After last year’s release of Deadpool, there was concern floating around that other pictures, namely superhero films, would seek out that “R” rating for the sake of trying to repeat its success, using curse words and bloody violence as proxy, not fully understanding what made Deadpool such a hit went beyond its colorful language. Then it was announced that Logan, what could be Hugh Jackman’s last outing as the Wolverine, was rated R and rather than stir up worry that it was simply going to be used to allow Logan to growl “fuck” more often, instead it made a great deal of sense. The X-Men films, particularly the ones where Jackman’s Wolverine starred, always seemed as if they had declawed their hero whose dry wit, casual alcoholism and berserker rage always stopped short of its true potential, no matter how strong Jackman was as the titular hero. Logan embraces those possibilities and delivers upon not only a version of the character that comic book fans have been itching to see for years, but also a version of the character that even the most casual viewer would be drawn to. Logan isn’t such a strong film because of its rating, or because of the wickedly delivered upon violence that sees Wolverine’s claws pierce skulls and rip throats apart, or even because of the “gritty” sensibility that came along with the rating. Logan is such a success in spite of all of that, having created yes, perhaps the most violent film to come out of the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes, but also creating a film whose characters and their relationships are the most significant part of the movie.
When Logan begins, we’re immediately clued into the fact that this is not the X-Men world we’ve come to know. Based loosely on the “Old Man Logan” comics, this version sees us in the year 2029, Logan is old, world-weary, and doesn’t fight like he used to, with wounds that heal much slower, if they heal at all. He’s living on the outskirts of society on the U.S. and Mexico border with a mentally deteriorating Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart returning to the role with glee at his character’s new attitude) whose seizures have become something that could wreak havoc on anyone in the area. They’re aided by the sun fearing Caliban (Stephen Merchant), but it’s hinted early on that the rest of the mutants no longer exist as Logan tries to run as far away from his past and its adjoining legacy as he can. This changes however with the introduction of Laura (or X-23) played by Dafne Keen with tremendous confidence, who shares more than a few traits with Logan. Tasked with delivering her to a sort of safe haven, Logan and Charles put aside their day to day routines to help her run from the forces trying to capture her.
James Mangold returns as a director following The Wolverine and this time around there’s a new assurance at hand, a dexterity that gives the many visceral fight scenes in the film a kinetic energy. From the opening melancholy of Logan’s isolation, to the introduction of Laura and her visible feral energy, to fight scenes which don’t exploit the films graphic nature but elicited more than a few audible gasps, Mangold is just as much a key part to the film’s success as Jackman or Keen. From the very first shot to the very last, every frame feels perfectly rendered and absolutely necessary to the narrative trajectory. Similarly, the screenplay is tightly written with no wasted moment. While there was some reliance on exposition, it still felt like it was necessary to help play catch up for the audience who needed to know how the X-Men went from fighting against evil as a team to being all but extinct. If there was a slight catch, it would be that there’s a sense the relationship between Laura and Logan should’ve been developed sooner in the film. While there’s a tumultuous relationship from the beginning, allowing a lot of humor to be derived from their very similar yet polar opposite sensibilities, it’s one that might’ve been given layers sooner to deliver a more timely emotional payoff.
That plus a a slightly ridiculous villain appearance that came off as too cartoonish for the rest of the film, to the point where this viewer was momentarily taken out of the film, are the only sour notes the film leaves.
However, no matter the wonderfully taut script, acrobatic choreography or the lush and expansive cinematography by John Mathieson, Logan is undoubtedly Keen and Jackman’s film. Newcomer Keen goes toe-to-toe with Jackman with ease, fearsome in her brittle and uncapped rage but still remarkably innocent, having endured horrible trauma for someone so young. Her dynamic with Jackman’s Logan is the film’s highlight as we watch this gruff, retired hero trying to wrap his head around the mess he’s found himself in with a girl who both has idolized his past heroics but also sees him as someone she might need to protect.
Jackman has become so synonymous with the Wolverine role that it’s become easy to dismiss his performance as the character, especially in films where he was trotted out more than a real, fleshed out character. But it is worth noting that this is, by far, the best Jackman has ever been in the role. Retaining the rough and wisecracking nature that has made him such a formidable favorite in the past but imbuing him with a potent sense of vulnerability, his performance here is the culmination of all his work as the character, walking around with the weight of all of his losses and grief visible on his shoulders. Its tremendous work and a reminder of how talented Jackman is with the right roles and writing.
Logan is gritty, and it’s dark but it’s far from being full of despair, despite the horrors the characters witness as the film progresses. Rather, there’s hope to be found, be it in the “Eden” that Laura is so desperately seeking, or in the possibility of the haven that Charles and Logan dream up for themselves or even in Laura and her gifts in and of themselves. Logan’s darker nature shouldn’t tell other studios that all of their films need to copy the same aesthetic–goodness knows we don’t need DC to see what will likely be the success of the film and decide that Wonder Woman needs more gore–but it should signal that audiences are ready for superhero films that go beyond what we’ve come to expect of them in term character exploration. The big, explosive team ups are wonderful, delightful and inspire a giddiness in full blown fans, but films like Logan that inspire a longing to dive deep into these characters and what lies beyond their powers are a reminder of the possibility of the genre beyond those crossover events. What makes for a good superhero, and what has always made for the most intriguing of them, is when the writers look past the cape and cowl and dig deep into the psyche of the person wearing them and the relationships they cherish. Logan does this, and if future superhero projects see the film and decide that it’s a model they’d like to try on for themselves, then fans could be in for something of a treat.