The year is 2029. The world is in a state of decay and decline. The X-Men are long gone. It’s telling that the film is set primarily in a desert, with Logan himself living in a self-imposed exile south of the border, in a shelter harboring two of the remaining known mutants (“Professor X” and “Caliban”). Director James Mangold establishes this bleak atmosphere immediately and strongly, often placing characters at a distance in the frame, against a vast desert landscape in order to emphasize their isolation, or in full close-up for the same effect. Everything looks similar to how it does now, just more dried out and lifeless.
Caliban cannot go out during the day (think extreme albino), Charles Xavier (a brilliant Patrick Stewart back for one last time) is senile and displaying symptoms of Alzheimers, and Logan himself is suffering from some unknown ailment. It’s fitting that the the title of the picture is Logan, as this is as character oriented a “superhero movie” has been since perhaps Spider-Man 2. He isn’t healing like he used to, and he has visibly aged since we last saw him. He drinks almost constantly. It’s clear this is a man wrestling with the weight of his past, and Mangold further emphasizes Jackman’s career-best performance by pushing the camera in on the actor and letting his well-worn face do much of the work.
Pulling a bit from Mark Millar’s “Old Man Logan” graphic novel, and a bit from Children of Men – no mutants have been born in 25 years. Enter Laura, an 11-year old girl with certain gifts that thrusts the comparatively simple plot into motion (Logan is effectively a chase movie, a vehicle for its three outcasts to interact and allow us glimpses into their humanity). Laura is a product of experimentation on children, referred to as a “patent” or “product,” and further emphasizes one of the film’s key themes about dehumanization and how power and violence perpetuate it.
“Violence” being the key word, here. For the first time, Mangold and Jackman (as well as the plethora of talented stunt coordinators and choreographers) we are shown what Wolverine’s claws really do. We’ve always seen bodies drop as the result of Logan’s feral rage, but we have rarely been shown explicitly how, as the X-Men movies (particularly Wolverine’s) have been neutered and processed for maximum Toys-R-Us sales. I cannot think of another “superhero” movie in which violence is presented as so awful, brutal, and ugly – but perhaps most important, unnatural.
The very substance (the indestructible adamantium) that engineered Wolverine into an unstoppable killing machine has begun to poison him. It’s as heavy as a theme can be, but the film earns it. A life of violence (whether forced, engineered, or just unprovoked) has literally corroded Logan’s body as it has corroded his soul. Logan is, at least in part, a movie in which our hero is at war with himself (at times, literally). X-24 is a pure engineered killing machine. Everything Wolverine was supposed to be. Devoid of a soul, and a grotesque and horrific disfigurement of the “real,” human Logan despite having none of his physical flaws.
This Western / Neo-noir is so incessantly bleak, that the few moments of of serenity speak volumes and register as little bits of mercy and love and humanity sprinkled into a film full of inhumanity and unnaturalness (even the militia hunting Logan and Laura are often sporting robotic limbs). We’ve never seen such small moments of humanity in a superhero movie before, such as Logan struggling carrying Xavier up a flight of stairs. My particular favorite involves Xavier, often heavily drugged to prevent him from having another catastrophic seizure, briefly using his telepathic abilities one last time to calm a group of horses that have been frightened and scattered by an auto-pilot semi-truck (another unnatural, engineered, inhuman tool).
I commend Mangold for making the first superhero film in which I reviled and dreaded the violence, rather than relish it. Although this is ultimately Jackman’s film in nearly every way, Dafne Keen is phenomenal as the engineered, feral, mostly-mute Laura. Her relationship with Logan, the film’s emotional center, is created and strengthened by a series of glances, gestures, and slight embraces. These tiny human moments sneak their way into a film and world that contains so little, and as such register with so much more power. Film criticism aside – Logan reduced me to rubble, and I believe it to be one of the greatest “superhero” movies ever made, and, despite its brutality and often cruel inhumanity – the most human.