The X-Men film franchise has included some significant hills and valleys, high points and low, over the last 17 years. It has produced some greats; X-Men 2 comes to mind as probably the pinnacle. There is also X-Men: First Class and the two sequels it spawned, which have been pretty solid entries all around. The series has also produced its share of duds: X-Men 3, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine. Since these last two less-than-stellar films focused on Wolverine—capitalizing on not only the endemic popularity of the character, but also the widely celebrated, career-making portrayal of the mutant hero by actor Hugh Jackman—one might go into the latest film, Logan, with a merited dose of trepidation. But within minutes of the film, I think you’ll find there’s something here—much more than one would expect from simply “another comic book movie.” Logan is, frankly, terrific.
I suppose it bears mentioning off the bat—this is not a kids’ movie. I say this with none of the “grittier means better” pretention that sometimes grips filmgoers, particularly males in their 20s and 30s. Be aware that Logan does revel a bit in its R rating, but even some gratuitous elements—graphic violence, coarse language, brief nudity—don’t detract from the final product: a solid story. Logan stands as one of the most compelling comic-book movies to date.
Like X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past, which broke from the normal X-Menmien to depict mutants in a retro, 1960s world, Logan departs from the aesthetic formula even further, depicting an ambiguously alternate future. But this “futuristic” landscape has something of a “Mad Max mixed with No Country for Old Men” feel to it. It’s a desolate, haunted border country of the American Southwest. There are no big cities facing CGI cataclysms. The plot is small scaled, personal, and clearly modelled on the classic Western, clear from the multiple references to the 1953 film Shane.
When the film opens, mutants have been hunted to near extinction by the government and no new mutant children have been born to replace their numbers. Logan—Wolverine—is living in a state of pseudo-anonymity as a limo driver near the US and Mexican border. His life consists of little more than boozing and serving as caretaker/protector to Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose powerful telepathic mind is slipping into dementia. He lives in seclusion with his former mentor and another mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant).
This meager existence is shaken up when a nurse asks the grizzled former superhero to transport a mysterious young mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) cross-country to an alleged safe-haven. Logan finds himself playing Rooster Cogburn as he goes on the road with Laura and Professor X, pursued by well-armed adversaries intent on kidnapping the girl.
The simple, Western-inspired storyline doesn’t rely on big, flashy spectacle. The stakes that carry the film are largely emotional. Logan, the perpetual drifter, having lost his X-Men family, slumps back to his aimless ways, retaining only his father figure, Professor X, as a sort of reminder of what he had once been. But the reminder is quickly fading as Xavier’s mind deteriorates. The introduction of Laura, the young girl with a special connection to Logan, rings in a new opportunity for a legacy, a fact Xavier realizes as he prods a reluctant Logan along on the journey to “New Eden.”
With a simple, scaled narrative, the film has ample space to explore character and thematic minutiae in interesting ways. One neat detail is the inclusion of the X-Mencomics; the adventures of Logan and his friends, immortalized in bright-colored panels, is all “made up” insists the disillusioned aging mutant, as he laments the violent reality that is absent from the children’s book. Another intriguing element is the supporting character of Caliban—an albino mutant with mutant-detecting powers that were once used in the destruction of his own kind.
The performances are also noteworthy. Hugh Jackman’s depiction of the tired, limping, irascible hero near the end of his days is compelling at every turn. He’s a man in many ways at war with his younger, gruff, detached self. This idea takes on quite a new meaning when the film’s real villain is revealed at the midpoint. Logan must now be paternal for the sake of the young girl in his custody.
Patrick Stewart also gives a great performance, recognizable as the wise mentor of the other films, yet as broken as this version of the X-Men world. And Dafne Keen, who plays Laura, stands out as the emotional touchstone of the film. Logan and Laura, a subtly built-up dynamic duo, are a heck of a powerhouse team once the film’s emotional and narrative climax comes around.
“This is what it feels like,” is Logan’s poignant line at a key juncture. It echoes our feelings, having watched a comic-book movie with compelling characters that—unlike bulkier, action-oriented, and fast-paced superhero movies—doesn’t rely on filmmaking shorthand for character development. If you can stomach the sometimes grisly violence, Logan is well worth the time.