Finally, an comic book film that hits all the marks – The rumoured final outing of Hugh Jackman as that ever favourite X-Man, Wolverine, in 2017’s Logan.
James Mangold has continued the surety of his grasp from 2013’s The Wolverine in Logan. However, the effort he invested in the high-gloss pulp of The Wolverine has been distilled into a raw and visceral tale of the denouement of some of the most notable X-Men in the mutant universe. Firmly positioning itself in a gritty near future, Logan subsumes the flashier elements to the traditional X-Men outings and constricts the narrative to one of hard-edged desperation and survival; creating an incredibly elegiac bookend to Jackman’s tenure as cinema’s original Wolverine.
This is the kind of comic book film I have always desired. Whereas I have fondness for Singer’s original X-Men and really liked his follow up X-2 in 2003, the X-Men universe has a firmly established, hyperbolic, super-saturated, comic book feel for these characters which all of the films to date have reproduced. It’s eye candy at its best and I have enjoyed it greatly, particularly the lovely visual effects the franchise has treated us to, like Quicksilver jailbreaking Magneto from The Pentagon in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Yet recently, as with X-Men Apocalypse in 2016, the high definition mutant superhero universe has began to feel hollow, and the struggle vs payoff of the narratives seemed increasingly empty. Interesting exploitation of time loop storylines and a recast set of younger actors aside, the yearly X-Men outing has adopted a slightly also ran feel, feeling increasingly like a repackaged treat from the year before. Mangold’s Logan collapses the inflated fantasy of the past and turns the tone of the established universe on its head. Having paid his franchise dues with The Wolverine, it is almost as if he is determined to paint the X-Men/Wolverine universe with a new palette; transmuting the accustomed operatic, pulpy edge of the universe with an almost western feel, highlighting parts of the story with weathered and beaten down elements in the cinematography and costuming. The action is unrelenting. The violence is unsparing, excessive and doesn’t blunt its edge by seeking refuge in cartoonishness, choreography or last minute comic relief from a fleeing mutant child as the oldest X-Men films do. This Wolverine movie doesn’t just growl, it roars.
The creative team here have done a wonderful job of rounding out the present Jackman as Wolverine arc and have delivered the strongest of all the standalone Wolverine narratives to date. Jackman plays his role with his usual verve and tightens his grip on the louche confidence of the early Wolverine delivering something far more grizzled and down at heels. Mangold, no slouch at directing drama, brings these skills to the fore here and the movie flourishes because of it. It is one of the most realistic and affecting of any of the X-Men films because it reduces its focus to the individual mutants themselves, disciplines the use of high concept plotting and draws upon the overarching ethos of the conflict between humans and mutants as little as possible to drive the narrative. The ethical dilemmas, political machinations and morality conundrums which underscore all the films is largely set adrift by Mangold and, like a maestro who knows how to craft a nuanced tale, he wrangles the larger scale action in a way that keeps the emotional heart the story in focus and doesn’t let it be undercut by frenetic activity which is never far from the screen.
Mangold’s astute use of a near-contemporary time frame grounds the film nicely; the unmatched might of the baddies and the exploitation of people both human and mutant echoing the grim present we find ourselves in today. This gives the story an enjoyable immediacy and realism which other films have missed the mark on. Patrick Stewart takes his polished and statesman-like portrayal of Professor X and infuses it with Lear-like fragility which is essential to the emotional success of the story. So much of his performance is wonderful that I don’t want to spoil it by describing more here. Stephen Marchant also delivers a finely tuned portrayal of Caliban, his desert nomad appearance bringing echoes of Brando’s much maligned Island of Doctor Moreau costuming but he works it with aplomb. The character of Caliban is a nice thematic nod to the Frankenstein-esque nature of the black-hats led by a restrained Richard E Grant as yet another monstrous man of science who wants to control mutants for his own purposes.
Something that I also enjoyed was the complete dearth of jumpsuits and fancy planes and other ephemera with which these stories usually abound. This has been replaced with an asceticism also reminiscent of the western genre. Mangold makes several nods to the comic book origins of his characters including using an X-Men comic as a plot point. It’s a wink to the origins of the story and it’s a nice respectful one. It also is thematically on point with the story he is telling; this is what happens when we come to the end of our time. This is where the fantasy and the reality of being Wolverine or Professor X and any of the mutants diverges. This is what is left after heroic deeds have become apocryphal. The choice of the writers to explore the ageing superhero trope had the potential to be dull; there are only so many punchlines you can get from an old creaky superhero who has fallen prey to time and wear and tear. However, this is not that story. The expository elements of the story are handled with aplomb, weaving the ageing of their principal actors in seamlessly with the story arc in a credible way.
Loathe to give any spoilers about the story, I will say that this film is a fitting farewell to Jackman’s time as Wolverine; it tops off the franchise beautifully and more than makes up for the well documented stumbles of the first instalment. A solid second installation which redeemed the franchise has been instrumental in bringing us this satisfying final chapter. There can be no doubt that anyone looking to fill Jackman’s shoes in a reboot of the character (let’s face it, they will definitely re-boot; the character and the universe makes them many millions of dollars) will have much to live up to. Jackman and Stewart were absolutely correct when they said on the Graham Norton show that this was not your average comic book film. This the kind of film we have wanted every time someone adapted a comic book character for the big screen. This is a big boy comic book film without the booted and suited bluster of the others. This is X-Men meets John Huston; Mangold’s nods to Paramount’s 1953 film Shane are no accident. He is crafting a new ethos for the X-Men and the characterisation of Logan/Wolverine; who is a country and western song of tragedy in his every fibre of his being. Finally, Mangold uses a beautifully apt musical cue over the end credits to cap off his tale and eulogise Wolverine in a most appropriate way. How heartening to see a literate and intelligent translation of such a broad trope of a character created under the aegis of a franchise blockbuster. It simply goes to prove that if you have the skills and the vision you can deliver a fine piece of cinema no matter the genre.