The ballooning popularity of the superhero sub-genre over the last couple decades has come with the tantalising promise of innovation. But since the die was cast with Iron Man and Batman Begins, these films have all felt remarkably stagnant. Those fragile bits of experimentation on the fringes – a Hancock here, a Super there – have folded in favour of formulaic crowdpleasers. Fans might champion The Winter Soldier as a spy thriller and Guardians of the Galaxy as a space opera, but really they’re all – good and bad – the same sheep in wolf’s clothing. There’s elaborate place-setting for the next film, forgettable villains and that all-important CGI-heavy climactic battle.
Logan is the first superhero film to deliver on what it promises. It’s one of the best superhero offshoots in years – at least since The Avengers, and maybe even The Dark Knight – thanks to its willingness to throw away the playbook. That’s not to say this is a purely original piece of work. It’s indebted to westerns from fifty years ago, videogames from five years ago and Deadpool’s demonstration that hard-R superhero movies could succeed at the box office. But in the derivative domain of superhero movies, a film with the readiness to eschew setting up spinoffs and post-credit scenes in favour of robust character development feels almost revolutionary.
The film opens in the post-apocalyptic future of 2029. That sentence might set off alarm bells, this being the third X-Men film out of three (disregarding the technically-but-not-really-connected Deadpool) to involve the apocalypse (or the Apocalypse). Yet Logan’s devastation has none of the cyberpunk stylism of those films, instead opting for a washed-out Mad Max future defined by rusty fences and desolate deserts. Our titular hero (Hugh Jackman) – now going by James Howlett and definitely not by Wolverine – works as a glorified Uber driver to finance a reclusive existence for himself, an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and an albino mutant ally called Caliban (Stephen Merchant). Howlett has vague plans of buying a boat and sailing into the sunset, but the dream seems to be fading as quickly as his healing powers.
Writer-director James Mangold, along with screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green, show considerable restraint when it comes to exposition. While they’re obviously sculpting a neo-Western story – complete with a mid-film screening of Shane in case you missed the message – the storytelling is also heavily influenced by the kind of environmental storytelling popular in modern AAA videogames. Important plot points are alluded to in dialogue or suggested in set design rather than being explicitly underlined for the audience. That’s especially true of the political subtext; despite being a film about Mexican refugees seeking asylum from the United States government, it rarely goes out of its way to emphasise its own importance. (Not that this will stop critics describing it as relevant “now more than ever” in “the age of Trump.”)
The narrow focus of the screenplay accommodates an older audience, and is simpatico stylistically with director of photography John Mathieson’s consistent choice to use shallow focus lenses and largely avoid long shots. This isn’t an epic story about the end of the world: it’s a small, sad story about one man’s rocky road to redemption. While the film’s patient, small-scale storytelling positions it as an ‘adult’ alternative to its superhero peers, it doesn’t prevent it from indulging the same kind of hard-R pandering that Deadpool was occasionally guilty of. It often feels like the brutality of the violence or the amount of profanity is included as an excuse to justify the rating rather than as a natural extension of the storytelling. (An early scene of a drunken bride-to-be flashing her boobs at the hero feels particularly egregious.) It is a bit of a shame that apparently ‘mature’ storytelling requires brain matter oozing out of a bad guy’s head, but here we are.
Not that the gore is all superfluous. With Logan’s healing factor on the fritz – for reasons implied without ever being fully explained – his accumulating roadmap of scars and wounds lends his character development a grotesque physicality. He’s old enough that every battle hurts, every loss stings, every moment of suffering another mark atop of thick layers of scar tissue. This really works because of Jackman’s performance. He’s been playing this role for almost two decades now, which lends the pain in his eyes added depth. Honestly, it’s the best work I’ve seen of his, and it wouldn’t be unearned if his name came up for consideration in the next awards season.
I began this review by praising Logan for stepping away from the shallow conventions of superhero movies. But it’s more than that. The film wouldn’t work if it was merely a profiteering attempt to spin off a successful franchise into an unexpected direction; it works because of how deeply it invests in its characters, how profoundly it engages with the core of Logan’s being. Superheroes endure because they satiate our desire for modern icons, for human gods, but stories really resonate when they tap into something deeper than that. Something real. For all its adamantium claws and psychic powers, Logan does that. That’s what makes it the best superhero film in years.