I think there is some kind of desire for the real,” says the film director James Mangold, sucking on an electronic cigarette in a suite at Claridge’s.
We are in “troubling times”, he suggests, “when we’re all, in a sense, drinking in the same media, eating the same food products, swallowing the same pills, listening to the same top-10 music. We’re in grave danger of being mass-programmed and I think movies play a huge role in it, especially franchise pop-culture movies.”
This is Mangold’s way of claiming that his latest film, Logan — which reunites him with Hugh Jackman, for the Hollywood star’s final outing as the adamantium-clawed superhero Wolverine (Logan is his civvy name) — is not only different from any other X-Men movie, but from all other recent comic book blockbusters.
It’s 2029, and Charles Xavier aka Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Logan’s mentor, is holed-up, bed-bound, in a rusting, toppled-over water- tower, prone to seizures that turn his brain into an unstable weapon of mass destruction.
Logan, meanwhile, is a drunk who scrapes a living as a limo driver in order to procure pills for his ailing and embittered friend. When a young mutant girl (impressive newcomer Dafne Keen), Laura, on the run from a Mengele-like scientist (Richard E Grant), unexpectedly enters their lives, the three hit the road. As you’d expect from the writer-director of such films as Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted, which earned Oscars for Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie, respectively, the film has heart and intelligence.
“I certainly, and I think Hugh Jackman, didn’t want to go back [after doing The Wolverine together] and be part of a kind of anaesthetising of the culture,” says Mangold, who grew up in New York, son of Jewish artist Sylvia Plimack Mangold, renowned for her landscape paintings. She married minimalist artist, Robert Mangold, and their son James identifies as “half-Jewish”.
Expanding, he says: “You know, you pay your $13 and you see a movie, and for two hours you’re anaesthetised and you forget your life, and then you come out and you forget the movie.”
Created by comic-book giants Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and illustrator Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg), the X-Men first appeared in 1963, and often featured narratives haunted by the Holocaust, its spectre felt as a fear that a similar fate could one day befall mutants. In 1978, readers learned that Charles’s friend-turned-nemesis, Magneto, had been in Auschwitz as a child. This was the starting point for the first film in the X-Men franchise, in 2000, directed by Bryan Singer.
Jewish and gay, Singer was obsessed, growing up, with the Holocaust and made his feelings of exclusion part of the first two films. “What better way [to do it] than in a giant, action, summer-event movie,” he told me at the time. “I could think of no better place to spill out one’s own personal problems and foist them on to the world. And for that, I apologise.”
By touching upon “all kinds of bigotry – racial, religious or even sexual — [Singer] elevated those early films and made them about something,” says Mangold. “I certainly wanted to do that in Logan and, to try and keep things fresh, I moved the metaphor to the persecution of refugees and immigrants, and tried to make it feel like our heroes were essentially a family without a home.”
Singer had been adopted, and identified with the rootless superhero’s quest to uncover his own origins. Mangold was drawn to Logan’s “scepticism about celebrity and the way superheroes are turned into deities, and even the way they market themselves. His ambivalence about being a hero — what is a hero? — I thought was really key.”
The film’s downbeat, melancholy tone, says Mangold, reflects “how Logan feels about the world”. Do you feel the same, I ask? “Ah,” he says, taking a drag. “I’m not excited by what is going on now, politically. Hardly. I connect with, and probably agree with, his essentially pessimism about mankind. He doesn’t want to help [the girl] because he feels that, at best, he may just be delaying the inevitable. I respond to the realism of his point of view. And while some might consider it nihilistic, I look around the world right now and I actually feel like it’s hardly a projection.”
Logan’s conscience is weighed down by the violence he has done and the lives he’s taken, even though those people were evil. And Mangold was determined viewers would feel both the brutality of the violence and its consequences. He wants to ensure that the audience gets under the skins of all the characters, not just those they sympathise with, and adds: “I’m more troubled by the violence that seems to exist in films that we allow our 10-year-olds to watch. We’re OK with children under 13 watching buildings fall on people, and someone with automatic weapons mowing down a crowd. As long as we don’t see too much of the colour red, we’re somehow OK.
“I’m more comfortable making a film in which the violence has very real implications for the very fragile flesh that holds us together.”
Logan “was a very earnest attempt to be earnest”, he says. This sets it apart from many other superhero blockbuster films which, Mangold argues, “have become less movies and more platforms for cross-promotional marketing. They still have interesting themes. . . but there is an absence of meaning, because meaning is threatening to people and makes it harder to sell toys. Because the second a movie takes a position, it is in danger of alienating somebody, of making somebody angry.
“The unfortunate reality of capitalism is that sometimes what we get when we’re trying to please everybody is something that is analogous to a really bad buffet: just a little something for everybody, but not good.”
Logan, on the other hand, is a haute cuisine dining experience, whose top-quality ingredients should leave anyone looking for something thoughtful and exciting feeling comfortably sated.
Logan was released on Wednesday