A Brutal, Emotional Instant Classic of the Comic Book Genre
The X-Men films have received a mixed reputation in recent years due to their frequent inability to be stable in their quality and a general sense that the franchise is always playing catch-up with other studios and their superhero film output. Through it all, actor Hugh Jackman has remained one of the bright spots as the ferocious and charismatic Wolverine, whose own films include one strong entry into the franchise (The Wolverine) and one of the all-time worst comic book movies (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). So suffice it to say that even given the carefully crafted approach that Jackman and director/co-writer James Mangold showed in their efforts to make Jackman’s final film as Wolverine, Logan, it’s stunning how good their film actually is.
Logan is not just good for an X-Men movie. It’s not just good for a comic book movie. Logan is an absolutely stellar film that proves powerful themes, fantastic acting, and the commitment to telling the best story possible are more important than any sort of cinematic universe creation.
With a setting in the distant future in which the X-Men are no more, it’s clear from the outset that Mangold and Jackman aren’t interested in preserving any sort of franchise continuity. Rather, they’re more than happy to burn it all down and leave 20th Century Fox to rebuild from the ashes if it means telling the best story possible. With the idea that mutants are almost extinct and that a vague but terrible future is in store for the many characters currently being touted by the rest of the franchise’s ongoing team films, it seems as though every X-Men film from here on out will be saddled with living up to Logan‘s inevitable dystopia and the film’s likely-impossible-to-reach high bar.
But with the supremely tepid X-Men: Apocalypse being the last entry into the main franchise continuity, it’s more than okay to break this series to give life to something this special.
What director and co-writer James Mangold has crafted with Logan is a film that is so emotionally raw and honest, while still having plenty of style and thrills to spare, that it exceeds nearly every potential limit that could be caused by today’s franchise-focused comic book movie-making. Like Deadpool before it, Logan is given the free rein to explore its own ideas in a hard-R-rated setting. But make no mistake, this is nothing like Deadpool beyond its exciting, genre-defying artistry.
Without delving too deeply into spoilers, the story of Logan is quite simple and breaks away from the often narrative-heavy sensibilities of the rest of the franchise. Here, a broken-down Logan cares for an elderly Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in Mexico in an effort to protect him from dangerous outside forces and also protect others from the professor’s extremely dangerous Alzheimer’s-induced strokes that could kill everyone nearby through his out-of-control telepathy. But when a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) is thrust into Logan’s care, the jaded former hero must embark on a cross country road trip to keep both his young and old wards safe from harm.
It’s a slim story and one that is meant to hone in on its lead characters as much as possible. Save for a few moments of necessary yet clunky exposition and some feet dragging during its second act, Logan remains lean and effective from start to finish. With staggering, blood-drenched violence that makes the most of the hero’s razor sharp claws, Logan often contrasts quiet moments of compassion with loud bursts of ultraviolence in order to show the toll of such a life. It works like gangbusters, as there is no action beat that is not informed first and foremost by character, and its cruel, mostly grounded villains provide both ample fodder and metaphor for the film’s layered ideas.
In both its aesthetic and themes, Logan largely plays like a neo-Western. Its dusty frontiers and the idea of a legendary outlaw whose old age has caught up to him evoke Clint Eastwood’s deconstructionist Unforgiven, while the film Shane plays a large part in the actual narrative of the story. Mangold’s film wears these influences on its sleeve, which pivot the film away from traditional superhero fare to a large degree, especially in its first two acts. But Logan isn’t great simply because it is aping great films. It’s great because it always knows exactly what its doing and uses its themes and characters to wonderful effect.
Wisely, Logan spends the majority of its first hour on building character and relationships rather than propelling the narrative forward. This provides a crucial emotional investment for the rest of the film, while still punctuating the story with several visceral moments of violence. Eventually, Logan explodes into graphic violence that earns its R rating many times over, along with a great deal of raw, uncensored language. But it doesn’t feel forced. It’s an organic, unrelenting piece of storytelling that suits its savage protagonist and the film’s themes of what violence does to the soul and whether those who have committed such acts can ever live a life truly free of the stain of taking a life. While that may feel especially grim and heavy, Logan manages to also be exciting and engaging, which helps its 2 hour 20 minute runtime feel like both a breeze and an epic narrative.
With its relatively small scope and pared-down story, Logan hangs on the few central performances. Most crucially is Jackman, who puts in his greatest performance as Wolverine yet. He’s haunted, weary, and brimming with a dangerous anger that must be tempered by love and connection. You feel the years and many losses weighing him down in every scene and Jackman never needs to say what he’s thinking in order to convey massive amounts of pathos and emotion to the audience. It’s an incredible performance that thrills and deeply moves from moment to moment and often simultaneously. Even if you’ve never seen another X-Men film, Jackman sells the character in each scene for a multifaceted and tragic performance from quiet start to epic finish.
Just as crucial in the film’s success are Stewart and Keen, who proved unique contrasts to the protagonist. As Xavier, Stewart is called upon to be more vulnerable and broken than possibly any character he has portrayed before. Contrasting a dangerous mental deterioration with stunning moments of intimate clarity, Stewart is fantastically heartbreaking and often provides the film’s wounded heart when Logan is too jaded to give into the ideas of hope and love. His rapport with both Jackman and Keen make Logan’s family dynamics the emotional centerpiece of the film. He’s also the secret comedic relief, with subtle moments of humor most often coming from him in natural ways that punctuate the darkness.
As Laura, Keen is a showstopper. Called upon to largely act and emote without saying a single word, Keen embodies breathtaking ferocity as well as hopeful vulnerability. While you may expect Wolverine to be at the center of Logan‘s most memorable moments of action, it’s actually Keen. Her ultra-violent ballet of dismemberment would be horrifying if it wasn’t also so satisfying in the film’s context. Within the character of Laura resides the central themes of family, the toll of violence, and changing a life’s ultimate meaning. Keen makes it seem easy.
While those hyperviolent action scenes and fantastic moments of evocative Western cinematography may be burned into the brains of viewers long after Logan ends, they are all in service of the film’s emotions and ideas. This is a gripping, poignant film that works to quietly grasp the hearts of its viewers as the stakes and scope are slowly raised across its runtime.
By Logan‘s end, you’ll be trying to catch your breath, not just because of its high-stakes finale but because of its potent emotionality. Few comic book films have ever been this personal and stirring.
Mangold and Jackman have created a definitive statement on not just the character of Wolverine or the X-Men as a whole, but the entire genre. Not only that, Logan transcends “comic book movie” qualifiers. This is powerful, mythic filmmaking and an instant classic.