[Note: this review includes some mild spoilers for the movies Logan and Power Rangers. You should just go see Logan.]
Logan might be the best superhero movie I’ve ever seen. It’s the latest from the X-Men franchise, centered on Wolverine, the shit-talking, metal-clawed, quick-healing hero who goes by Logan when he’s not ripping people’s arms off.
Now, I like action movies. Even when they’re filled with overwrought explosions and bad dialogue, it’s fun to be taken for a ride. But Logan is something else. It’s as much a character study as an action movie, an exploration of the later life of a man whose trademark is rage. It’s a Western, too, with Hugh Jackman’s Logan as the grizzled lead.
The film is punctuated by closeups of Logan’s face as he’s lying passed out on the floor, or in the back of a truck, or on the side of a mountain. There’s no question why this movie, following X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, is named not after the superhero, but the man. Logan looks tired, less than super. This is a man who has spent decades wrestling life into shape and now it’s got him against the ropes. It’s about aging, in a way, about seeing the world change into something that doesn’t need you.
Logan’s strength comes from its silence. As hinted in the trailer, the film focuses on Logan’s relationship with Laura, a young girl whose mutant powers are remarkably similar to his own. Logan’s friend Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) pushes him to help Laura escape her pursuers, while Logan tries to avoid getting roped in and looks for a way to keep himself and Charles out of harm’s way.
Laura is reclusive and animalistic when threatened. And she doesn’t speak–she communicates nonverbally with the psychic Charles, but when we finally hear her voice, close to the end of the movie, it’s a shock. Several scenes feature Logan and Laura silently driving across barren landscapes together, or Logan talking and Laura listening. The choice for silence here is extremely effective: the audience leans in to Laura’s quietness, into the vacuum of these one-sided conversations, and in this space, tenderness grows. The open fascination and adoration on Laura’s face when she watches Logan forces us to listen harder to his cursing and moaning. Her silent responses teach us more about who she is and what she’s running from than would whole scenes of exposition. The film demands that we translate for Laura, and as we do, we take responsibility for her, and we care about her.
Take as a comparison the new Power Rangers movie. It’s fun to watch but irredeemably bad, and it’s an interesting case study for the types of mistakes many action movies make.
The Power Rangers trailer looks like a gritty Breakfast Club reboot, it’s so full of trope-ish teenagers. The fallen football champ, the angry ex-cheerleader, and the awkward math nerd all make their appearances. In once scene, the rangers literally go around a circle and tell their deepest secrets. No character element goes unexplained. If Logan pulls viewers in with silence and slow reveals, Power Rangers puts all its cards on the table from the start.
The movies also differ in scale. Power Rangers goes big, putting the survival of planet Earth in the balance. But by taking on so much–an enormous cast of new characters, a battle for Earth as old as the dinosaurs, the ultimate showdown between good and evil–Power Rangers fails to let us really know the characters, and so no large-scale showdown will pack an emotional punch. I enjoyed watching the robots fight, but I honestly didn’t care who lived or died.
Logan goes small, dealing with the fate of two washed-up heroes and their unlucky protégé in a world where the battle for mutants has already been fought and lost. Whatever happens to these characters is unlikely to affect the fate of the world; they’re just trying to make it out alive. And the scenes that I recall most vividly from Logan are the little ones: quiet moments between characters, breaks in the action for peace, or friendship, or grieving.
What movies like Power Rangers could stand to learn is that intimacy works to amplify tension, not dampen it. And intimacy, at least in Logan, is as much about what goes unsaid as what is told to us.