(Contains Spoilers for Logan)
I tend to get strange looks when I tell people I wish superhero movies were more realistic. I don’t mean I need the powers to be more realistic- striving for scientific plausibility in the chemical concoctions and alien tech that makes our heroes so powerful always seems like a fool’s errand. The realism I long for is in the characters themselves. My favorite stories are about people with incredible powers dealing with the same emotions and realities of any of the rest of us, navigating how those superpowers do, and don’t, change the experiences of love, hate, fear, anger, violence and conflict that we all deal with.
A number of recent superhero stories have reached for that level of realism. The Nolan Batman and Netflix TV shows are particularly good examples. But they are still the exception. Many other recent superhero movies and TV shows stick to the fantastic, telling us stories of heroes who can commit startling acts of violence without ever getting their hands dirty, literally or metaphorically. We may see those characters weep over a fallen comrade, or beat themselves up over a failed mission, but those emotions rarely last past the next fight.
More than anything, the worlds of those stories seem sanitized. They may show the horrors of world-devouring monsters or alien hordes, but the horrors of the real world are largely absent. The X-Men movies in particular have stayed in ‘safe’ territory, exploring some interesting moral questions to be sure, but never straying far from the safe, PG-13, world they live in.
When dear, old, saintly, Professor X says “fuck” early in this movie, you know Logan has left that sanitized world far behind.
Logan (the movie, I’m going to call the character Wolverine just for clarity) is all about the consequences of having powers. The consequences of violence, the consequences of holding a great and terrible power in check for so long and then starting to lose control, the consequences of greed and fear and the desire for perfection. In each case, Logan shows us those consequences in stark, brutal, reality. Instead of glorification and hero-worship, Logan reminds us that even our greatest heroes fall apart, or were never as high on the pedestal as we wanted them to be.
The clearest and starkest example is the movie’s portrayal of violence. This movie didn’t have any fight scenes I could say I enjoyed, no moments that made me gasp in admiration, or cheer for the just end delivered to a villain in some spectacular way. Instead, from the first time Wolverine’s claws penetrate the skull of one of his enemies, I found the violence in this movie brutal and hard to watch.
It was savage, it was upsetting, it was perfect. A powerful reminder that the terribleness of violence doesn’t change according to the moral value of who is doing violence to whom, and why.
This becomes all the more clear when it is the children who turn violent. When Laura, the spawn of Wolverine’s stolen DNA with powers similar to his, starts killing people with the same claws and ferocity that he does, I didn’t want to cheer or celebrate. Instead, I wanted to mourn that one so young was being taken down the path that was doing so much damage to Logan. When the other young mutants all use their powers to kill one of their tormentors, a moment that might have otherwise been satisfying was instead horrifying. I was glad they defended themselves, and the villain certainly deserved nothing less, but the looks of angry determination on the faces of those children as they killed their enemy scared me more than almost anything else in the movie.
Nor is that realism contained to violence. The movie shows us Wolverine and Charles Xavier in decline, as the effects of the years they have lived, and the way they have lived, them catch up to them. Wolverine is clearly dying, with the adamantium fused to his skeleton slowly killing his body as the things he has done with that body are killing his spirit. He admits that he knows he is dying and has little reason to stop it. He carries with him the one bullet that can hurt him, in case he decides to hasten that oncoming death.
Hard as that was to watch, it was the deterioration of Professor X, now better referred to as Charles Xavier, that truly got me. Xavier has always been portrayed as the all-loving, all-knowing, grandfather; a source of strength and comfort and stability. He had his faults for sure, and the First Class movies went into some of the foibles of his youth, but by the time Xavier becomes Patrick Stewart, he is supposed to be old, and wise, and loving. He is Grandpa.
But now Grandpa has a degenerative mental condition, and he’s not aging pretty. Instead of the graceful, sometimes humorous deterioration we often see in a movie about a beloved figure past their prime, we see all the pain and ugliness of a mind that is breaking down. Xavier curses, he lashes out, he forgets things, and he holds nothing back. When this man, who has always seen the best in people even when they didn’t see it themselves, starkly tells Logan what a disappointment he has been, it seems to hurt him more than any bullet or blade could. And I could understand why.
As the movie unfolds we get a picture of just how much damage Xavier has caused, not only to himself but to those around him. His friends are going through hell trying to take care of him, often subjecting themselves to his abuse when Xavier’s anger overwhelms his faculties. We learn that on at least one occasion he lost control of his mental power, unleashing a psychic shock wave that left seven dead and dozens wounded. In a great example of show, not tell, the movie never tells us exactly what happened, focusing instead on the weight Xavier carries because of it. The details of that superhuman action are less important to the story than the all too human results it has left behind.
In one of the most interestings twists, the movie is clearly aware of itself as a commentary on the rest of the superhero genre. The people who come to Logan for help have learned of him from the X-men comic books, and he frequently rails against those stories, urging the ones coming to him to see the brutal truth and not the prettied up reality of the comics. The movie doesn’t dash the hope of those comic book stories entirely, but it is clearly interested in the conflict between the comic book version and the more realistic picture it paints. The image of one of the child mutants holding a Wolverine toy as he stands over the real Wolverine’s grave is one I’m going to be thinking about for a long long while.
I am still glad for the PG-13 superhero movies. As much as I loved Logan, I’m eagerly awaiting Spiderman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and so many others I know are going to be as unrealistic in their portrayal of the human condition as they are with the laws of physics. But for every grand adventure where the hero gets to slaughter the bad guys without getting blood on his suit, I’m glad for a movie like Logan. This wasn’t a superhero adventure movie. It was a dark exploration of themes like violence, heroism and decay, where the characters happen to have superpowers.