Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Logan
Hugh Jackman’s now seemingly official final turn as Wolverine in Logan may or may not be the darkest superhero movie since (at least) Watchmen, but regardless of who spills the most blood or finishes on the bleakest note, at least give the R-rated X-Men spinoff credit for trying something distinctly different: A movie about disappointment. Logan is a film about recognizing that you’re life has arrived at the point of no return for a downer ending, and trying to carve out some measure of redemption anyway.
That theme of disappointment runs all the way through Logan, from the position the onetime Wolverine finds himself in as the film opens, to the haphazard way he and his companions make their way from one arduous mini-adventure to the next. Even when things go right, they go wrong. A seemingly “epic” escape gambit to neutralize an a squad of bad guys also injures dozens of innocent people. A detour to help good folks in need only invites more trouble. The film is even willing to reinforce the theme by repeatedly setting up the audience for letdowns of their own: Logan dismisses stories of the X-Men’s past exploits as embellished fantasies, finds himself unable to think of any words at the one moment where an uplifting speech is called for, and finds his fight scenes hampered by malfunctioning claws.
But Logan saves it’s cruelest plot turns for fleshing out the backstory. Specifically, answering the two big continuity questions that are at first presented as mysteries: The fate of the other members of the X-Men (already discussed elsewhere), and the reason why the Mutant species has seemingly “died off” apart from Logan himself, Charles Xavier, and their friend Caliban.
WHAT MAKES A MUTANT?
In scientific terms, a mutation refers to any divergence from the biological norm occurring at the genetic level. In the universe of the X-Men movies, “Mutants” (capital-M) are the colloquial name given to a subspecies of human (at one point thought to have emerged in the post-Nuclear 20th Century, but later revealed to have existed as far back as antiquity) officially classified as Homo superior; who differ from ordinary humans genetically by way of possessing an “X-Gene” that manifests in the form of varied superhuman abilities and (in some cases) extreme physical transformation.
While the films (or the original Marvel comics, for that matter) don’t really explain how the X-Gene works much beyond that, what has been made clear over the course of the franchise is that the gene is subject to manipulation. In the original X-Men movie, Magneto’s master plan involves a machine that can induce (unstable) mutation in otherwise “normal” human targets. In Deadpool, villains are able to achieve a similar effect by exposing “latent” mutant Wade Williams to extreme physical stress. X-Men: The Last Stand introduced the child Mutant Leech, whose ability to neutralize the Mutant powers of others was able to be replicated and weaponized by the government. Additionally, The Wolverine introduced the idea that Mutant abilities (like Wolverine’s healing powers) can be extracted and transferred into humans under certain circumstances.
Over the course of the series, these and other aspects of Mutantkind’s “condition” have been used to elaborate, nefarious ends (even the guy who “only” wanted to cheat death in The Wolverine also built a giant robot samurai suit to stomp around in for good measure) – often with the end of all Mutants as the goal or at least part of the package. But as Logan opens, part of the film’s crucial disappointment (and entropy) narrative hinges on that particular scenario having played out in entirely less grand terms.
Of the two main characters in Logan who have sufficient memories of how the “end” of Mutankind came about, Logan himself doesn’t want to talk about it and Charles Xavier has been rendered unable to by a debilitating neurological disorder and the medication he takes to control it. As such, the audience is at first left to piece things together on their own. What we do know, at least, is that it wasn’t a particularly noble or meaningful exit: At some point between the previous most-recent “present” point in the X-Men timeline and the 2029 “present” of Logan, children stopped being born with the X-Gene. With no replacement population to speak of, Homo superior effectively “died off” from old age, accelerated anti-Mutant violence, or the tragic circumstances that did away with the X-Men. Ever the pessimist, Logan himself concludes that Mutants were a momentary hiccup in evolution that nature eventually “corrected.”
The lack of Mutants isn’t the only thing that’s gone wrong in this potential future. The film presents a Southwestern (and then Northwestern) United States gradually choking to death amid the dissolution of the (local) labor force and agricultural industry – a kind of slow-burn dustbowl that’s being exacerbated by big business and technological-displacement. In one particularly symbolic scene, Logan, Xavier and Laura stop to rescue a family of farmers whose horse-trailer has been run off the road by a convoy of automated/self-driving (and thus not concerned with swerving to avoid horses) cargo trucks. Later, Logan helps the father of the family fix the water supply for their crops, which is being sabotaged by agents of huge biotech company that’s bought up all the surrounding farmland. We can see the massive mechanized harvesting machines of said company lumbering in the distance like industrial dinosaurs.
“Big Biotech” is, of course, intimately tied to Laura’s origins as well: At first believed to be the “miraculous” first new Mutant birth in decades, it’s revealed that she’s one of several children (“The X-23’s”) grown in a laboratory by the Transigen Corporation by implanting DNA harvested from powerful Mutants of the past into surrogate mothers – with Laura herself being the “clone daughter” of Logan himself. That program is now being phased out, though, in favor of a more dangerous solution to the “let’s grow some Mutant soldiers!” concept; hence why Laura is on the run and seeking out The Wolverine to help her lead the remaining X-23’s away from The Reavers – bionically-enhanced mercenaries Transigen has sent to erase them.
But while Reaver field-leader Donald Pierce serves as the main antagonist at first, eventually we meet the fellow who’s actually in charge of Transigen: Dr. Zander Rice, a scientist who just so happens to be the son of a previous Dr. Rice – who was killed while serving as part of a team at Alkali Lake (uh-oh…) in the 70s commanded by a U.S. Military Colonel who thought it would be a nifty idea to give an adamantium skeleton to a certain remarkably well-preserved 84 year-old Canadian Mutant.
THE BANALITY OF EVIL
As it turns out, Zander Rice isn’t simply responsible for engineering the “revival” of Homo superior as a prospective super-soldier servant-race – he’s also the man responsible for “wiping out” Mutants as a whole. In terms of the X-Men universe, that effectively makes him not just a supervillain but the most horribly effective supervillain in the franchise entire history. William Stryker, Bolivar Trask and the team at Worthington Labs all tried to do the same thing using everything from a hijacked Cerebro to Mutant-hunting robots to a so-called “cure” …and they all failed. Surely, to best them all, Rice and Transigen had to do something fairly operatic and grandly evil… right?
Well, no. Since Logan is all about getting the ending you didn’t want, Rice reveals that he wiped out an entire species in the most pathetic, passive, matter-of-fact fashion possible: Having isolated the X-Gene and found a way to isolate the mutation itself, Rice used Transigen’s industrial connections to disseminate the isolating-agents worldwide as a “harmless” additive in sports drinks, fast food and sodas – in no time at all effectively “innoculating” the human race against the X-Gene. Yes, that’s the deep dark secret at the heart of Logan: Global genocide, carried out through the equivalent of high-fructose corn syrup.
And if that knowledge feels underwhelming, well… it’s meant to. Again and again, Logan returns to the theme of endings that aren’t just tragic but random and pointless… the kind of resolutions that can break the spirit of a would-be hero because they so starkly contradict the idea of people (for good or ill) getting the ending the “deserve” – and surely, Mutantkind deserved something more meaningful than to vanish because of junk food ingredients. But that’s the whole point, driven home by the midway reveal that Laura’s “plan” for her and her fellow X-23s escape is mainly based on made-up X-Men stories from an old comic book she carries around in her backpack: The world isn’t going to “give” you the ending you want – you have to make one for yourself. And whether or not Wolverine believes he can (or should) is at the heart of the whole production.