Seventeen years ago, Hugh Jackman bared Wolverine’s adamantium claws for the first time in the original “X-Men.” Nine movies, two Deadpools and countless black jumpsuits later, and Jackman is ready to hang up his iconic claws. We are fortunate, then, that “Logan” is one of the best superhero films of all time. Emotionally and aesthetically, Jackman’s last hurrah is a beautiful tale and a testament to what the superhero genre can be.
Set in 2029, the film finds Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) living under the radar on the Mexican border. Both characters feel the strains of age but muster their strength to protect a young mutant, Laura (Dafne Keen), in a world mostly bereft of them. The story burrows to the core of Logan’s conflict throughout the “X-Men” films: He’s a loner, but he doesn’t necessarily want to be. Logan desires a sense of family, and this film is all about that — the ones that are broken, the ones we long for and the ones we end up with.
The film’s family-driven narrative is undeniably moving — a credit to its powerhouse cast. Jackman pours profound grief and unbridled rage into a performance that is his strongest in the franchise. In this film though, Logan’s age puts him at his most physically vulnerable, which gives way to an emotional vulnerability as well. Other “X-Men” films only scratched the surface of Logan’s inner depth, and this film allows Jackman to shine in moments of quiet reflection and repose. Because of his performance, we feel the weight of a lifetime of pain and loss — a level of gravitas and complexity rarely seen in most comic book fare.
Jackman owns this film, but Dafne Keen is its breakout star. She plays Laura, or X-23, who would best be described as an angrier, scarier and slightly more verbal version of Eleven a la “Stranger Things.” Keen’s snarl game matches Jackman’s, but like him, she nails her quieter dramatic scenes too, and the rapport Laura establishes with Logan is truly beautiful to watch unfold. Keen certainly isn’t the only standout supporting actor though. Patrick Stewart offers us the crankier version of Professor Xavier we didn’t know we wanted, while still being the sentimental paternal figure from previous films.
Though Jackman, Keen and Stewart shine in front of the camera, director James Mangold’s vision is the film’s fourth star. “Logan” is unabashedly a Western, remarkable for being one of the few superhero films to transcend its own genre. The film’s locations are reminiscent of “Hell or High Water,” the car chases may as well feature horses instead of trucks and there are overt references to the 1953 Western classic, “Shane.” This certainly doesn’t mean that “Logan” embraces style over substance. Instead, the film’s Western drapings are a narrative vehicle: Logan is our old gunslinger, and it’s a purposeful characterization that enhances the story.
Aside from establishing an aesthetic unseen in the superhero genre, Mangold deserves praise for tastefully handling the film’s R-rating. The film embraces the rating — heads roll, and Logan and Laura fight in a berserker fury previously exclusive to the comics — but Mangold never lets the violence outweigh the narrative’s emotional stakes. “Logan” would rather be an intensely affecting character drama than a pointlessly gory spectacle.
Make no mistake though. This film, like Mangold’s “The Wolverine,” features moments of pure comic book fantasy. But such moments serve the film’s thematic elements and, thus, “Logan” embraces its comic book roots while eschewing the blue sky beams and obligatory sequel setup that plague other films of the genre.
The question on every moviegoer’s mind is how “Logan” compares to “The Dark Knight,” which is generally accepted as the greatest superhero film of all time. Only time will tell if “Logan” surpasses or matches it, but it is the only superhero film worthy of the comparison. Such matters, however, concern the future. For now, “Logan” deserves to be lauded as the perfect send off for Hugh Jackman. His departure from the role is the end of an era, one we have been fortunate to witness.
“Logan” opens this Thursday at UA Berkeley 7.