If you’re even slightly interested in seeing Logan, you probably know that it’s getting rave reviews. So much so that for some people, it’s going to be tough for it to live up to the hype. So let me say right out of the gate that Logan isn’t a perfect movie. But it is a very good one, and a significant enough departure from previous instalments in the X-Men franchise that your enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the earlier movies probably isn’t a very good predictor of whether you’ll like this one. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Westerns – and specifically the gritty, melancholy, washed-up-gunslinger-reluctantly-takes-on-one-more-job trope, this film is for you.
There’s nothing terribly original in this observation. In fact, you probably won’t come across a single review of Logan that doesn’t mention its resemblance to a Western. The comparison is impossible to miss, and that’s because director James Mangold doesn’t want you to miss it. He’s been priming us since the trailer, with its opening shots of a grizzled Logan squinting out over a dust-choked horizon to the soundtrack of Johnny Cash’s Hurt. Mangold wants us to understand what kind of film this is – and what it isn’t. Which is smart, because the end result is about as far removed from the typical Marvel superhero movie as it could possibly be. The Avengers, Doctor Strange and the like taught us to expect spectacle and flash. Instead, what Logan delivers is stripped down, visceral, and intimate. If Doctor Strange is Beyoncé; Logan is… well, Johnny Cash.
The film is probably best summed up in this shot:
It is, in other words, a movie about a deeply scarred man looking in the mirror.
The worldbuilding in Logan takes a back seat to character and plot. The movie opens on a vaguely post-apocalyptic landscape; we’re given the visual cues of a major upheaval, but never much of the context. All we know is that it’s 2029 and mutants are slowly becoming extinct: none have been born in over twenty years, and those that remain are well past their prime. The X-Men are gone – tragedy is hinted at, but never fully explained – and as far as we know, only Logan and Professor X are left, hiding out in an abandoned smelting plant in Mexico (along with a reformed Caliban, who appeared briefly and forgettably in the entirely forgettable X-Men Apocalypse). Logan works as a chauffeur by night. By day, he does his best to care for the nonagenarian Charles, now suffering from dementia. No longer able to control his considerable powers, Charles is a danger to himself and others. So much so that he’s one of the most wanted men in America, his brain having been officially classified as a “weapon of mass destruction” following an incident in Westchester some years previous. To dampen his powers, Logan keeps him in a derelict water tank that vaguely resembles a rusted-out Cerebro, a poignant reminder of the man Charles used to be, and how far he’s fallen.
The relationship between Logan and the enfeebled Charles is deeply affecting, by turns bitter, warm, funny, and utterly heart-breaking. As someone who spent the past year watching my own father care for his dad – similarly wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia – I found it almost too close to the bone. The writing is spot-on, and both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart knock it out of the park. Charles’s confusion, anguish, and misdirected anger is pitch-perfect, and the grim determination with which Logan deals with it… well, let’s just say it resonated. In all honesty, those scenes would not be out of place in an Oscar-worthy drama.
Into this bleak situation steps Laura, a young Mexican girl with… um, anger management issues. She is, as revealed in the trailer, a mutant. Not just any mutant, either: one with exactly the same powers as Logan. Bad men are after her, and at Charles’s insistence, a very (very) reluctant Logan agrees to help smuggle her across the Canadian border. The choice of Canada as the safe haven could be coincidence – in what is perhaps a sign of the times, I’ve seen no fewer than three movies/shows recently that take place in a future where only Canada is deemed safe – but I suspect it’s deeper than that. Logan’s journey to Canada is, literally and metaphorically, a journey home.
Because of course this movie is called Logan, and for all its chase scenes, side plots, and wonderful relationships, it is, at its heart, a movie about a man coming to terms with who he is at the end of his life. This is what makes it a Western, and also what makes it great. It doesn’t side-step the superhero aspect; we still see plenty of adamantium claws, robot arms, psychic paralysis, and other nifty tricks. But these aren’t the centre of the movie. They’re props rather than the main attraction. In this, Logan feels more like a DC movie than a Marvel one; think Batman Begins or Man of Steel. Not in terms of the overall quality of the movie, but in its emphasis on character, the close-up look at how these powers set the hero apart, not just physically but emotionally, and especially morally.
More than any of those movies, though, and certainly more than the typical MCU fare, Logan is brutally violent – perhaps overly so. While the kill count doesn’t compare to most comic book movies, the bloodletting is much more intimate and graphic. Logan earns its R rating and then some. You could argue that this gives the violence more impact, and drives home the central theme of Logan’s regret (“Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long.”) Paradoxically, though, the movie treads pretty lightly over eleven year-old Laura’s own role in some of the film’s most brutal sequences. Logan gives her a brief talking-to about this near the end of the movie, but on the whole it’s shrugged off pretty casually, which undermines the overall effect.
I also wish the bad guys had been a little more noteworthy. As it is, they’re one of the few things taken straight from the typical X-Men playbook: heartless scientist/military/corporate types bent on creating the ultimate killing machine. This wasn’t especially interesting the first twenty times we saw it. At this point, it’s downright tired.
Really, though, I’m quibbling. Jackman says he reckons this is his last outing as Wolverine, and if so, he’s sent the character off right. As for director Mangold, he’s rekindled my faith in the superhero movie with heart.