Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Logan the Greatest Wolverine Solo Movie of All Time!
That’s not a hard claim to make after the soggy mishmash of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the mostly not-bad The Wolverine, a Japanese action-adventure yarn that held up well until the final boss battle pitted Our Hero against a vengeful geezer-mech. The latter’s director James Mangold reunites with The Hugh Jackman for one last assembly with Marvel’s once-merry mutants in what may be the X-Men film least likely to sell a single action figure.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Mutants are over! In the not-too-distant future, nearly all the characters you loved or hated from the last nine X-films died, and new mutants stopped being born, Evolution performing an unexplained bit of reverse natural selection. After a vague east-coast incident mentioned twice in passing without explanation, only two mutants remain: our man Logan, now a grumpy limo driver whose adamantium skeleton may be shortening his lifespan; and formerly esteemed Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart returns!), whose every utopian hope has been shattered and whose torturous movie life has left him feeble, demented, and fighting off seizures that can have destructive consequences every time the world’s most powerful telepath loses control of his superhuman functions. Living out their golden years on a dusty Texas hideaway, the grumpy old mutants fritter away their remaining minutes, both of them clearly having been too distracted by Evil to put any thought into long-term financial planning.
Then Logan the caretaker finds himself saddled with another unwanted burden: a tiny young clone of himself named Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) grown in an evil lab with advanced versions of Logan’s own abilities, unlimited youthful energy, no parents, and a very tiny moral compass. Laura, lab-name “X-23”, has escaped her creators and needs an escort to a possible safe house that’s naturally hundreds of miles away. In another film you’d normally see Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman as the surly senior citizens joining forces to do the right grandfatherly thing, but they and their accompanying chuckles are nowhere around. It’s up to Sergeant Stabby and Carnac the Magnificent to make the road trip from Mexico to North Dakota in Logan’s 2024 Chrysler limo while on the run from near-future science baddies: the cyborg Reavers, who were an actual thing in ’80s Uncanny X-Men comics over a decade before Firefly repurposed the name for even meaner villains.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Heading the Reavers is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, bulked up in the years since Milk), an imposing, charismatic figure who barks orders and threats, but who doesn’t seem to do much of his own fighting. His boss (Britain’s own Richard E. Grant) is a covert-ops mad scientist trying to concoct a grand army of young clones of all the characters you loved or hated from the last nine X-films, but who keeps getting mixed results.
If you saw X-Men: Apocalypse and scratched your head at their version of B-list mutant Caliban as a seedy power broker, he’s back but more sympathetic as played by Stephen Merchant, co-creator of the UK’s original The Office. For a pastoral intermission on their road trip, Our Heroes spend a Midwest evening with a black farming family headed by ER‘s Eriq LaSalle and Elise Neal from Scream 2.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? We know from previous films that super-heroes can die, but Logan answers the question a youth-oriented Hollywood has been loath to ask: what would happen if they got old? Set aside the super-powers and it’s a scenario rarely played out on the big screen except as a foreign film or a comedy (cf. the upcoming Going in Style). The shocking answer: if villains or shallow directors don’t murder them, they’d age less than gracefully, like too many of us. Logan and Xavier are cranky and unkempt and don’t care what you think about the horrible things they say to each other or to you. They’re far, far beyond their prime world-saving days. Xavier is the worse off of the two with his unstable mental condition and his still-paralyzed legs (one scene where he needs help getting to a bathroom is funny because it’s so depressingly realistic), but Logan finds himself trapped in the unenviable position of trying to tend to the needy elderly while he himself is falling apart. Welcome to a potentially prescient glimpse at 21st-century retirement if you’re not careful, kids.
While Logan and Xavier count down to the end of their days, in walks Laura as the face of a new breed. She’s rough, rowdy, and occasionally homicidal if you don’t take the time to tell her “no”. She and her equally young peers were designed with soldiers’ templates and temperaments, but giving up and letting Nature win over Nurture is a quitter’s response. It’s up to the current generations to step up, be the parents they need, frame the world in a better context, teach them the difference between Feels Right and Actual Right, and hopefully pave the way for a next generation of heroes, problem solvers, and/or film franchise stars.
With mutant genes basically extinct in the wild, the shadowy government dudes refuse to let that mysterious fade-away signal the end of human battlefront advancement. Whether nature helps out or not, bad men will always keep researching ways to make or become better killers. Hence the cyborgs and the super-clone kids.
Another important lesson Logan teaches for those unaware: yes, there really are black farmers in America. They have a nationwide organization and everything. As the movie illustrates, it’s not easy out there by any means, especially if racist neighbors want your land or if the government intrudes on your tranquility in the pursuit of mutant fugitives.
Nitpicking? Hey, kids! You don’t get to be X-Men completists for a while. After the runaway success of the R-rated, extra naughty Deadpool, Fox gave the makers of Logan their blessing to go darker. No time is wasted in exploring life beyond the PG-13 frontier as Jackman drops the F-word in his first line and doesn’t let up for a long while. It’s supremely disconcerting hearing Logan and Professor X, the stars of all-ages comics for decades, cussing each other out like angry sailors now that they’ve seemingly lost all reasons for self-control.
