The year is 2029. As far as anyone knows, no new mutants have been born in the last twenty-five years, and the legend of the X-Men have been left to the pages of comic books. Always a perpetual loner, James Howlett aka Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), has even further isolated himself, living off the grid in a remote industrial warehouse, where he cares for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the once great Professor X, who is now battling dementia and diminished control of his still fearsome powers. When Logan leaves to eke out a living as a limo driver, the mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) fretfully watches over Charles. But with each fight he gets into, Logan is growing weaker, and with each passing day, his will to live is eroding. Part of the former hero dreams of buying a boat, and sailing off into the peaceful sunset. Part of him wants to literally put a bullet in his brain and end it all. So begins “Logan,” a movie with the bleakest vision of Wolverine yet, but also hands down the best treatment the character has received on the big screen in the fifteen plus years Jackman has inhabited the role.
With refreshingly crisp storytelling in the script by Scott Frank, Michael Green, and director James Mangold, the plot is quite lean. Logan is reluctantly tasked with protecting Laura (Dafne Keen), a young girl with some, shall we say, uncanny gifts, all while fighting off thugs from a shady biotech corporation, led by footsoldier Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and his boss, the twisted scientist Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), who are looking to bring her in. Thus, a road adventure unfolds, with Logan sourly behind the wheel, and Charles thrilled at the vibrant new mutant life that has been brought into their sphere. Indeed, for all those other superhero franchises that talk about hope, “Logan” may be on the only post-Christopher Nolan comic book picture to genuinely trade in that sentiment. The cynical Wolverine knows all too well the pain that comes with dashed expectations, but Charles sees Laura representing the possibility for the future of mutants that for decades has seemed dashed. More importantly, she can possibly provide Logan something to care about again, and break through to his brittle heart. Laura herself first arrives only armed with a determined will to survive, but she slowly begins to trust both Logan and Charles, taking the best parts of Wolverine’s wariness and Charles’ empathy as she comes to accept who she is, and think of a life beyond the horrors she’s only known until now. It’s in that juxtaposition where the humanity in “Logan” is most deeply felt, and where we see hope refracted through the prism of these characters’ battered experiences.
To be clear, no one is reinventing the wheel here, but Mangold and co. are given the creative freedom to spin these genre tropes in interesting ways. Wolverine is still the hero we know who’s afraid to let anyone get too close, and who looks out for himself first, but the weariness he feels from his long existence has never felt more earned. That self-preservation comes from a learned history where he’s bore witness to much savagery, and has participated in it himself as well. Even in broader strokes, Mangold finds little methods of reinvention, particularly in a predictable extended second act that offers no surprises in its function to set up the finale, but stays lively in how it positions its players and unfolds its tension. “Logan” is a movie that is truly engrossing because of the dozens of little, but bold, smart decisions that add to up to creating characters in a story that you truly care about. And that success has little to do with the film’s R-rating.
That’s not to say however that Mangold doesn’t make the most of his chance to shed some blood. “Logan” is not short on head stabbing, limb severing, blood spurting mayhem, allowing fans to finally see Wolverine work his claws in combat right through to the end of each grisly death, without the camera cutting away. However, it’s the staging of the action scenes that’s arguably more impressive than the graphic depictions. The first act features an explosive, lengthy set piece that’s nearly a mini-movie in itself, and it sets quite a high bar for any other action movie this year. In fact, it’s a sequence that starts off-camera with some gunshots and screams, before we’re tossed into a whirlwind fight that goes from close quarters fighting and builds and opens up to finish worthy of a great western (a genre the filmmakers freely draw from and directly reference). A third act battle sequence sees Mangold following Wolverine with a simple tracking shot as he faces waves of foes, with each enemy dispatched with flesh-slashing clarity.
Again, none of this particularly matters if we’re not invested in the characters, and perhaps sensing they’ll never get X-material this good again, Jackman and Stewart deliver what might be their best performances in any X-movie to date. Jackman is again beaten but unbowed, with his cigar chomping snark replaced with palpable despair about the man he’s become, and the “disappointment” he’s become to Charles. But it’s really Stewart who stands out. The actor brings a fatherly and grandfatherly touch to Charles’ relationships with Logan and Laura, but more importantly, a vulnerability about how much fight he has left in him, and a sense of inevitability of what he sees in the future. It’s a truly touching turn, providing the grim film its few flashes of welcome warmth.
In an era where one superhero movie merely exists to serve the next chapter, where there’s never really any doubt about what will happen to anyone on screen because we know they still have contractual obligations, it’s long been obvious that real stakes are the secret ingredient to creating something special in the genre. Unburdened by any obligations to a connected universe, Mangold and Jackman finally create a Wolverine movie that follows its narrative threads right to its organic ends. The X-Men series has always been about pushing forward the message that it’s okay to be different, and to embrace the very things that make you stand apart. It’s taken forever, but the filmmakers are finally taking that advice themselves, and it has resulted in “Logan,” a Wolverine movie that bravely beats with a bloody heart. [B]