“The King Is Dead, Long Live the King!”
During the French monarchy, the death of the king would be announced simultaneously with the pronouncement of his successor’s accession. “Le roi est mort, vive le roi!” was first proclaimed in 1422 when King Charles VII ascended to the throne upon the death of his father, Charles VI. Naturally, the phrase leaped across the English channel, where royalists would translate it into “the king is dead, long live the king” to assure the public of continuity in their government and, more importantly, social order. We Americans, what with our professed belief in a constitutional republic, have no time for royals–though this does not mean we don’t have our own kings and queens. Currently, superheroes stand as a sort of pop culture kingship and, like French and British royalists before me, I stand here to announce to one and all that the king is dead, long live the king.
Our dead monarch is 2008’s The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s utterly brilliant and revolutionary telling of the Batman in his heroic fight against chaos and evil as embodied by The Joker. Until this past weekend, the Academy Award-winning tale of Gotham City’s Caped Crusader was the undisputed king of comic book and superhero movies–a title it seemed destined to hold from here to eternity. Now, 20th Century Fox has given us Logan, which stands as the greatest superhero film made thus far. Do not let its genre dissuade you, this most recent telling of the world’s most famous X-Man, Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman in his publicly touted final appearance as the character), is more than just a great superhero movie, it is simply just a stunning work of cinema and a true testament to what can be achieved with this art form.
Let me state clearly that this column is by no means intended as an instruction for people to see Logan. While the film is brilliant, it is also astonishingly violent and contains a great deal of swearing. No doubt, it will be scandalous to some to even know that a priest has seen this movie (okay, confession time–I actually saw it twice this weekend, mea culpa), let alone publicly professes his admiration for it. The movie is not only a hard R-rated motion picture, it quite possibly is the most violent movie to be released in a great many years. However, director James Mangold’s depiction of violence in such a manner is not incidental to the film’s brilliance, but rather a necessary part of it (much like the way author Cormac McCarthy’s novels are artistic triumphs precisely for their responsible depiction of violence).
Superhero movies are being released at such an unrelenting pace now that it is impossible to keep up with them, but the general theme I have noticed in them (especially those coming from Marvel Studios) is that the violence is shown in a watered-down and meaningless manner. Even the more serious, brooding films from DC (such as Batman v. Superman) do not depict violence in an honest manner, but rather are enamored with it. Logan is different and precisely because it shows blood and choreographs its action scenes in a semi-realistic and scaled down manner, the effects of violence can be seen. Logan is a morally responsible movie that shows the damage (both physical and spiritual) of a life of violence. At the film’s start, Wolverine is not basking in the glory of a penthouse or mansion, but scraping by as a limo driver. His savage past has rendered him obsolete in the world and now his own being is tormented.
A possibility for redemption emerges when a young girl, Laura (played with astonishing depth by 11-year-old Spanish actress, Dafne Keen), is brought into Logan’s life. Laura is being hunted by a group of scientists and mercenaries who have used Logan’s DNA to create her in a lab for the purpose of being a weapon. Reluctantly, Logan is convinced by his nonagenarian friend, Professor Charles Xavier (again, played superbly by Patrick Stewart), to shelter the girl and drive her to an alleged haven. Bad guys naturally pursue and the road trip takes many unfortunate turns that provide for both an exhilarating and emotional motion picture. I shall refrain from divulging the specifics of the plot out of respect for those who wish to see the film, but the script by director Mangold and his writing partners (Scott Frank and Michael Green) beautifully interweaves thematic development with plot progression.
What I will reveal, hopefully without spoiling the plot, is that it touches on a great many truths of the human condition. The arc of Logan’s character is a classical hero’s tale, in which his odyssey transforms him into something new. Hugh Jackman finds a psychological maturity in his performance that has not been seen in his previous enactments of Wolverine, thereby transforming a standard tough guy character into a tragic man broken by a fallen world, but not to the point of having his innate goodness removed. Just like every person who feels trapped by past sin, the film’s titular character is tempted to despair and must be redeemed not by his willing it, but by an external grace that moves him out of himself to become something greater than himself.
Additionally, while the film does not capture the world’s zeitgeist quite like The Dark Knight did back in 2008, it does offer some profound insights on both our culture’s approach to the elderly and the young. Professor X is no longer the calm, collected psychic we’ve seen in previous X-Men films, but now a vulnerable man suffering with Alzheimer’s. The fear, isolation, and regret conveyed in Patrick Stewart’s performance will resonate with anybody who has spent extensive time dealing with dementia patients in particular and elderly people in general. One particularly touching moment is when Charles Xavier is discovered to not have been taking his medicine, which prompts him to be scolded by Logan–the response Charles offers is a devastatingly accurate portrayal of how many elderly people feel (and in far too many cases actually are) treated by younger generations.
Perhaps nearest to my heart, though, is the story of Laura and her fellow mutants that were bred with the sole purpose of being superhuman killing machines. The manipulation of children to fulfill adult expectations is rampant in our culture and the heightened plot devices of the movie help to point at an uncomfortable truth (i.e. that we see children as commodities, not persons) while making it palatable for the audience’s own consideration and integration into their lives. Laura’s relationship with Logan is the heart of the movie and, wisely, it develops slowly and organically. Subtle moments–from their car rides to a dinner scene to their interactions in the final act–pepper the movie, giving the grisly, violent world of Logan a deeply emotional and human core.
So, the king died unexpectedly this past weekend. Long may his successor reign.