Last year I wrote an unused Film Talk which I would like to share with you. A more in-depth look at a comic book hero – that draws closely to the Western genre. It’s a continuation of my exploration of the genre that my practice explores. Logan (2017) is one if the rare comic book films that I’ll actually sit down at watch. Partly because I grew up watching the TV show as a child. Also the film, much like Deadpool (2016 & 18) is far darker than the lighter MCU that has become so popular over the last decade. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two genres, they touch at many points, Logan or Wolverine is a character that requires further examination.
Tonight I’d like to explore and share a passion of mine, the Western. Logan (2017), which can be read as a Western. Taking my original review of the film as a starting point I have explored and expanded by research to find richer connections to the film. I’ll be focusing on one aspect of the genre – the gunfighter. Looking a few key films – The Gunfighter (1950), Shane (1953) and Unforgiven (1992). Showing clips together with comparisons to Logan.
Historically gunfighter’s such as Billy the Kid, Jesse James and Younger gang, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch first reach notoriety due to the cheaply and mass-produced dime novel that first created the characters and situations that produced the folk-law, which Hollywood has used as source material since the birth of film.
The Gunfighter is in fact a 20th century creation post WWII taking two forms. “…in which professionalism in the arts of violence is the hero’s defining characteristic. These new takes on the Western were shaped by the internal logic of genre development, which fostered a certain kind of stylization of the Western and its hero and by the pressures and anxieties of the post-war/Cold War transition…The consonance between the formal character of the gunfighter Western and its ideological content is a genuinely poetic achievement. It gave the gunfighter films ideological and cinematic resonance and made heroic style of the gunfighter an important symbol of right and heroic actions for filmmakers, the public, and the nation’s political leadership.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 379-80
Using this thinking it’s easy to translate the loner gunfighter figure to the comic book universe – Wolverine or Logan who we’ve seen cinematically struggle with his position and circumstances as a mutant in the X-Men universe. Born in the 19th with his natural mutations – claws and healing are transformed in the 20th century by a Dr. Rice. His bony claws becomes Adamantinium a fictional metal that in turn creates the killing machine who has already learned to block out his violent past, the 20th century has transformed into a living Winchester rifle or Colt gun.
The film depiction of Wolverine has been seen on-screen and portrayed by Hugh Jackman since X-Men (2000) a character that has become a favourite among fans, relatable in terms of him being an outsider, unable to fit in with society or even those who he lives with – the X-Men. So almost 20 years later his story has now come full circle and has come to it’s natural end for both actor and character in Logan.
Set in the year 2029, we have avoided the apocalyptic future as depicted in Days of Futures Past (2014) where we last saw Logan. We find Logan is driving a limo under his birth name of James Howlett, he’s living and nursing his old mentor Charles Xavier who has a dementia which is only amplified with his mutant abilities; making an episode of confusion more devastating thanks to his telepathic and telekinetic abilities, which we see twice in the film. They are living over the border in Mexico, a common location in the Western for outlaws and gunfighter’s to hide out and escape the law. They are living with an albino – Caliban (Stephen Merchant) who we learn is a human sat-nav. Logan is in rough shape, he struggles to keep up with every passing battle, be it with humans or mutants. His time is slowly up, the ability to heal is starting to fail him.
Turning to the history of the gunfighter in the genre, we first see one depicted in
The Gunfighter. Played by Gregory Peck, Johnny Ringo is an obscure gunfighter found by the films writer Andre DeToth, who found him in Eugene Cunningham’s Triggernometry; A Gallery of Gunfighters (1934). There is little known about this outlaw apart from
“… a few vicious murders, a reputation for heavy drinking, and a couple of intriguing mysteries. He was said to have had a cultured manner (evidenced by an ability to quote Shakespeare) and to have been the scion of an aristocratic southern family ruined in the Civil War. He also died mysteriously, murdered, murdered by someone who gave him no chance to draw, and his draw, and his reputation was such that chief suspect bragged that he has done it.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, – Pg. 383
This first set of clip’s comes from the beginning of The Gunfighter, Ringo’s played by arrives in a town saloon where he wants to find an old lover and mother to his son. He’s instantly recognised and comes with a built-in unwanted celebrity status. He just wants to keep a low profile, meet his kid and start his life over. And then we see Logan has stopped to buy some medication for Xavier, before meeting Pierce
We can see that Logan is still plagued by a fading celebrity status and hero-worship; Pierce another mutant with a robotic arm has done his research on him and is in awe of him.
