In addition to whatever their myriad of other powers are, the one additional power that all superheroes seem to have is that they never age. Superman, Batman, and Captain America are all octogeniarians now, or very close to, and Iron Man, Spider-Man, and that era’s heroes, the X-Men amongst them, aren’t that far behind. Yet, not a single one of them has lost a step nor aged more than a decade it seems. Every once in a while, though, one of the major comics publishing companies will release a story that shows their heroes later in life. “The Dark Knight Returns”, “Kingdom Come”, and “Old Man Logan” are all classics in this vein, and now Logan, the latest of the Wolverine/X-Men movies brings us a story in which two of the most famous X-Men are looked at in their twilight years.
It’s 2029, and Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) healing power has slowed for some reason, his wounds now leave permanent scars and sometimes never fully heal at all, and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is in his 90s and suffers from seizures and dementia. They and a third mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are the only mutants left in the entire world. Wolverine, now going only by his real name, Logan, hides in plain sight by running a limousine service to pay the bills to get the medicine Caliban needs to provide care for Professor Xavier, whose out of control mind could wreak complete havoc if not sedated.
It’s an interesting premise. Superhero stories, much like cartoons, are capable of exploring hefty themes by camouflaging them behind spandex and fast paced action pieces, but old age is a theme rarely explored in these types of stories, probably because they’ve been seen as tales for a younger skewing audience until relatively recently. Superheroes facing their own mortality not because of violence at the hands of a villain or a cataclysmic natural disaster but because their elderly bodies are beginning to fail them puts a whole new spin on the comic book story dynamic, but Logan is not content in leaving it there. The true inciting force in Logan‘s storyline is not old age but youth when Wolverine reluctantly ends up caring for a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has powers of her own and has to be hidden away from forces who want to use her as a weapon.
The X-Men series of films is noted for its highs and lows. It’s rare that the series puts out a merely okay movie. X-Men, X-Men 2, X-Men: First Class, and X-Men: Days of Future Past are widely viewed as some of the best movies the superhero genre has to offer while X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse are thought to be some of the worst. Logan is not only a part of that first set of films, but is the best X-Men film to date, and will, I believe, ultimately be compared to The Dark Knight when superhero films are discussed in the future due to its maturity, quality, and artistry.
James Mangold, Logan’s director and one of its writers, has a very hit and miss history. He is responsible for the excellent Girl, Interrupted and Copland, but he’s also brought us The Wolverine and Knight and Day, both of which, while not painfully terrible, are mediocre and ultimately completely forgettable. In Logan he managed to tap into that part of his style which represents his best and then went on to perfect it even farther. The story is exciting and mature. His camera work and editing make the visual elements of the story an absolute joy and occasionally even a wonder. While there are flaws in the film, which I will mention, Mangold manages to take all the pieces that make up the film Logan, most of which are already excellent, and melds them together into something even greater than the sum of its parts.
The majority of the acting in the film is truly high caliber. Stewart and Jackman are always excellent in these roles, even if the films themselves aren’t always the best, but the added dimension of the characters staring straight on into their own mortality gives their performances an entirely new facet and allows them to breathe new life into the people they’ve been embodying for going on 20 years now. As great as they are, though, and I don’t want to diminish just how fantastic Stewart and Jackman are here, the truly revelatory performance comes from the young Dafne Keen as Laura. This girl can’t yet be even a teenager and yet she manages to demand your attention and ekes out incredible amounts of emotion from you. For most of the film she doesn’t speak, and I wondered if that was a decision made because she was a good physical actress but couldn’t handle the demands of a speaking role. Eventually she does speak, though, and when she finally does you are blown away all over again at just how amazing this prepubescent child’s performance is. When I really think about it, it can be considered unfair how good she is at so young an age
Last year, Deadpool gave us an R-rated superhero film that, while far from the first of its kind, started the debate as to whether more comic book films should be R-rated. Logan shows us once again that the R-rated superhero film can be excellent, and for very different reasons than Deadpool was, but I do hope that Hollywood takes the right lesson away from what is to undoubtedly be Logan‘s huge success. Logan works as a more adult film not because swearing and blood are cool, but because some stories need to be visceral and raw to be told well. You can’t tell a story about mortality without, well, mortality. Heads get lopped off, deep gashes cut, and very realistic heads get very realistically blown off. In Deadpool it was for humorous shock value, but in Logan it’s to raise the stakes and show us this isn’t your typical comic book movie where no one gets hurt too badly and even death isn’t permanent. Both are legitimate and effective uses of graphic material, but it’s also very specific to this type of story, and this should in no way be a cue to Marvel or DC (I’m especially looking at you DC) that graphic content and language are what audiences want in all their superhero movies.
While I meant it when I said I believe Logan will be remembered alongside The Dark Knight one day, it’s certainly not because of the quality of their villains. Whereas Heath Ledger’s Joker is the most legendary element of The Dark Knight, Logan’s villains are the most bland and uninteresting part of the film. The forum on age and family are spectacular, and couldn’t exist without conflict, but that is all the villains here provide. Boyd Holbrook and Richard E. Grant give fine performances as the two primary antagonists, but they are given so much less to work with than anyone else in the film that fine is really the best they could hope for. The villains have motivations and goals, but nothing else exists beyond these factors that we can tell making them one dimensional and ultimately dull. It’s this unfortunate factor that keeps Logan from achieving full on masterpiece status.
Final recommendation: If you read anything before this paragraph I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m giving this film my highest recommendation for most everyone. Don’t take the kids to this one if you mind them viewing violence, as it is intensely graphic, and squeamish adults with no love for superheroes may also want to give this a pass. But, aside from that this story is so excellent it may convert those who hate the superhero genre, at least for this film anyway, and will also allow squeamish superhero fans to get so engrossed they may get past all the carnage they are witnessing. Logan is a shining example of what a superhero movie should strive to be, and since Jackman and Stewart have announced they are retiring from the characters after this film, they couldn’t have chosen a better film to be their swan song.