With each passing year, the number of superhero stories flooding into theaters seems to quintuple. There are more team-up movies, crossover television events, and just an excess of all around masked altruism. It’s reaching the point where one can feel as if they’re being buried alive under six feet of capes and computer generated rubble. Luckily, Logan is not one of those movies. Despite featuring the rugged grimace that started this 21st century genre craze, or maybe because of it, Hugh Jackman’s swan song to the claws is a stripped down and bitter affair.
It turns out that like the quieter, more deconstructionist Westerns that heralded a reflective temperament following the indulgences of 1950s Oaters, Logan seeks to carve out a fairly intimate character study about an aged do-gooder in a country for no old mutants. And the film wildly succeeds at its goals with bloody verve. Seriously, there is so much blood. More miraculous still, though, is that Logan is also without question the best superhero movie in years, and certainly the most ambitious one since Christopher Nolan hung up the cape.
The film makes no illusions about its Western influences. Taking a page out of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, as well as perhaps Sam Peckinpah’s own story of American legends aging gracelessly in ignominious gore in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Logan opens on a grim and sparse future. It’s the year 2029, and even though there is still no wall built along the Mexican border, things remain fairly apocalyptic for mutantkind.
There have been no new mutants born in the last 25 years, causing a graying and bearded Logan to suggest maybe they were just God’s mistake. Worse, his mentor and hero Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has developed dementia, which forces him to go into hiding since the U.S. government has classified his deteriorating brain as a WMD. Xavier wastes away waiting to die—and angrily dropping F-bombs like it’s a David Mamet play—in a capsized water tower south of the border. Logan meanwhile works part-time as a limousine driver, hoping to save enough money to buy himself and Xavier a boat so they can spend their remaining days at sea.
Yep, after 200 years, Logan’s mutant genes are also failing him. He can still heal from gunshots or stab wounds, but it takes a very long (and painful) time. Thus two old men waiting to expire will suddenly see their lives turned upside down when a Mexico City nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) smuggles a young girl across the border. That girl is named Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen), and it’s fair to say she’s a blood relation to Logan. After all, she shares his healing factor, adamantium claws, and a mighty prickly disposition.
She’s also the first new mutant Charles or Logan have seen in decades. Hence, like Children of Men, she is the future they must protect. But they’d best hurry, because government bad men led by a cheerfully malicious Boyd Holbrook, a bounty hunter with a mechanical hand, want her head something fierce.
The more utilitarian and economical Logan is in its American frontier simplicity, the more subtly impressive director James Mangold’s film reveals itself. Mangold and co-writers Michael Green and Scott Frank wallow in an affinity for Western iconography. But it is more than the sub-genre trappings that play in the film’s favor. Rather, unlike so many recent blockbusters that put on a small polish of “espionage” or “mystical fantasy” sheen to an otherwise turgid formula, Logan escapes most of its clichés while basking in practical stunts, old fashioned photography, and a kind of defiantly over-the-top grit.
Indeed, Logan is incredibly violent. Almost excessively so in moments where either the titular anti-hero or his pint-sized protégé ferociously maul their enemies like they’re Leonardo DiCaprio on a bear hunt. But while the picture relishes its R-rating too much at times, it also marks a refreshing re-think of superhero action. These are legends whose lives have been glamorized in comic books, just as the dime novel turned Congressman David Crockett into a raccoon-capped “Davy.” Still, the twinkle of myth remains here; you can see it in Hugh Jackman’s eye.
As an actor who’s played a superhero longer than any performer, Jackman continues to hold onto a passion that has long left most of his contemporaries. And unlike other haphazard X-Men movies from the past, Logan meets that commitment in its better moments, such as when a hero called the Wolverine must say some words of sorrow, and they just will not come. But it’s all there on Jackman’s marred face.
Stewart is also well utilized; he and Jackman started this franchise together nearly 20 years ago. And in what will likely be the last installment for each, there is a palpable camaraderie, like two grizzled stage actors who’ve been sharing and fighting for the spotlight over their entire careers. Stewart has played Charles Xavier so many times that he can elicit boundless empathy in his sleep. But getting to play that same sweetness in a dying mind that cannot remember which of his friends are alive or dead, or where he is, brings a renewed poignancy to his final bow.
Dafne Keen is where much of the film’s lightness comes from. Undoubtedly destined to be the crowd-pleasing favorite when the movie opens, her Laura is often quiet and remote, but she is every bit as feral and cantankerous as the old man, adding the right amount of youthful counterbalance. She also holds her own against Jackman while swearing in Spanish, which is its own kind of achievement.
Still, Logan is not flawless. While Holbrook is fairly fun as a slimy bad man who seems like a slightly more exaggerated, comic book version of Ben Foster’s fiend in Mangold’s straight ahead Western, 3:10 to Yuma, Holbrook’s Donald Pierce is never actually that intimidating. And Richard E. Grant, always a welcome presence, is primarily wasted as the film’s other villain, the mad scientist who created Laura and who is decidedly British—and did I mention mad?
Their third act secret weapon also represents more of a need for a physical threat as opposed to the ingenious storytelling twist one imagines the filmmakers were attempting. Nevertheless, even in these later missteps, the film still features some of its best elements, such as images of contracted government players chasing the half-Mexican Laura across woodlands like she’s one of the supposed boogeymen that ICE is currently being unleashed on. Just as Bryan Singer used the fears stoked during the Bush years against members of the LGBTQ community as parables in his early X-Men films, Logan is a compelling update of those undergirding themes, leading to splendidly uncomfortable results.
In the end, Logan achieves its goal of saying goodbye to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in a brutally earnest way. By the closing credits, audiences will feel like they’ve lost something. And yet, what they have gained is a superhero movie worth remembering.
Logan is in theaters now. This review was first published on Feb. 17, 2017.