Illustration: Kevin K.
Though some credence should be given for their helping to kick off the now 17-year-long renaissance of superhero movies, 20th Century Fox has for too long rested on its X-laurels. Producing films not as all-the-way comic book as Marvel, nor as grounded as Christopher Nolan’s Batman, nor as histrionically gritty as modern Warner Bros. efforts, the studio has been content with mediocrity, barely keeping its head above the tepid water of CW’s superhero world. Their first shot at truly allowing a voice, and a distinct vision, to be put on screen was with last year’s Deadpool. And now, thankfully, they’ve taken another shot with similarly interesting, more consistently rewarding results in James Mangold’s Logan.
Like Old Man Logan, the comic book story that very loosely informed it, Logan leans heavily upon its wildly uneven history—though while the comics mined it for the unexpectedly bizarre (sadly, rights issues kept us from getting Old Man Logan‘s inbred, hillbilly Hulk family), the film plucks from it a pathos that’s almost undeserved given the comparative tone and quality of its predecessors. As the closer to a Wolverine trilogy, it makes barely more sense than La La Land being the abruptly Oscar-worthy end to the Stone-Gosling Crazy, Stupid, Love/Gangster Squad franchise.
Hugh Jackman, in what’s supposedly (and, after this, should be) his final outing as the title character, stars as Wolverine at his most pedestrian, largely resigned to an honest day’s work and a resigned night’s drunk. In 2029, he’s become a limousine driver in El Paso, where he shuttles around prom kids, bachelorette parties and the like before passing out on whatever they left in his car (or at least that’s my rationale for why he would drink Fireball). And on his days off, he takes care of one of the extremely few mutants left alive in this near future, nonagenarian Professor Charles Xavier.
In an interesting change of pace, the inimitable Patrick Stewart’s Xavier is no longer the stately leader he once was. Seemingly afflicted by a degenerative mental illness, he, like our drunkard hero, requires constant medication. In his case, it’s black-market pills that keep him from seizures that trigger a paralyzing psychic field. That newly-developed curse leads to a nice, almost Dredd-like sequence of not-quite-bullet-time—and to his being relegated to the wastelands of Mexico, where the exterior of a tipped-over, metal water tower blocks his psychic abilities from the world.
That Xavier’s remote, shielded location still somehow allows for cell reception—and that the smartphone in Logan’s hand is noticeably branded—could be legitimate criticisms of the film. Instead, both points manage to work for the production, casually keeping it more firmly grounded than Wolverine’s claws could ever dig in. From Professor Charles Xavier ranting about Taco Bell, to the box of Kellogg’s on his counter, to Logan peering over off-the-pharmacy-shelf reading glasses, these moments of familiar products and known brands are a welcomed, ordinary counterbalance to the extraordinary. Product placement or not, when Mangold lets comic book-crazy exposition play out on a neon case-wrapped SONY phablet, it really works.
Before its release, early trailers and interviews suggested Logan was a post-apocalyptic, superhero successor to Unforgiven. Firstly, it’s not actually post-apocalyptic in any way. That’s just how some of Mexico looks on screen. Secondly, the film owes as much to Unforgiven as it does to the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and Rain Man. Once the main plot kicks in, with Logan and Xavier on the run as they try to protect a young mutant from a group of robo-armed militants, the movie falls wonderfully into a mis-matched family road trip dynamic. There’s Logan, the drunk father redeemed by the estranged child forced into his care; daughter, Laura, the young mutant who’s too traumatized to speak; grouchy old grandpa X; and, in a brief but hugely enjoyable turn, Stephen Merchant as the mutant-sniffing Caliban, who’s basically the nagging mother. At times, Logan even feels reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone’s father-son arm wrestling film, Over the Top. Though that’s not the only Stallone-ready vehicle it’s indebted to.
Like with so many Marvel-derived properties, Logan has villains barely more memorable than the expendable bad guys of ’80s action films. The antagonist here takes that comparison to its extreme by pitting Wolverine and his ragtag crew against a paramilitary organization of gun-toting ripped dudes backed by a slimy corporation. That corporation, run by the ever-charismatic Richard E. Grant, commits ungodly experiments on children but shows a consistently lampshaded reverence to border laws. They help steer the film to a climax that’s part Rambo sequel, part Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and—thanks to the 11th-hour importance of chugging a green canister for a temporary strength boost—part Popeye.
To be clear, though, the film is an unambiguous triumph. Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox’s likely takeaway from this—coupled with the runaway success of Deadpool—will be that violent, R-rated films are now the way to handle the superhero genre. Yet, as the studio that’s repeatedly failed at making a decent film about Marvel’s “first family,” the Fantastic Four, they could learn a far greater lesson from the brilliant family dynamics of Logan. Let’s hope they take note of the blood that actually mattered.
Director: James Mangold
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Runtime: 137 minutes
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant