by Michael Henley
Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. That’s how stars used to be billed back in the day, and although it’s less common now, facts are facts. For seventeen years, Jackman has made the part of Logan/Wolverine–Marvel Comics’ knife-knuckled, hot-tempered Canuck bruiser of the X-Men–very very much his own. And he’s done it over the course of nine X-Men movies of have been uneven in quality but have retained a consistent obsession with the gifts Jackman brings to the part: his terrifying stare, his rumbling, Eastwoodian voice, his eight-pack abs, and his primal, righteous, screaming intensity. I remember seeing his debut way back in 2000’s X-Men and taking delight in the act of watching a movie star be born right in front of us. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him.
There have been few actor-to-character matches on the superhero level as indelible as this one has become over the years—I can think of Reeves as Superman and more recently Downey as Iron Man and Evans as Captain America. And that’s basically it. [Fun fact, by the way: Wolvie was supposed to be played, way back in ’00, by Dougray Scott, who got tied up finishing Mission Impossible 2. And the rest, as they say, is history. I know we’re talking about a series that dabbles in alternate timelines…but try that one on for size, friends.]
Logan is pitched as Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine, and if true (it probably is), then what a way to go. There’s something starkly definitive about this one in the way it commits to switching genre, striking a fatalistic tone, dialing in and telling a story that cuts close to Logan’s metal-soaked bones. It’s a “superhero” movie, I suppose, but one that largely defies and transcends the genre, owing more to the tropes of hard boil noir and neo-westerns, finding poetry in the perfect marriage between such grizzled narrative territory and the weary, haunted lines on Jackman’s face. And it’s also a bloody, brutal chase picture that finds time for poetry and soul and character-driven poignancy. This is crucial: despite being such a departure for the series in tone and atmosphere, it’s not a pretentious miscalculation—it’s a full-bodied realization, once and for all, of who this character is and why he matters. Just in time to see him off.
I haven’t a clue where we left with Wolverine last time we saw him, because this series has had three (?) parallel timelines existing just on film and I’m utterly baffled by the machinations. Maybe that means the movie’s accessible, since not even hardcore fans can be sure which backstory to accept? What I do know is that we open in 2029, somewhere near the Mexico border, where Logan is working as a ridesharing limo driver, scraping together money and sleeping in his car. He’s much older than we’ve ever seen, and his body is riddled with scars and an arthritis-like malady related to his metal claws (his supernatural ability to self-heal has all but left him). But old man Logan has lost none of his moxie, as he proves in the opening moments when he settles the hash of some carjacking gangbangers in a horrifically violent and hard-won battle. The movie earns its R rating handily just here alone: we’ve always indulged in a little PG-13 bloodletting in Wolverine action scenes. Here, this feels like a gauntlet being thrown down: this movie isn’t playing around.
And indeed it is not, not just in terms of violence but in the way the movie honestly and seriously meditates on the mortality of a pop hero: not since Wrath of Khan or Skyfall has a studio’s tentpole franchise sequel been so preoccupied with the mournful certainty of death. Logan, smuggling black market drugs across the Mexico border, is caring for telepathic Charles Xvaier (Patrick Stewart), who is suffering from alzheimers-like symptoms and seizures that can cause earthquakes if left unchecked. “A dehabilitating brain disease in the world’s most dangerous brain,” as someone puts it. Logan, Charles and their third roommate, Caliban (a very dry and appropriately pensive Stephen Merchant) are all that’s left of mutantkind—one hasn’t been born in decades. There are references to a horrible incident years ago that someone may have been responsible for, vague genocidal rumblings and vague hints of an imminent societal collapse: though Logan still ferries boorish stockbrokers and bridesmaids for his job, the sense is of a civilization in blind decline, slowly being eaten up by the ever-present wilderness (the movie, shot primarily in the New Mexico desert, is beautifully, bleakly sparse). The whole setup, which is like Children of Men replanted in Cormac McCarthy’s backyard, is persuasive and eerily haunting.
But just like in Children of Men, a sliver of hope arrives in the form of a child: a mute little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who has mysteries surrounding her that form the backbone of the story. To say she’s a mutant would be saying too little, but to further elaborate would be saying too much. What I will say is that she is spirited and can surprisingly hold her own in a fight, and as Charles and Logan try to spirit her away to hypothetical safety in North Dakota, a bond forms between a makeshift family unit—Charles the former mentor, Logan the errant son, and Laura the next generation who must be saved from the cruelty around her and taught…something, but what? On their tail is a pack of vicious mercenaries led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and although of course it may be totally unrealistic these days to think of a hateful villain named Donald, I assure you he comes from Marvel Comics, as does Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), a scientist herding and cherry-picking mutant kind in order to fuel something awful.
