In 19th century New York, would-be impresario PT Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a dreamer from impoverished roots, is trying to find the magic ingredient that will draw crowds to his struggling museum. He hits upon the notion of exhibiting human “oddities” – people with unusual features or unusual skills. Enlisting playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) as his partner, Barnum assembles a troupe of marvels, including acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), and little person Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey). The crowds and the money start pouring in, but the respectability that Barnum needs to impress the upper crust parents of his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams) still eludes him.
The Greatest Showman‘s only goal is to entertain the hell out of you, and it pursues it with single-minded determination and all the razzle-dazzle it can muster. The film uses the career of the real life PT Barnum as a loose framework (this is very much a “print the legend” situation) but make no mistake, this is not so much about Barnum as it is about Jackman. The Greatest Showman is a showcase for the all-singing, all dancing Boy From Oz, and seems to be a kind of mission statement: a reminder that, while the world might know Hugh as a certain clawed mutant marauder, his heart belongs to the theatre.
Indeed, both film and star are so determined to make us smile, and the proceedings are so packed with light, colour, and spectacle, that it’s just about enough to make you not notice the shaky foundations the whole shebang is built upon. Dramatically speaking, there’s not a whole lot going on; while a happy ending is rarely in doubt when it comes to this sort of thing (Moulin Rouge, clearly a stylistic influence on first time director Michael Gracey, being an obvious exception), even the illusion of risk is absent here. Character relationships are poorly defined, be they between Barnum and his family, who he gently neglects but keeps in well-heeled comfort, or Barnum and his would-be protege, Carlyle, whose mentor/student dynamic never really clicks.
The exception is the budding romance between Carlyle and Anne, which flies in the face of the racist social conventions of the time, but the success of that subplot is mainly down to Zendaya – in a work packed with bombast and noise, her talent and charm shine through cleanly, and she is the ensemble’s clear standout, the magnificently-voiced Keala settles being a close second.
Thematically, The Greatest Showman takes a stab at individuality and freedom of expression, the old “follow your dreams” bit, but fails to push in any interesting directions. The obvious point that, while many of the people working for him have limited options when it comes to employment and lifestyle, the white, male, able-bodied and comparatively wealthy Barnum chooses the showbiz world, is never made, and the chorus of oddities are basically background artists in service to Barnum’s aggrandisement. To be fair, Barnum’s story is Barnum’s story, but there’s a more deft and more interesting way to tell it, and given that the film has sifted through the facts of the real Barnum’s life, picking and discarding to fit its chosen form, there’s plenty of material from which to craft a more balanced and aware story.
But there’s music and dancing and explosions of colour, a menagerie of (mostly) CGI animals, a fantastical roster of astonishing people and things (sadly, no Feejee Mermaid), and plenty of rousing, feel good songs – “This is Me” isn’t going away any time soon. Still, for all that it entertains in the moment, The Greatest Showman feels like a missed opportunity.
With Logan, director James Mangold and actor Hugh Jackman make the boldest choice possible with the saga that began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men back in 2000 – they end it.
That’s an almost heretical choice in this age of endless franchises. Indeed, there certainly will be more X-Men movies going into the future (never let good taste or appropriateness get in the way of a cash cow, right?). But make no mistake, the pair’s statement of intent going in, that they would tell the final, definitive screen Wolverine story before Jackman voluntarily hung up his claws, was not just hot air. This is The Last Ride of James Howlett.
Summarily excising the tangled mess of X-Men continuity, along with most of the characters and, indeed, all but the most necessary comic book trappings, Logan sets its scene in the southern US border states, circa 2029. There we find an alcoholic Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), aka James Howlett, aka Logan (we’ll stick with that one for simplicity’s sake) working as a chauffeur and drinking to numb the pain, both physical and emotional, that he carries with every limping step. He’s a shadow of his former self, his healing factor is barely keeping him together – he’s a lean, haunted, scarecrow of a man.
He keeps it together only because he has a dream of escape with his two remaining friends, the ancient psychic, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), the albino mutant who helps Logan care for him. In his dotage, Xavier’s powerful brain is failing him and he is prone to “seizures” that unleash psychic havoc; Logan has resorted to keeping the old man sedated in a derelict compound across the Mexican border. It’s a pathetic, hardscrabble existence, but the three of them have a dream to shoot for: raise enough money to buy a boat, and spend their final days on the open ocean.
It’s a sad little life – the boat is basically the rabbit farm in Of Mice and Men – and it’s certainly no retirement for former heroes. Mangold sketches the sorry state of the world and our protagonists efficiently and effectively. This brown and ochre desert world we’re in isn’t quite post-apocalyptic; like Mad Max, it’s a world in the middle of collapse. There are no more mutants, we’re told, and the fates of the rest of the X-Men are darkly hinted at but never made explicit. The world has moved on, and there’s no room in it for clawed ronin and their silly ideals of honour and loyalty.
This depressing dustbowl tableau is disrupted by the arrival of three figures – a Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) on the run with a mysterious little girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), and Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the cyborg mercenary in pursuit of them. Laura, as it turns out, is perhaps the last mutant in the world, a clone of Logan experimented on by a shadowy corporation and imbued with an adamantium skeleton and claws, just like him – in effect, his daughter. The pair want to hire Logan to take them north to the Canadian border and safety. Logan will have none of it, but events soon conspire to put him, Laura and Xavier on the road, with Pierce and his cyborg PMC army in pursuit. And we’re off.
It’s unsurprising that Mangold, director of 3.10 to Yuma, would dress Logan in the iconography and narrative tropes of the Western, but it’s impressive how well it fits the material. The obvious touchstone here is Unforgiven, with its retired gunfighter taking up arms once more and its meditations on violence and morality, and Shane is repeatedly referenced. There’s even a touch of Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia in its sweaty desperation – and in its violence. Logan certainly doesn’t waste its restrictive rating – right out of the gate, claws are popping and severed limbs are flying. Every action sequence is carnage, and Logan’s failing healing factor means he carries the increasingly heavy cost as the film progresses, his body barely holding together under the near-constant rain of punishment.
Yet almost none of it feels gratuitous – it’s all in service to the film’s themes. The cost of violence is heavy, and in Laura we see how violence perpetuates down through the generations. Yes, it’s hugely cathartic when she unleashes her fury on her oppressors, slicing femoral arteries and jamming claws into eye sockets, but it’s disturbing as well – as it should be. We and Logan are forced to look at this murderous miniature version of him and wonder what dreadful future this world has in store for her – and whether it can be averted.
Keen is incredible, by the way; her Laura is an odd-looking, intense, silent child, almost feral, yet desperate for familial love. Indeed, it’s the misshapen family of choice that she forms with Logan and Xavier that gives the film its considerable heart. For all the slaughter and the darkness, Logan lives in its small moments of warmth and humour, of which there are many – it’s a stern individual who refuses to crack a smile at Patrick Stewart swearing. The film also digs deep into Xavier and Logan’s relationship; there’s a quiet point in the film where the three have to pretend to be an actual family and Logan refers to Xavier as “Dad”. It’s incredibly moving, and all the more impressive in that it feels a part of the film’s texture and not forced.
We’ll drift into heavy spoiler territory if we push forward much further. Logan‘s story is simple, but its themes are dense and varied. The climax takes them all and twists them together in a scene of action and catharsis that will leave you breathless. Logan is not just a great superhero film – and easily the best of the X-Men stable by an incredibly long chalk – it’s a great film, period. The Wolverine story has moved in fits and starts over the past 16 years, with a few highs and plenty of risible lows but, by God, does it go out with a bang.