When James Mangold’s Logan begins, the year is 2029, and sadness and decay pervade the landscape. Like the opening of a Mad Max movie, someone on the radio explains the state of this world, about poisoned water, about mutants, though it’s believed they no longer exist. But we find Logan, Charles Xavier, and Caliban living together just across the border, a miserable family. Caliban complains. Charles suffers from a degenerative brain disease that causes dangerous seizures, and he’s confined to a rusted old water tower. Logan works as a chauffeur. He’s as dusty and scarred as the desert around him, and something’s poisoning him from the inside. He wonders now whether the X-Men weren’t a part of God’s plan after all, but God’s mistake. There are constant reminders of his past: a samurai sword on his bedroom wall, his dog tags, old X-Men comics. He dreams of a Sunseeker boat, of getting away, of taking Charles with him. He carries an adamantium bullet.
Like the beginning of an old detective story, a strange woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) finds Logan and begs for his help. She and her daughter need safe passage to North Dakota, she hopes Logan will drive them. Of course, Logan resists like hell, and of course the woman’s charge is not really her daughter, even though she loves her like one. She’s a nurse, and the girl is X-23, Laura Kinney, played by Dafne Keen. Laura’s trying to get to a place she saw once in a comic book, a place called Eden. Her creator Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) and the man who works for him Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his Reavers have all come looking for her. She’s a weapon and a liability.
Those who feared Laura may outshine Logan had good reason to worry. Dafne Keen is what James Mangold called the “special effect” of the movie — she’s an actress with a captivating strangeness, and a brilliant fighter to boot. She may just be a twelve-year-old girl, but she’s everything you want in a female character and don’t usually get. Seeing her hurt the men who hurt her is a pleasure, and the way she and Hugh Jackman fight together is beautiful to behold. During the film’s climax she has a moment so triumphant that the audience at my screening applauded. Luckily Sir Patrick Stewart and Jackman are at their best in these roles, all three actors complement each other. There are wonderful character details: Charles tending to a little garden inside his water-tower prison, Laura falling asleep in the back of the car holding a toy horse, Logan forgetting to take the tag off his reading glasses.
In this film, people hurt. There’s a whole lot of blood. Some will certainly think that it’s too brutal. But the violence has consequences and death is felt. To the film’s villains, death is nothing, a shrug. In their roles as Pierce and Dr. Rice, Holbrook and Grant are great, but the villains just don’t compare to the film’s heroes, who are infinitely more interesting. Dr. Rice has engineered a better soldier than mutant children: he’s made a soulless thing called 24, Logan’s double, his rage perfectly replicated. 24 will only listen to Rice, a relationship like father and son. But Rice has created a more dysfunctional family than Logan’s, one without an understanding of love or any kind of emotion beyond anger and hate. 24 is an eyesore in an otherwise gorgeous-looking movie, but I suspect he’s meant to be. He is an argument against human beings as weapons, as products, maybe even against a kind of superhero movie we’re accustomed to seeing: one with an invincible protagonist, a film seemingly manufactured on an assembly line, a spectacle without substance, without heart. He looks too perfect, uncanny, there’s something off about his eyes. Hugh Jackman, with his scars and slow-healing wounds and haunted expression, is still easier on the eyes than his engineered twin.
Logan’s America is recognizable, the same country that birthed both the western and noir. But America is no longer a sanctuary. The safest places are beyond our borders. The film’s villain dreamed first of genocide, then of control. He reduced humans to traits. His child soldiers are merely things. They are liabilities. They are products. The film is a poignant goodbye to Logan, but it’s also a powerful indictment of capitalism, and frighteningly relevant to this moment in history.
With filmmakers cramming more characters, CGI, and noise into their superhero films, it’s refreshing just to spend time with Logan, Laura, and Charles. James Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green have created a unique and intimate entry in the world of superheroes. Though it would be unfair to call Logan a “superhero film.” It’s a western, a noir film, a road movie. At moments it reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road and Paper Moon and Paris, Texas. It has nothing in common with Reddit wet dream Deadpool. It’s hard to say whether Logan is objectively James Mangold’s best film, but it just might be. It certainly feels the most personal — it’s as heartfelt as Heavy or Cop Land, as lyrical and rich as 3:10 to Yuma. It’s sincere, and human, and it’s almost relentlessly sad.
During a stop at a hotel along their way, Laura watches the movie Shane, which becomes an emotional through-line in Logan. Later on in their journey, Logan and Laura and Charles stay with a family who are the film’s homesteaders, Logan their would-be Shane. Roger Ebert once pointed out that Alan Ladd’s Shane “has a little of the samurai in him,” and the same is true of Logan. Shane’s message for little boy Joey is to grow up strong and straight, and Logan’s message for his own child is essentially the same. Laura may be Logan in miniature, she may have killed people, she may not quite view the world with the innocence of Joey in Shane, but she’s still a child who can learn to be better than Logan, and teach him something about unconditional love. Laura confesses that she’s hurt bad people. Logan tells her it’s all the same. Like Shane tells Joey: “There’s no living with a killing, there’s no going back. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks.”
Like the lost tribe of children’s admiration for Max in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the Wolverine is regarded as a campfire legend in this world. At the beginning of any story, we wonder whether our protagonist will be a hero, whether man will become myth, even if it’s just for a moment. In Mangold’s story, Logan has been a hero before: he’s a kind of celebrity, his good deeds have been embellished, they are already folklore. Logan is less film about a character finding out who he is, and more about remembering who he once was. Logan becomes that hero once again for us. But more important than that, Logan becomes that hero for his child.