Hugh Jackman claims that he’s hanging up the Wolverine claws after ‘Logan’. James Mangold’s battered and embittered love letter to the wounded warrior is one of the most pained and deep deconstructions of the pop culture icon that the character has received in any medium.
From the beginning, the ‘X-Men’ movies have always been among the most serious and somber of comic book blockbusters. It started that way because the series needed to prove that superhero movies were worthy of serious consideration as art, and the franchise could bear the weight thanks into the baked-in metaphor about discrimination. As the genre expanded, the ‘X’ flicks got a little lighter, peaking with the cartoonish and willfully immature ‘Deadpool’ this time last year. When the dreary ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ landed with a thud and a shrug in the summer, it felt like this series might not be worth taking seriously anymore. Fortunately, ‘Logan’ is sure to be remembered fondly whenever Hollywood’s love affair with pulpy superhero fiction finally wears out its welcome.
When Hugh Jackman first appears for his final dance with Wolverine, he’s awoken from an all-night bender, sleeping in the car he drives for hire. Some thugs attempt to steal the car and Wolvie takes out his claws and lets ’em have it. It’s a bloody mess of an opening action scene, brutal and openly R-rated. That’ll be cause for excitement for long-time fans of the character who’ve dreamed of seeing Wolverine unleash a beserker attack without any restraints from the Comics Code or the MPAA. Oh, you’ll get that here, but it’s not pleasant. Wolverine’s nasty and gory assaults are disturbing in their violence. The novelty soon wears off once it’s clear that the violence in the movie comes with pain. This isn’t a splatstick action joygasm like ‘Deadpool’. This movie is weighted in existential angst about a man who never wanted to be a hero and can barely remember the time when he was one.
The year is 2029. Mutants have all but gone extinct for mysterious reasons. The only known survivors stick together like a broken family bonded by mutual grief. Logan is haunted by all the violence and loss he doled out over a lifetime and is starting to welcome the idea of death (which is good news since his healing powers don’t work like they used to and death could be comin’ up fast). He lives in an abandoned warehouse in the desert with Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a mutant whose skills to detect other mutants were used by dark forces during some unknown purge and is riddled with guilt about it. Together, they care for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose mind is ailing and is now prone to seizures that could paralyze a city or kill thousands. (The film even suggests that actually happened, and the weight of the accident nearly destroyed him). They aren’t exactly a happy trio, and their only hope for the future is to one day live on a boat in an even more isolated area.
Change to this dreary routine arrives in the form of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen). She’s the first mutant that anyone has seen in years and her powers are pretty damn familiar given that they’re specifically Wolverine’s powers. It’s clear that she’s some sort of daughter from some sort of science experiment. Charles (passionately) and Logan (reluctantly) agree to take her to a new mutant Eden that may or may not exist. They hit the road, pursued by shady government agents led by Richard E. Grant.
‘Logan’ is a road movie and also kind of a Western. Mangold gives the film a dusty aesthetic to suggest that cowboy form, but its fatalism and wounded heroism signify the Western motifs even more. It almost goes without saying that this is the best standalone Wolverine movie (even if Mangold’s previous dalliance with the character did a decent job). However, it’s surprising that this is easily one of the bleakest and most insightful superhero movies as well. Mangold has pulled the wounded tragedy baked into Wolverine and moved it to the forefront, drawing comparisons with endless Western heroes much like how his previous movie played with Wolvie’s debt to samurai tropes. The analogy gets a little grating when the filmmaker refuses to stop quoting ‘Shane’ and forcing those comparisons, but with this much filmmaking freedom comes a little indulgence.
While ‘Logan’ delivers plenty of brutal spectacle and thoughtful filmmaking, it is above all else a showcase for three remarkable performances. Hugh Jackman obviously has the big one. He takes almost two decades worth of history with the character and infuses it into a fractured shell of a superhero destroyed by memory and pain. He’s devastating in the role when asked to do drama and horrifyingly vicious when delivering action. Anyone who once doubted the actor’s casting or commitment to the role now has feature-length evidence to deliver an apology.
Just as good is Patrick Stewart, who’s also quietly saying farewell to his iconic X-Man. He’s also been the heart of these movies, but here plays such a destroyed and guilt-ridden yet hopeful figure that he’s genuinely heartbreaking. Were it not for the fact that this is a superhero movie, both actors would likely be in the running for awards next year. But ‘Logan’ remains a comic book blockbuster no matter how wounded and thoughtful, so no one should hold their breath.
The other extraordinary performance comes from the young Dafne Keen, whose Laura/X-23 is alternately a feral beast, innocent blank slate, and youngster ruined by a traumatic upbringing. Her performance is mostly silent, but both vividly emotional and terrifyingly powerful. It was a risk to create such a challenging role dependent on a young actor and it’s a miracle that the filmmakers were able to find someone who could pull it off while going toe-to-toe with Jackman and Stewart at their best. Well done, gang.
Of course, ‘Logan’ isn’t perfect. The mixture of thematically ambitious storytelling and thoughtfully slow pacing ensures that things run on too long, and eventually the movie runs out of steam towards the climax (though not as painfully as the robo-samurai nonsense that sputtered ‘The Wolverine’ to a halt). Likewise, Mangold and his fellow screenwriters are sometimes too vague in their backstory (mystery is nice, confusion is not) and too overt in their symbolism, often banging audiences over the head in a manner that even feels excessive in superhero cinema.
Thankfully, the problems are few and far between. For the most part, ‘Logan’ easily establishes itself as one of the finest outings in this franchise and a Wolverine movie remarkably adult and ambitious. (I didn’t even get into the subplot about the evils of corporate control, but then the movie doesn’t get into that much either.) If this is to be the franchise’s farewell to the character, there couldn’t be a better finale. This isn’t just the best Wolverine movie to date, it might be the best story about Wolverine ever produced. That’s pretty special. Don’t skip it.