Here Be Monsters

At the movies: Logan and Kong: Skull Island.

          Logan, the final appearance of the first great character of the superhero era, which opened on March 3rd, has made no bones about its conscious uncoupling from the increasingly expansive X-Men cinematic universe from whence it came. It has been marketed as something of the second coming of the Peckinpah Western, a different way of looking at Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine: an unbelievably sculpted middle-aged man braves the travails of the human world one last time to serve and protect a purposefully enigmatic young girl (Dafne Keen). 20th Century Fox seems to be inordinately proud of itself to have allowed anything like character development to escape from its vaults like a terrified mutant from the halls of the Weapon X project, and they’ve been promoting it like an action thriller all its own. But even though Logan, directed by James Mangold, is unquestionably the best Wolverine picture and probably the best X-Men movie and up there for one of the best things the Marvel catalogue has ever produced, to call it a standalone film is ridiculous. This finale is an X-Men movie, all right—it’s as X-Men as they come, right down to the political allegory and pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. What’s new is that this is a leotard movie that recognizes what comes after leotards.

Logan’s set in the future—2029, to be exact—a painstakingly, realistically rendered time in which mutants have all but been forgotten, presumably hunted to extinction. All that’s left is a graying James “Logan” Howlett, Wolvy himself, a little worse for the wear and caring for the senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, in perhaps the best turn of his career) in an abandoned warehouse just south of the border. But Logan’s jolted out of his reclusive stupor when if falls to him to get the aforementioned young girl, Laura, from Texas to North Dakota—cursing and muttering all the way. (It’s helpful, in terms of the cross-country jaunt, that the Wolverine has become a driver for the future equivalent of Uber, which can’t be easy money for someone who’d most likely claw through the dashboard when cut off in traffic.)

Where the film outstrips Jackman’s previous outings, it’s mostly because of Jackman and Stewart. Their rapport, retaining the same essential combativeness as in the 2000s X-Men—Logan’s jumpy self-preservation versus Xavier’s philanthropic philosophy—anchors the film. There are fight sequences aplenty in this film—and their in-your-face gore somewhat self-consciously earns its R-rating—but in the sense that Logan is essentially a tragic family drama, a story of generational change and inevitable paternal failure, this movie’s intimacy is indeed like no superhero movie that’s come before. Stewart deserves an Oscar nod, but won’t get one. Some things, after all, can never change.

The villains in Logan are ineffectual; they’re dispatched without ceremony near the end of the film, and this knowledge will change nothing about the layman’s viewing experience. The antagonizing force, then, is larger than any single person; corporatist and intangible, it snakes after our heroes through the void where superheroes used to be. In other words, despite the flights of mutation and robotics that keep the movie within its universe, it’s a world fundamentally as mundane and horrifying as our own. At its heart, Logan is an immigration film—a story about crossing borders starring the Canadian Logan and the Mexican Laura that largely follows the crossers but occasionally, heartbreakingly, pans down to focus on what detritus is left behind in the crossing.

That includes Logan himself, whose finale is entirely too abrupt; the film gets too caught up in itself near the end to reflect on the impact of Jackman’s character and characterization, not just on the franchise but on cinema. Nonetheless, as the camera lingers on him in the film’s final shot, the viewer has a few brief moments to reflect for himself. Seventeen years. Nine movies. Hell. The guy can go out however he wants.

 

If nothing else, Kong: Skull Island, which opened Friday, must hold the distinction of being simultaneously the best-looking and worst-written monster movie ever made. The director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, conjures a sepia and gold-tinted South Pacific that looks as beautiful as anything made in the era in which it’s set, 1973, while writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly have sculpted a two-hour monstrosity that approximates a film but ends up being more of a series of episodes in which a collection of wasted film stars pose for reaction shots and gulp “What is that?” These include Tom Hiddleston, whose steely he-man act is beginning to become extremely annoying, John C. Reilly, given entirely too much latitude to toss out unfunny ad libs, and the in-it-for-the-money Brie Larson, who plays a supposedly plucky character with zero pluck. When accused of being a war photographer, she responds, dead serious, “Anti-war photographer.” Well, gee whiz.

The only participant who emerges with his credibility entirely intact is, unsurprisingly, Samuel L. Jackson. To put it in the frame of Apocalypse Now references, as practically everything this film does (down to a helicopter bombing scene scored to music blaring from a chopper’s speakers), Jackson is the Colonel Kurtz of this war zone, and his obsessive desire to kill Kong even if it means bringing his men down with him is both the simplest and the most believable motivation in the film. When he shoots a giant spider in the head to finish him off, the audience seems on the edge of jumping to their feet and reciting Ezekiel 25:17; as jaundiced as Hollywood is, they just can’t keep a bad mother down.

This film should be avoided at all costs, as should the surely innumerable sequels an unnecessary post-credits scene sets up. (Godzilla is awake and raring to go at the end of the movie, even if I wasn’t.) It doesn’t take long until the central characters’ trek through the swamps of Skull Island starts to resemble the film itself, both as a slog and as a cynical, pointless exercise. “This place is hell,” a warrant officer mumbles while waist-deep in slime. Seconded.