“Give me a chance,” Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) pleads to Logan (Hugh Jackman) early in Bryan Singer’s X-Men. “I might be able to help you find some answers.” The two iconic characters are standing in the halls of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters with their entire cinematic future ahead of them. But that was 17 years ago, back when comic book movies were simply a novelty in Hollywood, Bill Clinton was still in the Oval Office, and 9/11 was what you dialed to reach real-life heroes. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, things have drastically changed. Since then, comic book movies have taken over the silver screen, the idiot who used to shill The Big New Yorker for Pizza Hut runs Capitol Hill, and 9/11 is the haunting symbol of one of our nation’s greatest tragedies. It’s an uglier world with uglier heroes and uglier villains, and that’s likely not going to change anytime soon.
All of those years and feelings inform the latest installment in Fox’s blockbuster X-Men cinematic universe: James Mangold’s Logan. Loosely inspired by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s comic mini-series Old Man Logan, the sequel to 2013’s The Wolverine wipes the slate clean by bamfing ahead into the future — specifically, 2029 — long after the events of 2014’s Days of Future Past and last year’s Apocalypse. In fact, the film couldn’t be further removed from Singer’s ultra-sleek vision of tight leather suits, steel-paneled doors, and extravagant East Coast mansions. No, this is a grounded, hard-R film set in a barren American wasteland — equal parts Coen Brothers, George Miller, and Clint Eastwood — where the settings are grim, the stakes are high, and the proceedings are anything but pleasant. It’s a complete 180 for the long-running franchise.
Gone are the super jets, the elaborate set pieces, and the over-the-top CGI spectacles that have bordered on insane. Instead, Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green chisel down the storytelling to its bare necessities, prioritizing humanity and drama over action and tension. Remember that tearjerker of a teaser trailer from last year? The emotional one set to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt”? That wasn’t misdirection in the slightest; those feelings are in every minute of this 135-minute film. This is a muscular narrative that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its adamantium sleeve, and what’s more, is willing to take unthinkable risks with two of the franchise’s most beloved and fleshed-out characters. You want something gritty? This is exactly the type of gritty comic book movie that fans always pine for and rarely receive.
Look no further than the fates of Logan and Xavier. When we first find our titular hero, he’s drunkenly asleep in his prized Chrysler limousine, which he uses to shepherd around wild bachelorette parties and depressing funeral processions night after night and day after day. Yes, after all these years and for all of his dour soul searching, Logan has amounted to little more than a glorified Lyft driver. And when he’s not slumming it in the backseat, he’s living in an abandoned, derelict facility, where an overturned water tower houses his longtime psychic mentor, Xavier. Time hasn’t been too kind to the former professor, either, who’s suffering from a debilitating case of Alzheimer’s, which has thwarted his abilities and made him an unpredictable, telepathic nuclear bomb. As we learn, if he’s without his medicine, all hell breaks loose.
That hell is why they’re on the lam. Xavier has been deemed a public risk, and it’s up to Logan to make sure he stays not only healthy, but completely off the grid. Fortunately for him, albino mutant Caliban (a near-unrecognizable Stephen Merchant) helps watch over Xavier when Logan’s out doing odd jobs. Even so, the weight is all on Logan’s shoulders, and that burden has taken its toll. He’s no longer the fast-healing, berzerker-raging beast of yesteryear; in his place is a slow-healing, berzerker-aching old man who coughs when he’s not shouting obscenities. To make matters worse, their kind has become mythology — relegated to literal comic books — as there hasn’t been a new mutant in decades. Naturally, that all changes when Logan crosses paths with a young and curious mutant named Laura (an outstanding Dafne Keen), who has her own sordid past.
Without spoiling too much, the story inevitably becomes a road trip, one in which Logan, Xavier, and Laura must evade the wrath of a secret government task force led by a villainous Boyd Holbrook. Rather wisely, Mangold uses this opportunity to build upon his futuristic world, leaning less on the grander details and more on intriguing subtleties, from the driverless trucks cluttering the freeway to the eerie H.G. Wells-esque farmhands looming in the background. These bits and pieces spark up the imagination to fill in the rest of the blanks, while also serving as intriguing hallmarks to Mangold’s sobering commentary on a not-so-distant American life. Given that so much of the action takes place around the Mexico border and through the small towns of Middle America, there are many allusions to today’s embroiled political anxieties — from immigration to unemployment to gun violence — and while these issues are hardly shoved down your throat, Logan certainly doesn’t shy away from them.
It’s a delicate dance, but Mangold never falters — and with good reason. This is a filmmaker’s film, a fully realized statement that oozes with the assurance and confidence of a hungry visionary who not only knows what he wants to do but how to do it. Given the guy’s stacked, eclectic resume — 1997’s Cop Land, 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, 2005’s Walk the Line, 2007’s 3:10 to Yuma, et al — there was never any doubting his abilities, but few could have ever predicted he’d return with something this vital and bruising, not after his good-but-not-great take on The Wolverine. Yet somewhere between then and now, Mangold found the inspiration to go above and beyond, and the proof is right there onscreen. Not once does Logan ever suffer from pacing issues, not once does Logan ever get too complicated, and not once does Logan ever overstep its boundaries.
Of course, all of this wouldn’t gel without the jaw-dropping work of Jackman, Stewart, and Keen. Over the past year, the two veteran stars have discussed how much this film means to them, and you can feel that energy throughout Logan, especially from Jackman. This is said to be his final swan song as Wolverine, and he never wastes a second. “There is not a frame of this film where I can say I didn’t put everything into it,” he told ET. “I couldn’t have made this film if I didn’t make the decision within myself that this was the last one. I just didn’t compromise on anything.” He’s not kidding. Similar to Sylvester Stallone’s Oscar-nominated return as Rocky Balboa in 2015’s Creed, Jackman sheds new light on an old face with an emotionally charged performance that radiates severity. Granted, he’s always been the MVP of the franchise, but this is a whole other level of excellence from the chiseled actor. His symbiotic relationship with Keen, whose quiet savagery complements his grizzled rage, warrants a number of fragile portraits that should have Fox campaigning for him come awards season this fall.
The same accolades could be reserved for Stewart, who also takes a strong, serious turn for the best. In the lead-up to the film, he’s argued that this is more of Jackman’s goodbye to the role than his own, but there’s no denying that his somber and painful performance similarly feels like a farewell address. His facial expressions sell the gravity of their situation and the underlying notion that these are two tired souls ready to fade away. It’s a powerful, heartbreaking sentiment and what ultimately drives the film, because at some point, that sense of mortality starts to sink in for yourself, namely when you consider how long they’ve been doing this together and how long we’ve been watching them. It’s a rare position for any series to be in and one that takes a lot of time, patience, and faith, something that doesn’t really exist in this industry anymore.
(Comics to Screen: Logan and Comic Book Movies Return to the Source)
For that reason, Logan is a total anomaly. It’s the rare self-contained sequel that exists within an incredibly pretzeled narrative, and yet feels as if it’s wholly original. How the hell did that happen today? Perhaps it had to do with last year’s genre-defying Deadpool and its ability to shatter box office records with an R-rating during a time when the box office is historically quiet and the genre’s offerings are traditionally aimed at children. Or maybe it was Fox coming to their senses and realizing that this genre isn’t built to last unless you’re open to evolution. Whatever the reason, Mangold turns the key on the tawdry, predictable superhero formula, delivering both his best film to date and one of the most game-changing comic book adaptations to ever leave the pages. Where the genre goes from here is anyone’s guess, but good luck to everyone who tries to take that next step.