Directed by James Mangold
Opens March 3
“Does it hurt?”
That exchange isn’t the first scene Hugh Jackman plays as Wolverine in the first X-Men movie back in 2000, but it does happen early on in the picture, when his mysterious loner with the swoopy hair and muttonchops meets mutant runaway Rogue. She’s asking about the retractable claws that spring out of his knuckles; they don’t always make a bloody mess because of his mutated healing factor, but they do, he makes it clear, still sting when they burst through his endlessly healing skin. Not all of the subsequent Wolverine appearances include a wince of pain when he pops those claws (in most of the movies, coated with an indestructible metal called adamantium; sometimes, in a flashback or a retconned/ignored twist, just raw bone), but it’s there in the background of Jackman’s performance, which has included leading roles in four X-Men movies, cameos in two additional X-Men movies, and an even brighter spotlight in a series of Wolverine solo movies, the third and supposedly final of which, Logan, opens this week. The reluctance in his reluctant-hero routine has never felt canned, because Jackman makes Wolverine seem acutely—sometimes sardonically; sometimes tragically—aware of his capacity for pain, whether inflicted on himself or others.
The movie finds Wolverine in more pain than ever. It’s the future, a little bit after the time period depicted in the time-jumping X-Men: Days of Future Past but altered by the events of that film. While a full-on apocalyptic dystopia has been technically avoided, the march of time is slowly doing the job that giant shapeshifting robots were denied. No new mutants have been born in a couple of decades, Children of Men style (“why are we still talking about mutants?” a talk-radio host scoffs), and if the X-Men haven’t been dramatically killed off en masse (though some have been, off-screen and unspecified), they have scattered to the wind. Wolverine has a day job as a limo driver near the US-Mexico border, and an even less lucrative job watching over Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), formerly known as Professor X, in his ninetysomething dotage. Degenerative brain disease can be hell on the world’s most powerful telepath, and especially on those in his immediate vicinity, which is why he’s limited to Wolverine and the extra-sensory albino-ish mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant, playing a character glimpsed, in less friendly guise, in last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse), taking shifts on his care.
But there’s still a little bit of that Professor X sage advice rattling around Charles Xavier’s somewhat more scattered (and sweary!) head. He encourages the erstwhile Wolverine to stick his neck out yet again and help a young, lab-created mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen, with a killer stare) on the run from bad people. “She’s like you,” he intones wearily. “Very much like you.” Comics fans will recognize the young mutant as a version of badass mutant X23, and Logan as the ghostliest possible remnant of the crazier alternate-future “Old Man Logan” storyline. As with a lot of X-Men movie lore, Logan simplifies and pares down the comics, coming up with something more scalable and, despite the mutant focus, human. This has always been particularly true of Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine, who is shorter, squatter, surlier, and cartoonier in most comics pages (not to mention in possession of a far gaudier superhero outfit). He needs Jackman’s charisma to work in the flesh. Here, Jackman’s version has more humanity than ever, and less superhuman invulnerability: Logan’s healing powers have begun to diminish, and while he can still take a bullet better than most people, they’ve started to leave blood and scars in their wake. Jackman’s ability to convey comic pathos while taking a punch gets a real workout here—as does the bottling and releasing of his animalistic rage. He also, in a running gag that turns poignant, now requires reading glasses.
Eventually, Logan hits the road with Xavier and Laura, heading for a mutant paradise that he isn’t sure actually exists. There are explicit references to Shane, as well as X-Men comics—not in terms of storyline teases or in-joke character names, but actual X-Men comic books that appear on screen in the world of the movie. Wolverine treats them with disdain, claiming that only about 25% of that stuff actually happened (given the sheer volume of X-Men comics, this may be a generous estimate). Here, the more fantastical events have a rough edge, like a seizure from Xavier that freezes everyone but Wolverine in their tracks. It’s a variation on a more polished trick from the early X-Men films, as well as a scarier equivalent to the Quicksilver scenes from the recent ones.
The combination of real-world grit and fantasy weirdness isn’t new to Logan. The messiness of this series—the way its continuities try to fit together, repeat themselves, and sometimes contradict each other anyway—makes it both authentically comic-book-y and more lived-in than a lot of similar blockbusting enterprises. Still, this movie has a stronger current of sadness than anyone ought to expect ten movies into a series about superpowered mutants. Director James Mangold, who has made plenty of forgettable studio pictures, turns out to be a filmmaker adept at wriggling out from under big-studio comics-adaptation constraints. Fox’s superhero movies have been chided for cutting corners, often setting big confrontations in samey-looking, suspiciously Canada-like chunks of forest. Right on cue, Logan brings out its forest scenes, and much of the rest of it takes place in relatively nondescript bits of the American west: highways, deserts, a casino hotel in Oklahoma City. But Mangold actually works with these relatively prosaic settings, sometimes recalling the townie noir of Scott Frank, a co-screenwriter here. Even the grander sets here have a dilapidated grit, like the abandoned industrial dome where Professor X lays his head, recalling the sleek, spherical Cerebro device from the earlier films.
It might be easy to overstate the novelty of Logan which does, after all, reuse several elements from previous Wolverine movies: The hero’s powers also diminish during much of The Wolverine; regular folks who offer a helping hand are placed in danger both here and in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; and the whole Wolverine as the reluctant savior of children bit has been in place more or less since the first X-Men. There are times when the grim tone of Logan feels like an excuse to avoid crafting set pieces as satisfying as those from The Wolverine (also by Mangold, also a neat departure from the superhero status quo, and likely be undervalued in the wake of this movie’s presumed success). Perversely, the movie uses lots of stabbing and suffering in an attempt to set it apart from some other movies that also feature a lot of stabbing and suffering.
But Logan works as well as it does because while it has some action-movie details not dissimilar to other X-Men adventures, Mangold refuses to really cop to making an action movie in the first place. There is action, much of it nasty and bloody (this is the first R-rated Wolverine movie), but it’s not the reason for being; this is more of a ruminative character study. In returning a sense of physical pain to Wolverine’s body, the movie offers an unspoken rebuke to the perpetual-motion machine of the modern franchise (X-Men included). Wolverine has never been immortal; he just heals exceptionally well, and Logan takes place after his superhero veneer has started to fall away. Zack Snyder has tried to suffuse his superheroes with pain, but there’s something more genuinely anguished about Logan and Logan, perhaps because Jackman has had so much time with this character in both success and failure (in-narrative and also creatively). Stewart, too, gets to explore new shades of a character he’s played four times already, obviously relishing Professor X’s desiccated filter. And how often does a superhero movie spend this much time considering the mechanics of eldercare? You may have guessed that Logan isn’t the most fun of the X-Men series. But its elegiac treatment of heroism lingers, a little pain in its knuckles.