It’s been 17 years since Hugh Jackman first starred in Bryan Singer’s X-Men and became synonymous with the character Wolverine, the violent, rage-filled Canadian alcoholic drifter. Though he’s brought the role to life nine times, since then there’s only really been two films to test him in interesting ways: one being Singer’s own sequel X2, which saw him try and reconcile his savage instincts and origins (the lab experiment of a scientist turned hawkish bureaucrat) with the sense of purpose he could have if he only chose to be a team player, the other was returning filmmaker James Mangold’s The Wolverine, which put his immortality to the test, revealing all the horror and pain a man that’s wandered for centuries is bound to witness and carry with him, illustrating the melancholy that lingers even within what we’re told to perceive as the character’s “strengths”. So it’s fitting that Logan, perhaps one of, if not the best film the modern superhero climate has brought us, is the logical and emotional endpoint of those two ideas packaged in a rugged, hardboiled neo-western milieu.
Mangold is the kind of filmmaker that wears his influences on his sleeve so it’s easy to see throughout Logan the hints of Badlands, Road Warrior, The Searchers, there’s an even a direct, perhaps too cued, reference to George Stevens’ Shane, a film about a lone gunslinger whose chosen path of killing floods every other facet of his life, forcing him into isolation, but the film’s closest relative for me was actually Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo series, another story of a manmade killing machine created and abandoned by the banal evil of bureaucratic administration, using the only tools at his disposal to reckon with a world that no longer has—or maybe never did have—a real place for him (“there’s no going back”), and it’s in these concerns that Logan comes to life.Not wasting any time getting to its R-rating—a development that initially worried me as upping violence and language may imply but doesn’t necessarily result in maturity—the film opens with a drunk and weary Logan brutally dispatching a crew trying to steal the hubcaps off of his town car limo, and though the altercation is gruesomely thrilling it’s the moment immediately after that is the most revealing, the deeply exhausted Logan clumsily making his way back to the car while the camera hovers over the dismembered corpses, unable to shake the carnage he leaves in his wake.
Logan’s day-to-day life includes balancing his job as a driver/escort of city nightlife, his proclivity for boozing and self-pity, and taking care of Professor Xavier, whose dementia is deteriorating the most powerful brain on the planet. A scary thought. No superhero film since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films has so effectively captured the way even the superhuman are susceptible to the crushing, horrifying mundanity of the human condition and economic disenfranchisement. Gone are the struggles of world-ending CGI portals in the sky, here we see characters trying to simply find basic care and safety, afford medicine and retirement dreams—there’s a lot of driving and motels and cheap gas stations. And that intimate scale is vital as the film ultimately transitions into deeply emotional story of how we collectively have the power to shape our fantasies into reality; Heaven is a place on Earth etc.Though an optimistic sentiment, what makes Logan even more powerful is how it isn’t afraid to horrify us along the way. Wolverine’s abilities have always been exceptionally savage, his claws force the fighting to be particularly personal and messy, but the R-rating allows the action the weight the character has always needed—every slice, every tear of flesh, every crack of bone is vividly rendered to maximum revulsion and as a result we see the one of the central dichotomies of Wolverine that previously was only ever explored in comic form: the deeply traumatized inflicting deep, deep trauma. But Logan isn’t the only one to benefit from the horror, perhaps the films most moving seen is Xavier reflecting on the violent past of mutantkind and it’s lack of a future as a result—his dreams, his happiness, both fleeting, infected by regret.
It’s an essential moment of quiet deconstruction, using the past to consider the future, something Mangold and screenwriter Scott Frank try to do as well with the inclusion of Laura, played with a uniquely compelling ferocity by newcomer Dafne Keen. Unlike Logan and Xavier who are already broken, who already had their chance, she’s still in the process of being shaped by the terrifying world around her, and she’s been left nothing by the previous generation. Logan sees himself in her for very obvious reasons, her powers, her flashes of rage (one of Mangold’s most brilliant gestures is literalizing how terrifying kids can be), but he also sees that she’s been forced down a path similar to the one he already took, one he knows leads to nothing pain and death, he sees one last chance to leave something better than the way he found it, so the claws come out and he starts cutting a new path, one perhaps he might’ve taken if he wasn’t so jaded.Most fascinating however, is that this intimately-scaled story of a weary killer in search of purpose, of a teacher with one last lesson to teach, of a child whose future hinges on hope given to her from a comic book, all these moments of sudden, troubling violence followed by quiet melancholy, none of it prepares you for the film’s finale, a raging howl of an action sequence that climaxes on the petrifying implication that the most disturbing atrocities, the things we are unconsciously reckoning with and reacting to in every facet of our life, have already been done in secret, in government offices, in corporate boardrooms. Not that every piece of art needs to reflect the current zeitgeist, but that such an iconic character takes his bow in a story about violently defying our corporate overlords and handing the keys over to immigrant children doesn’t feel like an accident. As soon as genocide enters the dialogue, it’s over, end the dialogue.