The year is 2029, and the mutant formerly known as the Wolverine isn’t quite as invincible as he used to be. After being alive for almost 200 years, he’s finally starting to show his age. He’s haunted by something from his past (you’ll have to see the previous movies to find out what, or re-visit them to remember), and he hurts people in his dreams. He’s rotting from the inside out, he needs reading glasses, and his healing powers can’t keep up. He’s saved the world like eight times over, but he’s now a glorified Las Vegas Uber driver who cares more about his limo than he does his life. He may be the one guy on Earth who can’t drink himself to death, but that certainly hasn’t stopped him from trying. He’s pretty much a Johnny Cash song with adamantium claws. Logan was invincible once, but he’s human now.
If James Mangold’s spare, violent “Logan” resolves into such a fitting farewell for the character — or at least Hugh Jackman’s inimitably self-possessed portrayal of him — it’s because the film is human, too.
Better as an agitated Western than as a fading superhero movie (or a listless cross-country chase), the most cantankerous X-Man’s final outing is a scaled-back affair that nevertheless knows how to swing for the fences. Only marginally more expansive than last year’s “Deadpool” (and just as eager to celebrate its “R” rating), “Logan” strips its namesake down to his metal skeleton, cutting through the layers of precious world-building and plastic CG bullshit that have made too many of his previous big screen adventures feel like emotionally neutered toy commercials. There are no airships, no lasers shooting into the sky, no agonizingly pointless time-travel plots. In fact, there are hardly any supernatural shenanigans at all, as the film is pretty much “Children of Mutants.”
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Set 25 years since the birth of the last gifted child, Mangold reintroduces Logan into a depressingly believable near-future in which everything looks the same as it does now, only drier and more depressed. Mutants are history in every sense of the word — they’re found in history books and graphic novels (an “X-Men” comic even provides a crucial plot point), and the surviving members of the species are filtering out of circulation like two-dollar bills. Logan, seen casually disemboweling some would-be thieves during the opening credits, has never been a happy guy, but now he’s plain miserable — the only time he smiles during the first half of the film is when a drunken bachelorette flashes him from the backseat of his limo. (X-Men, meet nudity. Nudity, X-Men.) He just wants to raise enough money to live out the rest of his days on a boat in the middle of the ocean, and he wants to take his old father figure, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, of course) with him.
But Charles isn’t exactly pitching in to this plan — doped up and shouting nursery rhymes inside a fallen water tower across the Mexican border, he’s senile and losing control of his powers. His mind has been classified as a weapon of mass destruction, and it’s essentially leaking uranium everywhere.
As if that’s not enough for our hero to handle, he soon finds himself being forced to care for another mutant. Her name is Laura (Dafne Keen), she’s just a kid, and she has more than a few things in common with the Wolverine. One moment, Logan thinks he could be the last of his kind; the next, he’s tasked with driving Laura up to a safe haven in Canada and forced to become a foster parent for his own mute Mini-Me. Needless to say, it won’t be an easy road trip. Not only does Charles occasionally suffer intense psychic episodes that threaten the lives of anyone in the area, but Laura is being hunted by a cyborg cowboy named Donald (Boyd Holbrook) who’s as bland as he is relentless.
Yes, this is yet another superhero movie that suffers from a worthless villain, but the fact of the matter is that Logan is ultimately fighting himself, and Mangold never forgets that (on the contrary, he sometimes takes the idea far too literally). A stretched-out story of redemption in which the destination is far more interesting and important than the journey, “Logan” has a much clearer sense of where it’s going than it does of how to get there.
Logan has always presented a unique dramatic challenge — scientists have managed to get under his skin, but screenwriters have yet to crack how the character can meaningfully change when all of his wounds heal as fast as they bleed — and now that his body no longer seals itself up at the same pace, he’s pretty much just a surly mass of scar tissue. “We always thought we were part of God’s plan,” he growls. “Maybe we were God’s mistake.” Mangold has created a story that allows his grizzled protagonist to move from one end of that thought to the other and back again, but little of that wayward path is paved with the same purpose that Logan travels it.
Laura is a fun foil (being mute prevents her from getting annoying, and being Mexican allows her character more direct access to the film’s broader themes of systemic dehumanization), but the last thing the world needs is another jag about a grouchy old man forging an unlikely bond with a little kid. And that bond, cute as it may be, is too seldom deepened by the plot’s various detours and scrappy action sequences. Laura inevitably teaches Logan how to love again, that just because “Bad shit happens to people I care about” doesn’t mean he shouldn’t care about people, but there just isn’t enough meat down the middle of their adventure to bridge the gap between the scene-setting of its first act and the emotional payoff of its third.
And it is an emotional payoff. 2013’s “The Wolverine” proved — in its finer, earlier moments — that Mangold knew how to tap into the title character’s feral rage. Transplanting the superhero to Japan without losing anything in translation, the director used one genre to clarify Logan’s role in another, re-conceiving him as a wandering ronin who served at the pleasure of his inner demons. Here, Mangold repeats that trick with similar success, dropping Jackman’s iconic nomad into the middle of a hard-edged oater and giving him a chance to ride off into the sunset. Will Logan have a triumphant ending, like “Shane?” Or will he slump over in his saddle as he disappears over the horizon, like “Shane?”
“Logan” isn’t always a satisfying movie, but there’s a very satisfying answer to those questions waiting for viewers at the end of it. Satisfying not only because Mangold resolves things with some brilliantly expressive imagery, or because he endows this story with a no-shits-left-to-give honesty that defies its origins and justifies its spectacular violence and salty vocabulary, but because it proves how iconic Jackman has made this character over the last 17 years.
Wolverine was famous before the actor became him, and the dictums of Hollywood insist that another actor will eventually grin and grimace his way through the role, but it’s telling that he’s one of the only major X-Men who hasn’t been played by another, younger star along the way. Jackman’s performance cut deeper than the spandex he wore for it — he wasn’t a vessel for this character, the character was a vessel for him.
And in this movie’s closing moments, we realize that he’s left us with one of the only big screen superheroes capable of conveying what these stories can do, and why people are drawn to them like moths to the flame no matter how many times they get burned. Whereas most of the cinematic genre’s characters borrow from myth, Jackman’s Wolverine became human enough to forge his own. Whereas most of these characters are shaped by studio notes and watered down by fan service, Jackman’s snarling embodiment of the comic book cover star was built to survive Brett Ratner sequels, recover from Will.i.am cameos, and elevate solid action fare into the pop culture firmaments. He was big even when the pictures got small, and even bigger when they didn’t. “Don’t be what they made you,” Logan tells Laura. That could be an empty line of dialogue, but when Jackman says it, it means something. Maybe even everything.
“Logan” opens in theaters on March 2nd.