With their extended metaphor about mutation as a stand-in for all the many reasons humans find to be bigoted toward other humans, the X-Men stories have always been perhaps the most grounded of the superhero universes, at least in their exploration of what it means to be “super” in a world where “super” is feared and hated, where “super” is ostracized. The mutants of X-Men are just ordinary people with unusual talents that, for the most part, they have to hide, and the movies in this series — of which we have had 10, counting this one, since the series debuted in 2000 with X-Men — have been as much about realistic people trying to come to terms with their abilities as they’ve been about the usual comic-book action thrills.
And among the characters we might call the alpha males of comic-book superdom, Wolverine — aka James Logan — stands apart, too. Though he is close to invulnerable, he has none of the cheerful godhood of Superman. Unlike Batman, he did not seek out a career righting wrongs. And very much unlike Captain America, he was tricked into consenting to the experimentation that augmented his mutant powers, a horrific and invasive violation of his body (when a mad military man surgically traded in Logan’s bone claws for ones made of the superstrong medal adamantium). There has never been a more reluctant hero than Wolverine. There has, perhaps, never been a hero so abused by life and so cursed by his abilities.
But even the X-Men series has never seen a film like Logan before: raw, rageful, tormented, human. This doesn’t look like any other superhero movie ever, either… from any comic-book universe. No spandex or capes here. There’s almost nothing by way of FX — lots of car chases and crashes, lots of stuntwork, yes, but almost all of that seems to be practical. There’s none of the big brash sci-fi whiz-bang we’ve come to expect from the genre, and of which there has always been plenty in this series. Hell, there’s barely much in the way of color, even: director James Mangold (Knight and Day, 3:10 to Yuma) and cinematographer John Mathieson’s (Pan, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) muted palette of desert browns and industrial grays mirrors the grim mindset of down-on-his-luck Logan and the emotional and physical depletion he’s running on these days.
“These days” is 2029, and Logan (Hugh Jackman: Eddie the Eagle, Chappie) is hiding out along the Mexican border, eking out a scant living as a limo driver in El Paso. He’s got 90-something Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart: Ted 2, Green Room) tucked away with him, keeping the elderly mutant mostly doped up all the time because he’s having telepathic seizures that conk out everyone in the vicinity. (They’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s no one else around except another mutant, Caliban [Stephen Merchant: I Give It a Year, Movie 43], who’s helping Logan take care of Charles.) Something is wrong with Logan: he’s covered in scars and walks with a limp, which means his mutant superhealing isn’t working for some reason. He’s going gray and getting old, but it’s more than that, too: he looks like hell, actually. Something is very wrong with him. (In case you’re wondering, the story here bears no resemblance whatsoever to Mark Millar’s graphic novel Old Man Logan, though the film’s title is perhaps an homage.)
Something is wrong in the larger world, too: no new mutants have been born for 25 years. It’s like Children of Men for mutants. (The science fiction worldbuilding here is minimal, and sneaky, and all the more effective because of it. Driverless trucks passing by in the background on a freeway, for instance, are somehow creepy and eerie in their modified familiarity: they have no cabs, which makes them seem decapitated.) Except out of nowhere little Laura (a ferocious Dafne Keen) appears; she’s around eight years old, she has mutant powers like Logan’s, and she needs to get somewhere safe, away from the mysterious and menacing Pierce (Boyd Holbrook: Morgan, Jane Got a Gun), who is pursuing her for reasons that will later become clear. Will Logan please drive her to a place in North Dakota called Eden, allegedly a refuge for young mutants (others also exist!)? Logan doubts such a place is real, but his reluctant heroism has been engaged…
Everything that is shocking and dark and upsetting and surprising here — of which there is much — is all the more so all of those things because Logan is not an action movie: it’s a personal drama that only happens to be set in a parallel reality where mutants exist. Jackman has always given Logan an appealing emotional vulnerability under the character’s gruff exterior, but here that engages new depths of empathy on our part with Logan’s new physical susceptibilities, not only for the character but for the actor as well. The fantasy of superpowers and the blow their deterioration must mean to a man like Logan takes on a new poignancy when we consider that playing a character who has not, previously, seemingly been subject to aging simply is not possible for a nonmutant man like Jackman to keep up forever. He’s been playing this character for 15 years, and while the actor is still extremely robust — the most dramatic FX here may be the hair-and-makeup job that makes Logan look way more beat-up than Jackman actually is — he is nearly 50. He wasn’t going to be able to play an ageless badass like Wolverine for much longer. (In fact Jackman has said this will be his last outing in the role.)
There is action here, though it’s more like a one-last-stand sort of Western such as Unforgiven than typical comic-book battles. The violence — of which there is plenty — is gory and pulpy and fleshy, which is surely what it would really be like in a world in which superhumans regularly beat the shit out of one another, and out of mere mortals. Logan is not bloodlessly cartoonish in the way that even really great comic-book movies have been, wherein entire city neighborhoods can be razed without a hint of the human carnage that would naturally accompany such a nightmare. The scale is small here, but the human toll is tremendous in the way that a single death can be depicted as far more terrible than mass destruction.
This third film in the Wolverine trilogy — after 2013’s The Wolverine (also by writer-director Mangold and also with cowriter Scott Frank) and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine — is by far the best of the bunch, and probably the best X-Men movie yet, except that Logan exists on its own plane of darkness, of willingness to be bold and definitive, of commitment to the human authenticity of its characters. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I suspect we shall not see its like again. It’s almost too legitimately harsh to be escapist. I felt nearly as worn out as Logan himself by the end.