Leave it to a superhero film about a character with claws to stab the heart of its audience and make it feel like a handshake. A film that’s theoretically over 15 years in the making, Logan turns the X-Men film franchise (and possibly the comic book film genre itself) upside-down to produce a film that centers on the context of its heroes as much as it does the heroes itself. It’s a character study as taut as the sinews of its main character, and just as battle-scarred.
That character is Logan, also known as the ex-X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). The year is 2029, and mutants have all but died out. In-between his jobs as a limo driver and an alcoholic, Logan takes care of a senile, fading Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who no longer has full control over his tremendous psychic powers. Logan is approached to ferry a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to the Canadian border, and it soon becomes apparent that she is a mutant very much like himself. Logan is forced into the job when Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his cyborg Reavers come looking for Laura, and along with Xavier, they make a desperate escape.
It seems like an eternity ago when Jackman and Stewart first stepped into their now-iconic roles. Back in 2000, the superhero film genre didn’t truly exist, and Jackman was a completely unknown quantity. It was the first X-Men film that changed all that, a mixture of thrilling action, genuine drama, and social message that not only started the comic book film genre we know today but challenged the idea of what a comic book movie should be in the first place. It seems only fitting that under the sure-handed and foundational direction of James Mangold, Jackman and Stewart end up redefining the genre all over again.
On its surface, Logan bears more resemblance to a classic Hollywood western than it does to the modern superhero film. There’s even two separate references to the final speech in 1953’s Shane that feel completely appropriate. To be sure, there is not much in the way of flashy CGI battles or save-the-world stakes. Nobody flies, nobody throws energy blasts, and nobody destroys a building. The standard superhero trappings that are there serve more as a gilded accent than they do a primary motivation.
And that’s exactly what helps make the movie as powerful and affecting as it is. This is comic book film in microcosm with only intriguing hints of what’s going on in the outside world. The focus is entirely on Logan, Xavier, and Laura. At the same time, this is not solely a personal drama. Their actions have broader effects on the world as a whole, but like the metaphorical chaos-theory butterfly, what exactly those effects are have yet to be determined. Logan’s comic book mythology serves the core narrative relationships instead of the other way around.
Much of what makes the film work as well as it does is the cast, since this a piece that lives and breathes on the strength of its performances. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have said that this is the last time they’re going to play these characters, and both men do masterful work that is most fully appreciated in the context of their respective arcs. They’re both a far cry from their first appearance on film. Logan is no longer the arrogant combatant he once was, his healing factor slowly weakening, making him more vulnerable than he’s ever been. Likewise, Xavier’s dementia coupled with his telepathic powers makes his brain a literal weapon of mass destruction without an obvious trigger. Both must find new ways to cope with the world without their natural gifts to shield or support them.
Both actors fully inhabit their roles in ways they never have before, seemingly as if the filters on the characters are gone. Certainly, this has at least something to do with the film’s R rating, which makes Logan’s first line of dialogue a profanity and has him slashing and stabbing his way through the action scenes in the bloody, brutal way that the tyranny of PG-13 rating never allowed us to see. With the censors off, both Logan and Xavier seem far more human than they ever did before, displaying a new kind of honesty and openness. It’s most obvious in their interactions together, which contain a very real, palpable kind of chemistry and a genuine sense of well-worn humor. It’s all the more effective for those that have followed the characters since day one, a kind of emotional pull so strong that it causes physical reactions.
But there are three protagonists in this drama, and throwing a third character into the complex bond between Logan and Xavier is a difficult thing to do effectively. Credit then goes to newcomer Dafne Keen for making it seem so damn easy. She doesn’t even utter a single word of dialogue until the third act, but she is possessed of a body language and presence far beyond her age. Laura turns out to be a fighter, too, and becomes the center of the first big action sequence, a tiny ball of pure primal grace. Her opponents are the Reavers, whose leader acts as the main antagonist. While Donald Pierce’s motivation is never truly established, Boyd Holbrook still makes him one of the better villains to grace recent superhero films. That’s almost entirely due to Holbrook’s easy charm and his tight, intentionally-underplayed style.
The song used in the trailers for Logan was Johnny Cash’s revelatory cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, a song sung by someone who regrets his life and how it affected others. It’s a sparse, haunting song made even more emotional by being one of Cash’s final recordings. In the same way, Logan is the “Hurt” of superhero films. Raw, stripped-down, and vulnerable, it’s a razor-sharp, surprisingly effective study of characters we thought we knew well. If this truly is the last time we’ll see Jackman and Stewart as Logan and Xavier, there could be no better finale than this.
FBOTU Score: 9 out of 10 / A