Since the beginning of the comic book movie’s modern era, arguably starting with Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978, the genre has fought for legitimacy. Critics and audiences alike would dismiss the majority of them as kid’s stuff – they’re fun and entertaining, sure, but not to be taken too seriously. The makers of these movies started challenging that philosophy in earnest when the number of comic book movies released per year ramped up, starting with Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was one major step forward. The superhero’s capacity for emotional and moral complexity got deeper even as the body count and onscreen carnage got bloodier and more overwhelming.
Director James Mangold’s Logan feels like a leap forward. There is an emotional resonance here that’s more profound than any comic book movie I’ve ever seen. It’s made more affecting because there are real stakes in Logan. Mangold – who co-wrote as well as directed – breaks through the usual pitfall of these sorts of movies by having his characters change in ways that can’t easily be reset for a next installment. Logan is a brilliant example of the heights that comic book movies are capable.
The year is 2029, and Logan, aka the Wolverine, is noticeably older and frailer than we’ve ever seen him. The almost two-centuries-old mutant’s super healing abilities have been compromised by the adamantium bonded to his bones. The metal is slowly poisoning him. The fact that star Hugh Jackman made it known this would be his last outing as Wolverine probably helped free Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green of the need for franchise care. They didn’t need to be as concerned with making sure Logan was preserved for another sequel by the end of their movie.
The same is true for Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier. He, too, is ready to put the X-Men franchise behind him, consequently giving one of his most delicate and heartbreaking performances ever in Logan. Wolverine is taking care of the infirm Professor X by driving a limousine for an uber-style app, in order to buy medicine for his ailing mentor. The movie never discloses exactly what’s wrong with him, but it’s either Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. For anyone who’s ever faced seeing a loved one crumble under those circumstances, Stewart’s portrayal is very real.
Because Professor X’s mutant power is telepathy, there’s also the added element of mental disease being present in the most powerful brain in the world, as one of the characters puts it. Along with Xavier’s dementia come seizures that effect everyone around him. In the standout set piece of the movie, Charles has one of these seizures and it freezes people in pain and agony for miles. The visual effects for this sequence are unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The camera shakes violently as the colors take on a blurred halo effect and the characters surrounding him are helpless to do anything but move their eyes in horror.
Logan is rated R, so the language is stronger than usual for an X-Men movie. It’s at first bewildering to hear Charles Xavier pepper every sentence with the word fuck. Initially, I was turned off by this change to his character, thinking it wasn’t true to Stewart’s prior strictly patrician façade. The realization that he only used the profanity when he was in the grips of his mental deterioration, and that he spoke more like his old professorial self during lucid moments when he took his medication, was heartbreaking.
That small touch speaks to the broader feel that Mangold creates in Logan. It’s the near future and society is breaking down in hard to define, but very real, ways. This ambiguity is one of the film’s strongest attributes. Wolverine and other characters make oblique references to events in the past that are never overtly explained, but foster an imaginative world that exists beyond the edges of the frame. We know that no new mutants have been born in 14 years. We know Logan doesn’t feel safe keeping Professor X in the United States, so he stashes him just over the border in Mexico. We know that these things are so, just not exactly why they are so.
The atmosphere in the movie feels heavily influenced by Mad Max: Fury Road. The character design for Caliban, an albino that Logan has found to take care of Xavier in his absence, speaks to that. His first appearance on screen is striking. Caliban is harmed by the sun, and we first meet him in his outside garb: a big hat, goggles, and handkerchief-as-mask. Though this look, and the cinematography in general, feel tied to George Miller’s 2015 dystopian opus, it doesn’t feel derivative. They are thematic cousins, both inventive and beguiling.
To go along with this visual inventiveness, Mangold and his co-writers self-reflexively use the X-Men mythos to set the main action of Logan in motion. Early in the film, a mysterious Mexican woman named Gabriela finds Logan and insists he help both she and her daughter, Laura, get from Texas to North Dakota, to a place called Eden. Laura has special powers, and she is being hunted by scientists who want to exploit her unique abilities. Logan discovers that Gabriela wants to get to Eden because it’s mentioned as a safe place for mutants in an issue of the movie universe’s X-Men comic book. In the world of Logan, the comic book was invented as a fictionalized version of actual events. He tries to argue against the trip, explaining that the comic books are just based on the real X-Men, and that most of them are embellishments on what really happened. It’s a clever twist that adds a new dimension to the X-Men cinematic universe.
From here, the picture essentially becomes a road movie as Wolverine, Professor X, and Laura try to evade the girl’s pursuers and reach North Dakota. The climax of the film is the weakest part of Logan. It relies too heavily on a literal race to the border, as if crossing into Canada would somehow stop the ruthless scientists dead in their tracks. There is also a callback to a ridiculous plot element in the worst standalone Wolverine movie – X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That movie introduced the idea of an adamantium bullet being the one thing that could stop someone with an adamantium laced skeleton. The way Origins handled the idea was completely inept, and at least this movie does it with much more finesse, but that doesn’t keep it from being an ill-advised plot development.
The few missteps in the last act are really disappointing when compared to how carefully everything that came before it was crafted. It feels like lazy “just go with it” screenwriting that the rest of the movie meticulously avoids. The level of pathos, character development, and darkly beautiful tone that Logan achieves makes it one of the best comic book movies ever made. It’s a deeply affecting meditation on aging and the end of life.
Why it got 4 stars:
- A few disappointing plot elements late in the movie don't keep Logan from being a wonderfully told story with rich visuals and moving performances. It ranks among the very best comic book movies ever made.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Richard E. Grant is great as villain Zander Rice.
- There is a car chase scene alongside a speeding train that really evokes the visual aesthetic of Mad Max: Fury Road. It's a sequence that's been done a million times, but Mangold's staging makes it a fresh and tense moment.