When Heroes Die

Spoilers to follow.

The best Westerns don’t have happy endings. Movies like Unforgiven, High Noon, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid end on the lowest of low notes. Our heroes save the day, but they make tremendous personal sacrifices (most often their lives) in order to do so.

Of course, as far as endings go, there’s none better than John Ford’s The Searchers. Ethan Edwards, a haggard and out-of-place Civil War veteran (John Wayne), rescues his abducted niece (Natalie Wood) and returns her safely home. In one of cinemas most famous and bittersweet scenes, Edwards turns around, forgotten by his family, and walks off into the desert silhouetted by a doorway. It’s a near-perfect ending. The doorway is a threshold between the outlaw West and civilization; a metaphor for the character’s internal struggle to find his place in the modern world.

In Logan, the 10th installment of the X-Men film series, Wolverine (a brilliant and understated Hugh Jackman) has finally found his place. It’s a superhero Western by way of Paper Moon and Children of Men.

If there’s been one overarching theme throughout the X-Men film series, it’s been Wolverine’s struggle to show compassion, to give way to selflessness, and to finally be a true member of the X-Men.

For a movie that’s been hyped as an R-rated gore fest, Logan is impressively quiet and restrained. In the year 2029, mutants are on the brink of extinction and pushed to the fringes of society. Wolverine is ailing from his adamantium implants, working as a limo driver, and caring for the beyond-frail Charles Xavier (portrayed by the legendary Patrick Stewart). Unlike any other superhero film, Logan shows characters dealing with the reality of age and the aging process. It’s beautiful.

You’ve probably already guessed, but one terrible thing leads to the next and, before you know it, Xavier and Wolverine get caught up in a Mad Max-style dash across the American heartland to save Wolverine’s biological daughter.

And then shit just gets worse and worse (if you don’t know already, Logan isn’t a “fun” movie).

But finally, on the brink of death, after losing everyone he’s loved or cared about (including Xavier), Wolverine rescues his daughter, insures her freedom, and secures the future for the next generation of mutants.

In a moment of pure genius, director and co-writer James Mangold shows us that Wolverine is finally part of the X-Men. After giving a beautiful eulogy, his daughter rotates the cross on his grave to form an X and the movie ends. Eat your heart out, John Ford!

I have a complicated relationship with X-Men. I was born in 1985 (today’s my birthday in fact) and I vividly remember watching X-Men: The Animated Series, which ran from 1992-1997, on Saturday mornings. It was my absolute favorite cartoon. The first movie I ever went to see in theaters alone was X2: X-Men United when it was released in 2003.

I’m 32-years-old and X-Men has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I love the characters and the social messages of acceptance (though heavy-handed) that the series imparts to children and adults alike. Of all the superhero franchises, I think that X-Men has an important role to play in modern society. The only pop-culture equivalent that I can think of is Star Trek.

I found myself emotionally drained after watching Logan. These are characters I’ve cared about and invested a lot of time into. And now, until they’re resurrected again at least, they’re dead.

If there’s one thing that George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has taught us is that it’s important for characters, both heroes and villains, to die. Yes, it’s shocking and thrilling, but it also cements their mythology and underlines their importance to the story.

This is why Harrison Ford was right about Han Solo, he should have died in Return of the Jedi. It would have given the movie and the character an emotional depth and resonance that it doesn’t have.

Unfortunately, I know that Xavier and Wolverine (and Han Solo for that matter) will return to the screen in the future and that detracts from the ending of Logan. I would love for this to be their finale, but I know they’ll be back again. If there’s one thing I know about A Song of Ice and Fire, is that when characters die, they don’t necessarily come back AND I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THAT.

The unfortunate part about modern storytelling is that there’s always another story to tell with these characters. The characters never have a true ending so nothing really matters. Xavier already died in X-Men: The Last Stand, but he’s back to die a second time. Strange how that happens.

For me, Logan is really about the actors playing those characters and their story. From what Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have reported, this will be their last outing in those roles. I know these characters will live on, but the actors won’t and that’s what truly breaks my heart.

Carrie Fisher is Princess Leia. Patrick Stewart is Charles Xavier (and Captain Picard!). Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. Harrison Ford is Han Solo (and Indiana Jones!). Leonard Nimoy is Spock.

These people define these characters as much as the characters define them.

It’s funny that Logan heavily references Shane. In Shane, the wounded titular hero rides off into the sunset and you don’t know if he lives or dies. In a world of reboots and retcon, that seems like the most perfect of endings. There’s always hope that they’ll be back again.

“Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her…tell her everything’s all right. And there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”

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