Word on the hill is currently that the conclusion of the Avengers: Infinity Wars double feature will also be the final outing of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, or so a random twitter person I follow who writes about movies has suggested. I can’t find any corroborating sources to this that aren’t a year old, so who knows, but haven’t rumors of retirement plagued that whole ensemble, Downey especially, for a little while now? Maybe they’ve all seen Logan and are praying to be sent off with anywhere near as good a final outing as Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have, retiring their characters in a sad, violent film that offers both of them to stick the landing with indelible, tragic performances after so many years in PG-13 fare that’s seemed unsuited to the potential of the characters and their actors. I’ve basically enjoyed the X-Men films I’ve seen – fond but faded memories of the first two, faded memories entirely for the third and X-Men: First Class. I have seen The Wolverine, but not his first solo film, or any of the First Class sequels. Nor have I had any particular attachment to these actors in these roles, enjoying them without see them as worthwhile, or having the capacity to go anywhere near where Logan does with these characters. This also counts as a significant step up in my estimations of James Mangold: The Wolverine was frequently a messy film, and I barely believed we were ever in Japan. I’ve seen fragments of Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted, both fine but not projects I’d be tempted to seek again if not for their recognition at the Oscars. But none of that changes the potent if not quite absolute success Logan represents for all of its participants, functioning equally well as the kind of one-shot that’d only ever see the light of day as an animated film or hollowed out for inspiration in other projects (like the original Bane arc for Dark Knight Rises), and a stunning showcase finale for character and actor alike.
For a little while, it’s hard to believe that there’s any greatness left in Logan himself, using his real name and abandoning the Wolverine moniker after a great calamity only hinted at that’s left Xavier dithering in a great metal dome with fellow mutant Caliban to look after him. We first find him drunkenly passed out in his limousine, waking to the vibrations and sounds of his ride getting tire-jacked. The confrontation with the carjackers goes horribly before it even starts, as Logan’s dazed, hungover journey to walk around the other side of his car is enough to show how weary he already is and has been for years. Trying to placate the men only gets him two barrels of lead in his chest, and the retaliation is messy, brutal, uncomfortable to watch and deeply satisfying as a feat of utilizing Logan’s claws. Logan is as violent as you’ve heard it is, both in general and for a comic book film series of this saturation. I don’t know if this is why I find it discomfiting, maybe it really is too much, but it’s a laudable choice that serves the film and feels like the first time that his adamantium claws are really being stretched to their best advantage. Never has he been so feral on someone who couldn’t inevitably repair themselves or dodge his most brutal swings in previous films. Here, we practically open with a man getting a bladed uppercut to the jaw, to someone else losing their arm in pieces, to irreparable violence inflicted by a man whose own healing powers have slowed down far past their original capabilities, even as they’re still going. Maybe a second viewing will give me a firmer opinion on the violence in Logan, but from where I’m standing it’s a specific and character-appropriate addition that feels as grotesque and horrible as the wrath of a man with knife hands probably should be. I’ll squirm in my seat, but I support it.
From here we are re-introduced to Charles Xavier and his deteriorating mind, as well as a semi-post-apocalyptic Western setting that the film totally earns. Again, I don’t think the film needed to explain the lack of X-Men in Logan the way it does, but it’s rich shading for Logan himself and Charles, even as he struggles throughout to remember what’s happened to the rest of the team. His attempts to grasping at those memories, knowing he’s done something but unclear about what it is he’s done, are poignant struggles for the character to handle, made all the more desperate in his least present moments early on as he prattles off advertising slogans or goes full Cassandra, shouting warnings to Logan about events and people doomed to fall on the deaf ears of a man who already considers him and mutantdom lost. Not long after we’re introduced to the rest of the film’s refreshingly small cast: Dafne Keen’s mute, somewhat menacing child; Stephen Merchant as the albino mutant tracker Caliban, now a caretaker for Charles; and Boyd Holbrook’s vaguely threatening non-presence as the film’s villain, who’s name I can’t remember anyways. Wikipedia says his name is Donald Pierce, which sounds plausible, Wikipedia also says Mangold was really taken by Boyd’s performance, which I can only agree with insofar as he didn’t try and furnish an oppressive personality to compensate for a lack of one in the script. His first encounter with Logan in the limousine is menacing, but fairly low-key, furnishing his character’s credential’s without acting like his role is anything more than a glorified functionary. Stephen Merchant’s Caliban is a weary, snippy presence that gets delightful chemistry with Hugh Jackman that gives his character proper dignity and sorrow in his abuse. Elizabeth Rodriguez is even better as Keen’s doomed protector trying to get the pair to Canada, fearing for their lives without doing overtime to tell us her last scene is her last. Even if her warning videos suggest she spent all her spare time editing tapes on an iMovie, it still lands despite the weirdness of its mere existence. The setting, not just in Texas but in the rest of the country as well fits snuggly in the film’s tone and genre, suggesting not a smaller world but an emptier one, sporadically introducing new characters in such a way that even their presence is precarious to the narrative. Maybe I’m giving the benefit of the doubt to a writer/director that struggles suggesting anyone outside our three heroes truly matters, but that uneasiness worked even as the seams showed.
