Let's face it: The comic-book movie, that less-than-nutritious staple in the contemporary cinematic diet, has become something of a mess. The budgets get bigger, the grosses remain relatively stable, yet the films themselves are becoming increasingly incoherent displays of numbing visual effects held together by mystical, pseudo-scientific jargon and self-satisfied winks to the fanboy contingent. As the number of films and characters increase in the respective DC and Marvel universes, the films have become little more than placeholders, designed to do nothing more than keep the fan base in seats while dropping hints about the next two or three entries.
James Mangold's Logan is the ninth film in seventeen years to feature Hugh Jackman as the title character, better known as the saber-knuckled mutant Wolverine, but the latest entry isn't exactly the sort of movie that has misty-eyed studio accountants dreamily murmuring the word franchise. There are nods in the direction of the previous X-Men adventures and more than a handful of characters who will be familiar to more devoted fans, but Logan is more of a swan song, an elegy for a fading hero as he heads into the sunset.
Logan takes place in 2029, when the superhero/mutant business has evidently been in a slump. The surly hero is living in Juarez and working as a limousine driver, barely making enough money to secure medication for the declining Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whose once-powerful telepathic powers have been rendered unstable by Alzheimer's disease. Their seclusion is interrupted by the appearance of Laura, a young girl with powers similar to Logan's and a determined pack of mad-scientist enemies on her trail. Though it goes against his well-established curmudgeon nature, Logan takes on the job of escorting the girl to a possibly mythical sanctuary on the North Dakota border. (Sanctuaries, borders and the persecution of outsiders are standard themes in the X-Men stories, so I'll forgo providing a political interpretation; it practically writes itself.)
It's a bit of a smorgasbord of genres — a little bit of horror, more than a little bit of Mad Max-styled action — and while it's chronologically positioned as science fiction, the futuristic details are mostly limited to a throwaway joke about a border wall and some very discreet production details at its edges. It's closer in spirit to a 1970s road movie, punctuated with occasional bursts of violence.
A few years ago, Mangold was the promising director of thoughtful films like Walk the Line and the underrated Cop Land, but later work like the forgettable Knight and Day and The Wolverine, the laughingly bad predecessor to Logan, suggested that his earlier talent had been squandered in pursuit of empty blockbusters. Logan shows a renewed commitment not to the superhero genre and its empty spectacle, but to the characters and emotional drama that frequently get lost in the mayhem. For all of its set pieces and collisions (reasonably well-executed but hardly unconventional), this is a film that takes the time to let its figures do more than blast lasers and bellow wisecracks.
Jackman and Stewart (playing Professor X for the sixth time) are both good, bringing new energy to the familiar roles. For years, both actors have spoken about their love for these characters, but this is the first time you can actually see why. With both Logan and Xavier far from their superhero highs, the actors get a chance to back away from the special effects and let their personalities take over, forming a realistically uneasy bond. Other cast members — Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant — appear to be enjoying their more extravagant roles, but the film's revelation may be Dafne Keen as the rage-filled Laura, so frighteningly accurate that I wondered what kind of off-screen coaching Mangold used to produce such unrestrained anger in an eleven-year-old girl.
Let's not get carried away. This is, after all, a movie about comic book heroes and villains. People fly, shoot waves of energy, grow animal-like extensions. Things blow up. Heads roll (literally). It has all of the destructive commotion you expect from the genre, but somehow manages to remain grounded. It's a big, loud superhero movie, but one that refreshingly takes time to breathe.