It’s difficult to make a lasting impression. Logan should’ve been just another comic book adaptation to pass on but James Mangold may have changed how these films are adapted going forward, and it’s due to a future setting that outperforms most science fiction.
In the 2003 edition of Burning Chrome, William Gibson wrote:
“Nothing acquires quite as rapid or peculiar a patina of age as an imaginary future.”
Not only is Gibson right in his observation but he’s reflecting on his own work. An Ono-Sendai Cyberspace 7 may have seemed like a rad concept back in 1984, but its unnecessarily cumbersome compared to a smartphone that doubles as a PC and can match the functionality of most VR headsets. Gibson’s grand scale never detracted from his early work, but comparing his imagined futures with the one we’ve arrived at keeps many from treasuring any perceived timelessness that may have been communicated at that time.
Conceptualizing futures in Hollywood works in a similar way. So long as technology is represented in a visually interesting way one could argue that reflecting reality isn’t necessary, and there are treasured films that would support this. Unfortunately, unrealistic portrayals of what science and technology are capable of influences the way we think about them, resulting in consequences for real people.
In “Mr. Robot Killed the Hollywood Hacker,” Cory Doctorow lays out a clear link between the 1984 film War Games and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Passed in 1986, this overly broad legislation was designed with the fear that any person with a bit of knowledge could cripple a nation. This echoed dozens of montages where teenagers could go to Circuit City, pick up a PC, and access a missile defense system.
In the three decades the CFAA has been on the books, it’s most publicized case was the case against Aaron Swartz, a researcher who wanted to speed up the rate at which he could download academic journals he already had access to. Those close to Swartz blame the sweeping powers the CFAA gave the FBI as a factor in his decision to take his own life.
Doctorow gives Mr. Robot praise because of people like Kor Adana, an engineer turned screenwriter. Adana and a team of tech consultants make sure every character Elliot types on a command line is correct, every light on a router blinks when it should, that the volume of the fans are just right. Attention to small details has earned Mr. Robot credibility with people working in tech, but it’s also given the average viewer a better sense of what a PC is capable of.
It’s not unreasonable to assume the CFAA would look different had there been a Mr. Robot back in 1984, but the show would’ve still been difficult to make. Mr. Robot makes hacking, an otherwise boring task, compelling through a combination of photography, lighting, music, and Elliot’s intense glare and frantic monologuing. Were fsociety’s exploits represented as accurately as possible no one would look forward to its tech moments. They would likely rely on what Romero calls “Hollywood hacker bullshit,” which manifested as cheap animations, nonsense jargon, and singing. It came about in the 1980s, still exists in some form, and writers like Gibson are partially to blame.
When asked about his writing process, a young Gibson said,
“I listen to language of the technologists without understanding. I then, with a limited sort-of comprehension, proceed to poetically deconstruct the jargon from a position of ignorance. […] I’m not the sort of person that would go and listen to an entirely theoretical lecture about computers, and I don’t play with computers.”
The man who gave us “cyberspace” wasn’t very interested in how to get there, and the results can be seen when placing a clip from Johnny Mnemonic next to footage from an Oculus Rift. The difference between the two is great.
Logan exists in a future that decides not to be an authority or technology or create a fantasy out of tomorrow. Logan’s ambitions are small in this respect. Technology is practical and people adapt believably to those changes, which is a departure for the other installments in this series.
X-Men and X2 embraced futurism stylistically and Days of Future Past had advanced to a dark dystopia. Either case used these settings and style choices to reflect the mutant struggle. Sleek black jets and smooth silver surfaces aside, X-Men opens to a young Magneto manifesting his mutation as he’s being separated from his parents in a Nazi detention camp, which transitions to Rogue discovering there’s something disturbingly different about her biology that he adoptive parents aren’t equipped to handle, informing the audience just enough so they can make sense of Jean Grey’s plea to Congress not to pass the Mutant Registration Act, clearly invoking a persecutory power Nazi Germany displayed at the opening of the film.
