Logan

After one has waded through a tidal wave of same-ish comic book blockbusters (some good, some bad, most formulaic), seeing a film like Logan has a bracing effect. Yes, it's far more violent than most films in the genre, fully earning its hard-R rating as characters are sliced, diced, shredded and blown to bits. That's not what I'm talking about, though. What sets Logan apart from the rest of the pack is that it feels like a real movie. James Mangold is the first filmmaker since Christopher Nolan to deliver a comic book flick that feels more like a personal vision than a piece of corporate product.

There are echoes of Children of Men in the film's set-up: the year is 2029, and the world has gone to hell... for mutants, anyway. Almost all of the characters we know and love from the previous films are dead, and the handful that remain are shadows of their former selves. Logan (Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables) has been reduced to a lowly limo driver, and his self-healing abilities have declined so sharply that he struggles to hold his own in a fight against an ordinary street gang. He's also serving as a begrudging caretaker for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation), who is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease that occasionally causes him to lose control of his telepathic abilities. Logan, Xavier and the albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant, Extras) have set up a quiet, dingy hideout in an abandoned factory in Mexico, but Logan is hoping to purchase a boat so he and the professor can spend the rest of their days living at sea.

Naturally, life gets in the way. Still trying to scrape together enough money to buy the boat, Logan reluctantly accepts a request to transport a nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez, Orange is the New Black) and an 11-year-old girl named Laura (Dafne Keen, The Refugees) to a mysterious location in North Dakota. The truth quickly becomes clear: Laura is a mutant (who just so happens to have the same abilities as Wolverine), and the powers-that-be (including a cybernetically enhanced assassin played by Boyd Holbrook and a cruel scientist played by Richard E. Grant), are desperate to get their hands on her. When Gabriella is murdered, it's up to Logan to get Laura (and Xavier) to safety.

What follows is essentially a sci-fi-tinged road trip movie in the vein of something like Midnight Special, but frequently punctuated by bursts of ferocious violence. Indeed, there are moments when the movie goes a bit overboard in an effort to show off its R rating: a lot of heads roll (sometimes literally), Xavier casually drops a lot of f-bombs and there's one entirely gratuitous bit of nudity. Even so, the storytelling genuinely does offer a level of maturity that few films in this genre have reached, and its fundamental grimness springs organically from the material (a sharp contrast to the phony posturing of recent DC movies).

Director James Mangold – whose remake of 3:10 to Yuma ranks as one of the finest 21st-century westerns – draws heavily on western iconography throughout, making overt references to George Stevens' classic Shane and less overt references to works like The Outlaw Josey Wales (Jackman's take on Wolverine has always been a bit Eastwood-esque, but never moreso than here) and Once Upon a Time in the West (composer Marco Beltrami works wailing harmonicas into his score on a regular basis). There's a tough spareness to the film that feels like a refinement of the path Mangold starting walking down in The Wolverine (which had a lot of admirable qualities but eventually crumbled under the weight of computer-generated silliness in the final act), and the film's steady focus is exceptionally surprising given the series it belongs to (I admire several of the X-Men movies, but they tend to be overflowing with characters and subplots).

The film stands apart from the rest of the X-Men movies in a number of ways (the biggest one being that it feels like an actual movie), but doesn't exist in a vacuum: a significant part of its power comes from the long-term relationship we have with these characters. The X-Men series has hardly been the most acclaimed comic book film franchise, but somehow it's been the most resilient one. We've spent the past seventeen years with Logan and Xavier, and seeing them so battered – one a self-loathing, defeated alcoholic, the other slowly losing his mind – hits you hard. From this dark starting point, Mangold traces the characters working their way towards redemption. All three of the central characters are plagued by unspecified horrors from the past, and overcoming those horrors is particularly difficult in a world where the future seems to hold so little promise. Xavier, Logan and Laura form a fractured family, and at times it seems as if the only thing keeping them alive is the mutual recognition that they need each other.

Jackman has had a lot of time to fine-tune his performance, and he's at the very top of his game here. The character has been through the “begrudgingly accepting personal responsibility” journey before, but Jackman hits some different, more resonant notes in his portrayal of that journey this time around. There are even sharper differences in Patrick Stewart's portrait of Charles Xavier, who is no longer the steady, comforting presence he was in previous films. He's a frail old man who has no control over his supernatural abilities and an inconsistent grip on reality. It's hard to enough to see a beloved character brought so low, but if you've witnessed an older person slowly losing command of their mind and body, some of Stewart's scenes may be even tougher to watch. Young Dafne Keen – who is silent for much of the film's running time - gives one of the stronger child performances I've seen recently, and there are moments when she has an angry fire in her eyes that looks... familiar.

It's fair to wonder if the film is a little too dark for the series it belongs to. Assuming I have my X-Men continuity straight (and I think I do), the film undercuts the power of Days of Future Past (the best of the regular X-flicks, in my estimation) by suggesting that the bleak, horrible future that was undone via time travel in that film was ultimately just traded for a comparably horrific new future. Even so, there's something admirable about the film's refusal to provide comforting reassurances to its audience. Most superhero movies – even the dark, grim ones – ultimately circle back around to the idea that good will eventually prevail and everything will be okay in the end. Logan offers no such comforts. There's a possibility things are going to end badly no matter what we do. Maybe the only thing we have control over is what sort of person we choose to be in the time we have left.


Logan

Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 137 minutes
Release Year: 2017