Superhero films are not very good. Sure, it was widely acknowledged that Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice were both weak sauce, but Marvel are hardly purveyors of beauty and truth. Formally, they contribute nothing of worth to cinema and actually detract from the medium as even less competent films attempt to ape their glossy, building-destroying style. While Marvel films tend to be slick, watchable and occasionally funny in a limp snigger kind of way, they’re instantly forgettable and have negatively contributed to blockbuster cinema. Fox’s X-Men franchise, hasn’t even managed that. Logan is an admirable attempt to shake up a genre that James Mangold described as “stale” and while not everything works, its very ambition makes it worthy of acclaim. It tries something different and it mostly succeeds, making it the best superhero film in years.
The film finds Wolverine/Logan/James in 2029 working as a limousine driver and living in Mexico. Professor X is going senile, kept in an upended grain silo. Most other mutants have died and there have been no new mutants in years, making this basically Children of X-Men. Then along comes Laura, a kid with eerily similar powers to Logan and an army of goons on her tail. Logan, the Prof and Laura go on the run from these faceless bad guys, while Logan’s body (and regenerative powers) gradually get weaker).
By stripping back the overstuffed X-Men cast and making it just about these three characters, Logan becomes that rare thing: a character-driven blockbuster. Impressively executed scenes of blood-soaked stabbing, slicing and even beheading will delight fans looking for violence, but this is, at heart, a road-trip movie concerned with ageing, death and family. Jackman looks haunted in the role he’s been playing for 17 years, with greying hair, ugly scars and an occasional limp. Stewart has moved beyond playing a stately, wise mentor to become a swearing, senile old man who tells Logan that he is a disappointment.
Beautiful sequences of Logan carrying Charles display a vulnerability that cinematic superheroes have previously not displayed. If it weren’t for the metal claws growing out his knuckles, this could almost be mistaken for an intimate family drama. Here we see fragility, palpable human connection and effective visual storytelling.
The initial trailer for the film, which attracted a lot of buzz, was set to Johnny Cash’s Hurt, opening with the lines “I hurt myself today to see if I still feel…” The final film doesn’t feature the song, but it does have a scene where Logan slices open his hand, testing his regenerative abilities and focussing on the pain. After decades of grief, Logan has tried to fight all his feelings. As adamantium poisons his body and he forms an unusual surrogate family with Laura and Charles, he starts to lose that battle on all fronts. It’s basic thematic stuff, but delivered with conviction. Dafne Keen excels as Laura, managing to portray an equally emotional arc with a near wordless performance.
Mangold has said that by aiming his film at adults from the outset, there was less studio pressure on exactly what the film should be; that independence shows in the filmmaking. It’s not just the ramped-up violence, although that is refreshing and gives the action sequences a thudding impact that’s missing from Disney’s output. More importantly, there is no comedy sidekick, no eye for merchandising, no lame zingers. Aesthetically, it has all the wide, open vistas and gold/blue palette of a western – marking a bold departure from most superhero films in that its form actually reflects it content (lone killer in a protective role, plus the occasional Stetson). Logan’s greatest attribute is its singular focus; this is a film that actually has a vision and it largely achieves it.
Not everything succeeds. A mid-section lull in a family home goes big on comparisons to Alan Ladd’s Shane. While it gives Laura a chance to glimpse what a real family looks like, a bizarre side-plot about an evil corn corporation (no, really) feels like an excuse for a bit of extra killing in the middle of the film. Richard E. Grant’s head honcho villain is underused, but that could be a good thing given the weakness of his impact when he is on screen. Meanwhile, the number of mindless soldiers dispatched to track down Laura reaches Blues Brothers levels of ridiculousness.
Yet somehow Logan emerges from these glaring flaws as a successful, often exhilarating piece of blockbuster film making. People will undoubtedly comment on the violence and swearing, but that isn’t what makes Logan a film for adults. Instead, it’s the ability to address weighty themes, display vulnerability and focus on characters that makes this a cut above most superhero films. Which, lest we forget, are (mostly) not very good.