Logan is, without a doubt, the best X-Men movie yet. And that’s counting Deadpool. It’s the first nine (!) movies boiled down to their essence. The two actors and characters at the heart of the movies—Hugh Jackman/Wolverine and Patrick Stewart/Professor X. The push and pull between the two as Professor X tries to convince Wolverine to accept the mantle of hero. The seemingly inevitable genocide of mutants and dystopia for the rest of us. Violence that, stripped of all cartoonishness, is mostly people getting stabbed in the face.
Someone will come along.
Someone has come along.
Before we ever see Wolverine we’re treated to a teaser for the next Superman movie. If this is a sign stingers will begin migrating to before movies, instead of after the credits, I heartily approve. I have places to be.
Logan is set in just 2029, but it already looks like a very different world. We are told that no mutant has been born in 25 years (which would put the change between when X-2 and The Last Stand were released). The America we see is mostly dust and neon. Professor X is a nonagenarian (which fits with the existing timeline). And Logan is not just showing his age but also his mileage. Our first glimpse of Wolverine in action shows him obviously having lost a step, limping and moving stiffly.
The action, by the way, takes place in large part on one side of the Mexican border or
another, and otherwise the action takes place entirely in middle America. Our first glimpse of Logan is while gangbangers are attempting to strip his limo. Times are hard for Logan. He’s reduced to driving a limo in Juarez/El Paso and sleeping in the back when stays on the US side of the border. That the gangbangers are Hispanic has been declared problematic by people who are evidently unaware that El Paso is 80% Hispanic. Whatever. The scene works. An America struggling with both crime and immigration is suggested (not that El Paso isn’t already). Logan’s initial, rather reasonable, attempts at dissuading the gangbangers are met with derision, and a shotgun slug. Logan may not be as good as he used to be, but he’s still as good once as he ever was. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Ok, enough with the allusions. The opening scene shows us a couple more things. One, this is an R-rated comic book movie, which means a lot of people getting stabbed in the face and a lot of blood. Two, Wolverine’s healing factor isn’t what it used to be. He limps. He moves slow. He struggles to extend and retract his claws. He bears scars. He takes a shotgun slug to the chest but doesn’t quite shrug it off.
Both help ground the movie. Violence has real consequences. Torn clothes and dried blood and scars. Logan and Laura spend much of the movie walking around with dried blood smeared across their knuckles. Their would-be opponents are left in pools of blood and viscera and body parts.
It fits in well with a general post-election “oh shit we should probably pay a little attention to flyover country” reaction. It feels very real and relevant. The border. Bad guys who look like hardass operators who walked out of a Brad Thor book instead of a comic book. Auto-trucks and agri-conglomerates trying to run people off their land. An Oklahoma City that looks like a poor man’s Vegas. Bourbon and Johnny Cash and cheap motels managed by overweight, tacky harridans.
The influence of westerns would be overt even without showing a clip from Shane, but Logan owes just as much to hardboiled fiction. Wolverine as a character always has. But now his conscience, Professor X, is dying. Relying more on Logan than the other way around in his failing health. Essentially robbed of his powers by a degenerative brain disease that gives him seizures. Seizures in the most dangerous mind in the world. Drugs that control it but leave him barely lucid.
Patrick Stewart was always the best possible Professor X, and his performances have always been near perfect, but he is at his absolute best here. A shadow of what he once was, he flits between curmudgeon, confused and scared old man, the imperious Professor X, and the kind-hearted and heroic Xavier. And all subtly enough to both keep everyone guessing and show that there aren’t any real borders between those aspects.
Hugh Jackman, too, has always been just about perfect for the role. (Although I could imagine a very different, still great, Wolverine in another actor’s hands.) He’s at his best showing Logan’s pain and guilt, and there is an endless sea of that here. The actions scenes are visceral (my highest compliment and favorite adjective to describe an action scene). There is also a killer car chase. These smaller scale, more focused superhero movies give directors a chance to remember how good traditional action set pieces can be. That’s one reason why Captain America: Winter Soldier is the best MCU movie. And why the train scene in Wolverine may be the best action sequence in the X-Men movies.
The third main character is the dark horse. We spend almost all of our time with just three people. Those characters have to work for the movie to work. No question that the first two would. But an 11-year-old child actor? No worries. Dafne Keen is great. Her performance reminds me a lot of the last great child performance I’ve seen—Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things. Keen is even younger and exceeds Brown’s performance.
If the trailers hadn’t made it obvious, Keen’s Laura is the catalyst for the story. Logan is asked to transport her somewhere—he is a limo driver after all—and things go to hell from there, despite Logan’s great reticence. Boyd Holbrook is great as Pierce, the robot-handed gunslinger from the trailers. The other two big bads less so. Logan violates one of my big pet peeves for superhero movies, but it’s a testament to how little the movie relies on its villains that I’m willing to entirely overlook it (and a testament to how good Pierce is).
“Darker and grittier” is in. But “darker” isn’t—or shouldn’t be—literally darker (paging DC). It’s not violence alone. It’s not a nihilism. The secret about making something darker and grittier, something the people at DC, grimdark’s paler imitators, and on and on, don’t get is that nihilism strips the darkness and the grit of any meaning. It works when combined with heroism, where the heroism is against even greater odds and evil. It works when combined with sacrifice, where the sacrifice comes with real consequences. The makers of Logan get that, and they nail the hell out of the execution.