It seems like much of the recent success of comic book and superhero movies can be traced back to Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films which laid the groundwork, not only for their own ongoing and expanded franchise, but the Avengers series, and most other films in that genre as well.
In 2016 this initial foundation was expanded (with mixed results) by Deadpool, adding an ‘R-rated’ flavour to the now Sony/Marvel X-Men universe, and now James Mangold’s Logan has grabbed that more adult notion by the throat and, well, driven three claws through its head.
Despite being the X-Men film series’ most compelling character the previous pair of standalone films based on Wolverine (X-Men Origins and The Wolverine) had, to a greater or lesser extent, not quite the hit mark; either for the character’s long time fans or more casual moviegoers. Here then it was refreshing that from the start this Wolverine, again played by Hugh Jackman, felt far more true to the essence of the character established but never really seen previously.
Opening on a shot of an ageing Logan (aka Wolverine, aka James Howlett) waking up in the back seat of a limousine and then swiftly and brutally dealing with a gang of thugs trying to steal his hubcaps, it’s clear that Jackman, Mangold and co are using all of their R rating (15 in the UK) allowance of profanity and violence.
The story centres on the now somewhat less superpowered Logan and his efforts to care for a frail and elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and a young mutant named Laura (aka X-23, played by Dafne Keen). While the film has its fair share of action, mostly in a close up more personal style than the now common city-destruction of other comic book movies, the majority of the film focuses on these three leads.
Jackman puts in not only his best performance as the character to date, but one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from him, as he carries the weight of the film with a surprisingly nuanced delivery, capturing the essence of faded glory and un-graceful ageing excellently, while also delivering hugely in the action set pieces while keeping the now developed character intact.
Stewart reveals new sides of Xavier, and seems to have a lot of infectious fun doing it, as he balances a streak of humour that clearly comes naturally to him with the emotional heft necessary for his position in the film and with the same weighty presence he’s always had in the role.
Keen meanwhile is a revelation as the intense Laura. Largely silent, her movements and facial expressions capture and transmit everything you need to know about this feral child and grow as the films goes on to a massively satisfying climax beyond I think anything seen elsewhere in the comic book movie canon. To be honest the same can be said of both Jackman and Stewart’s parts too and even Steven Merchant as Caliban puts in a good showing.
As well as tremendous acting, helped by a story and script rooted in more down to earth feelings, Logan comes with more of a sense of consequences than other superhero films.
Here you really feel like what is taking place matters and that there are real stakes for those involved, unlike the Avengers movies where we ultimately know the outcome from the start for a number of reasons.
So every action set piece, and there are a fair few, comes with a sense of genuinely not knowing what could happen – both Wolverine and Laura are vulnerable enough to not come across as instant winners in every fight and this is exploited in variously clever ways as the film goes on.
Rather than climaxing on a moment of light relief like comic book movies are wont to do, Logan cuts to black at an emotional peak leaving the audience satisfied and with the sense that this was a complete story but (crucially I guess for the studios) with avenues open for more to come, but in far less obvious ways than most other franchise films manage these days.
In the end Logan may well not only have eclipsed X2 or Days of Future Past as the best of the X-Men series but taken its place at the top of the mainstream comic book movie pile by daring to be different in ways that almost remove it from that canon, if it weren’t for the super powered mutants leading the story.
And the Johnny Cash track that kicks off the credits is the cherry on top of an already exceedingly good cake.
And here’s that Johnny Cash song, just because…