Logan: Old West, New Forms
Old West, New Forms
by Zachary Beckler
Logan is not a Western, though it looks and sounds like one. Characters wear windblown dusters straight out of a Sergio Leone film, and the score by Marco Beltrami uses themes and effects heavily influenced by Ennio Morricone. The characterizations also fit into certain classical genre archetypes, as ranchers feud with “cattle barons” and Professor Xavier taking on the role of the dying “pioneer.” However, there is no doubt the film is Superhero cinema through and through, from its aggressive (and violent) action scenes to the explicit comic-book nature of the nemesis (a clone who is Wolverine’s corporeal double and antithetical representation, essentially an sci-fi narrative device.) That is not to say that James Mangold, director of 3:10 To Yuma, does not utilize the Western aesthetic purposefully, as Logan makes a valid intertextual statement about Superhero cinema and, in turn, the vitality of myth-making in general using these genres. Its motive, however, is not to contrast, but to bridge.
What qualifies a film as a Western? In the most basic terms, it depicts a portion American culture during the 19th century, as settlers progress west across a “wild” frontier to establish a Euro-centric idea of civilization and justice. The stories of the “Frontier Myth” in all media forms are usually framed as the exploits of nomadic heroes with vague codes of honor as they confront the savagery of both the natives and the lawless criminals bent on stifling the order of civilized society. In the early days of cinema, the Western emerged as a conduit to exploit the moving image form. What is a Western if not about the movement of subjects contrasted against the stillness of an uninhabited environment? Chase scenes, screen direction, and continuity editing techniques all materialized during the proliferation of this genre in the 1910’s through the 1930’s. It was myth re-making, and movement was essential to its effectiveness. But these myths were regressive to reality, neglecting to show the true horrors of this progression west or the racism and genocide that dominated the culture. The X-Men comics and films have classically appropriated these themes into a kind of futuristic racial commentary (the fact that these “mutants” are different species has always made this metaphor problematic.)
Logan does fit into some of these Western criteria, and not by accident. However, this film, and more explicitly The Wolverine, are informed just as much, if not more, by the Samurai film. Even in the most superficial ways, Wolverine has more in common with Toshiro Mifune than John Wayne as an element of design, with his unbreakable bladed weapons, stylized hair, and kubuto inspired face mask (in his comic-book form). As a cinematic genre, Samurai films of the 1950’s countered the Western aesthetic; instead of portraying a genesis, they depict the conclusion of a way of life. If Westerns showed the movement of subjects (using wide-angle lensing and tracking shots), Samurai films, in particular those of Kurosawa, display the movement of environment against the stillness of its subjects. The frame is always active with rain, wind, or fire while the masterless ronin are poised in contemplation. Even when Mifune moves in a film like Yojimbo, the long lens pans with him and compresses the spaces, parallaxing the the background movement from the foreground. The world appears to fly by this seemingly stationary object.
“The fact that movies are a technology of motion makes them uniquely suited to capturing stillness.” – Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
It is not that Westerns didn’t practice this kind of stillness, as can be seen in iconic gun duels and quick-drawl suspense sequences. And Samurai films did also render moving bodies in space, like the sieges of Seven Samurai (Kurosawa was known for his full body character gestures to express internal emotion.) Genre can ultimately only be defined ostensibly, as each new work adds to its definition. The content and characteristics of genre, though, aides in the understanding of its aesthetic forms. Logan can fit into both genre categories, as it depicts a kind of samurai at the end of his life but uses the deserts of Mexico and the woods of North Dakota to portray this. First and foremost, however, Logan is a Superhero film. What aesthetically defines such a genre?
Superhero cinema takes its cues from sci-fi, modern action cinema, and, of course, the comic book panels from which it was birthed. It is not hard to find an overriding formal motif between films, because the stories share similar plots; a modern society destabilized by ideological discordance, selfish interests, or other devious motives of terror. The quality of movement in these films mimic this destabilization, be it the fast-cut handheld frames of Captain America, or the crosscutting partition of actions and moments in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. In Logan, we see many aggressively staged action sequences, but the film also portrays this instability within the narrative, as Xavier’s brain is prone to seizures that are transmitted to everyone within his range. This is formally conveyed by vibrating the digital camera with an open shutter, creating more ghosting of the motion blur (likely combined with some kind of post-processing). Within these destabilized images, the viewers’ eyes hone in on the most vivid design elements in the frame for balance and relief, usually the posed, costumed superhero.
