Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe.
Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.
The uneven X-Men film franchise went through a reboot in 2014 with Days of Future Past. In its future setting, the robotic Sentinels have enslaved humanity and hunted the mutants to near extinction. To save themselves, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sends Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to prevent the creation of the Sentinel program. After Logan succeeds in his mission, he wakes up in his bedroom at the Westchester mansion. Everyone’s alive and healthy, without a single sentinel in sight. Having no memories of the new timeline, Logan confronts Xavier with his conundrum. The film ends with Xavier’s delighted reaction and a promise to inform his friend about the brave new world he helped usher into existence.
None of this is necessary to understand Logan. On the contrary, the time travel shenanigans only serve to make the story both sillier and less accessible. But the contrast between the 2017 film and its predecessors is perturbing. Like Marty McFly, the Logan from the 2014 film finds himself in a much better present than the one he left behind. But this lovely vision is cruelly snatched away from him, only to be replaced by another horrible timeline where the mutant apocalypse arrives as a kind of slow and inevitable demise. There are no flying killer robots in Logan. The more fantastic superhero elements are pushed deep into the background. When they are foregrounded, it’s in the form of X-Men comic books, which Logan openly mocks for only getting it half right.
This meta commentary is a shout out to the increasingly baroque Marvel Cinematic Universe, the televised Arrowverse, the sputtering DC Cinematic Universe, and every Hollywood attempt to sustain a ubiquitous multimedia franchise. As they seek to outdo each other in over-the-top spectacle, larger ensembles, and convoluted continuity, Logan pulls back. The cast is smaller, the set pieces are more intimate, and the stakes are far from world-saving.
But the tonal shift also feels timely. Director James Mangold economically sets up a future America that has become a fascist police state. In 2029, an aging Logan freelances as a limo driver in El Paso. The healing factor which has kept him alive for over 200 years is greatly diminished. He drinks too much. And Logan cares for an ailing Xavier who rants like a mad King Lear. The mutants, once a symbol of a brighter tomorrow, are again endangered. Both Logan and Xavier are haunted by their memories of the “Westchester Incident,” an event from five years ago that spelled the end for the X-Men and the beginning of the end for mutantkind.
This portrait of two aging individuals who’re being slowly destroyed by their own superpowers serves as a more effective way to convey the loss of their shared utopian dream than any attack from a fleet of Sentinels. Logan’s claw openings occasionally spew puss, a possible sign he’s being slowly poisoned by the adamantium that laces his skeleton. With the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan has Xavier tucked away in an abandoned industrial compound located south of the Mexican border, not only to protect themselves from unwanted attention but to also keep anyone from being exposed to psychic attacks unleashed whenever Xavier suffers a seizure. But neither of them is willing to articulate their shared guilt over the loss of the X-Men and mutantkind. When Xavier experiences a moment of lucidity, he simply says to Logan is “What a disappointment you are.” It’s a brilliant performance of someone losing the battle with dementia from Stewart.
If Mangold’s earlier outing The Wolverine drew from Asian martial arts fantasy, Logan is clearly informed by westerns. The two older mutants are very much akin to retired gunslingers scarred by a life filled with violence. The film even directly quotes the 1953 western Shane. Like that movie’s titular hero, Logan can’t quite escape his past. And like Reuben Cogburn from True Grit, he’s been given a chance at redemption by accompanying a young girl on a perilous journey. If that's not enough, helping to convey this message is the music of Johnny Cash.
The girl in question is Laura (Dafne Keen), who is for all they know, the last young mutant left on the planet. She’s on the run from the kind of corporate overlords who rule future America and are raising mutants from birth to become living weapons. It’s also hinted that they’re also responsible for engineering a federally sanctioned act of mutant genocide. As any hardcore X-Men comics fan already knows, Laura has the same mutant powers as Logan. Despite this uncanny resemblance, Logan is hesitant to escort Laura towards a possibly fictive safe haven. But he and Xavier abscond with her once they realize the goons responsible for bringing Laura in are just as happy to target them. What follows is a quiet, melancholic road trip through the more desolate parts of the country’s western interior, punctuated by the requisite gory violence.
And those action set pieces are filled with tension. Keen’s portrayal of a frenzied Laura manages to make her an extremely dangerous combatant while still being a young innocent screaming in terror at her adult assailants. The balletic fight choreography highlights Laura’s diminutive stature and vicious fighting style. She’s constantly sliding between her opponents' legs to slice off their tendons, chopping off arms, or diving claws first into their chests.
As for Logan himself, he’s a diminished figure from his last two solo outings, literally. Jackman’s finally been allowed to shed some of the muscle he’s gained from playing the role for the last 17 years. When he runs through the woods in the film’s taut climax, every heavy exhalation and clumsy step he takes seems to only bring him closer to collapse, if not death. It’s a glimpse of the fragility behind the invincible adamantium frame which makes for a more terrifying throwdown. This is a fitting farewell to Jackman’s star making turn as Canada’s quintessential wild man.