Well… this is certainly different.
I feel like we haven’t adequately processed just how strange the situation of Hugh Jackman and Wolverine in the popular culture actually is when you look at the entire scope of it. This is an actor who probably wouldn’t exist as a known Hollywood quantity without having played this role (and, if we’re honest, however good an actor, Jackman is only really a “movie star” as Wolverine.) But as much as the role itself has become associated with Jackman, he’s also very likely to have left as indelible a stamp on the character as Christopher Reeve did for Superman. Let’s face it: When the X-Men franchise inevitably makes its way back to Marvel Studios and get’s its reboot, it’s going to be very difficult to recast this part (unless perhaps someone wants to let Andrew Garfield do a pair of terrible Wolverine movies in between so the next guy can only be seen as a step up.)
Suffice it to say; Jackman has been defined as a screen presence by almost two decades of playing this character across the various X-Men movies… and yet, the X-MEN movies themselves have ultimately been a succession of average-to-forgettable films (the first two, The Wolverine, Days of Future Past) spaced-out by genuinely awful films (The Last Stand, Origins: Wolverine, Apocalypse) – while the two installments that actually were legitimately great films, First Class and Deadpool, also happen to be the two that Wolverine basically sat out. In other words: An actor with the dictionary definition of a “signature role” has somehow never been allowed to play said role in a truly good movie.
And it’s really only in that context that the existence of Logan makes any sense.
Don’t get me wrong: Logan is pretty terrific little movie – but a lot of what makes it terrific also makes it hard to imagine anyone actually deciding to make and release it outside of these very specific circumstances, i.e. a studio taking a deep breath and deciding: “Jackman wants to leave, everyone will hate us if he doesn’t get a big sendoff for carrying the franchise for almost two decades, Deadpool just proved it works to make cheap R-rated movies in this franchise, we’ve never really managed to get the ‘superhero’ part of this character to work anyway so let’s just junk basically everything X-Men or even remotely comic-book related and let them turn whatever working parts are left into a ‘dystopian Western’ – or whatever the hell will make Hugh happy.”
And yet… it works. It feels like it shouldn’t, but somehow letting Jackman play an old, cranky version of his superhero character in a film that without that connection no one would even think to call a superhero movie turns out to be the basis for a good idea. A freakish, “glitch-in-the-system” kind of good idea – likely impossible to replicate as it relies 100% on Jackman’s version of the character making sense in this context and our collective cultural attachment to the “idea” of his Wolverine and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X – but on it’s own merits, Logan is really special, one of a kind movie.
Plotwise, the setup (inspired, in the broadest possible strokes, by Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan comic) strands us several decades into a possible future where everything about the X-Men universe has come to the worst conceivable end: New mutants have stopped being born with the species now all but extinct and nobody knows why, The X-Men are all gone and nobody is saying why, Professor Xavier is slowly wasting away from a degenerative neurological disease that’s making his formidable psychic powers a danger to himself and others and Logan (who no longer acknowledges the “Wolverine” persona and is mysteriously aging due to an unknown illness of his own) is eking out a living trying to keep them alive long enough to escape to the ocean.
But that changes when Logan finds himself drafted as the reluctant protector of a young girl named Laura who not only appears to somehow be a Mutant but one imbued with Wolverine’s specific powerset (who also happens to be an immigrant from Mexico fleeing for the safety of Canada from a heavily-armed militarized death squad because hey that’s depressingly topical!) and whose desperate situation affords Logan one more chance to prove himself a hero for maybe the last time.
What’s most interesting about all of this is, for all that’s familiar about Logan (we know Jackman can play Wolverine, we know Patrick Stewart simply “is” Charles Xavier, we can assume that an R-rated version of the claw fights are going look awesome, etc) what makes it feel truly special is that it’s a movie fundamentally about disappointment that’s willing to make it’s point by disappointing the audience – that’s something you almost never see. Plenty of movies are “sad” or “angry” because those are negative emotions that can still provide a certain rush of catharsis. But very few films are ever willing to aim for sending the audience home let down, even when “dealing with being let down” is the whole theme of the story.
To wit: Logan is all disappointment all the time. The whole point is Logan, Xavier and to an extent even Laura dealing with the dream of the X-Men having come to a bad end and soldiering on anyway, and it communicates this by consistently setting the audience up for disappointments of their own: Were you hoping for flashbacks to the other movies or surprise cameos? You’re going to be disappointed. Were you thinking there might be a lot of cool continuity nods? You’re going to be disappointed. Oh, you’ll find out what happened to the Mutants and why the other X-Men aren’t around… but you’ll wish you hadn’t – because the answers aren’t “tragically heroic” or “darkly noble” or even particularly interesting: They’re banal and pathetic and meaningless. Even the action scenes doggedly refuse to be “fun” in the conventional sense: Yes, you get to see R-rated claw fights, but almost all of them are fast and dirty and happen in a context where you just want the good guys to get the hell out of wherever they are.
The one (deliberate) exception to all this: Everything involving Dafne Keen as Laura, aka “X23” aka The Female Wolverine. To the degree that hope and uplift exist in Logan at all, it centers on her – and appropriately the moment she snaps into “action”, it becomes an instant star making turn for the character and almost certainly the actress. She’s very good in the quiet scenes (almost wordless or speaking unsubtitled Spanish for much of the first two acts), but what she does and what the film does with her once it’s her turn to do the fighting is quite simply awe-inspiring.
We’ve seen young girls as action heroes before, but this time there’s no element of parody (think Hit-Girl) or exploitation at play; she’s just straightforward bad-ass in the way kids and especially girls almost never get to see themselves onscreen – in some ways a closer approximation to the comic-book version of Wolverine’s persona than Jackman ever was. There are people who’ve likely waited their whole lives for this particular type of kid action hero; and while Logan is very much an R-rated movie, I have a feeling that (for those who do get to see it) meeting this character could end up being a significant cultural touchstone for a whole generation of girls. Some of that it, obviously, up to parents; but… well, everyone has a first R-rated movie, right?
I have absolutely no idea where you go with the X-Men movies after this (or why you’d really even need to); but taken as its own thing Logan is the real deal – as solid and necessary a work as the franchise (to say nothing of the genre) has managed to produce.