Anyone who has been paying attention to marketing and trailers in the past few months knows that Fox is trying something a little different with Logan, their first major tent pole of 2017 that sees Hugh Jackman play the role of Wolverine for the ninth time on film. Trailers have made it out to look a lot more like The Road (or perhaps another road of the Mad Max Fury variety) than X-2: X-Men United, providing a vision of Logan and the now enfeebled Professor X hiding away in a stark, dusty world far removed from the leather outfits and battles with supervillains that defined the series up to this point. Superhero movies have taken on other genres in the past; look no further than Captain America: The First Avenger and its World War 2 newsreel pastiche, or Ant-Man embracing heist movie aesthetics and story beats. But those films, for all of their genre manipulations, were still superhero movies first and these other genres second, still founded on spandex and leather costumes and world-threatening villains. With Logan, director James Mangold (returning after helming the promising but flawed The Wolverine) seeks to truly embrace that concept, taking the superhero out of the superhero movie and seeing what happens when he finds himself out on his own.
Set in the near future of 2029 where mutants have all but disappeared from the world, an older, grizzled Logan (Jackman) spends his days driving a limousine to make ends meet while drinking the pain away and taking full advantage of the available four letter vocabulary afforded him by the film’s R rating. It’s all in service of providing drugs for the ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the last remaining link to his days as a member of the X-Men, hidden away under the watchful eye of albino mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in a junkyard on the Mexican side of the border as he teeters on the brink of death and dementia. Dementia is a dangerous affliction for the world’s most powerful telepath, and without the drugs he is prone to dreadfully powerful seizures that put all around him at risk. Logan wants to raise enough money to buy a boat and take them to sea where no one can hurt them and they can’t hurt anyone, but the trip is interrupted by the appearance of Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and the young Laura (Dafne Keen) who soon reveals her own mutant powers eerily similar (identical, even) to those of Logan despite the belief that new mutants could no longer exist. She needs to get to North Dakota to cross the border into Canada in order to escape the shadowy corporation that held her captive, and only Logan and Xavier can get her there.
Logan, the third solo film for the most popular member of the X-Men, also marks the third high profile superhero film to carry an R rating (following in the footsteps of Watchmen and Deadpool), and in its early moments, Mangold sure seems excited about the freedom such a rating allows. The curses fly fast and loose, mostly from Logan (which makes sense), though plenty come from Xavier too (which makes much less sense). And for much of the first act, the film seems like it’s trying a bit too hard to justify the rating by being as hardcore as possible, hearkening back to the early releases of Marvel’s Max line of comics that were vulgar and violent more for the sake of being vulgar and violent than the good of the story they’re telling. Combine that with the pretty extreme levels of violence throughout (this is the first Wolverine film where his claws are unfettered in the potential mayhem they can cause and boy do they really go for it), and it would be easy for Logan to be another case of gritting up the characters to appeal to a more "mature" audience while shooting itself in the proverbial foot by failing to make any of it mean anything. But the arrival of Laura changes everything for the better, solidifying the first act’s stakes and the dangers of this world into something with heft and emotional substance, giving Logan someone to fight for as he fights against his responsibilities and inner turmoil about what Laura represents, using that struggle to propel the narrative forward. Concerns and misgivings about the need for the R rating start to fade, and Mangold and his script (credited to Michael Green, Scott Frank and Mangold) can settle into the family drama and road movie it was meant to be, just with a lot more stabbing and a lot more gore.
This really is an intensely violent picture. So much so that a portion of the audience is likely to turn away, with Logan’s healing powers allowing him to suffer untold abuse to his body and the R rating allowing Mangold to pull no punches in the rending of flesh he must endure (and dish out). Desensitization to the violence is always a problem with a character like Wolverine, both in his ability to take a licking and his penchant for giving it back tenfold, but Mangold is careful in the way he stages his mayhem, focusing on the cost and the consequences of such violence. The R rating actually helps here; we’re far beyond the bloodless, gimped rage of Wolverine’s tear through the mansion in X-2 (which is not to denigrate that excellently mounted scene, just the absurdity and unreality of the lack of blood). We see what he can do in an unvarnished and unflinching way, and how that weighs on him psychologically after decades (centuries, really) of eviscerations. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, as some of the indulgence in violence in LOGAN does cross that line into exploitation territory, but the cool factor of it all is diminished. It’s often played, and rightly so, as horrific.
In order for Mangold to pull this off, he needs to make sure his characters can bear the heavy lifting. He had already proven he could make Wolverine a compelling character in the first two acts of The Wolverine (shame about that third though), and where the change of scenery to Japan worked wonders there, porting the character into a sort of half Western (Logan and Xavier watch Shane in a hotel room at one point, which is not remotely coincidental) half Mad Max road movie noir with a sprinkle of The Last of Us is just as fruitful here. There's a baseline expectation to how Jackman plays Wolverine and how Stewart plays Xavier after so many movies, but these iterations of the characters have enough subtle shades to allow them to stretch their legs a bit and show us some new sides to their portrayal. These are men beaten down by long lives of struggle and consequence, finding themselves faced with One Final Battle before the end of it all, and that breathes life into characters we've been watching on screen for seventeen years. Newcomer Dafne Keen has difficult shoes to fill, essentially playing the role of an adorable little girl mirror of Wolverine, complete with his berserker rage and affinity for knuckle cutlery, and she passes the test remarkably well considering she doesn’t actually speak for the majority of her time on screen. Mangold easily could have made her the X-23 that people know from the comics, but that wouldn’t fit this specific story he’s trying to tell. The trio represents the foundation of the film, a family unit of sorts with Logan stuck in the middle. It’s vital that these three are as engrossing as they are, as the rest of the cast, with the likes of a bug-eyed Stephen Merchant, Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant not making the most memorable of impressions. But this film isn’t about them, and doesn’t suffer too much for its dearth of exciting supporting characters.
Insofar as it represents a sort of “serious” superhero movie that leaves the genre trappings that have come to define Marvel and DC products since Jackman and Stewart helped launch the modern superhero blockbuster in 2000, Logan succeeds more often than it fails. It tells its story with a soulfulness that shines through the hard R carnage that pervades it's action sequences, and while the script’s reliance on four letter words often seems more motivated by opportunity than need, the world of Logan has an authenticity that is often lacking in other films that attempted what Mangold is doing here. Many voiced concerns after the surprise box office success of Deadpool that studios would begin cynically pumping out R rated superhero films in order to try and get a share of its success, but that happily isn’t the case here. It still has a villain problem like so many of these films do (there isn’t anything as bad as The Wolverine’s comically terrible big bad, but in one case it comes treacherously close), but the script is smart in the way it puts all the focus on this makeshift family and Logan’s need to keep them all together even if he wants to escape this life and finally feel the embrace of death. The Wolverine followed a similar path until falling into absurdity in the third act. Gladly, Logan manages to escape this fate (though there are certainly times it seems destined to lose its way), and provides a fitting capstone to the nearly two decades years Jackman has played the character. As a story about the man behind the claws, Logan proves that in this case, the third time is indeed the charm.