But for the difficulty Mangold has in convincing us of a future for nearly all the characters, for better and worse, he capably reveals and implies the pasts that these people have lived, hoisting up the baggage that’s brought them to where they are now. The various troubled histories of Logan, Charles, and X-23 (renamed Laura) are all poignantly affecting and believable at all times as their backstories go even deeper than presumed, or as characters directly state what had been implied in their performances already. A special bullet’s very obvious purpose is stated out loud by a drugged man nearly ninety minutes after it had been first discussed, and the moment lands, getting past the awkwardness of everything set up to make this happen through sheer willpower of turning that subtext into text, the power of the performer, and what it means for that character. Xavier’s own attempts to discover what he’d done that broke his mind culminate into a moment of peace, no longer tormented in the abstract now that he knows what he’s done, making amends with himself and simply happy he even found out what happened on his own after so much time spent on the edge of madness. The shared histories between Lopez and Laura, Pierce and Caliban, Caliban and Xavier and Logan, all ring true, not just in emotion but in the years and toils that have forged these relationships.
The scope of their journey and the threat they face also feel more potently real than many a superhero film that feel as though they’re plucking a random villain from a spreadsheet and try to find a reason for them to want to blow up the world. It’s not as though these villains are particularly distinct, but their lower-tier status and low-key menace is simply what Logan wants, needs, and gets. Here, Holbrook’s Donald Pierce and Richard E. Grant’s backgrounded super scientist (apparently named Zander Rice. Zander. Rice) are merely the faces of a large, shadowy corporation hunting down Laura. Rice’s character carries important connections to Logan, Laura, and to Rodriguez’s Gabriela Lopez, in perhaps equal measure, but he’s mostly an evil face on the sidelines, engineering narrative events without directly taking part in them himself. In fact, the film has the good sense to make his “I will create a race of peoples” monologue mercifully short, allowing him to explain why he’s even in this film before he gets cut off explaining how humanity can control mutantkind or whatever the fuck he was yammering about as the final boss appears. The omniscience of the Transigence corporation is a real, viable threat made even more awful by their secret experiments, trying to grow mutant children and turn them into soldiers, only to turn around and start killing the kids once newer programs with stronger mutants and more unquestioning obedience advance beyond the capabilities of these rebellious, uncooperative children. Lopez’s rescue operation and escape to Canada through North Dakota have all the trappings and unreliability of a pipe dream, much Logan and Charles’ dream of buying a boat and living happily alone with each other, especially once Logan finds out the name of the hideout, Eden, is a reference to an X-Men comic.