The futuristic aesthetics throughout X-Men convey to the fearful public and a paranoid U.S. government that mutants are part of humanity’s future and they’re not going away, X2 reaffirms this with a direct confrontation with a president that was convincing approximation of George W. Bush, where Charles emphatically says “we’re here to stay,” and Days of Future Past shows a future where the prejudice and violence aimed at mutants never ceased.
While these three films make use of their future elements to communicate the challenges these characters faced, most installments in the series attempted to emulate superhero films despite the X-Men not being superheroes; at least not in the way most define the archetype.
This complicated Logan’s character development. Not only was he removed from society because of his mutations, but he was removed again from other mutants because of his past. Losing its social commentary reduced the films, resulting in an expansive scale to compensate and more than one redo in an attempt to fix what wasn’t broken.
Having directed Wolverine, James Mangold and Hugh Jackman decided that if there was to be another film about this character it couldn’t be like anything that had come before. Those with the Logan Blu-ray can switch on the commentary and hear Mangold say that an R-rating allowed the film “to be more sophisticated because you’re no longer having to pace up the movie, edit it faster, make it more charming or colorful for a nine year old’s attention span.”
That meant placing Logan in a modern western, a genre Mangold loves. He directed the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma, and in many respects Logan is his love letter to Shane, which is referenced throughout the film. Those not as familiar with the genre will likely see parallels more to The Last of Us and True Grit, stories about children forced to mature before their time, in need of a parent, one who is initially unfit for the role, to protect them from a perilous world.
Logan begins on either side of the US-Mexico border, which returns the conversation about mutants to one about prejudice. Working as a limo driver, Logan stares dead ahead, past Border Patrol, as frat boys in the backseat chant “USA!” to people gathered at the Mexican border. He alternates between eavesdropping on a businessman on a call, talking about a “killing” he made on the “fence,” and an evangelist blaming mutants for global warming, pornography, and all the dearth that is this country.
Conflating the danger the U.S. poses to people crossing the Mexican border, but the desire to continue to do so, is a real-world circumstance that plays out throughout the film through mutants. Logan is an immigrant to the U.S. and is tasked with ushering his Mexican daughter, Laura, across the country to the safety of his native Canada, all while being hunted by a bejeweled blond named Donald.
“As we speak, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are longing to [cross the Mexican border]–and probably most of them won’t even make it. That means they’re likely to die or be tortured or suffer in some way. It’s an irony that I think could not have been seen when the film was being made, that the country that is dangerous to them is the United States, and the country that is safe is Canada–over the border. Now we suddenly have a dangerous child in the White House.” – Patrick Stewart
The fixtures of power are also taken away from villains like Bolivar Trask and Apocalypse and centered back on established institutions. Again there’s a conflation between the real and the fictional that is seamless. Neither the U.S. or Canadian governments express interest in Logan. Now it’s Transigen, a corporation that is built on science and with scientists connected to Alkali Lake, the military compound that experimented on Logan and other mutants, resulting in the adamantium grafted on his bones. The threat of the military is also replaced by Donald and the Reavers, cybernetically outfitted mercenaries who employ corrupt police to help them hunt mutants.
Corporate power is more subtlety introduced through Canewood, a subsidiary of Transigen. Canewood logos and products follow Logan throughout the film, and it’s later revealed that their foodstuffs and energy drinks are sweetened with genetically modified corn which has suppressed the X-Gene in the global population. This eugenicist solution to the mutant problem has allowed Transigen to control their reproduction by taking genetic material from mutants like Logan so they could birth, raise, and detain the last generation of mutants.
This return to social observations is arguably better communicated in Logan than any of the other nine films before it. Mutant concerns dominate 2029 and give the world its identity without needing subplots to communicate the family drama between Laura, Logan, and Charles.
The Munson home in the heartland depicts an American family that is both idyllic and familiar to the 21st century. Logan introduces this through a herd of auto-trucks that run real drivers off the road and hulking machines that silently harvest Canewood corn in the dead of night. The Munson’s are struggling to reconcile their rural way of life and the technological developments that seek to replace them, but Charles only sees a redemptive quality in a world that scarcely deserves it.