The film is set in a future where it’s thought that no more Mutants have been born, so the genes are dying out, they are a dying race. Much like the gunfighter’s who are either being killed off or have been caught by the law that has been spreading West through the country. The gunfighter has been outmoded.
“The gunfighter enters the narrative already knowing that the Wild West’s promise of fame and power (or of redemption) is an illusion; that the vision of the Frontier as limitless in its possibilities for the personal and social perfection is a mirage; and that he himself has been rendered isolated and vulnerable by the very things that have made him victorious in the past”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 390
We can see that Logan is very much like Ringo, there’s a short scene where he’s cleaning pus from off his claw, they aren’t functioning as well as they used to.
I mentioned earlier the film is set in a time of no new mutants, this is before the introduction of Laura, a genetically engineered child, born in the lab – by Transigen – a pharmaceutical company who have raised Laura and others for the purposes of developing and passing on the mutant genes to the wider population. She acts as a baton passing in the universe to carry on the Wolverine role. Logan has a hard time accepting their relationship. Laura being younger is naturally far stronger, agile and full of rage like her father has.
She brings her a number of X-Men comics, a self referential tool that connect us to the roots of the wider marvel universe and the creation of Western legend. The superhero equivalent of the dime novel, which I’ll touch on later.
About half way through the film Logan, Laura and Xavier are on the run from Transigen. They are in a hotel room, a classic passing place in the Western. Where by chance (or directors choice) to find Shane is on TV. It’s commented on a few times during those short scenes, given emphasis and lines even raised at the end of the film.
To see how Shane operates in Logan we need to discuss the code that a gunfighter and by extension Logan has tried to live by. For Shane (Alan Ladd) he has chosen to live by this code and so has his counterpart Wilson (Jack Palance) at the final showdown
“The exchange between Shane and Wilson is formal and stylized, and both men appear conscious that they are going through a familiar, predictable, even trite, but nonetheless essential, ritual.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin, Pg. 399
Firstly they both respect each other as gunfighter’s, giving each other proper chance, not much time but the chance to draw their guns before attempting to kill each other. The would only do so facing each other. As Westerns have taught us, it’s frowned upon to shoot in the back, or whilst the others unarmed. Lastly they only fight with just cause, Shane has no personal debt to take up Wilson, it take an insult to finally goad him into action. Then Shane can kill him, freeing the homesteaders and farmers to live in peace and not fear Ryker (Emile Meyer) and his men. Logan has attempted to live by a code, one instilled by his mentor Xavier who wanted to fight when only necessary and to pick your fights wisely.
Returning to the X-Men comics, which are the universes dime novels. Superheroes are living in the same era as the publication, much like Buffalo Bill, although he worked with the writers to build and establish his own legend that formed the myth of the West.
“…in a Ned Buntline dime novel published in 1869 and stage melodrama that premiered in 1871. [William] Cody has already acquired a word of mouth reputation as an excellent scout and hunting guiding, but after 1869 his newly acquired dime-novel celebrity made his name familiar to a national audience while linking it with spectacular and utterly fictitious adventures”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin Pg. 69
The X-Men comics contain a myth that Laura buys into, believing that the coordinates in one of the issues are real for a place called Eden in North Dakota. Borrowing directly from that universe to inform the film. Logan tries to explain to the young girl out the truth behind these comics.
The dime novel writer does play a minor role in the screen Western, usually sitting on the side-lines of the films events. Talking to the gunfighter and others in between the shoot-outs. Usually a small guy with glasses and would never carries a gun, his weapon of choice is his pen, and the words he writes. A strong example of writer can be found in Unforgiven, is W.W. Beauchamp played by Saul Rubinek. We see him taking notes from Little Bill Daggett – Gene Hackman of how fact and fiction of an event differ. He has to wait for the troubled gunfighter William Munny – Clint Eastwood the personification of the genre.
These next clips see Beauchamp learning the truth about English Bob (Richard Harris) whose in jail after refusing to handover his guns. Whilst in Logan, the reality of the comic books being demystified to Laura
Munny is much like Logan in that they have tried to give up that part of their life to function as a family man. Logan is still plagued by the effect of the violence he has inflicted on others. Munny can’t really remember as he was usually drunk at the time of his killings. Whilst Logan tries to repress those memories and the emotions connected to them. Here he is confronted with a blurred mythologised version of his own life story. When Munny is faced with his first killing in years he is very rusty and not engaged in the act of killing from the outset.
