Hugh Jackman has appeared in films as Wolverine for 17 years now. That is longer than any other superhero or James Bond actor, the fact that his physicality has increased with each movie is even more impressive. Jackman has been the protagonist of not only two solo Wolverine movies, but he was pretty much the protagonist of the majority of the X-Men films already. With central roles in at least six X-movies, how in the world can they tell another Wolverine story that has anything new to say? Well, we live in an amazing time as Logan tells the definitive Wolverine story and ends up being one of the best blockbusters in recent memory.
Normally I would lay out the details of how Logan plays into the continuity of the X-Men films here, but that really isn’t necessary. Both the filmmakers behind Logan and the general X-team over at 20th Century Fox gave up on having stable continuity years ago. How much of the past did Days of Future Past wipe out? In what part of the timeline does Deadpool take place? Is X-Men: Apocalypse a real movie that made Oscar Issac a Power Rangers cosplayer? These are continuity questions that they really don’t care about, and that is just fine by me. In not having strict timeline/”cinematic universe” rules to follow, director James Mangold is able to take an existing character we know, separate him from that world, and tell a real story that is not bogged down in franchise minutia.
As mentioned before, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has been a main player in not only two other solo Wolverine movies but at least four main X-Men movies (the original trilogy plus Days of Future Past). With that in mind, Logan proves just how shallow we were exploring the character in those films. Logan is a film that not only understands this character, but Mangold and team are able to successfully communicate the pain and sorrow that comes with telling a story like this.
In the first X-Men movie, Anna Paquin’s Rogue asks Logan if it hurts when the claws come out, “every time,” Logan responds. That conversation took place in 2000 and Logan is the first film to communicate that pain in a convincing way. This is a guy who has lived for over a hundred years, he’s killed countless people, and his main “gift” is that knives pierce his skin multiple times a day, there is some real pain in his life and Logan perfectly captures this feeling.
Everything I am talking about here leads us to one of the smartest decisions 20th Century Fox and Mangold made: going for it with an R-rating. In the age of “dark and gritty” reboots, many of us saw the R-rating as a weird way to cash in on the success of Deadpool, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Whether it be the profanity or the extreme violence, every R-rated action is perfectly in line with this character and the world Mangold builds. Again, Logan’s gift is not using magic or vaporizing someone with a laser beam, he has six knives to stab people with. Is the violence in Logan over the top? Maybe, but this is an over-the-top character who has lived a life of violence and Mangold is successful at making us feel the pain of a man who just can’t escape this violent life.
It seems strange that I haven’t given a “plot synopsis” yet, but honestly the plot of this movie doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter if the plot was Wolverine going grocery shopping for two hours, the point of Logan was to be a violent character study,. Whatever the plot ended up being it was secondary to letting Hugh Jackman delve deep into the psyche of this character. That is not to say this isn’t a good story, we follow Logan as he is caring for Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the young Laura/X-23 (Dafne Keen). They are trying to get Laura to her destination, but there are forces trying to stop them. Again, this is a pretty straight-forward plot that only serves as a means to have Jackman and Stewart explore their well known characters in ways we haven’t seen before.
It is crazy how successful this film is. The runtime is split between great character moments where Logan is coming to terms with his harsh existence (he constantly heals but his body is trying to die) and “awesome” action scenes with R-rated violence. You would think this is the filmmakers trying to have their cake and eat it too, like they want to have a serious movie but they also want to placate the fanboys, that is not the case at all. Logan is all about character development, and the extreme violence perfectly serves the character of Wolverine. It would not be appropriate to have this level of violence in a Star Wars movie or a James Bond movie, but someone dying due to a stab wound to the head works for building Logan’s character.
This is not to say the film is without it’s flaws. Logan feels like a western, and like great westerns that have come before it, Logan gets a little slow as it deals with characters/subplots that are not central to our Logan/Xavier/Laura story. Even in these slow moments, we are still spending time developing the tortured character of Logan so it works out in the end.
Logan is the perfect example of how blockbusters can succeed in telling meaningful stories. The movie succeeds because it keeps the story small. Logan is not saving the world or trying to get the super-team back together. No, he is caring for an old friend and trying to help a little girl in need, all while figuring out his existence in the process…and yeah, he curses a lot and stabs some people along the way. Logan is a perfect storm of a movie: we have an actor who has played a role for 17 years, a director with actual experience in making westerns, a studio that let a filmmaking team go for it with a character-driven R-rating, everything worked together and Logan is sure to be one of the best films of the year.