This structure forms what ends up being a road picture, but a surprisingly vivid and red-blooded one, and one that for once feels not at all like set pieces strung together but instead a full-tilt story that marinates in desperation and need, with the sometimes-seen villains operating as an elemental, quickening drumbeat of doom.
The director is James Mangold, and his double experience serves him well: he made a great western with 2007’s superb remake of 3:10 to Yuma and he helmed the previous installment in thisX-Men spinoff trilogy, 2013’s really-quite-good The Wolverine (let us not discuss 2009’s misfire, X-Men Origins Wolverine, directed by the now-missing-in-action Gavin Hood). Mangold sees this character clearly, and his re conceptualization of him as a tortured western mythic figure is wonderfully-realized, even when he occasionally guilds the lily with acknowledging his reference points–the main characters watch Shane on a hotel TV at one point.
There’s a second echo, though, less underlined, that ties it to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, as Logan is another film about an old man brought out of retirement to reckon with his own past and reclaim a tarnished legacy, just like Eastwood’s William Munny. And like Unforgiven brought a newfound moral complexity to the moribund western genre, Logan brings a grown-up and complicated vision to the overstuffed superhero genre, stripping down the distractions and cutesy in-jokes and cameos and instead telling a self-contained story that has real moral weight behind it. There’s even a dialogue echo, spoken by one character, that brings to mind a key line from Unforgiven, which has deceptive simplicity: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.”
Truth. And it’s a hell of a thing to watch Wolverine do his thing here. This isn’t a film that blinks at or soft-pedals its violence—this is one where people die, sometimes very suddenly, and the violence is felt and their loss is mourned. It subscribes to the western tradition where heroes, however flawed, believe that life has value (even, yes, when taking it) while the side of evil most certainly does not. All these tendrils and moral concerns and narrative threads coil together and deliver a final confrontation that somehow find grace and purpose within pitiless carnage—another western tradition, faithfully rendered.
Jackman, saying goodbye to his signature role, has just plain never been better. He understands this character inside and out at this point, and he knows instinctively the most direct way to tap us into his beating, bloody heart. And Stewart makes his older Professor X tortured and wounded and warts-and-all old, extracting drama out of his every shaky step and raspy declaration (and also some light comedy: I love the oh-so-relatable way he shows his mouth to Logan when he’s suspected of not swallowing his pills). It’s an uncomfortable thing, to see our movie heroes not just age but AGE (as in, resembling a way that replicates reality), but the film handles it beautifully and with real feeling. But Mangold (who worked previously with Jackman on not just The Wolverine but also…erm, Kate & Leopold) doesn’t just get the best out his stars. He litters the supporting cast with memorable, understated turns, right down to Eriq LaSalle in a small-but-crucial role (as a man who gives Logan and co. some brief solace). And as for Keen, she is a revelation of a young actress, nimble in her (exceedingly well-staged) fight scenes but also sensitive and tender and harsh when the movie calls for it. And not for ages can I recall a final scene that asked for a young actress to carry so much as this one.
There of course, will be other superhero films after Logan, and other X-Men films, too. But I wonder if there’s any coming back from this. This feels important, like a critical line has just been crossed. What Mangold and his writers (Scott Frank and Michael Green) have done is bestowed such strength and maturity to this genre…can you imagine last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, where the old team battled a blue-skinned, silly-looking Oscar Isaac, coming after this one? It’s like going from The Wild Bunch to Paint Your Wagon. Okay, so maybe it’s possible, but, I truly think that a movie like this can create its own earthquakes in the field. Just like some superhero movies have spent years since The Dark Knight moving forward by walking backward, I can’t help but think a movie like this can have a seismic effect.
In any event, it seems clear that in a very important way we’ve closed the book on a character like Wolverine, at least on film. Through it all, Jackman has never been less than tireless and dedicated in service to the characters, and the results, even in bad films, have been spellbinding when he’s onscreen. The man’s more than a movie star. He’s a good actor, and he made us believe. I will miss him. Undoubtedly, at some point, the ever-growing X-Men series might try their hand again at casting Wolverine, and I wish them well. Whoever they pick will no doubt get heaps of criticism. Most of it, probably, will be undeserved. But we’ll understand and remember the wise words of one William Munny. “’Deserve,’” after all, “ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.”