The process of character development is vital to the understanding of this form. Unlike Westerns, there are no real-world “facts” to create “legend” from. The inception of comic book characters nearly always start with vivid physical design, followed thereafter by a detailed emotional history, perhaps as a justification of such bold visual strokes. Batman, for example, started simply with the name, from which they created a design. It took six issues before his backstory and motivation was developed. Wolverine was no different; the design of his costume and weapons in his 1975 debut were so compelling to readers, it compelled Marvel to develop the character further. Within nearly 20 years of passive development, he was given the power of regeneration, immortality, and a backstory revealing bones underneath his implanted “adamantium” claws (the Weapon X backstory was first published in 1991). The myths these superheroes inhabit always seem to play catch-up to their design, and as such are subject to the easy commonalities and platitudes of the history of storytelling.
The superhero film is as prolific in mainstream cinema as the Western was in the 30’s and 40’s. Both genres use iconic central figures put through messianic trials to create new mythologies. (Wolverine is impaled horribly in his side late in the film, which becomes a kind of symbolic stigmata). Logan is one of the first superhero films to embrace this idea and make it part of the narrative drive. In doing so, the film acts as a thesis on the necessity of these forms from generation to generation. Hugh Jackman, giving a sublime physical performance, shows Logan disintegrating before our very eyes in a country that turns its back. It is the bleakest of worldviews, showing a culture so far gone it has banished its heroes and accepted destabilization as permanence.
The film can be divided into three key sections: Mexico, (the world and scenario building early scenes which mimic Western aesthetics most), the road (which transitions north from Mexico to North Dakota), and “Eden”, in which young mutants born in labs from the DNA of established mutants (again, this is not a western) have created a sanctuary based on the only religion they have ever known: comic books. A nurse from the cloning facility enlists Logan’s help to get Laura, revealed later to be Logan’s clone/daughter, to the coordinates of Eden. When Logan discovers the destination was copied from a comic book of his own exploits, he dismisses Laura’s quest. “Where we’re going, ‘Eden…’ It doesn’t exist. The nurse got it from a comic book. You understand? It’s not real.” Xavier, the wise and charitable savior of mutant kind, responds simply, “It is for Laura… It is for Laura.” When Logan arrives, hoisted into a literal makeshift ascension, he discovers they have made an Eden for themselves. The structure of Logan frames what has come before (Logan’s world) within the aesthetics of an accepted form in order to bridge into what is here now (the new mutants/Superhero cinema.) This is made explicit during a scene of the children trimming Logan’s beard as he recovers, literally grooming him into the image they worship in comics.
The studio has made no secret that this is Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine, so it should come as no surprise that Logan ends with Laura and the the other young mutants standing over the grave of The Wolverine. She eulogizes Logan by quoting the ending to a film she saw days earlier, the classic western Shane. This is not appropriation, but a farewell to a mythic form and an additional layer of commentary.
“Joey, there’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand. A brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
One of the children caresses an action figure of Wolverine’s comic book form like a rosary. As the new generation disperses, headed to the sanctuary of Canada, Laura stays behind, pulling the large burial crucifix from the ground and turning it on its side, refashioning it into an X. What meaning is there in the image of a cross to children who have never read a bible or seen any kind of Christian iconography? This is the film’s final and most definitive statement, delivered simply as a gesture of affection and tribute. This final shot could become as essential to the Superhero film as the ending of The Searchers is to the Western.
Logan is not a Western hero. He is a Superhero, one whose story morphed over the years into a parable that has been refashioned and artistically appropriated throughout the history of media forms from one generation to the next. Logan understands this better than any Superhero film before it, and in doing so gives the genre the respectability it has earned. But respectability is meaningless. These films did not need that kind of older generation consideration. Superhero cinema may not be significant to some, but it is to today’s generation. It is for Laura.