“A shot of Munny with the barrel in the foreground and foreshadows his eventual decision to take decisive and deadly action…Ned pleads that he cannot shoot the prone boy and Munny stretches towards the front of the frame and grabs the gun…he has crossed the line into the world of violence.”
Film as Genre – John Sanders – Pg. 64
The tired gunfighter is mirrored in the two fights between Logan and 23 – the genetically engineered mutant – based on Logan’s DNA, a far superior, younger, stronger version of the aging Logan who we see struggling to keep up, regenerate and fight. Lets see both fights in these clips.
The classic Western went out of it’s way to mythologise the West, it’s history and sell it to the audience. The modern Revisionist Westerns such as Unforgiven and Logan wanted to demystify that myth, however by the close of Logan it deviates from the to reinforces it’s own myth. The comic books are based more on reality than Logan gives them credit. The printed legend has become fact.
Lastly I’d like to take a look at the bloody fight between Logan and 23 on the North Dakota and Canadian border. Logan has taken a full dose of a drug that increases his performance, he’s pumped up with man-made adrenaline. It works to a point, his own fragility soon returns, nature has won out ultimately. Again looking at Unforgiven, Munny switches from old family man to bloody thirsty killer.
“He’s back in the mode of mayhem. And he doesn’t care. He’s his old self again, at least for the moment. He doesn’t miss a beat while he loads his rifle and talks to the journalist. Before, he’s been very rusty, having trouble getting on his horse, he wasn’t shooting very well. He wasn’t nailing people with the first shot. Now, when he goes on this suicidal mission, he’s all machine. He not only coldly murders Daggett at point-blank range but he shoots some bystanders with no more compunction than someone swatting a fly.”
Eastwood – Interview
Ride, Boldly Ride – Mary Lea Bandy & Kevin Stoehr – Pg 264
It takes a killing of his friend to cross that line into his violent past. For Logan it’s the survival of a younger generation and a paternal instinct towards Laura. Both men are driven by primal and personal urges.
With every gunfight there are deaths, but rarely the hero, Logan is buried and read over by Laura, reciting a Shane’s goodbye speech to Joey. It’s a little broken but the message remains in tact; that leading a violent life can only lead to a lonely life, one away from society and those you love.
Logan heavily relies on rich lineage of cinematic and printed history to say goodbye to one of the most iconic Marvel characters – Wolverine. Through the films and comic books we have seen a tortured man, who has generated an aura of celebrity status in some circles. Much like the Wild West gunfighter whose skill with a gun raises him to a position of awe and wonderment – a celebrity which comes at a great cost
“The existence of his profession is in itself an implicitly hard-boiled commentary on the nature of American society; and the psychic isolation his profession begets gives the gunfighter the alienated perspective he needs to articulate such a critique: What sort of society is it in which those who have money can hire a killer? And what kind of people are we, that our strong men find such work to their liking? But more important than his critical function is the gunfighters embodiment of the central paradox of America’s self image in an era of Cold War “subversion,” and the thermonuclear balance of terror; our sense of being at once supremely powerful and utterly vulnerable, politically dominant and yet helpless to shape the course of critical events.”
Gunfighter Nation – Richard Slotkin – Pg 383
Now this is a rarity, a review of a superhero film. Previously I’ve seen a few superhero films, I could give a list – mainly X-Men, as I grew up with the cartoon as a child. Only a few months ago I caught Deadpool (2016), yes I’m a bit slower when it comes to the costumed characters. When I heard this film in the same breath of the Western I was more interested in seeing Logan (2017) billed as being Hugh Jackman‘s final outing as the angry clawed loner. Also to be the first and possibly worthy film for the character – which I can’t really comment on.
I can however draw on my understanding of the Western in relation to Logan, which will take up the majority of my time here. So let’s get under, saddle up and ride on out. Or in Logan/James Hewlett (Jackman) is a limo driver in the year 2029, living in Mexico. He is clearly tired and ravaged by time, the years haven’t been good to him. The once virile mutant filled with rage really doesn’t want to get into fight, he’s become reluctant to draw out the adamantium that have become more of a curse than before. The feeling of immortality has long faded, age and time is catching up with him. Much like in The Gunfighter (1950) – Johnny Ringo (Gregory Peck) who wants to lay down his gun, tired of killing and running, wanting a normal life. His celebrity has long-lost it’s appeal, now a target for young wannabe’s hungry for that trophy and title “I shot Johnny Ringo”. Wolverine/Logan is our gunfighter who has gone into hiding, nursing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) whose suffering with dementia, needing medication to keep him lucid. Any drop in dosage can unleashed his now uncontrolled mental abilities can be felt on an almost planetary scale – it’s just not worth thinking about.
