The term ‘superhero movie’ probably conjures up images of Marvel Studios’ bright-and-breezy Avengers series or the highly stylized bombast of DC’s latest offerings. It’s easy to forget that the ‘superhero movie’ can be anything, that the presence of superpowers needn’t define the genre. Logan, the latest film in the Wolverine spin-off series, is an ideal reminder of that fact. Returning for his second stab at the X-Men series’ most iconic character, director James Mangold strips away the trappings of the larger universe for a much more coherent and focused character study that owes more to Westerns like Shane and Unforgiven than it does to its superhero contemporaries.
Mangold’s excellent film is essentially a road trip set in a near-future where mutants are all but extinct and an older, broken down Logan (Hugh Jackman) is tasked with transporting a young girl across the US to safety in Canada. The girl is Laura (Dafne Keen, exceptional), an 11-year-old mutant created in a laboratory as part of the X-23 programme, an initiative that breeds mutants as super soldiers, using the DNA of other mutants to create them. Laura has advanced healing powers and an adamantium skeleton, complete with knuckle claws – no prizes for guessing whose DNA she’s built from.
Logan however has left that life behind – he’s the retired gunslinger, bearing the physical and emotional scars of a life of killing. He scrapes together a living from a chauffeur gig just south of the US/Mexico border, making enough cash to hustle medication for an ailing, nonagenarian Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). When Laura’s presence puts Charles’ life in danger, Logan has no choice but to load the girl and the old man into his limo and take-off. The trio form an unconventional family that provides the heart and soul of the film. Though Mangold wisely uses the wider X-Men universe very sparingly, the history between Logan and Charles is felt, through the mournful way they discuss their past and especially through the performances from Jackman and Stewart.
In their last go around after seventeen years as these characters, both actors deliver their best performances of the series. Both men are bruised and beaten, ravaged by time and succumbing to ill health. In a tragic twist, it’s Charles’ mind that’s giving up on him, while Logan’s body is beginning to poison itself. Some of their interactions are quietly devastating: Charles expressing his disappointment in his surrogate son’s unfulfilled potential; Logan caring for his ailing mentor, carrying him to bed or helping him use the toilet. The film’s best scene isn’t one of its brutal action sequences; it’s a simple dinner scene that sees Charles grasp at the chance of a brief moment of normalcy, something he wishes Logan could experience. It’s not too late, he tells his former student, particularly as Laura now offers Logan a shot at redemption.
Laura needs Logan too, and not just as someone to help her get to safety. She was born and raised a weapon and can seemingly kill with no remorse, which is a stark contrast to Logan who is weighed down by regret and guilt over his past of violence and bloodshed. If she’s to become anything but a cold killing machine, she might need someone with Logan’s heart – as bruised and wounded as it is – to set her on the right track. The toll that violence takes on the soul is a central theme of Logan and, although this is often a quiet and contemplative film, Mangold makes full use of the film’s R-rating. After numerous bloodless outings, this film finally delivers the kind of action that’s befitting of a character with giant knives protruding from his knuckles.
It remains to be seen what impact a film like Logan will have on the future of the superhero movie but with this film, Mangold has shown how to deliver a comic book movie of a different ilk, with more resonant themes and more rounded characters. He does it without sacrificing any of the thrills either: there may not be any world-destroying action scenes or blue beams shooting into the sky but this is still an action movie first and foremost, delivering action scenes that are imbued with a deeper significance because of the power of its themes and characters. The stakes are lower but they’re more personal and that’s ultimately what makes Logan so special.