Warning: SPOILERS for Logan ahead
“It breaks my heart to see you like this,” Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) tells Wolverine at one point after he’s beaten and subdued. Logan, set in the year 2029 following the near extinction of the mutant race, finds James “Wolverine” Howlett (Hugh Jackman) eking out a bleak existence as a chauffeur in a Texas border town while he secretly cares for the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is dying from a degenerative brain disease. No matter how hard he tries to escape it, violence follows Logan wherever he goes.
A thoroughly excellent and emotionally gripping send off for Hugh Jackman’s 17 year tenure as the Wolverine, Logan sends Logan and Xavier on a fateful and fatal road trip. Their mission is to deliver a mysterious young female mutant – Logan’s cloned daughter Laura aka X-23 – to a North Dakota safe haven for mutants called Eden. In Logan, Wolverine is shot, stabbed, kicked, punched, beaten, impaled, and even run over by cars too many times to count. Sadly, this is par for the course for the life of the Wolverine.
As we marvel at the harrowing circumstances of Wolverine’s life a decade from now, it’s also worth looking back to see the same pattern throughout Wolverine’s very long and incredibly violent life. Since the day in 1845 when a young James Howlett discovered he had mutant bone claws, he has lived the most relentlessly brutal life of any superhero; one that offers few brights spots. However, those bright spots uniformly involve the X-Men. Taking in his entire existence as we’ve seen it evolve over the course of nine films, without a doubt, Wolverine’s life is terrible without the X-Men.
This is not to say that Wolverine’s life with the X-Men wasn’t also filled with violence and tragedy. Indeed, Logan’s time as a member, teacher, and occasionally even a leader of the X-Men saw him face unthinkable calamities involving time travel, mutant cures, and even executing his love Jean Grey when she was possessed by the Dark Phoenix. With the X-Men, he’s battled Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants numerous times and helped alter the timeline to prevent an apocalyptic future where murderous mutant-killing robot Sentinels ruled the planet.
Yet, we argue that those were the best times of Logan’s life. Without the X-Men, Wolverine’s life was a disaster.
Wolverine Without the X-Men
The day James Howlett discovered he was a mutant, he stabbed the man who it turns out was his real father to death and then escaped into the Canadian wilderness. This was in 1845. Now calling himself Logan, he would spend the next century alongside his half-brother Sabretooth fighting in every major war: the American Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. It was in Vietnam when Logan came to the attention of Col. William Stryker. Stryker exemplifies the attitude so many people have towards Logan: they see him as a weapon, as an instrument, as less than human. Stryker in particular takes great pains to make and keep him that way.
As we saw in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Stryker turned Logan into Weapon X, subjecting him to a horrific procedure to graft unbreakable adamantium over his skeleton and claws. The fact that his mutant healing factor allowed Logan to survive is small comfort, since the healing factor doesn’t prevent Logan from feeling pain. As he told Rogue in the first X-Men movie when she asked if it hurts when he ejects his claws, he memorably responded: “Every time.”
X-Men Origins: Wolverine ended with Logan shot in the head with an adamantium bullet, rendering him an amnesiac. While it’s uncertain what elements of that film, if any, remain canon following the timeline-altering events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, in that film we find Logan can’t stay out of trouble in any decade. As soon as his future consciousness inhabits his mind in 1973, he finds himself shot at by New York gangsters for sleeping with the Mafia Don’s mistress.
We now know thanks to X-Men: Apocalypse that in 1983, the young X-Men Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler encountered an amnesiac Logan in the Weapon X facility in Alkalai Lake. Logan was the Wolverine gripped in a pure berserker rage; he savagely massacred Stryker’s troops and disappeared into the woods.
In The Wolverine, set years after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan is again living in the woods, literally sleeping in caves like an animal. It seems like when left to his own devices, Logan’s base instinct is to revert to behaving like an animal. We also learned in flashback, Logan was present when the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki during World War II. Logan’s errand of mercy in Japan, where the bulk of The Wolverine takes place, saw him stripped of his healing factor as he battled ninjas and a giant robot Silver Samurai. He was brought to Japan under the ruse of friendship, and instead he repeatedly fought off attempted murder.
Wolverine’s life without the X-Men is a constant cycle of violence and suffering, with Logan usually being manipulated by his enemies to serve their nefarious ends. Logan’s response is usually to further isolate himself, often living like the animal he’s named for.
Wolverine With the X-Men
With the X-Men, Logan is more than merely Weapon X or the Wolverine. When he and Rogue are brought to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, for the first time in Logan’s life, he was treated like a person. He was respected and valued. He was even admired by the students matriculating at the school. In Charles Xavier, Logan found a mentor.In Storm and Beast, he found friends and peers. In Cyclops, he found a rival, and in Jean Grey, he found the love of his life. Logan had a home.
To the students at the Xavier School, he was known as Professor Logan. What’s more, he was their protector. When Rogue discovered Wolverine in the Canadian outskirts, he was a cage fighter. Meeting Rogue set Logan on his path towards his first, best destiny: being a protector. Wolverine in the comics says, “I’m the best at what I do.” What Wolverine actually does best is protect people, especially children who need him.
The first X-Men movie hinged on Wolverine protecting and saving Rogue from Magneto. X2: X-Men United further showcased the caring side of Wolverine – when William Stryker laid siege to the X-Mansion, it was Logan to whom the students turned to protect them. Logan saved the X-kids and whisked many away to safety. Logan may be gruff and reluctant, but he has a history of not being able to say no to kids in danger. These are the times when Wolverine is at his most noble and heroic.
Logan brought this side of Wolverine full circle. Just as when we met Logan in the original X-Men, he was protecting Rogue, in Logan Wolverine is once more charged to protect another young girl. This time it’s his daughter/clone Laura, and though Old Man Logan has seen better days and it costs him everything, Logan ultimately makes good on his promise to Laura and reunites her with the other mutant children she grew up with, helping them escape to safety. For Logan, a lifelong killer and occasional superhero, protecting children is a far, far better thing than he has ever done.
In X-Men: First Class, when young Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr approached Logan in a bar to recruit him in 1962, Logan immediately and hilariously told them to “F— off!” Maybe he shouldn’t been so hasty. Saying yes to their offer would have made him an X-Man sooner, and might have spared Logan decades of torture and agony. Because to Logan, what the X-Men ultimately means is what he’s has always lacked. The X-Men are what, whether he’s aware of it or not, he has spent his extremely long life searching and longing for: family.
As Steve Rogers wrote to Tony Stark at the conclusion of Captain America: Civil War, “we all need family.” For Logan, the X-Men – Charles, Jean, Storm, Cyclops, Beast, Rogue, and in a way, even Mystique and Magneto – are family. In Logan, Wolverine’s loyalty to his family is most evident when he takes it upon himself to care for and protect the dying old Charles Xavier after the X-Men are gone. Admirably, Logan cannot turn his back on the last living member of his X family. When he meets Laura, he gives everything he has left to the little girl who is literally his blood.
Perhaps an underlying reason why Wolverine is so angered by the X-Men comics in Logan is because it’s a painful reminder of how things used to be. Seeing himself and the X-Men in happier times, although their lives and adventures are embellished into “fiction,” is yet another scar that doesn’t heal for Logan. Because, even more than most, Wolverine is a man who needs family. His life is terrible without it, and without the X-Men.