Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 135 minutes
In Hugh Jackman’s 17-year tenure as Wolverine we have had two Batmans, two Supermans, two Hulks, two James Bonds (the most recent of whom is soon to be done), and now three Spider-Mans. Even Jackman’s co-leads in the X-Men films like Patrick Stewart and Halle Berry have seen other actors play their younger selves. In that span, superhero movies dug themselves out of their graves and burst forth as key priority for the major studios. Before X-Men‘s release in 2000, a sequel (let alone a franchise) was anything but assured. Now, we have interlocking stories being planned and scheduled through the start of the next decade. With all of those seismic shifts, the end of Jackman’s time in his star-making role is momentous in its own way. The character will always outlive the actor, even if that actor is how most envision said character.
The very good news, however, is that this swan song for the Australian actor corrects the mistakes of past X-Men films, while also building on the promise of a previous installment. After the enjoyable but run-of-the-mill X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the next film in the franchise was a prequel centered on Wolverine’s origins. It came out in 2009, and it was a bit of a mess. Redemption followed with 2013, when James Mangold (Walk the Line, the 2007 3:10 to Yuma remake) helmed The Wolverine, chronicling the clawed mutants exploits in Japan. But The Wolverine‘s success came with an asterisk: it was a big step in the right direction in many way….until the third act, which went heavy on cartoony effects at odds with what came before.
Yet ultimately The Wolverine did enough to pave the way for Logan, so we owe it that much. With Mangold back in the director’s chair, and the freedom of an R-rating, the third time really is the charm for the cigar-chomping anti-hero. It is a Wolverine story that has its own look, its own feel, and despite references to events in other movies, enough narrative confidence to stand on its own.
Opening in 2029, we first meet Logan sleeping in his car, drunk out of his mind. His hair is greying, and his body, though still imposing, looks worn. The character used to be able to heal from nearly all injuries, and now he looks like a man on his last legs. In a world where most mutants have been eradicated (and no new ones have been born), the likes of Logan and Prof. X (Patrick Stewart, also bowing out of the franchise) are relics. They live modest lives, hidden away from general society. No coordinated costumes, no fancy lairs, no custom jets.
And then along comes a One Last Job opportunity, which our hero reluctantly takes just for the money. At first. The task is to escort a young, “gifted” girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) from the Texas/Mexico up to North Dakota. Naturally, there are obstacles, including a scheming scientist (Richard E. Grant) and a mercenary with a robotic arm (Gone Girl‘s Boyd Holbrook). At its heart, Logan is a Western-tinged road movie, albeit one with a stray few sci-fi elements.
But its also a movie that generally takes as much care with its interpersonal scenes as it does with its carnage. The characters are often on the move, but it’s rare that Mangold’s storytelling feel rushed. This is heightened by the surprising plot structure, which builds to a major moment that could serve as an ending, only to launch immediately into that story’s sequel. But it doesn’t feel jumbled or inelegant. Mangold is in his element here, crafting a story that has its share of action (a vehicular chase is the standout of the first half), but isn’t afraid to throw in the occasional long stretch of quietude.
It’s easy to sneer at idea of a script being a valuable component of a superhero blockbuster, but a good deal of credit belongs to the foundation Mangold and his two co-writers set. Logan takes into account the past stories of the X-Men, while also demythologizing them. In the film’s world, a comic series about the mutants exists, and one key scene involves Logan telling Laura that most of what’s on those brightly-colored panels is bullshit.
But even if the mutant exploits have been exaggerated, they stem from a shred of truth, even if it’s a truth that Logan would rather avoid: he has gifts that he (and others) can use to help the defenseless. That rediscovery is crucial to the character’s development. It’s certainly been done before (perhaps one too many times), but in Logan the arc comes across as a genuine priority, rather than an obligation.
This is never more clear than when looking at the work from the cast. No one’s here to just fool around, pose, and collect a paycheck. The central trio of performances (Jackman, Stewart, Keen) are excellent and unexpectedly moving. For the two gentlemen who have been with these characters from the outset, it’s a chance to bid farewell to a role (and the audience that came with it) with conviction. Wolverine/Logan in his normal state can be one-note. But this figure, who shows actual signs of wear and tear, allows Jackman the chance to put some emotional weight behind the gruff exterior. That the villains are a bit pedestrian ends up not mattering much. The more frightening enemy is the ravages of time, making themselves felt on a character who spent over a century never fearing them. Who knows, maybe Cormac McCarthy ghost wrote a draft of the script.
Logan is undoubtedly striving to be something “adult” and “grounded,” and it succeeds because when it has a chance to go big, it subverts expectations and goes small. Even when Logan goes into full, R-rated berserker mode, it doesn’t last forever or totally save the day. This is a superhero movie with limitations and consequences (many of them involving dismemberment).
The violence and the special effects are there, but they are always in service of a story where violence continuously bequeaths violence, and takes no prisoners (including children) along the way. It is solemn, but with a few flickers of levity to prevent portentousness. There are references to cinematic influences both subtle and overt (at one point several characters watch Shane on TV), but the tributes have been assembled to tell a story that uses familiar settings and tropes to create a tale with its own identity.
Will Logan/Wolverine rise to fight another day, with another face? Almost certainly. With iconic characters like Superman or James Bond, certain faces stick with roles more than others. But new casting does allow for variations on how a noteworthy role is portrayed (contrast Connery’s suaveness with Daniel Craig’s Bourne-like grit) can reflect changes. Few, however, have played a character through so many stylistic evolutions and remained a constant. So, to the person tasked with filling the shoes with nearly 2 decades of work from Jackman, I can only say: good luck; you’ll need it.