Warning: Mild spoilers for Logan to follow. Continue at your own risk!
Created by Craig Kyle as part of the X-Men: Evolution animated series, it didn't take long for the character of X-23 to transition to the comics. Now, the character has headed to the big screen as one of the stars of James Mangold's Logan, and she's one of the highlights of the film. Played by talented newcomer Dafne Keen, X-23 is a savage warrior who will leave X-Men fans thrilled. But how does Logan adapt the character of X-23 to the big screen?
Reconnecting With Wolverine
In order to understand X-23, Craig Kyle's favorite creation, you also have to understand the X-Men: Evolution animated series. That series was a fun one, with the core cast rejuvenated; they were transformed into younger characters being taught by a handful of adults, with Wolverine as one of the elders. Kyle's challenge was to create a way for Wolverine to be attractive to younger viewers, and he had the idea of creating a warped, madhouse mirror version of the character — a young clone. As Kyle observed:
"She’s Pinocchio for Marvel Comics, she’s a samurai sword trying to become a real little girl and can she? And it's that journey that will hopefully take decades to tell. I’m real proud of her."
He certainly succeeded, with Kyle and Chris Yost soon bringing the character into the comic book universe. Unfortunately, X-23's comic book debut coincided with the comic book version of Wolverine regaining his memories in the aftermath of the "House of M" event, meaning some of the counterpoints were lost; Kyle had intended to use X-23's background, her knowledge of everything she'd been put through and everybody she'd ever killed, as a deliberate contrast with Wolverine's forgotten past.
The X-23 Project
In both X-Men: Evolution and the comics, X-23 was a solitary figure. The project that created her was an extension of the Weapon X project, attempting to use a sample of Wolverine's DNA to create a clone that could be shaped into a weapon from childhood. Unfortunately, Wolverine's genetic sample was damaged.
Ambitious geneticist Dr. Sarah Kinney was called in, and she realized that the project only had a Y chromosome. Going against orders, she successfully created a viable fetus; as revenge for her disobedience, her co-worker Dr. Zander Rice forced Kinney herself to carry the embryo to term. This was known as X-23, as it was the twenty-third attempt.
The comic book version of X-23 never had much of a childhood; she was brought up to be a living weapon, with the project relentlessly attempting to clamp down on every trace of her humanity. Radiation therapy triggered her X-gene at age 7, and the project coated her claws in adamantium. They also developed a 'trigger scent' to launch her into murderous, uncontrollable rages. Ultimately, Sarah Kinney couldn't live with what she'd done, and broke her out — at the cost of her own life. In honor of Sarah, X-23 took on the identity of Laura Kinney.
The Film Version
The film version of this project is surprisingly different. In Logan, Dafne Keen's Laura is one of many mutants created by the project; this project wasn't focused upon Wolverine, but instead sought to create living weapons out of mutant DNA. The process used was fairly similar — a mutant's DNA was crafted on to a fetus, which was carried to term. However, Logan's version of the experiment involved a lot more mutants; the film carries hints of Magneto and possibly Jean Grey too. This was known as the X-23 project because it was the twenty-third attempt to create mutant weapons, Wolverine being the first.
The project viewed the X-23s as a failure. Just as the comic book version of Laura struggled against her conditioning, with hints of humanity showing through every now and again, so they found the mutants impossible to control. Laura was the closest they came to success; Wolverine's feral nature made her a powerful assassin, and the project was fascinated by that. So they used Wolverine's DNA in particular when creating X-24, and then decided to have the children — now redundant — killed. They had not factored in the nurses working at the lab, who hated seeing what had become of these children; so it was that a number of the children were broken out, including Laura herself.
As you can see, this origin is subtly different. Crucially, the X-23 of the comics is a solitary figure, one of a kind, who has endured a horrific childhood. In contrast, in Logan we see Laura as one of a community of children who are alike in the ways they have suffered. This will create a bond of common suffering and endurance that the comic book version has never seen.
Another Twist in the Tale
Fascinatingly, though, there's one other way in which Laura's origin is very different to that of the comics, or even X-Men: Evolution. In these original versions, you see, X-23 is already an accomplished assassin before we meet her; she's killed everything from US senators to innocent families. In fact, Rice even used her as a weapon against his boss when he made a play to take the project over, manipulating her through the use of trigger scent.
In contrast, the Laura of Logan is relatively innocent; while she has indeed killed, she can justify these murders to herself, as they were all "bad men". She's only killed those who hunted her, those who experimented on her, and those who would have killed her in return. At the same time, we still see how close she comes to crossing that line; when a man tries to stop her shoplifting, she pops her claws.
Ironically, this lessens the twisted reflection that was originally core to her design. Yes, she will have to live with the killing; but she simply hasn't got much to regret. Little wonder her nightmare is very different to Logan's; she dreams of bad men hurting her, and in her waking moments she strives to defend herself with lethal skill.
A Younger Hero
Finally, as we contrast the two versions of the character, let's briefly focus on the most visible difference of all; the character's ages. The X-23 of the comics became a living weapon at age 7, when her mutation was triggered; but by the time we meet her, she's in her late teens. This has allowed exploration of mature themes of relationships, self-harm, and some pretty fascinating questions of identity.
In contrast, though, the Laura of Logan is in her early teens. This seems to have been done very deliberately, to strip away the sexiness of the female superhero, and instead leave us sympathizing with a child who has suffered terribly. After all, films have done sexy assassins stripped bare of their humanity before; James Mangold sought to do something new, something emotionally powerful. So he's chosen to show Laura as a child, tugging at the heartstrings as much as possible. It's a smart move, and it will also have huge potential when it comes to the inevitable sequel (which Mangold himself is already game for). We get to watch Laura grow up.
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All in all, Dafne Keen's Laura is a fascinating version of a compelling comic book / animated character. While Logan is — for Fox — unusually faithful to the comics, the film puts Laura in a very different context, as one of a handful of living weapons created to wreak havoc. In both comic and film, though, her destiny is inevitable; she's the future of Wolverine.
And I, for one, can't wait to see what comes next.