Note: I’m changing the way I write movie reviews. Longtime readers have probably noticed that I haven’t written nearly as much here on the site as I used to. There are a host of reasons for that, not the least of which is the fact that my wife and I are expecting a baby later this month. I’d like to get back to writing more often, and one of the ways I want to do that is to be a little less structured in what I write. I’ve always felt a need to adhere to a certain formula with my movie reviews, but I’ve realized that I’ve grown a bit weary of the routine. I always have many thoughts about movies I see, but I’m more likely to share those thoughts if I allow myself to be freer. So in my reviews from now on I’m not going to feel the need to talk about aspects of the film that don’t interest me. I’m not going to go out of my way to recap the plot, point out all of the major cast members, or comment on aspects of the production that didn’t provoke a reaction. Also, since I’m a lot slower to write reviews than I used to be, I’m not going to shy away from some minor spoilers. Anything major I want to talk about will still go below a spoiler warning, but I’m going to assume that major spoilerphobes will have seen the film by the time I get around to writing about it. I may also post reviews in a wider variety of lengths, letting myself ramble on when I have more to say but not forcing myself to write more than I want. Hopefully this will all allow for more frequent updates and a more pleasant and interesting reading experience. As always, thanks for reading!
There’s no logical reason for Logan to be as good as it is. Wolverine’s two previous solo outings have varied from mediocre and disappointing to flat-out horrible, and the most recent X-Men movies haven’t been substantially better. It’s been 14 years since the last movie in this disjointed series which I wholeheartedly loved, X2, which still stands as one of my favorite superhero films. Honestly at this point I would be more than happy to see the series die, to give these characters a much needed rest. Logan marks the 9th film in the X-Franchise (not counting Deadpool), and at this point there should be very little left to say about these characters. I know that Hollywood is a business, and FOX will continue exploiting this familiar territory for the brand recognition alone, but they’ve retread the same ground over and over again with nothing new to contribute so often that I’ve grown weary of the entire endeavor. I didn’t even really want to see Logan, I was wary of being burned again after The Wolverine started with such promise and ended up so disappointing. So when I say that Logan is a genuinely good film, and it even has moments of greatness, understand that while this is coming from a place of low expectations I’m not judging merely judging this on a curve. Logan is a fitting companion to the original X-Men films, good enough to almost make it worth slogging through some of the more recent movies in order to reach this point, and far better than it has any right to be.
The vast majority of Logan’s success rests entirely on the shoulders of its two leads. At this point Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart have been playing Logan and Professor Charles Xavier for 17 years, Jackman through 9 films, with Stewart alongside him for 7, and these characters are now as much the product of the actors’ performances as they ever were of the original comic book writers and artists. You almost get the sense that this is the movie that these two were hanging around for. The previous films in the series were fun, but Logan finally gives them something of substance to chew on as actors, and not only do they make the most of it, they elevate it beyond the words on the page. Jackman, still as physically impressive as always, gives Logan a weariness that goes far beyond that of simply an invincible and immortal man watching the world pass him by. Logan is now a shell of a man who has lost any resemblance of the spirit that once kept him going and called him to be a hero even against his own protests. Stewart’s Xavier is in even worse shape, however. Now 90 years old, Professor X is forced to live with the awareness that his previously great mind is slipping away, while unable to let go of the crushing guilt he carries thanks to a disaster that is never fully explained, requiring him to suppress his powers with drugs and isolation. Each of these wonderfully talented actors brings their very best to these two broken souls with one last shot at redemption, but as a pair they’re unique. The chemistry between not only these artists but these characters is palpable, and they carry the shared weight of both the unbelievable events that have transpired onscreen as well as the roller coaster ride of working together for 17 years, and when they talk about being the last mutants left you can feel the bond these two share as well as the sadness that this is their final outing together.
Logan and its director/writer James Mangold deserve credit for making a superhero movie that is decidedly unique, intentionally eschewing many of the trappings we’ve come to expect from the genre. There are no costumes, no supervillains hoping to take over the world, and most of the action takes place in the wilderness, either the deserts of Mexico or forests near Canada. And while the DC universe continues to trend darker, Logan has a different kind of darkness altogether. Its darkness comes from a place centered on story and character, rather than trying to force grittiness because that somehow makes for a more “real” superhero movie. The dark, almost post-apocalyptic feel of Logan fits the journey of the characters, and the accompanying darkness makes sense. One of Logan’s great strengths is that its storyline feels like a logical conclusion to the X-Men and to Wolverine and Xavier, rather than just the next adventure. It also has a great premise for exploring these characters in a new way that is far removed from what they’ve gone through before. The idea that mutants have been hunted until they have almost ceased to exist, forcing those who have survived into hiding, while simultaneously creating a vacuum into which certain parties have introduced a new breed of lab-grown mutants, is a fascinating one. It allows Logan and Charles to reflect back on their lives and their many victories which nevertheless led to an awful end, while simultaneously giving them a mission to which they are the only ones still suited. It offers them a chance to atone for their failings and earn redemption by helping others to the happy endings they forfeited long ago.
