The X-Men franchise is like a box of melted chocolates, you never know what mutation you’re going to get. It is indeed a series that’s provided some serious ups and downs. For every popping candy/caramel barrel combination (Days of Future Past – deliriously good) they’ve pulled out a chocolate blob that has lost it’s raisin (Apocalypse – you know, fine but it’s kind of missing the point). Therefore, it’s with an air of caution that one approaches Logan, Hugh Jackman’s last stand as the Wolverine after an impressive seventeen years. Jackman’s been an ever-solid presence since his first appearance in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, but up to now his standalone spin-offs have, frankly, been a bit of let down. Thankfully, Logan finally hits the mark.
Fittingly set at a date closer to home than its predecessors in the franchise, Logan takes place in an almost dystopian 2029 and adopts Deadpool’s meta relationship to superhero culture – within this universe Wolverine exists in the very physically present comics and is a recognisable name. A virus developed by Richard E. Grant’s Transigen Project has all but dwindled the mutant population and left an aged and weakening Logan to live the life of an outcast, caring for the even older and weaker Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) alongside new addition: Caliban (Stephen Merchant in an odd choice of casting). For the stalwarts, their age is beginning to take its toll. A nonagenarian Professor X now suffers from Alzheimer’s, with seizures and episodes making him ‘a weapon of mass destruction’ as Boyd Holbrook’s leader of the criminal cyborg gang, the Reavers, puts it. In the case of Wolvie, his advance in years have had a more externally tangible effect through greying hair, a stiff blade that gets caught in retraction, and wounds that no longer seem to heal quite so readily – the gradual result of long term adamantium poisoning.
Whilst earning the money to secure an easier life, Logan is tracked down by Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse seeking aid in transporting her eleven year-old ward to a safe haven in North Dakota known as Eden. Except this is no ordinary child and, in the wake of Gabriella’s murder, it is revealed that she is a new form of mutant, bred artificially by Transigen with the DNA samples of a number of the old set – including Logan himself. Reluctantly accepting his mission, Logan, takes Xavier and the girl, Laura (played marvellously by newcomer Dafne Keen), to the road for the journey north. Their enemies, however, are never far behind.
After directing The Wolverine back in 2013 James Mangold made it clear that, were there to be a third, the next would be something new and rather less apocalyptic in plot. A ‘radical, bold, different Wolverine’ as, producer, Simon Kinberg put it. The resultant film is a kind of hybrid piece: definitely a superhero descendant, but a darker, moodier and more mature beast. Were any viewer to somehow stumble into Logan oblivious to this development, the rather florid opening expletive (used forty times thereafter in the film – yes, I kept tally) might well come as a bit of a shock. ‘Language Logan!’ snaps the Professor. Goodness only knows how they’ll respond to increasingly visceral and brutal savagery that follows – limbs just aren’t safe in this film. It’s not simply the violence that’s been amped up here though; thematically Logan ain’t one for the kids. ‘I always thought we were part of God’s plan’ growls the bitter ex-X-Man, ‘maybe we were God’s mistake’.
It’s hard to believe that Jackman genuinely took that widely reported pay cut to retain the film’s higher rating – primarily because the film cuts to bring it down would’ve left Fox with the opening titles and a few hotel scenes at most – but he’s clearly revelling in the opportunities that it grants him. Indeed, this is the Wolverine that Jackman’s been waiting to unleash for years; if this is his final go at the character, he’s going out on a fabulously masochistic high.
That said, Stewart is more than a match for Jackman in show-stealing, turning out a franchise-best performance in a role that feels heartbreakingly honest. It’s Xavier who unearths most of the comedy too – Logan thankfully never losing its wit through all the murk. Also maintained, albeit toned down from the normal destruction fest, are some thoroughly entertaining action sequences, with Keen bringing game levels of energy to the play. This balancing of dark hues and recognisable fun is where Mangold finds the peaks of his success. Logan’s every bit the thrill that it needs to be and funny in all the right places, whilst allowing for a surprising wealth of emotional engagement.
Where the film doesn’t quite reach the level of, say, Nolan’s The Dark Knight, would be in its debts to the X-Men films to which it belongs and the weaknesses that tag along through that. Mangold has cited Shane as one of the film’s influences but it feels unnecessary to quite so forcefully emphasise the connections through an overlong segment of clips. Likewise, aspirations to a more artful fair could be more subtly employed – once Mangold’s discovered the lens’ focal shift, he’s damned if he’s not going to use it! Also recurrent of the Marvel tradition is the presence of villains who barely make the wisp of an impact – not entirely a bad thing, perhaps, in giving Jackman plenty of room to breathe in the role.
As saddening as it is to be losing Jackman and Stewart, who apparently also makes his exit here, from the series, there’s no denying that Logan is an immensely satisfying goodbye. This would be the dark chocolate truffle that’s melted into the hazelnut whirl – bitter, indulgent and containing a tremendous bite.