So if Logan is the gunfighter, Xavier is the elderly parent who once took him under his wing, brought him up to be the man he hoped to be like. It would be wrong to compare Xavier to a Walter Brennan character who acted as the older sidekick whose life experience’s are shared with our hero. We also have a mutant tracker, an albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant) is the unwitting sidekick who keeps both in check. We have the first of our principal characters in place now.
The film begins as it means go on, setting the tone, its hard language and bloody violence, not through Logan wanting to deliver it. Coming from a place of self-defense of self-preservation, showing that there is a place for violence in the comic book universe beyond imaginary buildings and cities being blown up in a computer. The violence leaves little to the imagination, even quick editing we are still left feel slightly queasy at the body parts being cut into and off into multiple victims throughout the film. It’s also the first time that I’ve heard Stewart swearing and as coarsely. I’m reminded of Unforgiven (1992) that sees violence rise from the embers of once prolific gunfighter William Munny (Clint Eastwood,) who picks his gun up hopefully for the last time, a big pay off that will support his family. Turning back to an old undisturbed part of his life, thought to be tamed by his dead wife. What we see is a resurgence in those aggressive emotions, the death of his friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) a line has been crossed, up to this point he’s been rusty with his rifle, not able to mount a horse without assistance, a shadow of his former self. Logan is Munny just with a adamantium skeleton – no need for the rifle here.
The films director (James Mangold) has been pretty blatant in his sources of inspiration – namely Shane (1953), the titular gunfighter played by Alan Ladd who enters into civilisation if only briefly to free a town from the strangle hold of Ryker (Emile Meyer) threatening the homesteaders who were trying to make a life for themselves. Then there’s the annoying kid Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) who looked up and adored the man with a gun, who could handle it with such finesse and skill it put his own father Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) to shame, he was not the man who he wanted to look up to. That was something he had to learn and accept. The acts of violence that Shane commits are held back to the end of the film, allowing us to see this strong stoic figure who only shoots when he really needs to. This skill is more than just that, it’s a form of defense that stops him functioning in society. He ultimately has to ride on away from the homesteaders who have chosen a peaceful life. The link’s seen in a few scenes Logan, we see it literally on TV, supposed to be nearly 100 years old (76 years, but whose counting). Showing that it still hows the power to hold the attention of an audience. The scenes carefully chosen to include Shane.
Our Shane is clearly Logan whose followed by his own kid (spoiler!!) a young Mexican girl – Laura (Dafne Keen) herself on the run from an army of men and mutant who want to capture her. Her own existence is very similar to Logan’s, through no fault of her own plagued by this mutation that has been engineered, thanks to mad scientist – Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), a connection to the X-Men cannon. One of a new generation who are on the run, the gunfighter of the Marvel universe start even younger. No need for guns, they were born with their own gifts (if you can call them that.
Away from the Western connections and themes we have that of family, having only Xavier and Caliban as Logan’s family, its dysfunctional, a father figure who has become the receiver of care. Family isn’t something that comes naturally to him, the violence in him does not allow it to really happen. All he’s ever had has either left him or been killed. With the unwanted arrival of Laura his world starts to change, his perspective on life, he softens up towards the end if only reluctantly. She also acts as a way of the character carrying on in future films and the wider Marvel comic universe which I know little about. Here she’s just a child, but one with more than her share of issues to conquer in order to function. The baton’s passed here as characters die, passing them onto new ones.
I’ll end where I began, I’ll probably never again review another comic book film, this however spoke to me, my passions, the ideas in the western are very strong. You could say the comic book super hero is just another gunfighter, their adventures chronicled in the pulp that made them. The dime novels of the 1800’s did the same for Buffalo Bill and Jesse James and numerous others, the legends were being printed, the truth being blurred with each publication, which is referenced also in the film with a subtle self-awareness that doesn’t take you out of the film. You could say it’s a Western, just with an angry guy you don’t want to cross.