On the other hand, while Logan has great moments and the backbone of a great film, its other failings are all the more frustrating by comparison. Sharper minds than mine have already noticed that Logan seemingly copies Children of Men extensively, and its overall plot of a grizzled warrior guiding a young woman who represents hope to a mysterious place where she’ll be safe is hardly something new. Watching it I couldn’t help but be reminded of the award-winning video game The Last of Us, which shares much in terms of style, aesthetics, and storyline with Logan. There’s a reason Logan walks in these familiar footsteps, as it’s a formula that fits the character of Logan extremely well, allowing him to reconcile his choices in the past and gives the opportunity to be a hero once more. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with using a familiar type of story in order to explore characters, settings, or themes, but Logan lies more than a little too closely to some of these other, better stories. But Logan’s biggest faults lie with some of the storytelling choices it made along the way.
Much was made during production about Logan targeting an R-rating, something that had been rumored for The Wolverine back in 2013. An argument was made that a real movie about Wolverine simply “has” to be rated R, in order to fully capture the “real” Wolverine. This is, of course, ridiculous, especially given the amount that you can get away with in a PG-13 film these days. However, Logan did need to be rated R, not because the character somehow deserved it but because the story being told in Logan is one that would only feel natural in an uncensored format. At the same time, watching Logan reminded me how perilous it is to try to make a movie that is trying to be both R-rated and appeal to the masses, to tell a dramatic, intense story but still be a fun night out at the movies, to satisfy fanboys/girls and those more casual fans. Normally I wouldn’t let the reactions of the audience around me influence my opinion of a film, but the way people responded to aspects of the movie really hammered home the ways in which the movie was trying to serve up what people apparently wanted. Logan revels in its violence, and it’s clear the audience did too, feeling like they’d finally gotten to see the unleashed Wolverine they’d always wanted. Logan needs to be a violent film, as violence is intrinsic to the character of Wolverine, and we need to see the consequences of that violence (on his victims, on his own body, and on his psyche) in order to understand his journey throughout the film. But Logan wants its violence to both be thrilling action as much as it is emotionally traumatizing for Logan, things that are generally mutually exclusive. And as much as it is to hear Professor X say, “Fuck off, Logan,” the writers clearly don’t understand how to effectively drop f-bombs in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re forcing them in just because they can, perhaps in order to avoid writing more interesting dialogue. And on top of that they felt it was necessary to have a woman flash Logan (and the camera) for no reason beyond “R-rating = boobies!” (I have no moral opposition to nudity in films, but I have a strong opposition to exploitative nudity that treats women as objects for ogling.) (And I also don’t know how to react to the fact that the audience in the screening I attended felt it necessary to laugh loudly during a fight sequence at an overweight kid running for his life.)
But Logan’s worst crime is one of laziness. It’s one thing to copy the storyline and structure from other films if you’re going to use it to say or do interesting things with the characters, but Logan is far worse than simply predictable. Early on in the film the characters watch a bit of the film Shane, a classic and my all-time favorite Western. It’s a film with many parallels to Logan, all about how violence is an inescapable aspect of the lives of some people, and no matter how hard they try to set it aside they will always find themselves called back to it in times of need, even to help those to whom violence is abhorrent. It’s an excellent way to use Shane, hopefully encouraging people to see the Western who haven’t already done so, while smartly reinforcing the shared themes between the movies. But the writers instead use Shane as a crutch in place of doing their own character development, reusing a section of dialogue verbatim later in Logan instead to drive home the message with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, letting the old movie do the heavy emotional lifting for the film instead of doing the work themselves. It’s a shortcut, used to allow for Wolverine more time to mindlessly slice at his foes. As much as I want to see more films that appreciate the classics, it’s infuriating to see them used in this way, as a cheap and easy out.
Logan is far and away the best standalone Wolverine film, and it’s also the best X-Men movie since X2. But its success comes largely thanks to an excellent pair of actors matched perfectly with their characters, and carrying the weight and shared history of almost two decades together. Logan could never have succeeded in any way without the hard work that has already gone into crafting these characters, or without audiences already having an attachment to them. If we didn’t care about Jackman’s Logan and Stewart’s Xavier, the film would have done very little to make us care. It references past heroics and tragedies, some we witnessed while others have happened since we last saw the pair, but most of the hard work has already been done. The remaining effort comes almost entirely from the actors, who carry us with feeling along this final journey through a film with a promising setup and disappointing execution. Logan is as good a Wolverine movie as we’ll ever get, and it gives Jackman and Stewart a good enough sendoff that I’ll be able to look back fondly on the X-Men franchise (even as it wearily soldiers on without them) with its excellent beginning and its solid ending. There’s no doubt that a more polished hand could have made Logan a truly spectacular film, trimming out 50% of the action, offering a more mature and nuanced take on an R-rating, and actually writing character instead of using another film to do the heavy lifting, and in that way Logan is a disappointment. On the other hand, Logan is a far better film than we deserve after the series was allowed to wither so pitifully into the mess it’s become. It allows Jackman and Stewart, Wolverine and Xavier to go out on their own terms and on a relative high note, something I’d begun to believe was impossible. It’s hard to imagine that they’ll ever be able to reboot these characters successfully, but I’m sure they’ll try in a few years. But for now I can be satisfied with Logan, and confident that we’re unlikely to see another film in the superhero genre that’s quite like it.