The meta-commentary as Logan berates Laura for believing in these tales is obvious, but it rings with some truth and does double duty on a few variants of comic book media that’s a lot more interesting than James Marsden quipping about how implausible yellow-colored spandex would be as a costume for a group of atomic supermen about to stop Ian McKellen from accidentally eradicating humankind. Silver screen comic-book fare seems almost physically impossible to tread anywhere near the kind of stylization and storytelling that Golden-Age comic books are famous for, though it certainly seems to be thriving in animated features and all these CW shows. But nowadays most comic films have taken the grim stylization of an early X-Files episodes, all grim color palettes and poor lighting, but with “darker” and “mature”content that seems to rebel against the idea that these characters could ever be happy, and could only ever exist in the “real world” if they’re violent rejections of what those characters were often meant to stand for. Aside from whatever nasty implications these directors (Zack Snyder) are standing up for by making such nasty representations of source material they ostensibly love, and taking stock that maybe the second wave of X-Men films has pulled this off and I just haven’t seen it (I think Guardians of the Galaxy is close), I don’t think Logan’s overt violence and Western-style fall into the same sort of betrayal of character I’m accusing the DCEU of perpetrating (I also wouldn’t accuse The Dark Knight of this either). It’s unusual tone, full worldbuilding, and the confidence it’s executed with gives its melancholic setup far more credibility than the dour, murderous pessimism of Batman or Lex Luthor’s jittery bitchiness. Mangold’s realizations of the characters also honors them, taking liberties to suit the story that honors their histories without betraying the basics of the characters. Logan’s self-hatred and Xavier’s mental degradation are plausible interpretations that work within the established traits of the characters and their previous film appearances. They’re still Charles and Logan, but not the ones we’ve spent over a decade watching.
Are you as amazed as I am that I’ve gone so long without gushing over the three lead performances in this film? I know I am, not just because they’re so spectacular, but that what works about the film is easily creditable to how well these performers carry out everything that the script demands of them, filling in gaps and lending emotional sense to a flawed script. Newcomer Dafne Keen is probably the most convincingly angry Murder Child in a decade full of Elevens and Arya Starks traipsing around pop culture. Her stunt double deserves some joint credit as well, but Keen’s own physicality and rage are potent in her silent expressions and homicidal war screams. She’s more Wolverine than Logan ever was, Sarah Connor scaled three feet high, and it’s too her credit that the character never felt unbelievable or repulsive despite such a feral performance. I quibble that her language skills develop when and why they do, but she carries that character’s preternatural intelligence in a way that felt in the ballpark of Marlene Dietrich’s gypsy fortune teller in Touch of Evil. Maybe there’s too much bathos baked into the part of Xavier for Patrick Stewart to dodge them completely, but he earns the pity his character inspires while adding plenty of venom, patience, and uncomplicated kindness in his interactions with Logan and the outside world, evoking a richer history reminiscing about the first time he saw Shane than he ever did with Ian McKellen. Hugh Jackman carries the least tangible arc of the trio, having to present the character as an ornery, unmovable object whose plot-required changes of heart must appear spontaneous against all that foreshadowing and basic narrative obligations. Against these obligations, Jackman thrives, offering a full characterization that’s a bitter, sad, and savage as the film needs him to be without lending his fallen superhero any unearned sympathy, leaping the narrative and hurdles to make the whole film, but especially the final half hour feel so horrific and affecting even as the tragic inevitability of it flirts with the painful obviousness of the machinations needed to make it happen.
In the time it’s taken me to write this, I’ve read and listened to several more reviews of Logan, and it has knocked down my estimation of it a few pegs. There’s simply too many individual facets of the script worth quibbling over, adding up into a narrative mainly held together by the work that the director and especially the actors are doing to give the material real emotional weight. I’ll budge on the script, listen to any suggested rewrites, but I’ll give Logancredit for having the guts to approach this kind of material and tone at all. That last half hour ends with an unthinkable yet inevitable conclusion to our titular hero, and as Laura adjusts a single prop before running off into the woods, leaving us with a final shot that nearly made me cry, I couldn’t think of anything but the insane risk that must’ve come for Mangold to create this story, and tell it the way he did. It’s not a great script, but what Mangold filmed is surely the best realization of it he has in him, aided and abetted by three stunning performances to make the whole thing feel as sad and muscular as it deserves. Surely this will only help Hugh Jackman’s probable Oscar bid for The Greatest Showman, nevermind the spare critics’ groups that’ll recognize him for this instead (surely Stewart and Keen will get theirs, and recognizing the screenplay seems the best way to recognize Mangold). But after Prisoners it’s amazing to me that as good as Jackman is as a theater-groomed musical man (this gleamed from his award show hosting gigs, not Les Mis), I’m stunned that his most effective cinematic persona could be summarized as “Angry Murder Dad in Pulpy, Sad Genre Film”. That’s surely a limited type, and Jackman’s an actor whose filmography I need to get caught up with. But after such a glorious final outing in Logan, I’d be happy to see what else this man can do.