On the printed page, comic book heroes are virtually ageless. They retain their illustrated youth and move with the times in their own universe. Other than one-shot tangents and playful dabbles with time travel, we do not see what they would look like or how diminished they would be at an advanced age. In a similar fashion, comic book films use a cycle of reboots and recasting to keep their characters young and current.
Blessed with good looks and an insane workout routine, Hugh Jackman has played the beloved “X-Men” character of Wolverine for 17 years. The Australian hunk turns 49 years old this year and cannot play the age-defying Ol’ Canucklehead forever. Reteaming for the third time with director James Mangold, Jackman has declared “Logan” to be his last ride with the mutton chop facial hair and adamantium claws. He picked a hell of a way to hang it up and go out.
With stunning brush strokes soaked in pathos and blood, “Logan” taps into a cask of comic book scotch that been reserved to reach maturity. This is, by a country mile, not only the best film of the “X-Men” franchise, but the best of 20th Century Fox’s entire catalog of Marvel Films. Presented as an analogy, “Logan” is to comic book films what “Unforgiven” was to westerns.
“Logan” blends borrowed inspiration from Mark Millar’s unfilmmable “Old Man Logan” comic saga and Craig Kyle’s “X-23: Innocence Lost” mini-series and plants them in a divergent future within the cinematic loops of “X-Men” continuity. The year is 2029 and no new mutants have been born in the world for two decades. The few that remain live in seclusion, including Logan and a nonagenarian Charles Xavier (a returning Patrick Stewart). They share refuge at a small abandoned factory complex south of the border in Mexico with fellow mutant exile and the caretaking sensory tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant).
Xavier is bedridden and locked away for his own protection in a collapsed water tower that symbolically resembles a reversed Cerebro. Caliban and Logan maintain the former professor on a drug regimen to suppress seizures that spike Charles’s formidable telepathic powers beyond his elderly and declining control. Living well beyond a century now himself, chronic pain, a trusty pair of reading glasses, a pronounced limp, and permanent scars fill what Logan’s weakened healing factor can no longer repair.
He ekes out a living as a limo driver for hire under an alias name. Hitting the bottle as a physical and emotional painkiller, Logan hopes to squirrel away enough cash to buy a boat to get off the grid. Always a moral sucker for the unguarded, Logan’s plan is derailed when he comes under the obligation to protect a selectively mute pre-teen named Laura Kinney (newcomer Dafne Keen), who has escaped from a government medical facility.
Shockingly, the child is Logan’s cloned test-tube daughter. She is modified like her father with adamantium of her own. Laura is the 23rd such impure medical experiment of Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) and his clandestine Transigen project to grow genetically-superior new mutants. Rice’s head of security, the merciless Donald Pierce (the up-and-coming Boyd Holbrook), moves in a reaving pursuit to apprehend Laura and her new protectors.
From there, “Logan” turns into a road movie of sorts that couples harrowing pursuit with deep ruminations on mortality and purpose not commonly seen in the comic book film genre. Composer Marco Beltrami, a frequent Mangold collaborator, trades typical “danger” music for tinges of piano notes that soften the volume and squeeze resonance along the way. Holbrook’s devilishly malevolent villain is a welcome threat devoid of superpowers. Visceral melee combat of smoking gun barrels and unsheathed blades replaces the gaudy recent trope of a swirling apocalypse in the sky. The menace here is far more intimate and personal. “Logan” owes a Thank You card to the success of “Deadpool” for allowing a R rating that unleashes the long-censored brand of bloody violence befitting of the Wolverine character. Buyer beware, this is not a film for kids.
Hugh Jackman has always dialed the proper intensity. He carries his hero’s burden and weathered deficiencies with broad shoulders to convey maximum unflinching courage. The heavenly Patrick Stewart is tonic of pure and soothing gravitas every second he is on-screen. The character dynamic between them, now fueled by flippant jabs of profanity afforded to them by this film’s rating, is utterly perfect in connection and candor. To watch the devoted pupil fervently come to care for the teacher, both near the end of their lives, is endearing and absorbing on a special level. Those loving arms extend to wrap a bond around Dafne Keen’s Laura as well, building a new legacy.
Don’t sleep on this being just another mindless comic book movie from a paint-by-numbers director. This is the same James Mangold who orchestrated “Cop Land,” “Girl, Interrupted,” “3:10 to Yuma,” and “Walk the Line.” He is a master of conflicted protagonists and the gray areas of opposition they operate within. Mangold slows what could have been a bloated and uncontrolled roller coaster into a tight and patient dramatic thriller that puts heavy value on its characters’ actions and consequences. Combining enough spectacle to balance the rich and compelling drama, “Logan” might just be the most mature and reflective comic book film of this era.
LESSON #1: RUNNING AWAY FROM ONE’S PROBLEMS — Wolverine has long been a moderately disillusioned character who talks tough on needing no one and adamantly demanding solitude. He too often ignores the flaws that come from such a mentality and hastily avoids his emotions and challenges with rancor. When he does accept guidance and finds the right fiber of humanity beneath the broken science experiment and animal within, he becomes a resolute man-of-action. See Lesson #2.
LESSON #2: PROTECTING THE YOUNG AND DEFENSELESS — In every “X-Men” film he’s involved in, Logan has shown a soft spot for women, children, and the oppressed. Bullies are his triggers. As feral and uncouth as he may seem, he has a strong core of moral convictions. As a drifter, he became a surrogate guardian in many battles over the years, generating allegiance and motivation to greater causes.
LESSON #3: THE POWERFUL NEED FOR FATHER FIGURES — “Logan” openly creates a parallel with 1953’s seminal western classic “Shane” and it is an ideal thematic pairing. Alan Ladd’s reluctant gunfighter and Jackman’s Wolverine embody the fight of Lesson #2 as well as the influential father figure role of this lesson. Laura is another Little Joe and but one more person Logan leaves a positive mark on in his world. Tales may be written on the actions of heroes, but the personal connections they build and leave behind are where the real legend lies.