From the moment that we first caught a glimpse of an older looking Wolverine struggling through the Mexican desert, to the all-too-haunting strings of Jonny Cash’s “Hurt”, I knew, for better or worse, that James Mangold’s follow-up to The Wolverine would be something special. Our last outing in the X-Men universe was the unfortunately bombastic and ultimately disappointing Apocalypse, but Logan was presented to be an altogether different beast. Nominally taking its cues from the Old Man Logan stories, it purported to be a character-driven and altogether grim look at the future of the X-Men, lacking the genocidal course shown in Days Of Future Past, instead imbued with an altogether more soul-destroying ennui. So, was Logan a fitting cap to Hugh Jackman’s time as the character, or would the film let the “R” rating get to its head and ruin the attempt?
It is 2029, and no new mutants have been born for decades. Logan (Jackman) lives a low-key life, caring for the senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), coping with the growing failure of his regenerative abilities and contemplating a bleak future. His world is turned upside down when he meets “X-23” (Dafne Keen), a young girl with his abilities, born and raised in a lab, who needs transport to a location near the Canadian border. Pursued by ruthless enemies like Donald Pierce (Boyd Halbrook) and forced to deal with the potentially lethal degeneration of Xavier’s mental power, Logan struggles to find a purpose in a world he no longer seems to belong in.
I will say this about Logan: in terms of crafting a narrative wherein you really care about the characters depicted, wherein you are truly engaged with their journeys and their fates, this film not only blows the recent slew of Marvel offerings out of the water, it drags them from the shore and buries them six feet under. Under concrete. Someone sitting near me was in tears as the credits rolled, and it was completely understandable: compared with the quip fests that were Doctor Strange or Civil War, Logan grabs you, from start to finish, and leaves you emotionally spent upon the conclusion.
Driven with remarkable strength by the depth of Hugh Jackman’s 8th performance as Logan/Wolverine, Logan opens with the titular “hero” engaged in a drunken brawl with some gangbangers who soon regret the car they attempted to jack: the Wolverine gets away with it, but without the same kind of panache he previously has. Here is a world without mutants (treated like a conspiracy theory more than history), where Logan wears glasses to read and drives a limo to make money, eking out a miserable existence as part of a twisted life spent caring for a senile Charles Xavier. Logan is a beaten down man, more of a nagged spouse to Xavier’s doddering old man than the fighter of old, aided only by the strangely compelling Caliban, played ably by Stephen Merchant.
This level of depression would turn anyone off, but it doesn’t take long for Logan to relax into the grim world it has presented and let the main point of the plot take over, namely Logan’s journey alongside Xavier and X-23, a mute girl still ably played by newcomer Keen. The trio, pursued by an array of nasty people, embark an on episodic odyssey that bears more of a resemblance to Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us than it does to Old Man Logan, but loses nothing for that: that constant sense of foreboding, of the traditional narrative breaking down, and of Wolverine being a herald of death, it all imbues Logan with so much tension and drive that it becomes impossible to tear your eyes away.
But the main point is that crucial Logan/X-23 relationship, that really turns Logan from being a blood-soaked profanity fest – and boy does that go overboard fast, an example of diminishing returns if ever there was one – and makes it into a relationship driven drama. Logan lacks a place in a modern world where a technologically driven humanity has turned away from the fruits of nature, be it farm grown corn or mutation, and then this young, traumatised girl wanders into his life: a smaller, wilder and lost version of himself, that needs guidance. Logan isn’t the man to provide this, not at first: the beauty of Logan is watching Jackman transform into such a man. He’s had such a long time with this character, and following on from his emotional turn in The Wolverine, Jackman delivers the goods big time here.
Mangold uses frequent allusions to the film Shane, and its story of a gunslinger unable to find peace or a solid place in the world. Indeed, a large section of the second act is a reverent facsimile of the western classic. Logan is a man who seemingly just wants there to be “no more guns in the valley”, but his violent past and violent present continually stop him from getting this: the dream of taking to the high seas with Xavier is a potent fantasy, but forever out of reach, with the peril of X-23 keeping Logan grounded in the present quest.
Xavier’s part in the story is perhaps the most tragic, that which really paints the bleakest picture. The timelines for the X-Men franchise can seem a bit muddled, but the finale of Days Of Future Past indicated a positive picture for mutant-kind heading into the future: now a few decades later, things have fallen to pieces, exemplified by Xavier and his degenerated faculties, haunted by some unelaborated upon calamity in his past connected to seizures that cause time and space to stop working as they should. It can be hard to get used to this miserable epilogue to the existing X-Men film canon, but it’s chinks of light that keep you hooked. Logan’s loyalty to Xavier is a sometimes-bitter thing, but an unspoken bond of service and loyalty is very much evident, something that keeps the Logan character sympathetic even as he drinks, curses and mauls his way across the running time. As we rave about Jackman’s multiple outing as Wolverine we should also a spare a moment for Stewart, taking Xavier to a strange and heart-breaking new place.
The technology vs nature theme should not be understated either. Logan is at pains to showcase the pitfalls of a world where reliance on mechanical innovations has reached a fever pitch: corn syrup from cloned vegetables is transported en masse by driverless trucks, while the men tracking Logan and his charges are voluntary cyborgs. Logan’s general journey has the feel of a gradual return to nature – the final destination is a rural spot near the Canadian border, a marked contrast to the brick-walled US/Mexico border the film starts near – and to the way things should be: the actual finale takes this theme and runs with it to perfection.
If the film has flaws, it’s in the aforementioned bloodshed and profanity, which start off different and visceral in terms of their role in this franchise and the superhero genre in general, but which grates and distracts by the time we get to the finale. That goes double for the bloodshed assigned to X-23, like Hit-Girl on steroids, that opens with a shocking sequence involving a severed human head, but which is shrug-inducing some time later. The “R” rating marks Logan out, but it doesn’t know quite when to stop. Other than that, Logan’s Achilles heel is a common on for the genre, namely the antagonists, with neither Pierce’s nasty hunter, or Richard E. Grant’s limited involvement as an amoral scientists providing much in the way of suitable bad guys (though it is good to see Halbrook, such an important part of what made Netflix’s Narcos work, getting onto the next level of the Hollywood ladder). The real villain of Logan is more like the creeping inevitability of time, that even someone like Wolverine has to face up to eventually.
Mangold’s direction is steady and competent. It lacks the frills possible in the exotic locale of The Wolverine, but is in many ways better, a kind of modern western in scope. We go from bland desert vistas where the baking heat is almost palpable, to the deceptively peaceful forest lands of later in the film, and Mangold makes sure that his camera eats up the scenery at every turn, when it isn’t locked steadily on Jackman’s weary face. The script sparkles in its excellent application of brevity: Logan isn’t exactly a quotable film, but has lines that will stick with you for a while, namely of the “last” variety, and I’m unable to enunciate more clearly what I mean without giving away the game entirely. And the score is an understated thing, to the point that it frequently doesn’t exist. Nevertheless there is sure to be few dry eyes in the house when Johnny Cash’s seminal “The Man Comes Around” starts its final airing.
Logan is thus one of the great films of the superhero genre, to be put on the pedestal with The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2 or Iron Man. It is at that position because of the expertise in demonstrates in terms of emotional engagement with its audience, because of Jackman’s magnetic last performance in the role and because of the way it dares to alter its universe drastically, going all-in in a manner that Deadpool flattered to deceive with. The future of the franchise is well and truly up in the air, though it’s doubtful we’re done mutant kind on film: Logan is the best possible send-off to this phase, an evolution of the genre, that comes highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).