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Logan succeeds by understanding that Wolverine is a character first, a superhero second

Director James Mangold’s subtle defiance of superhero movie convention is a nod to Wolverine’s comic book history.

Logan 20th Century Fox

The simplest way to understand Logan is that it’s Wolverine-as-Western: The movie opens on America’s dusty southern border and eventually moves to the rocky badlands of North Dakota. The movie’s title refers to Wolverine’s given name, and he’s portrayed as less a traditional costume-clad superhero and more an aging cowboy who spends a sizable chunk of the movie helping a family-owned small farm. There are multiple extended references to the classic 1953 Western Shane, and the unhurried pacing and editing owes more to classic Clint Eastwood than contemporary Michael Bay. The filmmakers have even made the comparison themselves, with director James Mangold telling SFX Magazine, “We’re making kind of a Western.”

In some ways, it’s a sharp turn from Mangold’s previous outing with the character, The Wolverine, a Japan-set picture packed with ninjas and yakuza that played with elements of the samurai film. And with its comparatively small stakes and restrained use of computer-generated imagery, Logan is certainly a departure from the effects-driven apocalypticism of the rest of the X-Men film franchise.

Yet Logan, and The Wolverine as well, is very much in keeping with Wolverine’s comic book characterization, which has thrived in — and in many ways been defined by — stories that cross genre boundaries, casting Wolverine as an outlaw, a samurai, a soldier, and more.

Indeed, the character’s malleability is a big part of what has made him such a fascinating part of the Marvel Comics universe for so many years. And Mangold’s willingness to break out of the superhero genre’s conventions, and to play with the different genre elements suggested by Wolverine’s comics history, is one of the reasons Logan works as well as it does.

A 1982 limited series created the Wolverine we know today

These days, most people probably think of Wolverine as the gruff, cigar-chomping, motorcycle-riding mutant who says “bub” and looks a lot like Hugh Jackman. (Or is it the other way around?) But that wasn’t exactly how he started out.

When Wolverine was introduced to the Marvel comic book universe in 1974, with an appearance in The Incredible Hulk, he was little more than a bruiser: a short-stacked Canadian maniac with metal claws and mutant healing powers who, during his early years, played the role of supporting muscle in the X-Men.

Then in 1982, Wolverine, a four-part limited series dedicated to his solo adventures, permanently altered the character, sending him on a trajectory that would make him one of Marvel’s most popular heroes.

The miniseries was the brainchild of two of the most influential creators in the history of comics, working at the peak of their creative powers: Chris Claremont, whose work on the X-Men in the late 1970s established the team as a vehicle for superpowered soap opera, driven as much by angst-ridden inter-team character conflict as by action; and Frank Miller, whose noir-tinged work as a writer and artist transformed Daredevil from a second-run Spider-Man knockoff into a grim New York vigilante — and one of Marvel’s most popular heroes.

Claremont/Miller/Wein/Marvel

Although Claremont was credited as the writer and Miller as the artist, it’s best to think of the duo as a creative team: At the time, Marvel comics were drawn from loose story descriptions, with the dialogue written after the fact, and in a 1987 introduction to the graphic novel publication of the series, Claremont wrote that the two came up with the idea together.

Their idea, according to Claremont, was to recast Wolverine as a “failed samurai,” and to build the story out of his character rather than by starting with the mechanics of the plot. “The only story parameter we acknowledged at the time,” Claremont wrote, “was that we wanted to be utterly ruthless, and seemingly irrevocably destroy him. And then, maybe, make him better.”

That meant a story that took Wolverine to Japan to find Mariko, a lost love who turns out to be in an abusive relationship with a low-level thug. As the story goes on, Wolverine teams up with a female assassin named Yukio and fights waves of angry ninjas, before taking down Mariko’s crime lord father.

The story combined Claremont’s penchant for emotionally loaded superhero soap opera with Miller’s terse noir influences, and while the writing comes across as more than a little cheesy today, the art still maintains a pure, primal power. Miller’s work has never been particularly realistic, but there are few comic book artists more talented at capturing bodies in motion.

Miller’s Wolverine didn’t just throw punches — he hurled himself across the page, bursting through windows and flying across rooms. Even when he’s still, he often looks crouched, ready, a coiled ball of violent energy waiting to be unleashed. Later on, Miller’s career took dark turns, but those early depictions of Wolverine fighting what sometimes looked like armies of ninjas remain some of the most exhilarating panels ever put to page.

A spread from Wolverine No. 1 (1982).
Claremont/Miller/Wein/Marvel

It’s easy enough to see the influence of Claremont and Miller on Mangold’s The Wolverine, which returns the character to Japan and ends with a battle against the Silver Samurai (which appeared in a follow-up comic from Claremont).

