In 2000, when Hugh Jackman first came onscreen as Wolverine, the relief was palpable. Here, at last, was somebody who was going to treat the character whose comics I had loved with respect and, height aside, be that guy. Like so many others of my generation, I had always fantasy-cast Glenn Danzig in the role, but Jackman blew away all those preconceptions. I realize that first movie hasn’t aged quite as well as some, but remember: there were no superhero team movies then, and post Batman and Robin, there was massive fear among fans and studio executives of anything that might resemble a traditional comic-book costume.
Last night, I entered a screening of Logan, and felt that same palpable relief. Here, at last, was a Wolverine story that felt like the comics I remembered. And not just that: it’s a comic-book superhero movie that genuinely pushes the form forward, and is arguably the “darkest” to date. Not in the Zack Snyder cool-darkness kind of way, either, but rather, in the “if you spent your life killing super-powered bad guys, this is how messed-up and doomed it would actually be in the end” kind of way. For the most part, it’s quite brightly lit; the darkness is in the weighty, world-weary performances.
There couldn’t be a better visual gag for where Logan/Wolverine/James Howlett (Hugh Jackman) is at this stage of his life than the scene in which he has to manually pull his third claw all the way out to its full extension, because it doesn’t just pop up like it used to. Something has happened to his healing factor, and his body is all scarred up in a manner that sometimes suggests the tiger stripes of his old outfit. Making ends meet as an app-summoned limousine driver, he’s a cheap drunk (empty Evan Williams bottles say it all) and a guardian to Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who’s in his 90s and suffering the onset of dementia…which is bad enough in a regular brain, let alone a powerfully psychic one. Together they live out their lives in the world of 2029 that appears to be mostly post-mutant, together with Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who got the crap end of the stick, mutation-wise, since he’s a great tracker but also burns like a vampire in sunlight.
The low-key existence they lead, basically waiting to die, gets upended when a young girl (Dafne Keen) with all of Wolverine’s powers enters their lives, followed shortly thereafter by a posse of government goons and a smiley Southern douche named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, an unfortunately subpar villain) who has a robo-hand and the ability to unbreak his own neck.
From there, we get a road movie, with three generations of mutant. Charles is the wise grandfather, Logan a first-time dad in late middle-age, and Laura (a.k.a. X-23) the rambunctious force of nature they know they have to protect. This even as they both realize that her absolute best-case scenario in this world is to live on the run and die as miserably as they expect to.
So what happened to make it Mad Max time for mutants? One of the best things about the script, by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green, is that it leaves a lot of it up to your imagination. There are no large vistas or cityscapes in this comic-book movie, just brief safe havens at rest stops, farmhouses, and hotel rooms. Logan and Charles have done bad things, but we don’t know exactly what; nor are we spoonfed the reason mutants stopped showing up, though it’s hinted that America’s love of corn syrup and GMO corn is partly to blame (seriously; it seems Monsanto did what Sentinels couldn’t). And as mutants died off, Marvel comics told of their adventures in fictionalized form, confusing the issue of what actually happened and when.
Patrick Stewart excels as the heroic mentor turned crazy grandpa, equal parts soothing philosopher and terrified mental patient, while Jackman appears at times to have morphed into Mel Gibson, a haunted hero with a rage problem. And by rage, I mean berserker rage, which you’ll see in full effect for the first time – this is an R-rated movie, and Wolverine goes full Freddy Krueger on many candy-asses. But it isn’t, in the end, the gore that makes this a superhero movie for older audiences: it’s the fact that the character interactions are what matter. Although if you were rightfully expecting the inevitable battle in a forest that every X-Men movie has, rest assured you do at least get that.
It seems weird that I had to wait till middle-age to see a movie that faithfully adapts the spirit of the comics I loved as a teen, but it’s appropriate; those of us who grew up with the grim ’80s characters are now later in life, and more in a position to relate to the hero with regrets who can’t always get that claw to rise as quickly or as long as it needs to. One of the great missing ingredients of most modern heroic epics is the ending, like Beowulf’s dragon fight, or Robin Hood picking a final resting place with that last arrow. Modern franchises and the need to keep milking the money machine make that kind of finality less common, and it’s a miracle Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy even managed a semblance of closure. If this indeed turns out to be Jackman’s last bow, it’s a mighty send-off, and possibly the best Wolverine movie made.
Now let’s get Dafne Keen an X-23 solo flick ASAP. She’s excellent.
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