It’s hard to believe that it’s been 17 years since the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men. At that time, there was no superhero craze, and the last two major comic-book-movie crazes were a by-then stagnated Batman series and Blade, which was more of an action-horror flick to the masses, despite the source material. Much had to be proven and established for general audiences, as this property broke new ground. Most any successful live-action comic-book-adaptation, be that TV or film, had focused on solo heroes or the “dynamic duo”, and few only dabbled in political subtext. Professor Xavier’s team would show moviegoers a new breed of heroes, and the film was an immediate hit.
The lead in that film was a then-unknown Hugh Jackman; while not the filmmaker’s first pick for the role (Dougray Scott vacated, due to his Mission: Impossible 2 commitments), he immediately impressed audiences with his take on the gruff anti-hero, Logan, better known to the world as Wolverine. Comic purists may have grumbled over details such as his height or position as “lead” in the team, but the fact remained: Wolverine was brought to life, and that seemed an impossible thought, years prior.
As the series continued through sequels, Hugh Jackman featured throughout, even if only in cameos. Three original films, three prequel films, and two Wolverine solo-films…it’s quite a statement to have an actor and character feature that heavily in any way in a long-running series, especially should they do so prominently, but now with Logan, we come to the planned exit for Jackman in the role that made him a star.
Director James Mangold, who also directed the 2013 entry, The Wolverine, returns at the helm here, and while that film was a superhero twist on a lone Samurai film, this is a post-apocalyptic Western that just happens to have superpowers in it. While the X-Men film continuity is…convoluted (at best), this film works best on its own terms, which feels like the intention to some degree. There are callbacks to earlier films and characters, but trying to understand a throughline of events, especially in light of the “reset” in X-Men: Days of Future Past, will just make your head hurt. The main strength of this film is how it caps off threads in many of the other films, while also being fairly self-contained. That’s a definite achievement.
In regards to the story here, we find Logan a husk of his former self, several years down the line from our own time. Forget the character functioning within the team dynamic of films’ past; no, here we see him scrapping by in border towns as a limo driver and trying to keep attention from himself. In the years prior to the film, mutants have started dying off. Alongside their deaths, American sentiment is strong against even the idea of them, due to incidents that have threatened civilians. Despite his circumstances, that’s not to say Logan doesn’t have aspirations; he’s slowly building up a nest egg to escape this life. His income supports not only himself, as he slips over into Mexico to provide provision for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose powerful mind is slipping and becoming a danger to all. In his absence, he entrusts Xavier to Caliban (Stephen Merchant), another mutant forced into seclusion from the bright lights of the desert. This life isn’t one anyone would likely choose, but it doesn’t appear many people in this time get to do so.
Speaking of having no choice, a mysterious woman finds Logan and tries to enlist his services. She has a small girl named Laura who she insists has to make it to North Dakota shortly. Logan has no time for such things, especially involving people he doesn’t know. Scratch that…he doesn’t have time for things involving anyone. Alongside the changed world, he has a changed body. The adamantium skeleton placed inside him years ago is slowly poisoning him. He heals slower, moves slower, fights slower. There’s no way he would choose to take this girl anywhere, let alone across the country. Yet, life doesn’t always allow us the ability to choose what happens, and due to Xavier’s insistence and the fierceness of those also looking for Laura, the rest of the movie involves their journey to insure Laura’s safe delivery.
While my synopsis is slightly more spoilery than normal, trust me when I say that I have left much unsaid. Without giving much more away, I found segments of this film to be surprisingly spiritual, especially for an R-rated film such as this. Logan is taken on a journey, with us alongside, and after the lengthy lifetime of loss a regenerating man is sure to experience, we can feel his seclusion and, better yet, understand it. Logan hasn’t went on as apparent of an emotional arc in any of his other films, and by the end of it, you’ll see the change in him as he lets his guard down. You’ll hear mention of more characters than you will see them, and that makes this film much more intimate than other X-Men movies. While some (myself included) didn’t know what to think of Fox’s decision to go “hard-R” after Deadpool‘s runaway success, if that decision benefitted anywhere, it was in allowing the audience to loosen expectations a bit coming in. Personally, I didn’t flinch at the intensity of the violence in film’s past, but there were moments here where I did. I didn’t care for the barrage of “f-bombs” used here, but I expected such. If anything, it reflected the desperation of our beloved characters of Logan and Xavier and how years of anti-mutant sentiment has hardened them. If you draw hard lines on content, then be aware: violence is intense, language is frequent, and nudity is used very unnecessarily.
I don’t think James Mangold has gotten enough respect for his contributions with this film or the preceeding Wolverine film. He had a tall order in refocusing things after the misfire that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. While The Wolverine fell victim to last act problems, that film was a very respectable film for the character. I would say that his direction is even stronger here. I think the entire creative team were given almost free reign here, as this feels more like an independent movie than the typical superhero studio film. His films have consistently been hits on the periphery of Hollywood, so if anything, I hope his great direction here earns him even better jobs in the future, superhero film or otherwise.
Hugh Jackman, who has consistently finessed his own physique with each film, looks appropriately busted here. As I watched, I felt his own devotion to this character, and seeing his degradation physically was very effective as a plot device. Patrick Stewart mirrors this as well; for the most powerful mind on Earth to no longer even remember the simplest of things achieved a level of emotion that is usually devoid of these types of film. The pervasive sadness is balanced with humor throughout in just the right amounts. I wasn’t overwhelmed with love for this film, but I was overcome with respect: respect for the vision achieved, respect for the sophistication of its storytelling, and respect for the contributions actors like Jackman & Stewart have made for years within roles they had to prove could work in live-action.
Much of what I respect about the film is also what kept me from enjoying it on levels like I have the prior films. This is a tough film in an even tougher world. It’s a film I plan to revisit in the future, even if not often. Don’t take that as dismissive critique, but do take it as reason to prepare yourself for a bold, harsh look at characters you’ve loved for years. 2017 has been a strong year for superhero films, and this one should have made us all aware that they need not be made uninteresting. While this marks the end of an era in its own way, may it mark the beginning in more films like this one.