Moments that change the American cinematic landscape forever aren't typically apparent when they occur. Who would have predicted, for instance, that the massive success of a killer shark movie in 1975 would have ushered in an entire shift in film production, building the "blockbuster summer movie" into a cultural mainstay to this day? Trends are easy to spot in hindsight, but usually take a while to take hold, such as the recent prevalence of reboot/"legacy" films and the Young Adult/dystopian fiction craze just before that. The comic book movie, or superhero film if you prefer, was primed to be a new trend in American cinema in the late '90s, thanks to the already successful Superman and Batman franchises, as well as massive comic book influenced successes like 1999's The Matrix. Films such as these proved that cinema was a medium uniquely suited to translating the grandiose visuals of a comic to the screen, with major advances in special effects making it more affordable and possible to bring these worlds to general audiences. All the while, though, the superhero movie was still seen as kitschy, being about silly characters with sillier names, no matter how tonally dark the films got.
That all changed in 2000, when the first X-Men film was released. Director Bryan Singer made what was then a bold choice (and one that's still jarring even today): starting his big budget, summer movie, comic book spectacular with a harrowing scene of a young boy's parents being taken from him in Auschwitz during Nazi rule. That sober, serious-minded tone continued as we were introduced to other major characters, the most striking one being a grizzled, burly, dangerous man known only as Logan (or "The Wolverine", as his cage fighting promoters called him). Eventually, Logan meets up with the rest of the X-Men, a band of mutants with extraordinary powers who seek to protect a world that fears and hates them, and the movie's scope widens until Wolverine is destroying a device planted by Magneto atop the Statue of Liberty that is extremely dangerous to humans only. But before all that, for the first 25 minutes or so, X-Men is a somber film, and one that for just one scene features Logan taking a young mutant under his protection as they drive along an uncertain road.
That scene is the seed from which 2017's Logan was born, and the film is self-aware enough to know it. Director/co-writer James Mangold has a wealth of other influences that are present in the film (sometimes literally, as 1953's Shane is quoted both in the dialogue and actual footage from the movie), but it's the first X film that echoes throughout, bringing the character of Logan, if not the franchise, to a close. Hugh Jackman, who's played the character through every X movie for the last seventeen years, has publicly stated that Logan will be his last time on screen as Wolverine, and this, along with Mangold's desire to make a largely continuity free non-franchise film, allows Logan to be its own movie. A brooding, stoic, tragic, and hopeful neo-western, Logan is one of the best comic book movies ever made, putting an end to the era its predecessor started and (hopefully) heralding a new one.
Like the solo film that preceded it, Mangold's The Wolverine from 2013 (itself a hybrid of the superhero and samurai film), Logan's plot is tightly structured, placed within the trappings of a larger comic book world. In fact, one of the most pleasant surprises is the subtle and substantial world building it contains, even for an X film. It is the year 2029, and mutants have all but become extinct for highly suspicious reasons. Social unrest lurks in the background, a constant buzz that's a moment away from breaking into a roar, with US/Mexico border patrols sharing space with self driving supply trucks (that are conscripted by a shady beverage company which is swiftly putting honest, non-automated farmers out of business). None of these things matter to James Howlett aka Logan (don't you dare call him Wolverine), who is content to drift along as a Uber-type limo driver, making just enough money for a plan to get him and a secreted-away from society Charles Xavier (a returning Patrick Stewart, never better in the role) to the open ocean and away from civilization. When a nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tracks down Logan looking for his help smuggling her daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen), to a mysterious location, he wants nothing to do with it. That is until Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, playing the Terminator if he was a Good Ol’ Boy) starts threatening Logan to give up the girl’s location. Circumstances quickly escalate, and soon Xavier, Laura, and Logan are on the run, toward a destination that may or may not even exist.
More than anything else, Logan breaks away from comic book movie convention simply by committing to its own unique tone. Untethered to any specific continuity (the film likely takes place a decade and change after the new timeline established by Logan and pals in Days of Future Past…but then again, maybe it doesn’t) other than the basic set up and history of the characters, Logan may be the first superhero sequel/spin-off/what have you that feels like its own film. The Marvel Studios films of the last few years have certainly paved the way for this, but even those movies contain a little (or a lot) of continuity threads meant to tie the characters to a previous film or set up events for a future one. That doesn’t mean it’s wiped clean of references, as there are some welcome callbacks to the very first X film, as well as one major plot device that, shockingly, references the end of the much maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine, acknowledging this movie’s place in the Wolverine trilogy. Without doubt, though, Logan’s tone and genre has never been seen in the franchise before, and rarely seen within the superhero film at that. It’s a neo-Western, as well as a post-apocalypse movie, both in terms of the mutant race being all but extinct, as well as literally being a post Apocalypse movie (sorry, couldn’t resist). A large part of what makes the film so distinctive is the fact that, yes, the lack of restriction on content due to 20th Century Fox being okay with a tentpole film receiving an R rating means that it earns the dour, brooding, brutal nature that prior “serious” comic book films could only flirt with. 2016’s Deadpool and its massive box office success certainly had a lot to do with that, too, but while certainly brutal, it gleefully had its characters cuss like hyperactive 13 year olds, something perfect for a comedic and juvenile character. Here, when the characters drop an F bomb, it stings like a fresh wound.
