In the pantheon of modern superhero films, of which there are now so many, Logan stands shoulder to shoulder with Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight. Much like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight, it is a singular film. But what makes Logan stand-out even in the company of such titans is that it functions as a perfect spiritual cousin to Alan Moore’s seminal masterwork, Watchmen.
Some spoilers to follow.
On a superficial level, Watchmen and Logan could scarcely be more different. Watchmen is maximalist; an elaborate hall-of-mirrors where every little detail means something and is invariably a thematic or narrative echo of something else, its central mystery propelled by a narrative that spans decades. Logan is minimalist; despite being set years after what is easily the most convoluted superhero mythology ever, it’s stripped-down and its events take place inside of a week. Watchmen‘s grand sprawl encompasses New York City, the Antarctic, Mars, and a mysterious remote island. Logan is all bars, hotels, shanty little hideouts, and car interiors. Watchmen is primarily after your mind, where Logan is primarily after your guts. You get the idea.
Where they share a fundamental spiritual similarity is in dismantling and then re-configuring the mythology of the superhero against a bleakly topical backdrop.
Watchmen is set one year before its publication in 1986. This meant that it was primed to tackle what was plaguing the mind of the average man and woman on the street in 1985, one of which was the fear of nuclear war. The terrifying possibility that with the push of a button mankind could annihilate itself – body, past, and future – suddenly made the costumed do-gooders activities of thwarting muggers and equally flamboyantly costumed gangsters not merely odd but also obscenely obsolete. Or as The Comedian so eloquently puts it during their first big meeting together, “It don’t matter squat because in a few years the nukes will be flying like May bugs!”. This uneasy sense of impotence becomes awkwardly literal when a physically gone-to-seed Dan Dreiberg is unable to have sex with Silk Spectre. Dejected and humiliated, he dreams that in his superhero getup as Nite Owl (a costume that evokes the wholesome innocence of Adam West’s Batman) he and Silk Spectre are atomised by a nuclear blast. A colourful costume and a can-do attitude just won’t cut it, the story was all but screaming at its readers.
And then there’s Logan.
It’s set in the vaguely futuristic sounding 2029. There’s talk of environmental disaster and poisoned water. Brown people are used and then discarded for nefarious purposes. Capitalism is interchangeable with genocide. Refugees are hunted. In this distressingly familiar world that simply cannot be punched or laser-beamed out of existence and then made right, we find former X-Men Logan and Charles Xavier hiding out by the Mexican border, their former lives as heroes nothing but a distant, bitter memory.
In fact the source of their powers, what made their heroism possible, has mutated into a nightmare. Charles Xavier’s brilliant telepathic mind has degenerated to the point where every time he has a seizure he can reasonably be classified as a weapon of mass destruction. In fact it’s revealed later on in a devastating scene that surely ranks as the greatest in Stewart’s tenure as Professor Xavier, that one of those psychic fits is what killed his X-Men – the students and runaway children he was a de-facto father to.
The indestructible adamantium that laces Logan’s skeleton is poisoning him from the inside. During his job as a chauffeur, a desperate person begs for his help. They make the mistake of identifying him by his old superhero name, Wolverine, and so his immediate response is to growl “Get the fuck away from me!”. The name, too, has become poison to him.
Though world has passed them by like they were never there and their bodies have betrayed them, their utterly diminished self-worth somehow cuts the deepest. Dreiberg surveys his old superhero headquarters and old Owl-themed gadgets with obvious embarrassment. “It’s all crap dressed up with a lot of flash and thunder. I mean, who needs all this hardware to capture hookers and purse-snatchers? I mean, really.”.
In Logan, the X-Men’s exploits have faded into a collective myth, immortalised as embellished comic book stories. Logan finds a dog-eared copy in Laura’s backpack. Undoubtedly aware that it was probably one of the very few precious things that allowed her joy, he still dismisses it as nonsense. “Maybe a quarter of it happened, but not like this…”. But he doesn’t stop there. His dismissal takes on a spiteful edge when he later yells at her, “These fucking things, they lied to you, it’s all lies.” However it’s impossible not to notice the wetness in his eyes and the strangled quality in his voice when he’s shutting her down, as if the disappointment of it cuts both ways. Though the comic tells of a Promised Land for Mutantkind, the real world only offers desolation. Even the dreamer Charles Xavier knows it’s bullshit. But he also knows that that doesn’t matter. “It’s real enough for Laura,” he tells Logan.
So, in Logan and Watchmen we find the superhero destroyed by a villain you just can’t punch or thwart – personal failure, embarrassment, irrelevance. What then?
If Logan and Watchmen have an answer to this, it’s that the superhero has lasted so long because they endure no matter what. In a larger sense they endure because as concepts they’re elastic enough to keep up with the times. But enduring is simply what heroes do. If the heroes of those works are ill-equipped to save the world, and boy are they ever ill-equipped because their world is so very like the real world – frightening, massive, plagued by banal evils that will never be defeated –, then they nonetheless persist in the face of total apathy and their own irrelevance.
Their persistence yields rewards that aren’t anything as banal and platitudinous as “saving the world.” It’s something altogether more personal, a relatable microcosm of what something so big as “saving the world” might conceivably feel like.
Although Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre fail to halt an elaborate plot to kill three million New Yorkers and psychically wound thousands more, bear witness to an unimaginable horror that they can barely conceive of, the very next day they make plans to continue to don their costumes and do whatever they can, only this time as partners and lovers – their love and fulfilment going hand-in-hand in with their superhero activities. Consider that Nite-Owl only regrows his mojo after he and Silk Spectre spontaneously don their outfits and save a building full of innocents.
Logan didn’t dismantle or expose the corporation that used Laura and those other children as weapons, but he did save Laura and those children. Because of his heroic last stand, he never got the chance to explore a prolonged father/daughter relationship with his daughter. And yet because of that act of giving everything he had for her and pleading with his last breath to “Be better than what they made you.”, he is able to experience a kind of love he figured would elude him for the rest of his days. Laura eulogises him in a manner that suggest she may grow up to be a better and more self-aware person than he was.
It’s fitting that both works also end on ambiguous notes. The hard-won peace in Watchmen is thrown into doubt with its final image, and we are not assured of the fates of those Mutant children. Happiness and survival aren’t guaranteed, these works tell us. All we can be sure of is their heroes, especially when broken and irreparably flawed, will never stop trying. Ironically, if you strip the superheroes of all their frills, much of their superpowers, and place them in the real world where they’ll inevitably seem irrelevant and faintly embarrassing, they resonate all the more powerfully – they mean more. Even Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, an adaptation of Superman that he touts as more of a science fiction film than a “superhero film”, acknowledges that the Kryptonian “S” means hope.
You might say that both Logan and Watchmen are the opposite of what a lot of people look for in a superhero story – that is, colourful escapism. They don’t offer that. They borderline gleefully rub your face in the awful mundanity of it all. But these stories embody the idea of hope better than most superhero stories that I can think of. A depressed and cynical man becomes the father his daughter needs at exactly the right moment. Two ordinary people continue to do what they can, even with the knowledge that they are insignificant and it might not matter anyway. Such stories honour the legacy of two skinny Jewish kids from Cleveland who, all the way back in 1938, envisioned that underneath the glasses and meek demeanour could be an emblem of greatness.