Likewise, in the wake of Deadpool as well as Marvel’s successful Netflix shows, Wolverine hacks and slashes and makes with the bloodletting like no movie fan has seen from him before. Evildoers are gouged, impaled, julienne-sliced, and subject to spontaneous limb loss that would’ve made comics’ Professor X weep for Logan’s soul. Comics readers have seen this level of ferocity in a smattering of mature-readers-only books over the years, but by and large, Wolvie’s fight history has been downplayed for the sake of the former Comics Code Authority, often as sanitized as the average 1980s Saturday morning cartoon, like when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles used to use their martial-arts weaponry only against robots, bloodless aliens, or inanimate objects, or just didn’t hit anything they aimed at. Logan is assuredly not for the squeamish, least of all when adorable li’l Laura snaps into a frightening high gear with her own adamantium assortment and triples her de facto dad’s body count.
Logan, then, is X-Men comics pushed to uncomfortable yet logical extremes. Logan and his protege, along with Jon Bernthal’s Punisher in season 2 of Daredevil, demonstrate how crime-fighting would look if you left it up to unchecked vigilantes who fight evil with blades or bullets instead of with controlled punching or benign lasers. These were the costumed crusaders that once mesmerized legions of readers partly because their lethal methods were sealed under child-proof safety caps and safeguarded from any actionable consequences. In that sense Logan removes its characters from the traditional super-hero mold and refits them as adult science fiction. Fans of old-school super-heroics are no longer the target audience.
Also turned away at the door: anyone who thought ’90s X-Men comics were awesome. Some nostalgic hangers-on may be unhappy with a scene in which Logan dismisses those erstwhile bestsellers as contemptible pabulum and calls them “ice cream for bedwetters”. This is definitely not your father’s X-team.
Two unrelated, annoying nitpicks from other perspectives:
1. The final boss battle sees our rapidly deteriorating Logan squaring off against the next project after Laura, another clone code-named X-24, who suffers from a problem all too common with clones in fiction: magical aging. Whereas Laura’s class are close to each other in age (from 8-ish to mid-teens), which makes sense given that they were created within a narrow time span, somehow the next clone project after them is already a full-grown adult.
2. One of Laura’s lab-product peers is a black kid with electrical powers, following in the footsteps of Storm, Black Lightning, Black Vulcan, Static Shock, Aqualad from Young Justice, and who knows how many other black super-electricians I surely haven’t encountered yet. And I won’t be surprised if Cyborg’s screen debut in Justice League sees his various attachments and options exchanged for a single “super-shock” ray or something. Why does the black member always get the electrical powers? Why can’t the black hero be the one with super-strength or super-intellect? Can someone please buy a round of Milestone Media comics for Hollywood and give them some new ideas?
So what’s to like? Ultimately, Logan wouldn’t be a movie for kids even if Mangold were limited to the usual PG-13 marketing line in the sand. Thematically it’s a tough, unflinching look at the hard choices made by stubborn old men refusing to lay down and die despite the incessant begging from every cell in their body. Jackman and Stewart are in finest forms as curmudgeons not going gently into that good night, but I’m not sure how enthusiastic the tween set would be for a movie about dueling grandpas in decline.
For those intrigued by that concept — especially us over-40 folks with illnesses and calamities lying in wait for us around the future’s darker corners — in between the tough-love moments are some of the X-movies’ most dynamic, stylish, intense fight scenes to date, from nighttime Mexico to amber-waving heartland to the panoramic Dakotas. Wolverine and his final foe each give as good as they get, but the big breakout is Dafne Keen, the ragamuffin MacGuffin at the center of it all who’s infused with adamantium, rapid healing, martial arts and light-speed gymnastics. Stuntmen struggle to keep up with the deadly human cyclone that is our X-23; the grown actors revel in matching talents with hers even in the early scenes when she’s silent but glaring, ever glaring at their poor role-modeling and persuading them to save the day one last time without saying “please”.
In the present Marvel comics, X-23 has already inherited the name of Wolverine for herself. Now in Fox’s X-universe, its elders have delivered their final performances on the main stage with flourishes at times graceful or brutal, but they exit assured that theirs doesn’t have to be the last stand for cinematic mutantkind. We all leave this world sooner or later, but the noblest way to go out is to leave the right legacy for your successors to follow. Once your time is done, all you can do is hope they paid attention.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Logan end credits, but you can stay through the first half for mandatory Johnny Cash, in the form of “The Man Comes Around”, one of the best songs from his later albums recorded with producer Rick Rubin. At the very end, comics fans can take note of the usual round of Special Thanks to the creators who made the characters possible, this time including X-23 creator Craig Kyle and her frequent writer Marjorie Liu. And I learned near the very end that the X-Men prop comics used in the film as a meta-joke were drawn in intentionally crappy ’90s fashion by talented ’90s pros Joe Quesada and Dan Panosian.