This sense of family is what Charles wants for his two wards, and at this point Logan warms to Laura. So much effort to never be comfortable in the company of others is abandoned. His defenses fall, then death arrives.
The Munson home is where idealism is preserved and where it dies. Here, Logan first encounters the latest scientific advancement in this future, X-24. Rice failed in recreating the rage that came naturally to Wolverine but managed to concentrate that talent for violence in X-24. When Charles dies at the hand of an inhuman monster that is an embodiment of the student he could never fully reach, a life of activism, of mentoring and protecting mutants and mutant-kind from a world that would otherwise see them eradicated, is made cynical. And it’s repeated when the Munsons, Charles’s ideal family, are killed by this same creature.
This is also Logan’s nightmare personified. He acknowledges a poisonous element to his existence, that everywhere he goes he brings violence with him, causing others to die while he remains standing. This is why he’s more concerned for a dying Charles than for a living Laura hauled off by X-24; Logan needs to make sure his mentor doesn’t die believing that he was responsible.
The unceremonious death of Charles Xavier and the senseless slaughter of the Munsons is the death of hope. Logan’s willingness to entertain Laura’s desire to reach North Dakota and the other Transigen children existed so long as Charles was around. Alone, Logan now has to contend with Laura’s expectations of him. Not only does she recognize and long for him to be a parent to her, but the comics she carries in her little green backpack, something she covetously clings to, lionizes Logan and the X-Men as heroes and protectors of all mutants.
The truth of Logan’s life is messier than the comics depict. When they finally reach Eden, North Dakota, and his body and mind are exhausted, he tells Laura just that. He can’t provide her with hope for tomorrow because he barely has a reason to stick around now that she’s with her friends.
This attitude is abandoned when Rice and Donald hunt the children on their way to the border, and Logan leaps to Laura’s defense and provides the children their exit from the U.S. X-24, Logan’s personified violent past, returns. It takes advantage of his age and exhaustion and brings him close to death before Laura, armed with the adamantium bullet Logan expected to one day use on himself, shoots through X-24’s skull.
This sequence of violence removes Logan from the equation, allowing him to witness Laura, his daughter, expel the regret that defined his life. At this point he’s able to see what Charles had back at the Munson’s and throughout his life. Logan can see through Laura’s tears that there is promise for the future of mutants, made possible by the sacrifice of the generation that came before it.
At Logan’s burial, Laura quotes Shane in a summation of his life and what it means to these surviving mutants:
“A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mold. There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand that sticks. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything’s all right. And there are no more guns in the valley.”
Logan couldn’t outrun his past or erase the harm caused to him or others. It’s part of him. It’s why he could never be the man Charles wanted or the hero the comics depicted. The myth was too large to live up to, but in a final paternal act he made it so these young mutants had nothing to fear in that valley and in doing so, made sure Laura had a path to choose for herself. Unlike her father, she could now choose not to be alone.
Unlike most dystopian tomorrows, Logan’s 2029 setting is necessary for its future allegory. The meta-narrative played out by mutants from Transigen’s Mexico City facility shows our continued and accepted failures to address the true problems of immigration and attaches them faces of those most vulnerable. Slight advancements in technology provide a reasonable projection of the next decade or so, careful not to misrepresent what’s plausible and never going so grand in scale that it distracts from the realization that with each passing year the U.S. appears less welcoming to those looking for safe harbor. Where will those people go? Who will open their doors to take in these Others?
By going just a heartbeat into the future, Logan is able to better communicate a century and a half of regret and bad fortune through generational drama that finally gives him what he deserves after 17 years on screen.
In a speech before a screening of Shane, Mangold said it was “an exploration of absolute innocence and absolute darkness at the same time.” This is perhaps the most concise description of Logan and Laura’s time together. An unwilling father incapable of avoiding tragedy and a blameless child victimized by his choices, yet there’s forgiveness and genuine affection. In the end, Logan didn’t seek absolution for his guilt but the means to provide Laura a path forward, better prepared than he ever was to face the future. It’s everything Charles wanted for them both.
Logan – 9/10
You can get a copy of Logan here, and experience the mutant’s future for yourself.
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