Does a dark, sweary, ultra-violent comic-book movie have much to the say to the Christian church? Logan, James Mangold's distinct new chapter in the long-running X-Men franchise, is hardly suitable entertainment for a pastor's retreat or a church weekend away. But if you can look past the blood and bad language, it's arguably one of the most thematically-interesting films around
The Wolverine story has now been told an almost-implausible number of times. Hugh Jackman has played the character in no less than nine movies, starting with the much lighter X-Men trilogy, and in three dedicated films including this one. There could be many justifications for that – a complex and interesting character being one of them – but truthfully, comic-book fans just love Jackman's portrayal, and they can't get enough of a near-indestructible anti-hero with dagger-like claws. He's the epitome of super-hero cool.
So while one of the key challenges faced by any director approaching a superhero movie now is how to breathe new life into an incredibly tired genre, Mangold has a double-dose of the problem with this seriously over-exposed central character. Yet remarkably, the film manages to find all sorts of interesting new ground to explore. Where so many other movies have sought originality through origin stories exploring the background of familiar characters, Logan takes us to the logical opposite extreme - exploring the closing chapters of a hero's life.
As well as superhero fantasy then, this is also a sci-fi story, albeit a fairly understated one. Looking into the future of two key X-Men characters – Wolverine and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – the film takes us to 2029, a non-apocalyptic imagining of a world where lions are extinct, transport lorries are automated, but not else much has changed. Yet while the world is still rumbling on, these two men have begun to age and break down. Xavier's all-powerful mind – classified by the US government as a weapon of mass destruction – is beginning to fail him as old age takes its toll; Wolverine/Logan's once-invincible body is suddenly taking longer to heal itself. At it's heart then, the film is about what happens when grand old institutions like these heroic men begin to age way beyond their glory years.
Without giving too much of the plot away, the two characters find themselves on a final reluctant mission, to protect a child who represents the future of their kind. While Logan knows he's at the end of his life and can't see a future for 'mutant' people like him, Xavier believes that new heroes will take their place; his faith contrasting with Logan's more despairing worldview. Their charge, nine-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen), is alternately innocent and terrifying as she explores the boundaries of her own super powers, but while she's unrefined, she undoubtedly has heroic potential. As Logan tries to keep her out of the clutches of some fairly unpleasant men, he begins to find his own redemption in becoming a kind of father-figure to her and teaching her a bit of superhuman morality. Not only does he enable her to take her place in the next generation of heroes, he eventually has his own unbelief confounded, and finds the purpose he was looking for.
It's in this exploration of the interplay between old and young, established and emerging, that I think Logan could be provocative to the church. Somewhat past its heyday, and currently taking a few painful body blows, the Christian community is demonstrably getting on in years. It's only possible future lies in finding, training and releasing young people who can take the place of the faith heroes of old. Yet like Old Man Logan, so many churches seem intent on belligerently carrying on regardless until their own inevitable death. The new generation is waiting to take its place – the question is whether the old one will make room for them.
That's obviously not the lens through which Mangold is encouraging us to see his film, although it is peppered with references to Christian faith. There's a key point where a Christian family says grace with Logan, Laura and Xavier, use of a clip from the 'Abide with Me' scene in classic Western Shane, and a particularly important shot involving a cross. And as is so often the case in this genre, the director can't help but fall back on those old symbols of Christ the messiah; even placing Logan on a sort of 'old rugged tree' in one pivotal moment.
Logan is a slick, stylish action movie, a million miles away from the average comic-book caper. Director Mangold uses artful cinematography, a considered use of colour and a really clever script to ensure this is a big step up from the usual superhero fare. At the same time it's an incredibly dark film, certainly not suitable for children or even teenagers. At times it's shockingly violent – some of the blood-soaked scenes are so relentless that they had me gritting my teeth involuntarily – while the language is arrestingly coarse for an X-men movie; more in keeping with Deadpool than the usual pre-teen friendly comic-book movie.
The film's relentless video-game-style violence is problematic, and like so many action films, slightly devalues human life by making it so frequently expendable. If you've got a tendency to enjoy the glorification of violence then, this film probably isn't the best medicine to prescribe. It remains however a fascinating exploration of the limitations, responsibilities and opportunities of old age, and as one of the big cultural stories of early 2017, Logan could have something prophetic to say to institutions and individuals struggling to deal with advancing years and declining powers.