On the surface, Logan is a superhero movie featuring the return of two of movie-dom’s most beloved and venerable mutants. Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman were both on hand when Bryan Singer’s 2000 feature X-Men blew open the doors to modern motion picture superhero movies, allowing Marvel to challenge DC’s previous dominance. Now, 17 years later, Stewart and Jackman are back, playing the characters they have repeatedly returned to over the course of this century. Barring a change of heart by one or both actors, this will be the last time we’ll see this Charles Xavier and this Wolverine.
Logan is about mortality. We all grow old. Everyone reading this who saw X-Men theatrically in 2000 has undergone a major life shift during the intervening years. Grandparents and parents age and die. We see their strength diminish as the years pass. It’s as melancholy as it is inevitable. For superheroes, however, there are no "golden years." Reboots and remakes are common. If an actor gets too old to play a role, the part is recast. That’s why Superman circa 2017 is about the same age as Superman circa 1950. Logan changes this up with a simple premise: What happens to superheroes when they get old? In this final Wolverine movie, Professor X is in his 90s. He is afflicted with some form of degenerative brain disease which has sapped his powers and made him prone to violent psychic seizures. Logan’s strength is diminished and his healing powers are waning.
The setting is vaguely dystopian. It’s 2029 and Mutant-kind has been all-but-eradicated. No new mutants have been born in 25 years and the existing ones have been hunted to extinction. Except for Professor X, Wolverine, and the bald-headed tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant), there may be none left. The screenplay, credited to Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green doesn’t provide much background. Although Logan is technically the conclusion of the so-called "Wolverine Trilogy" and is the ninth film focused on X-Men characters, this is designed as a stand-alone. The story is less interested in canon and continuity than establishing a framework for a tale about love, guilt, responsibility, and redemption. There are traditional bad guys in Logan — a mad scientist type (Richard E. Grant), a cock-sure henchman (Boyd Holbrook), and a next-gen killer (Jackman) — but the true villain is one that no one, not even the great men of this piece, can overcome: mortality, the robber of virility and strength, the crippler of all.
The movie introduces us to Logan the caregiver. Along with Caliban, he is watching over the terminally ill 90-something Charles Xavier, who even at his most lucid isn’t the man he once was. Charles has no future and, to prevent him from harming others with his occasional mental meltdowns, he is kept in confinement. The job suits Logan, who wants no part in interacting with humans and whose legacy of death and violence weighs heavily on his conscience. That’s when Laura (Dafne Keen) enters his life. Not only is she the rarest of rare — a young mutant — but she has been genetically engineered using Logan’s DNA. She’s his daughter and she is being hunted. That sets the stage for a chase, a road trip, and a final confrontation. This is like no superhero movie we have ever before seen. Nor is there likely to be another one of this sort anytime soon. I’m curious about how enthusiastically those who enjoy the over-the-top spectacle of typical comic book fare react to Logan. Has this been seen as too grim and joyless or is it regarded as a much-needed antidote to the blasé blandness that has overtaken the genre?
Logan isn’t the first superhero movie with a dark tone. Batman has lived there for decades and Zack Snyder did his best to pull Superman into the abyss. For a Marvel character (even one being produced outside of the MCU due to the X-Men’s rights having been parceled off to Fox), this is new territory. In his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan discovered the magical formula that makes dour superhero movies work; it has to do with the melding of tone, atmosphere, and emotional content. Snyder didn’t understand this and made it all about the aesthetic. Mangold, who was also responsible for 2013’s The Wolverine, returns to what one might call the "Nolan basics." It’s therefore no surprise that Logan is the best superhero film since The Dark Knight.
There’s no shortage of violence in Logan. The movie earns its R-rating by not pulling away from the gruesome results of Wolverine’s claws encountering human flesh. (There’s also a fair amount of profanity. We get to hear Professor X utter the f-word.) The visceral take on Wolverine’s beheadings and disembowelments is in keeping with the overall tone. Yes, there are a few scenes when the protagonist loses control and eviscerates large numbers of opponents but the rah-rah element common in comic book-fueled action sequences isn’t there. This is a pugilist in the twilight of his career. He might win a round but it’s hard to see him making it to the end of the bout. Laura adds an element of youth and newness to the proceedings. She’s no less ferocious than Wolverine, has an equally large chip on her shoulders, and is just starting to come into her own. But inexperience limits her effectiveness and that’s where Wolverine comes in.
We’ve seen Jackman grow as an actor during the nearly two decades he has played Wolverine. He has added layers of depth and films like Prisoners (for which he should have gotten an Oscar nomination) have challenged viewers’ perceptions of him. Yet, in playing a character he has returned to over the years, he has now given his finest performance, a complex mix of regrets and self-doubt that reveals a Logan we never got to know. Stewart, who has worn the co-crown with Ian McKellan as the most lauded actor in the X-Men franchise, provides viewers with a character who, like McKellen’s Sherlock in Mr. Holmes, has been reduced by age but still retains fragments of his once-mighty intellect. Newcomer Keen is all passion and energy and would provide a worthy lead for a spin-off series if the filmmakers choose to go in that direction. Laura’s ascension almost makes this a Rocky/Creed situation (with Jackman as Stallone).
Strangely, this time of year has become the go-to time for non-standard, R-rated superhero films. In terms of tone and content, Logan is Deadpool’s polar opposite but both productions refuse to play by traditional superhero movie rules. With its overt allusions to Shane (clips of which are shown) and echoes of Unforgiven, Logan demands to be given consideration as a "serious" movie. More than any other comic book character outside of Nolan’s Batman, Wolverine has evolved. With his glimpse into what superhero movies can be, Mangold has given us something sadly lacking in recent genre entries: hope.