies like this and many others coming out every summer en masse. I think that time will perform the same weeding process.”

He adds that the genre simply needs to prove it’s more than an actual genre, and push for different storytelling traditions that don’t follow a familiar formula within the caped set—perhaps like making a Wolverine movie that is as much influenced by Alan Ladd on a horse in 1953 as it is with what the competition is doing in computer generated destruction?

 “I think it’s very important that you plug these things into a movie tradition so that they have a relationship with a set of rules that audiences understand,” Mangold puts forth.

Audiences will get their own chance to plug into Logan when the movie opens on Friday, March 3.