Chalk it up to intense cynicism, or maybe just the experience of having lived through more blockbuster springs and summers than we care to remember, but when the first “Logan” trailer premiered back in October of last year, a couple of us had our doubts. You put officially the world’s most grief-and-regret-ridden song, Johnny Cash‘s cover of “Hurt,” over a trailer for a movie about a dude with retractable metal claws and the power to self-heal while chewing on a stogie, and you’re asking for a comparison that the film surely could not sustain. Hackles were raised at how the film was potentially looking to borrow gravitas it could not possibly earn on its own merits.

READ MORE: 12 Minute Video Breaks Down Easter Eggs, References & More In ‘Logan’

The glimpses we saw, moody shots of dim light filtering through misty woods, of Hugh Jackman‘s scarred, sinewed back and bloodied, arthritic-looking knuckles, were promising, for sure. But James Mangold, the film’s director, had already had a go at the character with “The Wolverine” and while that is very far from a bad film (until the last twenty minutes or so, when it is very close to a bad film), the sum total of all his high-falutin’ references (many of which are exactly the same films he drew on for “Logan”) never amounted to anything really resonant — nothing that would justify “Hurt.”

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Rather than embody the spirit of Ozu’sTokyo Story,” for example, he had Wolverine take a train journey in Japan. His inspirations were less about story or theme, and more a collection of direct visual callbacks, sometimes recreated almost whole-cloth, in a way that homaged but also de-contextualized the original scene from its classic architecture. What did it mean that Wolverine was shot with arrows till he bristled with them against a snowy backdrop like in “Throne of Blood,” or that a shot of a woman about to throw herself from a cliff resembles an equivalent moment in “Black Narcissus“? Nothing much, except that Mangold has excellent taste and (therefore) a good working knowledge of the back catalogues of Akira Kurosawa and Powell & Pressburger. Why should we believe that “Logan” would be any better?

READ MORE: James Mangold Talks The Problem With Superhero Movies & The Last Line Of ‘Logan’

But “Logan” is better — significantly so — than “The Wolverine,” even if Mangold’s tendency to over-literalize his reference points meets a kind of event horizon here (no better way to make sure everyone gets that you’re referencing “Shane” than by including a scene wholesale in your movie, and then having your sole remaining living character quote it at the end). It’s a big, bruised, broken brute of a film, a wounded howl against the dying of the light and the closest the “X-Men” franchise, or indeed any Marvel character film, has ever got to real, close-to-the-adamantium-grafted-bone tragedy — all of which, ironically, it probably would have earned even without the heavy-handed “Shane” comparison. Set away in the future (or, let’s face it, a future given that this is but a single strand in the “X-Men” continuity linguine) it has the luxury of an air of finality that so few other comic-book/superhero properties do, and boy, does it make use of that — to paraphrase Mr. Cash: Everyone we know goes away in the end. If every superhero film ever has always been predicated on the idea of fighting injustice, “Logan” tackles the biggest cosmic injustice of them all: we age, we falter, we fuck up our legacies, we die and it’s just not fair.

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It does all this thematically rich, melancholic work, and it also slices open about thirty heads in graphic, gory, spurting detail. Only one of those elements requires an R-rating, but the balance of the critical and box office success of “Logan,” which is already looking to be a done deal after an (initial) 93% Rotten Tomatoes score and a very strong opening weekend, is always going to be linked to its rating. This is the mystery of the “R”: while it technically reduces the audience for a film, and does automatically mean that a blockbuster will never quite blockbust in the way even a far lesser PG-13 movie might, it also becomes part of the film’s marketing arsenal.

The R-rating here, even before we’d seen anything of the movie, was a way of signaling the seriousness of the film’s intent, just like securing that song was, and a way of emphasizing the depth of Fox‘s commitment to the darkness of this script — darkness that is not, for once, just an aesthetic filter set to “gritty,” but actually rooted in the characters and their downward-spiral arcs. “We believe so much in the integrity of this story,” the R-rating seems to say, “that we’re willing to treat our potential audience like the head of a bad-guy cholo stealing rims in a car park, and slash it in half.” The domestic take of even the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, “The Passion of the Christ,” is way less than half that of the PG-13 “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” after all.

  • Barry Munkton

    Please place a spoiler alert warning at the top of this article. I’m pretty sure you just ruined it for me.

    • SlamAdams

      Not sure why you read it in the first place.

  • Arthur G Pym

    Completely agree, found the narrative and thematic beats extremely satisfying but the bursts of cartoonish violence (especially towards the end) were kind of gratuitous and frankly silly in an otherwise grown-up movie.

  • Dheep’ P

    Just saw this about two hours ago and still high on the thrill and excitement of this movie. I have never been a big Jackman /Wolverine or X-men fan Or even much of a Patrick Stewart fan. But I did, for the most part enjoy “The Wolverine”, and knew Mangold could deliver something better. And man, did he !
    But I just knew this (Logan)had something more. I had also been reading the early reviews. Even Dhargis from the times grudgingly wrote good stuff about Logan.
    Fine job Mr.Jackman & Stewart.

  • Josh King

    Man, totally with you about the professor’s profanity. And he gratuitous violence. I knew I was going into an R rated version. But the R rating encompasses a broad spectrum. I thought it would be used more tastefully.

    The gore of the opening fight had me worried, folllowed by Wolverine using the F word 10 times in like the 15 min, and finally Professor X dropping f bombs, I actually left. Not angrily, I knew this level of “R” was possible. I just felt like it changed the constancy of them as characters..

  • Sam Besser

    I have to disagree. While I do agree that the elements that made the movie R-rated are not what make the movie great, I think they are important for two reasons: First, Mangold has said that they made the movie on condition that it would be R-rated, because he was concerned if they did it as PG13 the studio would push to make the movie more kid-friendly later on, removing a lot of the more adult themes and ideas. For example, a PG13 movie could never have a 12-year-old girl tearing bad guys to shreds with her claws – the possibility of younger teens seeing this as a glorification of violence is too great (and something X-men films have been guilty of in the past). By forcing the R-rating you are ensuring your audience is adult enough to understand the film and appreciate its complex ideas.
    Secondly, there is a strong character reason for the graphic violence. Logan has spent his entire life as a violent man, often despite his best intentions. As someone with claws that literally pierce his skin every time he uses them, we’ve never seen a true depiction of how grisly and awful these weapons are. Now we have, and we can better understand how difficult it must be for Logan to live with the violence and carnage he has enacted. Because it’s horrifying.
    And finally, come on – there’s no way we can have a real-deal down-and-out Logan without a ton of F-bombs. He’s just that kind of guy!