If it’s the last ride for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, it’s also the best film of the entire franchise.
The Wolverine, a.k.a. Logan, a.k.a. James Howlett, differs notably from other superheroes in that it’s not his triumphs that define him, but rather the pain he endures along the way. Blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with a healing factor and unnaturally long life, Wolverine has suffered through tragedy, mutilation, mind erasure, and even a nuclear explosion in the nigh two centuries he’s roamed the earth. The Wolverine symbolizes the rawest of stories, the most elemental of desires: to endure, to persist, to survive.
Logan, directed by James Mangold, is the fullest realization of that beat, a visceral tale of what happens when a man given too much time finally starts running out of it. Hugh Jackman once again slips into the familiar skin of the titular character, guiding us through 2029 America, a time in which mutants have all but vanished from the face of the earth and no new ones are being born. Logan has outlasted all his friends save for a deteriorating Charles Xavier (once again played by Sir Patrick Stewart), and is now a limousine driver in the border town of El Paso. When Logan is not caring for the former Professor, he often finds himself at the bottom of the bottle, a sad broken shell of a former hero.
That all must quickly fall by the wayside when Logan comes across Laura (played superbly by Dafne Keen), a seemingly mute child on the run with her nurse and caretaker, Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Gabriella explains that men known as the Reavers are hunting Laura, and gives Logan a sizeable sum of money to ferry them to a safe haven near the Canadian border. Logan reluctantly agrees, but it doesn’t go according to plan, and he ends up with a surprise stowaway when he returns home.
Charles reveals he’s been telepathically communicating with Laura for some time, and that she is in fact a mutant. The Reavers, led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), cut the exposition short as they arrive in search of Laura. Here, Laura reveals herself to have claws and healing factor, as she takes out most of Pierce’s men while Logan readies their escape. Afterwards, Logan learns the truth: Laura, or X-23, is one of several artificially-created mutant children being raised to be supersoldiers by Transigen, a mutant breeding factory posing as a pharmaceutical company. What more, Laura appears to have been created from Logan’s DNA, ostensibly making him her father.
What ensues is a film that is equal parts road trip and western; our three heroes set out for “Eden,” a supposed mutant sanctuary where those fleeing persecution can cross over into Canada. Along the way, the truth of what has happened to mutants, the X-Men, and why Laura is on the run is revealed. If Transigen has finally created its perfect super-soldier, the children are a liability with which to be dealt. The movie builds towards a showdown with Tnansigen head Xander Rice (Richard E. Grant) and his newest creation “X-24.”
While the plot has some incredible revelations, what drives this movie is character. Except perhaps his co-star Stewart, no actor is as synonymous with his hero role as Jackman is to Wolverine. Carrying the physical and emotional weight of a 180-year-old man, Logan limps his way across the country, coughing and exhausted, slowly grinding into nothing. The losses that Logan has endured in his life are slowly drowning the man. If not for the charges in his care, one would think Logan would like nothing else but to lie down in front of an oncoming train. But what Laura is, and maybe more importantly who she is (a human molded into weapon, not unlike Logan himself) gives the Wolverine one last purpose.
And while Jackman is once again iconic in this role, Dafne Keen is the showstealer. Even in silence, she carries her character’s tragic history with her, eyes conveying years of horror and torture. When she finally does speak, it is powerful yet incredibly charming. Laura is a spiritual twin to Arya Stark, even to the point where she has her own list of names to recite (though in entirely different context). And with X-23’s twist on Wolverine’s claws, the action and choreography of her fight scenes sing a new song, rooted in the clawed brutality of Wolverine but with a style and grace unique to a young female acrobat.
The rest of the cast is exceptional, too. Stewart is utterly heartbreaking, as onset dementia makes him both vulnerable and dangerous (his brain, which has the power to release psionic blats paralyzing those anywhere near him, has been labeled a WMD). Stephen Merchant is endearing as Caliban, an albino mutant who helps Logan care for the professor. And while none of the villains (Pierce, Rice, or X-24) are given a robust characterization, they are all given moments to shine in their roles.
The film does seem long at times, especially during the second act, but in a way that perfectly matches the tone and themes of the film. And the high points (both in character beats and set pieces) are so vicious and jaw dropping that the film never feels boring. The film is light on actors of color, but when Logan and crew stumble upon an African-American family in Oklahoma, that scene is given time to breathe, allowing the family to be fleshed out as real characters instead of just a plot device.
While production on this film began long before our current political climate, the themes of sheparding a group of “different” children (predominantly Latino and Black) to sanctuary just across the border cannot be understated. Rice and Transigen have no use for these children or their Mexican surrogate mothers besides their value as a capital input; when no longer useful, they can be discarded with prejudice. And the military-style raids the Reavers perform in search of Laura bear a striking resemblance to ICE raids we see occurring in our real world. While the world of Logan is a near-future dystopia, these aspects ground it into everyday life.
Much like Wolverine himself, the X-Men film franchise has endured for quite some time, and Logan looks to mark an end to the Jackman/Stewart era that been with X-Men 17 years ago. If that is the case, Logan is a fantastic sendoff for this part of the franchise. The best mutant stories always gave insight into the nature of humanity, and Logan does this in spades. Time, mortality, and legacy are all at the heart of this film, making it the strongest X-Men film, and arguably Marvel property, to date.
COMIC AND SPOILER DISCUSSION
- The Old Man Logan comic, written in 2008 by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven, also tells the story of Logan on a road trip. In this alternate universe story, the Red Skull managed to organize all the Marvel supervillains and incited an uprising that led to the death of nearly all the heroes. Several years later, Logan would team up with a blind Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye) and trek across the US to take on the Red Skull. The film was able to keep this core conceit and the raw brutality of the story while not holding any rights to the larger Marvel universe, which is quite the accomplishment.
- In the Old Man Logan arc, it is revealed that Logan himself is responsible for the death of the X-Men, as Spider-Man villain Mysterio tricks him into murdering his fellow mutants. The film twists this, as it is revealed that Charles Xavier was the one responsible for the death of the X-Men, likely as a result from his psionic-blast-causing dementia. To that end, there is a certain harmony of Charles Xavier being both the creator and destroyer of his superhero mutant team. The movie neatly leads its audience to these revelations without explicitly stating it.
- Much of Laura’s origin story takes place over the X-23 miniseries. In them, Laura Kinney is one of 23 mutant embryos created from Wolverine’s DNA, and the only one who becomes viable (and is also the only female embryo). The story of her childhood training is horrifically brutal, as head scientist Xander Rice takes every opportunity to dehumanize and brutalize her, before sending her out to indiscriminately murder for the highest bidder. In this film, the mutant children are created from all the previous X-Men, which is a nice way to pay homage to the larger universe (if it truly is the last one of the Jackman era).
- I wanted to avoid discussing X-24, but I thought it was a fantastic twist that externalized the inner battle within Logan, his battle against time and his own mortality. When Logan has X-24 pinned down using the truck door, that imagery borrows straight from the Old Man Logan story where Logan kills the Red Skull by taking his head off with Captain America’s shield.