It has been 17 years since X-Men was released and ushered in the modern era of superhero movies. Up to that point, films like Superman and Batman had been made and had been successful and good, but there were limitations to what they could achieve visually. X-Men was the first film where the technology of special effects finally started to catch up to the imagination of the comic books and graphic novels and make what was on the page look believable on the big screen. X-Men also launched the career of Hugh Jackman, at that point a relative unknown, after he got the coveted role of the most popular member of the X-Men, Wolverine. He has now played the character through nine films in the 20th Century Fox’s X-Men universe (two of those were small cameos). Logan marks the third standalone film centered on the character and Jackman’s final outing as him. As swan songs go, Logan is about as good of a goodbye as an actor can hope to have for a role that will likely be in the opening paragraph of their obituary.
The film is set in 2029, a future that finds Logan (Jackman) living in a far different world than where we last saw him. No new mutants have appeared for 25 years. Logan is now living under his true name, James Howlett, leaving behind his days as Wolverine with the X-Men. Older, sick, and not healing as well as he used to, Logan spends his days working as a chauffer down in Texas along the Mexican border, trying to scrounge up money for medication and a boat. The meds are for Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who Logan keeps secluded in an abandoned factory and looks after him with the help of another mutant, Caliban (Stephen Merchant). Charles, now in his 90s, suffers from a neurodegenerative disease that causes seizures; seizures that can be dangerous to other people because of his mutant telepathic powers. His memory is also going. Out of nowhere, Logan is approached by a nurse from a facility for a company called Transigen who broke a patient out of Transigen’s Mexican facility. That patient is a little girl named Laura (Daphne Keen), who doesn’t say much, is a mutant, and has a bit of an attitude. Logan is roped back into fighting for a good cause, attempting to get Laura to the Canadian border by the end of the week, with Transigen’s security team, known as the Reavers and led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), in hot pursuit.
Logan is a surprisingly stripped down version of a superhero film. There is still plenty of bombast and action, in fact director James Mangold amps up quite a bit of it as we finally get an R-rated Wolverine film. This allows the film to really put the full violence of the Wolverine character on display. But Mangold also sprinkles in quite a bit of emotional content that is highly effective. The Wolverine was set in Japan and took some of its cues from samurai films, it is somewhat fitting that Logan takes its cues from old westerns, some of which were Hollywood remakes of samurai films. The film directly references Shane in one scene, showing a clip from the movie. More generally, the film plays like a Western, with Logan being the old gunslinger who is called upon to protect the innocent one last time.
In The Wolverine, Logan dealt with the loss of his mutant healing powers through having them taken away from him, but here his mutant abilities are fading. He heals, but much more slowly, and it leaves scars instead of fully healing. He walks with a limp. He drinks to dull the pain. The explanation why his body is losing its regenerative powers is interesting and at the very least it works at making him a sympathetic, slightly tragic figure. Hugh Jackman has shown depth and range in quite a few roles beyond this one that made him a famous actor, and he brings a new level of humanity and even pathos to the character.
The more tragic figure, though, is Professor Xavier, a character with immense mental capacity and someone who accomplished significant things with his life in his work for mutants and his attempts to de-stigmatize them. Seeing him in this diminished capacity and posing a potential threat to others is a cruel and bitter final chapter to his story. It’s also some of Patrick Stewart’s finest work as the character, showing sides of Professor X that we’ve not seen in previous films.
Like Professor Xavier’s deteriorating mind, some of the film is a bit muddled (How’s that for a strained segue?). There are some details that the film is opaque on that works to the films favor, for instance what happened to the rest of the X-Men being hinted at but never completely spelled out, that the film handles well and leaves it to the viewer to fill in the gaps. However, a few other threads that dangle don’t satisfy. How Logan is found by the nurse who puts Laura in his charge is unclear, at best. Why there have been no new mutants for 25 years is also not clearly explained or is lost amidst the action. Who or what is in Canada is not exactly clear either, or why the Canadian border would even matter when this company has a facility based in Mexico and is pursuing them across the American Midwest. The film also weirdly brings X-Men comic books into the storyline, discovering that Laura is apparently a “fan” because she reads the comics, and then says that maybe 25% of what is in there was true. It’s something that had potential, even when it makes it a semi-important plot point, but it doesn’t quite tie together.
There is a find supporting cast, including Merchant, Holbrook, Richard E. Grant as a man behind the scenes kind of villain, and Eriq La Salle as a farmer who crosses paths with Wolverine and Co on the run. Mainly, though, the film succeeds because of the three central characters of Wolverine, Professor X, and Laura. As the newest figure in that triumvirate, newcomer Dafne Keen is an impressive find as a child actor. Most people who have seen trailers and have any familiarity with the X-Men comic books will know who she is and what “X-23” means. She is everything Mangold and the makers of this film could have hoped to get out of a young actor playing this role. She’s got the physicality and despite being mute for most of the film, does some effective emoting. Not only that, but she adds a unique new shading to the character of Wolverine, and even an interesting ripple to the dynamic between Wolverine and Professor X.
Logan is a proper sendoff for Wolverine and Jackman. It’s also apparently a sendoff for Patrick Stewart, who has recently stated that he will not reprise the role of Charles Xavier any longer. So in many ways, this is an ending of era of sorts. There’s a collected, shared history with these actors and these characters that definitely is felt in this film, so the conclusion of this film packs a bit of an emotional wallop. But with every ending is the potential for a new beginning. The transition of superheroes from the comic books to the big screen has always been one that presents its own unique challenges, and maybe none more than the X-Men franchise, which is so connected to Professor X and Magneto’s origins in the WWII/Cold War Era of history. Characters in comic books do not have to age in the same way that film characters do because of the actors who play them. Eventually, roles must be recast or storylines must be rebooted. A certain level of continuity is also expected by audiences.
I wonder if Logan might represent a shift away from continuity in future superhero films. Instead of a continuous universe, might we begin to see more standalones or mini-franchises? The retconning or total abandonment of previous story that was done in Deadpool could have also helped to lay the groundwork for this. Perhaps we begin to see some James Bond-style storytelling (pre-Daniel Craig, that is). I highly doubt that the studio is willing to shelve a character as popular as Wolverine just because Hugh Jackman is done playing him. In the same way we look back at X-Men as the dawn of a certain kind of superhero film, it may be that we look back 17 years from now at Logan as the film that charted a new path forward for this genre.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars