FROM COMIC BOOK ACTION TO QUIRKY INDIE DRAMEDY, STEPHEN MERCHANT DOES IT ALL
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Stephen Merchant as Caliban in ‘Logan’ ‘invests him with a degree of yearning and frustration fitting to both the dark world and his circumstances’
The big box office news from the past weekend focused on the major league opening for “Logan,” the reported final appearance by Hugh Jackman as the seemingly indestructible mutant superhero Wolverine. This was his third solo outing (and second with director James Mangold, following their team-up on “The Wolverine”) as well as ninth overall appearance in the “X-Men” cinematic universe. “Logan” slashed its way through a crowded field, earning $85 million, an astonishing figure for an R-rated comic book adaptation.
But for all the attention bestowed on the movie’s embrace of its signature character’s penchant for violence, one of the quiet standouts in the narrative was the inclusion of Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an underground mutant figure in the comic book world. “Logan” is set in what amounts to a post-apocalyptic landscape for the mutant population. A paradigm-shifting act has decimated the evolutionary offshoots, while the greater human community has begun preying on them, seeking to either kill them off completely or capture and exploit them in an effort to create a super-powered army of killers. And Caliban, thanks to his ability to sense and track mutant genes, has been a pawn in this endgame.
But when we see him, he’s partnered with Logan, shouldering the responsibility of caring for Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whose telepathic abilities are now dangerously impacted by seizures. Based in part on the character from William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” the comic book Caliban has wandered in the shadows, living in abandoned subway tunnels, always attempting to remain separate from humanity due to his perceived deformities. Here, Caliban has an aversion to light; his albino-skin burns like thin parchment when exposed to sunlight. However, there is a sense that he seeks atonement for past sins, and, thanks to the soulful saucer-like eyes of Merchant, we feel his desire to stay on a righteous path.
Despite the fact that we see and appreciate that Caliban is little more than a footnote in the action, Merchant invests him with a degree of yearning and frustration fitting to both the dark world and his circumstances. As an X-Men comic book fan back in the day, I wish Caliban had been introduced, in a more substantial way, earlier in the cinematic universe, and Merchant shows that he would have been the ideal embodiment of the character.
A comedic writer-producer known for his television serial work on The Office and The Ricky Gervais ShowMerchant has lurked along the fringes when it comes to his appearances in front of the camera, seemingly preferring to give voice to animated characters in “Gnomeo & Juliet,” “Robot Chicken,” and recently on The Simpsons and American Dad.
This weekend sets the stage for a marked departure for Merchant. In addition to his role in “Logan,” Merchant enjoys a solid spot in the ensemble dramedy “Table 19” from director Jeffrey Blitz (a journeyman with a stint helming The Office) and celebrated indie screenwriters Jay an Mark Duplass (“Baghead,” “Cyrus”). As Walter Thimple, he is relegated, along with a similar group of wedding guest outcasts (including Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson, Tony Revolori, and June Squibb), to the table that evinces they should have known better than to RSVP to the event. Here, Merchant once again employs his huge, probing orbs in the service of a character seeking to belong.
He looms large with awkward grace, sticking out in the frame, yet intriguingly at peace. Walter is an ex-con slowly revealed over the course of the narrative to be a moral dupe who has developed a healthy sense of humor about his predicament. Merchant shows us the goodness and the enduring spirit of this character, which could easily have been obscured by broad jokes told at his expense.
Caliban and Walter are light-years away from each other, but Merchant locates their individual humanity and brings it to the forefront, reminding audiences that we should keep our eyes and ears on every character in the frame. Every one of them matters.