In comic books, as a rule, superheroes are more or less immortal. They can be killed theoretically, but everyone knows they won’t be, and, in fact, they remain agelessly at their physical peak for decades. Occasionally, as with Superman or Wonder Woman or Thor, agelessness is an actual in-story part of their powers, but in practice it’s just as true of heroes with no powers at all, like Iron Man or Batman, and even of non-supers like Lois Lane, who hasn’t developed a wrinkle since 1938.
A groundbreaking exception to this rule was Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which stepped out of normal comic-book stretchy time to give us an aging, white-haired Bruce Wayne in a dystopian future coming out of retirement for one last hurrah before going to his grave (in a manner of speaking). In his introduction to The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore explains the importance of this move:
The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarok, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo. In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years’ time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in the perpetual limbo of their mid-to-late twenties, and the presence of death in their world is at best a temporary and reversible phenomenon.
Because actors age much like everyone else, de facto immortal characters like James Bond are often recast after a decade or so, and an actor seldom has the chance to reprise a role more than five or so times. Sometimes, though, a character is so identified with the actor who plays him that recasting is hard to imagine, except with a reboot.
Wolverine — or Logan, or James Howlett — is one of the characters whose immortality has an in-story explanation: Born in the 19th century, his mutant healing power has kept him perpetually at his physical peak. Hugh Jackman, now 48, has played Wolverine for 17 years in nine films (counting cameos), beginning with X-Men in 2000, a film that effectively kicked off the modern era of comic-book films. Patrick Stewart, 76, has played Charles Xavier for the same length of time.
Both actors are still in amazing shape and have defied the years as well as anyone could. (Stewart, bald from his teenaged years, always seemed older than he was, until he really was that old.)
Until now, the X-Men movies have more or less ignored the actors’ aging, but, at last, with Logan, the filmmakers have elected to go The Dark Knight Returns route. So the year is 2029, and time has finally caught up with Logan.
Director James Mangold also directed Jackman’s last outing, The Wolverine, in which Logan’s healing powers were suppressed, but now it seems his powers are ebbing away — and he has an idea why, though we don’t find out till late in the game. Unkempt and shaggier than usual, he looks terrible, and the movie opens with him slowly emerging from a boozy stupor. In the old days, he woke up quicker after being shot in the head.
Also like The Dark Knight Returns, Logan is harsher, nastier and more violent than the hero’s earlier stories in the same medium. Although there was always an effort to make Wolverine an edgy, violent character, earlier movies were restrained by the PG-13 rating. But this is the post-Deadpool era, and Logan is the R-rated outing many Wolverine fans have always wanted to see.
So in that opening scene, in which an intoxicated Logan awakens in the limo he’s driving these days to find a bunch of gangbangers in the process of jacking the rims from his ride, skulls are skewered, limbs hacked, f-bombs dropped, and Logan is something the worse for wear as he drives away, leaving a heap of mayhem in his wake. And since it’s the Iron-Clad First Law of Action-Movie Violence, we know things will only get gorier and more visceral from here.
Wolverine has always been a violent, angry loner with foot-long metal blades that rip out of his knuckles, so he has never been about webbing up bad guys for the police. There’s an old argument that graphic violence that frankly acknowledges the consequences of violence is more moral than sanitized escapist violence in which characters collapse silently after being shot while heroes emerge from ferocious beatings with barely a scratch. There’s truth to that, although it’s a partial truth. But Logan compounds its violence with a number of factors that make it harder to stomach.
First, despite some leavening humor, Logan is almost unremittingly bleak and devoid of hope. Bryan Singer, who directed four of the six X-Men movies (not counting Wolverine’s solo outings or the outlier Deadpool), imbued the franchise with a fundamentally optimistic, empathic outlook, with Charles Xavier as the selfless champion of a better future for human-mutant coexistence.
Logan depicts a grim future in which Charles’ dream is dead, mutants have been eliminated, and a mysterious corporation called Alkali Transigen is conducting sinister human experiments involving mutation. Elderly Charles, suffering dementia and in hiding due to a disastrous accident involving his powers, has only two friends in the world: Logan and an albino mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant).
Presently a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), also called X-23, enters the story, and she turns out to be the second factor. Laura is about 11, scarily calm, seemingly mute, and, well, let’s just say she can take care of herself — and her methods of doing so are as messy as Wolverine’s.
In time Laura’s interactions with Logan bring out new facets in his character, even more than Rogue did 17 years ago in X-Men. Yet putting a child character in mortal danger in a story where bad things really happen is at least a potential concern in any movie, and making the child a willing agent of brutal killings, no matter what powers or weapons you give her, is far dicier.
Yes, in the real world there are child soldiers and such, and I’m not saying it couldn’t be done. Here, though, among other things, the movie fetishizes her deadly powers and ruthlessness: When she leaps into action, we aren’t meant to see a tragic victim, but a tough-as-nails 11-year-old heroine (or antiheroine) raining deadly comeuppance on deserving bad guys (or occasionally, in a comic-relief moment, almost killing an innocent bystander because she’s so feral she just has no clue about such things). Okay, she’s a victim too, but she still looks really cool. (Warning: vague spoiler alert.)
Finally, with few exceptions (such as that above-mentioned innocent bystander), whenever the filmmakers have a choice between cruelly slaughtering characters and letting them live, they almost always choose the cruel path. That’s one thing when we’re talking about bad guys or even good guys — but when it’s innocent, likable supporting characters introduced solely to offer a respite of normality, domesticity and even piety amid the depravity and slaughter, it makes me resent the filmmakers rather than the bad guys.
Logan is nothing if not ambitious. Mangold wants to make a superhero movie that doesn’t feel like a superhero movie at all, and largely succeeds. In particular, as is his wont, he draws on Western tropes, explicitly referencing Shane so heavy-handedly that in the end you want Shane to go away.
The Wolverine was an “Eastern Western,” and of course Mangold also remade 3:10 to Yuma (loved by many, hated by me). Logan shares with Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma a dimly misanthropic view of humanity. The only ray of hope in the last act is that some of those who are persecuted may escape and live in isolation and secrecy from a world with no place for them.
You can’t say it isn’t well crafted, and especially well acted. Boyd Holbrook is unnervingly smooth and confident as a chatty Transigen honcho named Donald Pierce who knows who Logan is and clearly isn’t afraid of him, which makes Logan a little afraid of Pierce. Merchant’s Caliban is morose, smart and sort of broken.
Stewart gives us a brittle, confused Xavier somewhat akin to his elderly Picard from the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And Jackman, who has invested even more in Wolverine than Stewart has Xavier, gives his most complex, conflicted performance to date as a battered, weary, despairing warrior longing only for oblivion.
In some ways Logan is not an unfitting ending for a compelling character. It’s also not a movie I would care to watch again.
Caveat Spectator: Extreme graphic, brutal, deadly violence; brief nudity; heavy obscenity and some profanity and crude language. Mature viewing.