As a comic book character, Superman is not unique in being invincible. Bullets bounce off him, not because he’s from Krypton, but because he must survive to the next issue. In that, though Batman and Spider-Man are called “mortal,” he is like every other hero. Their pain is one issue long; their lives are endless. So Wolverine is unique in all comic books not because he’s invincible but because despite that fact, he still gets shot. He still feels pain. In his X-Men films, Bryan Singer gave us a Wolverine who can take the bullets going into him. With Logan, James Mangold completes the story, by realizing that in all comic books this character is unique in this one way, which makes all the difference: the bullets have to come out of him too.

At 48, Hugh Jackman would be hard pressed to play an old man (excepting the most gentlemanly body builder imaginable). But recall that Wolverine is an old young man who ages only in his mind, in the smoldering core of his eyes. He’s a walking Johnny Cash song. Logan opens with Wolvy as a disheveled uber driver in Mexico, evenly matched with four rowdy passengers who pick the wrong belly to fill full of lead. He’s drunk, dusty, and unmistakably scarred. He no longer heals clean baby skin, but carries his past with him. When he gets hurt, it’s worse than if he was mortal because you know he’ll survive it. You know there will be pain.

He describes the past movies as though they were comic books. “Most of it didn’t happen,” he says, offering the cognizant to line up X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men Last Stand, and X-Men Apocalypse and take out their memory with a single well-placed adamantine bullet. He casts Logan in the role of reality against which its predecessors have been a childhood fancy. There is no cutaway from the violence in Logan, no censor, no fairytale. His blades are slow to come out of his knuckles. They pinch and bleed. They are his bone-saws and guillotines, his tools of vengeance and fury. Mangold reminds us that Wolverine’s anger is naturally self-harming.

To match the immolation of his characters, Mangold constructs Logan on the stage of a Western road picture with the dream of Shakespeare creeping in around its edges. Patrick Stewart as the once docile Charles Xavier is its king without regality. He raves in his room—a cot and herb garden in the belly of an upturned water tower. A spotlight climbs through a hole in the rust, and though he wheels around spouting the shadow of a Taco Bell commercial, Xavier plays a King Lear of his insatiably lonely domain. He once had access to the thoughts of the world; now Logan keeps him in a morphine coma for the sake of that world. Lear wandered through a thunderstorm with his fool, and we always knew it was no natural disaster, but the storm of a maddened king. “I have full cause of weeping, but this heart/ Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws/ Before I’ll weep,” Lear said. Xavier is a prisoner in his noble past and a victim of the world he now inhabits, as punishment for playing a part in its creation. But to spare himself from crying, he has given up his heart and mind. “I always know who are,” he tells Logan, “it’s just that sometimes, I don’t recognize you.”

Against this shattered past, newcomer Dafne Keen introduces a layered, austere performance as a voiceless child with an animal side, whose bond with Wolverine doesn’t warm into the emotional road picture procedural you might expect. She was manufactured into fear and death and knows nothing of people. She ponders two manikins holding hands like an animal listening to music. You may be surprised to discover children amid the gratuity in Logan (doubly so in the seats next to you at the theater), but though she is a child, she is most certainly not a kid. There’s a tiny moment when she fiddles with the lock on her car door, more defiant than playful. That micro-moment of childish uncertainty, that chink in her anger, manages to be as poignant as a grandiloquent speech on humanity’s future, such as would be given by Stewart in a previous X-Men film. It’s just the faintest spark of childhood, but as unexpected as a can opener writing a sonnet, and as amazing. Nothing in Logan describes its emotional dystopia, or its redemption, better than the micro-moments its Marvel brethren always seem to swallow in computer-generated sound and shrapnel fury.

Mangold and John Mathieson let framing do the talking in Logan, leaving out the poster-worthy photo shoots the Avengers love so much in favor of bone-crushing close frames. Prejudice has always been a theme of X-Men and Bryan Singer was praised for evoking it through speeches. Mangold doesn’t need words, crafting oppression from an expressionist’s harshly lit, intimate frame. Logan is a bloody noir, a dystopic dirt bath, Shane starring a human switchblade.

It still has the “reactionary problem,” which is my name for when people react to amazing things as though they are on a film set where you’d expect them. It happens most when computer generation is involved, severing the actors from their surroundings and demanding that they roleplay a reaction, rather than have one: a different skill entirely. Logan eases on the animation (at just under $100 million, serving as another argument for tight budgets tightening films). But if someone peeled a pitchfork from their knuckles and lacerated my father’s jugular, my reaction would not be a non-exclamatory “Oh shit.” There is no war-time screaming, no nightmarish emasculation to accompany the violent atrocities because, occasionally, Logan is still a film less about making stuff than about making stuff for people who want to see it. The production seems to say that all the Wolvy-mites clamoring for gratuity across six films should not have to feel guilty for finally getting it. But if this was any other film, the violence in Logan would be a primeval horror—not even 300 rolled this many heads. And castrations by frustrated feral children were a resounding “zero.”

I don’t think this genre has the desire or the maturity to fully demythologize its legacy, which Logan tempts to do. But with the gunslinger subbing for the superhero we are given a reason to remember how essential heroes are to the human spirit, even if they don't amount to much in society. We will always strive to make sense of violence, to make our sins heroic. Jackman bows out of seventeen years playing one superhero (a record for the genre) by making us wonder why we ever wanted to watch these in the first place. The effect would be stronger if Singer’s were less glum to begin with: Logan is better standing alone than as a sequel to a bunch of movies that were about as snarly and depressing.

That doesn’t matter when stacked against the edges of Mangold’s frame, placed as carefully as eyeliner. Why the last hurrah is the first time anyone’s thought to shoot X-Men like they mean it escapes me. But if X-Men was a revolution in black leather and sneering, maybe Logan will be one in filming this genre from the hip and taking no prisoners. It’s a mouthful of razorblades at times, a rotten wound, a sore tooth. It also gives our sore, rotten razorblade a chance to go out with a crooked smile and his guitar on his back. The title is appropriate, since out of all those melodramatic school kids, the snarling wrestler ends up being the only human being of the bunch. It does seem like every X-Men movie knew that’s who he was. Mangold’s is just the first to recognize him.

Cast & Crew

James Mangold

Scott Frank (screenplay)

Michael Green (screenplay)

James Mangold (screenplay and story)

Roy Thomas et al (based on the book by)

Logan/Wolverine/James Howlett Hugh Jackman
Charles Xavier/Professor X Patrick Stewart
Donald Pierce Boyd Holbrook
Caliban Stephen Merchant
Zander Rice Richard E. Grant
Laura/X-23 Dafne Keen
Will Munson Eriq La Salle

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