Movie Review: Logan
By Ben Gruchow
March 9, 2017

Winter is coming.

It feels like it's been leading up to this. Out of all the movies based on comic books or graphic novels, Marvel, DC, or otherwise, the X-Men series has always possessed the greatest potential as political allegory. Isolated other entries in the genre have dipped their toes in, usually in hesitant and superficial fashion (most recent example: witness the tentative but thoughtful “what-if”s about collateral damage and collective vs individual rationale, stapled to clumsy third-act plot mechanics and reset buttons, in last year’s Captain America: Civil War), but these movies about mutant causes and battles have worn their political inclinations on their sleeve right from the beginning, so openly that I suspect it's the main reason why they've mostly avoided being the subject of “but I don't want my movies to teach me lessons” carping that invariably pops up to varying degrees whenever a studio tentpole decides to reach a little further than expected.

The deficiencies that have made a showing in most of the sequels and spin-offs are undeniable and occasionally consequential to quality, but they're also specific (clunky dialogue, the wrong actors, bad effects, studio-mandated cuts) and the philosophy remains intact. I can recognize that the one-liners in X-Men: The Last Stand needed several more drafts, while also admire the straightforward way it sets up its conflict regarding a cure (which turns that final chess scene in the park from a blatant sequel hook into a ballsy-for-2006 statement about exactly how effective “cures” really are).

Still, consistency of tone has not been the franchise’s strong suit, nor an inclination to push its themes past the wide-but-shallow point, and there have been at least three instances where it’s been put on some version of life support because the storyteller ran in the wrong direction or returned to the same well one time too many. Thus does Logan arrive both uniquely burdened and uniquely unburdened by expectations. As the title indicates, we’re spending most of our time with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, returning to the series for the ninth and ostensibly final time), and we are aware going in that the same incarnation of the character has been introduced, reintroduced, retrofitted, retconned, and thoroughly explored half a dozen times now; what more is there to learn about him? The only answer, of course, is nothing; the only thing we have yet to see about this character’s arc is the conclusion of it, and this film gives off the weight of finality from the first scene.

This also means that there's been so much explicated about the character that there is no longer any need for backstory; whatever Logan was going to be, it needed only be concerned with itself, and a good part of the reason I've spent this much space on buildup is because there is little better way to express just how vast the gulf in tone and feeling between this film and the others in its franchise is. Logan isn't just different, it's downright shocking in how utterly unencumbered by its predecessors it is. Most of it feels like a referendum on the concept of the X-Men rather than a sequel or spin-off, simultaneously existing outside of it and as part of long-running continuity, mournfully looking backward at more optimistic times. In the process of manifesting this, it is not only the best of its series, but handily the best film in its genre since The Dark Knight.

Truth be told, it may be better than that film in a number of ways; it doesn't have the same jaw-dropping sense of scale and velocity, but not for a moment is it pretending to try to. The Batman film was technical and calculating and cold; this is an intimate and personal piece of work, usually concerning itself with two or three characters in spaces that feel confined by design. For that, and for the implications and texture and timeliness of its story, it is emotionally powerful in ways that even the best moments of the genre rarely aspire to, let alone succeed at.

We’re not aware of this right at the outset, and the movie begins rather as a chronicle of senescence and deterioration in two old men. The battered and overtly distrustful world of Logan has no mutant civilization left of any significance, and no fear or awe at their past existence; perhaps we've gotten so proficient at maiming and killing each other as regular people that we need no energy field or sentinels to spur us into action. Logan himself is a limo driver as the movie opens in the year 2025, recognized as a former X-Man in the way that a celebrity long past their prime is briefly recognized by passersby before they go about their day. He lives in a derelict farm in the Southwest, or maybe Mexico; he still looks the part of Wolverine, mostly, but the bigger problems are beneath the surface. Wounds don't heal quickly or at all, he's prone to coughing fits, his eyesight is failing.

His two main companions have it worse. Caliban (Stephen Merchant) is a conflicted former hunter of other mutants, allergic to the light. And out in the collapsed water tower on the property lives Logan’s ward: an addled and invalid Xavier (Patrick Stewart), kept on a steady dose of medications to control seizures and prevent his increasingly unstable mind from unleashing telepathic chaos on the world. He comes back to lucidity only briefly, in Logan’s presence, and when he does and the two actors share early scenes verging on distrust and antagonism, we realize that the sheer volume of exposure we've had over the past decade-and-change with these characters, spotty individual installments or not, has nonetheless invested what happens here with history and weight. The movie cannily uses this, referencing events from 17 years prior from the exhausted vantage point of a painful deathbed, recalling moments of promise and potential wasted for two people who never seem to have forgiven themselves for their sins. Put aside the comic context, wispy as it already is, and we are witness to a somber picture of men arriving at the end of violent and difficult lives and realizing, with despondency, that they have never achieved the redemption they've been seeking.

The movie articulates this in every movement and shot of this scene and the ones after, and it would perhaps be unbearably grim if not for the arrival of Gabriela, a nurse who begs Logan - and only Logan - to transport her and her young daughter Laura north, across the border into the United States, to safe haven. Logan is the only one who can help her, she says, and there are men after the two of them, aiming to separate mother and daughter for their own ends. Here, then, is this entry’s reference to current events, and the filmmakers - perhaps sensing where political reality might be headed during preproduction and production - could not have chosen a more immediate humanitarian crisis to literalize, especially not one to do so trenchantly. Since we have seen the trailers and we know that Laura ends up on a road trip with Logan, we also know that Gabriela won't be in the picture for very long; foreboding thus hangs around her appearances, and her final moment of speech to Logan (and by proxy, to the audience) is one of the most emotionally-charged moments ever to play across the screen in a film of this genre.

The road trip does happen, Laura accompanying Logan and Xavier accompanying both of them to a mysterious destination in North Dakota they know only from coordinates. Along the way, they meet people who are still kind and hopeful, and the two men seem to come back from the abyss a little, while Laura (played, in a masterful and nearly wordless performance, by Dafne Keen) begins to recognize her own unique connection to Logan. On their tail are a group of mercenaries led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), proving Gabriela’s warning of danger all too real.

This is alternately tense and thoughtful material, and produces for us three moments of absolute cinematic perfection. The first involves a character at his final resort pointing a shotgun at Logan, the second involves a thrilling sequence set in a casino and performed in an extremely unique type of slow motion, and the third and most powerful involves a moment of stricken and revelatory monologue by Stewart, as we understand what might have happened to the rest of the X-Men all those years ago. This is followed shortly by an act of truly shocking and disturbing violence; we are reminded again of the difference between meaningless gore and the emotional displacement that comes with proper tone and mood, and how incontestably superior the latter is.

This, then, is the best kind of comparison to make between Logan and the films it follows. The former consists of sporadically enjoyable but popcorn-light adventure films with a thin but true strand of deeper investment woven through them; that strand finally reaches its full potential here, in a film of great impact and investment, very violent but never exploitative, conceived and executed with passion.

The movie is not perfect; it invests Pierce with about as many character shadings as I've spent on words describing him, and its grasp on what it is trying to say about violence, the urge to die and the imperative to live, and what it means to protect and care for a charge, starts to slip with the final rather jumbled set piece on a wooded hillside. But this was never about the explicit antagonist; its focus was turned further inward, and the final images deliver with clarity and poignancy on promises we didn't yet know were being made.

5 out of 5