There’s no shortage of actual fresh wounds in the film, either, as Logan’s action is punishing, brutal, gorgeously choreographed, and exhilarating. There’s been a sense that a character like Wolverine, who has six insanely sharp knives built into his hands, has always been neutered on screen since the previous PG-13 superhero standard would not allow for much bloodletting. That oversight is corrected here, and then some, as I don’t think there’s a single body part that’s not been sliced, diced, shredded or skewered by the end of the movie. All of the gore effects and CGI in the world would mean nothing if Mangold, along with stunt coordinator Gary Hymes, didn’t put together some truly inspired fight choreography. Given the X-Men’s fantastic (and fantastical) powers, the prior X films showcased how cool it was to be able to fight by flying around, or freezing opponents, or shooting them with optic beams, and the like, so there wasn’t much need for actual hand to hand combat. Logan, along with Laura, are natural scrappers, and their enemies here are the Reavers, who are technologically enhanced men, yet still men. That means that these fights are close up, they’re swift, and they hurt. Smartly, while the fight locations vary, Mangold avoids the trap of a big, splashy, third act final battle (something which he fell prey to at the end of The Wolverine), and simply escalates the stakes and threat, without having to set a bomb that Logan has to stop or some such cliche. As I said before, Logan is a road movie, which means all that matters is reaching the destination, and dispensing with any obstacles in his way.
Logan is unquestionably a pretty package, wrapped up in warm toned cinematography by John Mathieson, but the centerpiece of the film are the performances. The acting in the film is so good and natural, that it’s the first superhero film since The Dark Knight where the phrase “Best Actor” could be uttered and not completely laughed off immediately. Patrick Stewart’s work as Xavier is the best it’s been since the first film (save an inspired scene he was allowed to play in Days Of Future Past), as he’s almost playing a completely new character, but with the ingrained history of the mutant leader we’ve seen on screen for years. To my eyes, he slyly adds a bit of James McAvoy’s Xavier to his portrayal, making Charles into a bitter, whiny, frustrated old man who is nonetheless utterly compelled to do the right thing. Stephen Merchant is perfectly cast as Caliban, a mutant sensitive enough to be able to track other mutants yet unable to survive in direct sunlight, as he brings his sardonic wit to the role without making the character into a bland comic relief. Along with Boyd Holbrook, Richard E. Grant plays the other principal antagonist of the film, Dr. Rice, whose motivations amongst other details are either quickly sketched over or (assumedly) lost on the cutting room floor, yet he manages to still make a menacing impression. Almost stealing the movie from Jackman, however, is Dafne Keen as Laura. Her performance is so realized and professional, without succumbing to the typical “child actor” affectations we’ve all grown used to and shrug off, that it blew me away. Far from being just the plot device that gets the movie going, Laura is a powerful, fascinating, dynamic, flawed character all her own, and this film does not work a single bit without her.
But of course, there would be no film at all without Hugh Jackman. For the last 17 years, through every exuberant high and disappointing low of the X-Men franchise, Jackman’s Wolverine has been a constant, an unwavering warrior at the center of films that tried to sometimes make him more than that and other times couldn’t understand how to use him at all. Finally, with this film, he’s able to make a complete statement about the character he’s played for nearly two decades, as well as pay off that character’s harrowed yet ultimately redemptive journey. His dry humor, his gruff affection, and his shocking anger are all here, along with a world weariness that’s more earned than most characters’ are. His Logan in this film is the Last Gunslinger, the Ronin, the Knight Errant. It’s those mythological concepts that the comic book superhero is the latest version of, and now, finally, Logan represents the apotheosis of that form. Superman and Batman proved that comic book movies could make money, X-Men started a trend, The Dark Knight showed that other genres could be married to the superhero character, Marvel Studios became the cool kids at the school, and Deadpool blew it all up. Logan, then, is an elegy, not just for a character that Jackman plays brilliantly well, but (possibly, hopefully) for the comic book film as we knew it. From here on out, the possibilities are endless, and our cinematic stories are only limited by our imagination. Logan is a Moment.