But you can also see the comic creators’ approach to Wolverine in the idea that animates Logan. Like Claremont and Miller, Mangold was focused on exploring the character first, rather than stuffing him into some sprawling franchise narrative. And he wanted to work with the idea of Wolverine as a broken person — making this typically powerful hero somehow vulnerable, someone who could heal from a gunshot wound but also bore scars when he did.

“I was trying to find him at a place of mundane despair,” Mangold recently told Birth Movies Death.

Claremont and Miller didn’t ignore the Wolverine who had come before, but they used the character to do something new and richer. And in doing so, they set the tone for the gruff, brooding, soulful Wolverine to come. Their story is widely recognized as the foundation of the Wolverine we know today.

The many faces (and genres) of Wolverine

Claremont and Miller’s series was integral in establishing Wolverine as a character who existed outside of the conventions of typical superhero comics, who could hop genres and styles in ways that changed the character but also revealed his depths. If Wolverine could be a broken samurai warrior, what else could he be?

Plenty, as it turns out. In the decades since the Claremont/Miller Wolverine, the character has been cast as a soldier, a government agent, a mountain man outlaw, a treacherous bio-experiment, and more. Claremont described his follow-up, an ongoing Wolverine series that began in 1988 and almost never featured Wolverine in costume, as “high adventure rather than super heroics — a sort of combination of Conan meets Terry and the Pirates.”

Wolverine has continued to fight plenty of ninjas and supervillains, too, but many of the best Wolverine stories have worked in part because of how they demonstrate the sheer versatility of the character: In the hands of a talented creator, he can be just about anything you want him to be.

Part of that versatility comes from Wolverine’s resistance to age. His mutant healing powers don’t just make him hard to kill; they make him slow to grow old, which allows writers to tell Wolverine stories throughout history. (Wolverine’s origin story, which appears briefly at the beginning of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and was first told in the 2001 comic miniseries Origin, traces the character’s past back to the 1800s.)

In recent years, however, writers such as Mark Millar and Jeff Lemire have taken the reverse approach and pushed Wolverine into old age, and the future. In Old Man Logan, a 2008 story that ran in the pages of an ongoing Wolverine series, Millar told the story of an older, sadder Wolverine in a brutish post-apocalyptic future where most superheroes are dead and the supervillains have won. Lemire’s recent ongoing series of the same name transplants the same old Logan to the present day, where he has a chance to stop the villains from taking over.

Old Man Logan
A panel from Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.
Millar/McNiven/Marvel

Both stories mix superhero comic conventions with tropes from other genres — in particular the Western. Millar’s story, for example, opens with a band of evil hillbilly Hulk brothers (don’t ask) threatening to murder Wolverine’s family if he doesn’t pay rent on what is essentially the family farm, and Lemire’s series features elegiac images of a hat-clad Logan riding a horse into the sunset. There’s as much Clint Eastwood in these stories as there is Captain America.

Mangold’s Logan is a response to the staleness of superhero movies

Mangold’s Logan — which is set in 2029, long after mutants have stopped being born — draws plenty from the Old Man Logan stories while simultaneously pushing away from the elements we tend to expect from a superhero movie.

In an interview with Uproxx, Mangold described the film as an effort to move beyond the standard elements of what we now think of as the superhero genre — the “arms race” that calls for every installment to be bigger and more spectacular, with more characters and grander stakes. It’s a response, in other words, to the sort of superhero megamovies that Marvel is making, like 2018’s upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, which is set to feature dozens of characters and is rumored to have an enormous budget to match.

Indeed, at times Mangold has pushed back against the idea that the superhero “genre” even exists. “I’m deeply skeptical whether comic book movies are even a genre,” he recently said. “There are as many kinds of comic books as there are novels, I think that’s a premise you wouldn’t argue with. So then to call something a ‘novel movie’ would be pretty stupid.”

Logan
Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine for the last time in Logan.
20th Century Fox

Logan takes that idea and runs with it. Sure, on the one hand it is a superhero movie, with a brutal action showdown between a bunch of characters with incredible powers. But it’s also a Western, a post-apocalyptic road movie, and an achingly real human drama about an old man coming to grips with his life. It’s a movie that is first and foremost about a character and his inner struggles.

Logan is one of the best and most innovative superhero movies in years, and maybe the most memorable iteration of Wolverine ever to make it to the big screen. It stands out from the crowd in part because Mangold respects the essence of the character but never allows his film to become trapped by the conventions of the superhero genre. So it’s a model not only for how to tell a great Wolverine story but for how to tell a great superhero story: Stop thinking about it as a superhero story.