It’s hard to know exactly where to start with James Mangold’s Logan, the latest and possibly last film to feature Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. On one level, it’s a bold and unflinching character study, with an honest, vulnerable performance at its center. On another level, however, it is a run-of-the-mill action movie with an ever-so-slight superhero twist. The film reminds me of any number of modern thrillers featuring Liam Neeson, in which an older man with a violent past must tear through an army of opponents in order to protect an innocent. Only when the film allows Hugh Jackman the space to really inhabit the character does the film become something truly special. If only the film around those moments were more inspired, Logan could have been a superhero film on par with The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2. Unfortunately, it often comes close to superhero greatness but ultimately falls just short, working much better as a character study.
The year is 2029 and almost all mutants have died off, though it’s not immediately clear exactly how. Perhaps they were killed, or maybe there was some sort of plague; it really doesn’t matter now. Either way, Wolverine, ever the survivor, has managed to make it through mostly intact, though the years have obviously taken their toll on his emotional state. Here, Wolverine seems exhausted, not just physically, but existentially. He spends his time taking care of an increasingly-unstable elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose own disillusionment comes through, as well.
Soon, though, Wolverine is confronted by a shady organization that has taken to experimenting with mutation. Having been all too familiar with the evils of this sort of thing, one would think that Wolverine would attempt to stop it. But that was the old Wolverine; the one who thought he could make a difference. It’s only when a young girl (Dafne Keen) is revealed to have been infused with Wolverine’s specific DNA that he starts to take an interest, going on the road to deliver her to a safe haven for whatever mutants still exist. Of course, along the way, the bitter old man and the directionless young upstart begin to bond over their shared ferocity and victimhood.
While Keen is very good and her character is more developed than one would normally expect, this dynamic feels stale. While we’ve certainly seen Wolverine bond with any number of younger mutants in the comics, movies, and cartoon shows (Shadowcat, Rogue, and Jubilee, respectively, in case you were wondering), we’ve also seen any number of other grizzled old action heroes do the same thing in countless other movies, with Jean-Francois Richet’s effective Blood Father being a recent example. So, as hard as Mangold, Jackman, and Keen try to keep this story fresh, it still felt derivative and unengaging.
This is not to say that the character himself isn’t interesting. Quite the opposite, in fact, as Jackman plays Wolverine with such brokenness that we can imagine everything that he’s been through up to that point. We can picture the other X-Men – now gone – that he cared so much about, but ultimately couldn’t protect. We can see the slow turn to fatalism that is so common to those that have outlived their loved ones. And we see a man previously so passionate and full of life drained of any and all purpose, going through the motions, wishing that things had turned out differently, and wanting desperately to just… end.
Much has been made in the past of Wolverine’s healing factor and the longevity that it provides him. And while it is fascinating to picture Wolverine throughout the ages – fighting in various American wars, witnessing technological progress and countless tragedies – I’m put in mind of ancient vampire Count Orlok from Nosferatu. He lives in the crumbling ruins of a dusty old castle, and is slowly wasting away himself, thin as a rail and rodent-like. After the novelty of long life has worn off, there is only physical, moral, and emotional decay, mixed with such profound loneliness that basic survival is much more a function of instinct than a conscious choice.
This is the true weight of Logan. It is a hero who has mostly outlived the ability – and quite possibly the desire – to be heroic. Jackman, who has clearly found something in the character that has resonated with him over these 17 years, invests Wolverine with every last ounce of sorrow, bitterness, anger, and hopelessness that the character embodies. It flows out of him in every scene. One gets the feeling that he could burst out crying at any moment, if he hadn’t exhausted that part of himself years ago.
At its best, Logan is a stirring and heartbreaking portrait of aging and regret that owes just as much to Roger Michell’s Venus or Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt as it does to any film in the superhero genre. And in that regard, perhaps it doesn’t matter that the story surrounding Wolverine is so standard. Maybe James Mangold realized that the more mundane and predictable the story, the more it throws the marked uniqueness of our “hero” into sharp relief. If that is indeed Mangold’s goal – to highlight Wolverine and Hugh Jackman by surrounding them with a narrative blandness – then I applaud him. However, if the goal is to craft a story just as intriguing as the man in the midst of it, I would definitely say he failed.
Luckily, we still have the figure of Wolverine, so clearly defined by Jackman’s haunted performance, standing in the middle of the chaos, alone and contemplating exactly what it means – and what it cost – to be a hero. Similarly, as the steady stream of superhero movies shows no signs of slowing down, films like Logan – despite their flaws – are important, as they are actually willing to examine their own genre and ask if it’s worth all the trouble.