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The consensus on “Logan,” the latest movie in the “X-Men” franchise — and reportedly the last to star Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart as series stalwarts Wolverine and Professor X, respectively — is that it raises the bar for superhero and comic book films and is one of the best examples of the genre. But what is it exactly that makes “Logan” so moving, memorable and genuinely entertaining?
The grisly violence? Not necessarily. “Logan,” like last year’s “Deadpool,” is another rare R-rated superhero film, with all the nudity, profanity and gore that comes with the territory. But unlike “Deadpool,” which exploited its lack of restrictions for mindless bloody action sequences and sophomoric crassness it tried to pass off as “irreverence,” director James Mangold uses the freedom he’s been given in “Logan” to craft a gritty reality, one that’s an honest corrective to the sanitized violence that’s plagued superhero films since their inception.
While blood makes the action seem more believable — especially when it comes to a character as ferocious and violent as Wolverine, whose claws can easily rip people to shreds, as seen here for the first time — it doesn’t inherently make for a good film. But here, it’s emblematic of why “Logan” works. In nearly every way, it’s a response to the superhero films that have dominated movie culture for two decades.
There are no world/universe saving exploits, no obligatory romantic arcs, no cities being destroyed, no sequel that’s being set up or dense backstory to help explain the film’s events. (A vague awareness of the general “X-Men” universe will suffice to comprehend the film’s story.) The scale of the narrative is small, but its emotional scope is vast. In fact, despite being the same length as, or shorter than, most comic book flicks, it feels like more “happens” in “Logan” than all of the films in the Marvel cinematic universe combined. It’s an average length film that feels like a three-hour epic when all is said and done.
That’s not a criticism. The movie slows down frequently and takes its time when it needs to, but it never drags or feels boring. It invests more in the emotional dialogue exchanges between its characters than it does in any of the action sequences, which still have their moments.
And it’s more interested in pushing those characters, the ones we’re familiar with, anyway, into new territory, forcing responses and behavior out of them that we haven’t seen before. Taking place in 2029, Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) is living just south of the Mexican border in an abandoned factory, taking care of an ailing Charles Xavier (Stewart) and driving into Texas every night to work as a limo driver. When a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), shows up requiring his assistance, Logan is forced go on the run with her and Charles, avoiding military contractors who are bent on capturing Laura.
That may sound somewhat traditional, but what recent blockbuster has spent so much time dealing with the practicalities of taking care of an elderly father figure or what it means to accept a new daughter figure into one’s life and embrace the unconventional family that’s been foisted upon you? Not many.
Logan isn’t the indestructible, badass killing machine that he’s been in past films. He’s older, and his powers and strength have weakened over time. Charles Xavier isn’t the wise, noble intellectual who compassionately leads the X-Men. Here, he’s a broken old man dealing with a degenerative brain disease that makes him cranky and causes him to forget who Logan is sometimes. This isn’t a film that’s looking to satisfy the typical fan of these kinds of films, those who are looking for spectacle and righteous, unstoppable heroes that act out adolescent power fantasies. It’s about stripping the superheroes of their mythic gloss and finding the soul of their characters.
It’s also one of the only superhero films to directly but subtly deal with several timely political issues. Laura is Hispanic and primarily speaks Spanish. There are several sequences where she is subject to attacks that are reminiscent of recent ICE raids on the homes of immigrants, and the film portrays their dehumanizing effects. And it’s hard to escape the film’s distinctly anti-capitalism sentiments. But again, whereas most superhero films treat topical political, moral and philosophical issues as either window dressing (“Batman V. Superman”) or as a cynical means to create the illusion of narrative and thematic depth (the “Captain America” films), “Logan” treats them with nuance.
It’s not a perfect film. While it’s not chained to conventions of the superhero genre, it is reliant on the tropes of other genres, especially the Western. Many have compared it to Neo- or Anti-Westerns like “No Country for Old Men” and “Unforgiven,” and the classic Western “Shane” is an influence the film heavy-handedly references. So while it escapes the clichés of one genre, it gets ensnared by those of another. That can make some of the moments and story beats feel over-familiar, but that doesn’t stop it from being a well-told story and an engrossing farewell to a beloved character.
“Logan” isn’t concerned with saving the world, but saving its hero’s soul and allowing him redemption and catharsis in his final outing. It’s got so much of what is missing from most superhero films. It’s a singular film that stands on its own, stylistically distinct and dramatically potent. Some might call this a character study or a chamber piece. I just call it a real, honest-to-God movie.