Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Is Logan the best X-Men film yet? Yes. For sure. By a mile. And so on.

While it’s fair to grade a movie against the curve of its predecessors, in this case I think it undermines Logan to solely compare it to other X-flicks. Thinking about Logan leads me to think about the genres that influenced it, the impact of iconic directors who came before, and draws comparison to cinematic classics. I was someone who was almost ready to give up on this franchise after a fairly mediocre recent crop of films, but I forgot something. Or more specifically, someone: James Mangold.

James Mangold, he of the fairly engrossing 3:10 to Yuma remake, he of the now oft-parodied Oscar nominated biopic Walk the Line, and of course the man behind the camera on 2013’s The Wolverine. Say what you will about that effort and its flaws, of which that troublesome third act is a major one, but it’s surely the closest of these mutant-related excursions to resemble an actual film rather than a roller-coaster ride. Certainly, there’s no shame in approaching it as such, but you can feel the difference in a film that’s required to act as a vehicle to take a character from point A to point B. When an accomplished filmmaker is inspired to use pathos and character development, taking the story only exactly where the story wants to go, one has to stand up and applaud the work and heart put into it.

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More than anything, Mangold understands the core iconography that gives way to the character Logan. He’s basically the Man With No Name or Kuwabatake Sanjuro, and he uses the strongest comics source material as a jumping-off point to serve the “tortured wanderer” archetype. With The Wolverine, he took a still in his prime version of the title hero, as presented within the quintessential Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries, and pitched him within a Japanese familial-crime drama, playing to the East meets West-stylings that produced many a samurai based classic (Yasujirō Ozu and Hiroshi Inagaki, among others, are marked sources of inspiration). That shot of Logan riddled with arrows still lingers in the edges of my memory.

For Logan, the film, his return to the character is one that moves further back in its inspiration. Here, Mangold reflects upon the epic Western and some of its respective masters (George Stevens, John Ford, Clint Eastwood) in his aim to adapt Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan. Much like the previous film, the comic pages really only provide a general starting point, as this presumed final trip to the role for Hugh Jackman has more in common with Unforgiven than anything that’s appeared between the covers of a Wolverine comic. In a way, both The Wolverine and Logan could be seen as two sides of a coin, to the point where there are shots that are reminiscent of one another, setting up some intrinsic cinematic language between the two. The fact that Logan is a wholly much better film, of course, helps immensely.

Set in 2029, five years after the final chronological scene of X-Men: Days of Future Past, mutant-kind is nearly extinct. Humans are no longer giving birth to them, and the ones left have mostly died out. The X-Men are, for reasons only hinted at, no more. Logan (Hugh Jackman), now going by the name of James, is a shadow of his former self – an aging, alcoholic limo driver scraping together cash to care for a dying elderly parent, living in a world that doesn’t look far afield from our own. Hobbled with pain, drinking away those memories he can’t toss aside, and growing sicker each day, this is a Wolverine that’s basically unrecognizable. He can’t even pop his claws out fully without intense agony. In between his nighttime tasks, he crosses the border to Mexico where he watches over an increasingly unstable Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – whose aging and deteriorating, yet still powerful mind makes him an extreme danger to everyone within his general vicinity. Logan’s only support structure is the reformed mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a gaunt albino figure whose sibling-like relationship with Logan is marked with nearly as much animus as reliance on one another.

While in the midst of a funeral gig, a woman approaches the bedraggled warrior seeking “Wolverine” and his assistance in transporting a young, silent girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a safe haven north of the border and out of the clutches of the smooth yet menacing Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his cybernetic band known as the Reavers. This task, once finally taken, will set this struggling family on a dangerous road trip, with significant consequences and revelations that will deeply mark each of them irreparably.

While Logan does not necessarily want for action (and fear not: there is plenty of stabbing and gouging that earns it its “R” rating), this is a deeply considered drama first. It’s so far afield from the typical X-Men film in tone, pacing, and giving its performers a canvas to work off of, that my first reaction was shock. It’s a slower, more methodical and considered film, as prone to emotional outbursts as it is fisticuffs, but with less portentousness than that of the Nolan Batman joints. There are no real weighty themes on display, or meditations on a specific ethos. Instead it’s a film laser-focused on the relationships of its lead cast, which functions as a modern-day family. It’s funny, touching, and very sad in places. I teetered on the edge of getting choked up at times, and that’s something I’ve never said or felt about a movie of this type.

It’s also beautifully expansive, shifting between desert vistas and plains country and back again. Teaming here with X-Men: First Class cinematographer John Mathieson, Mangold has captured the inherent duskiness of the regions while hearkening back the very genre that inspires him. And yes, there’s a dab of Post-Apocalyptic George Miller in there too.

For his part, Jackman has always been an impressive performer in this now 17 year old role, and frankly my favorite ongoing strand throughout the entire franchise. But his talents have often been curtailed in service of clunky scripts and the next big CGI-entangled set piece. In Logan, the camera gives him every moment he needs, allowing the character to live and breathe in a way that never quite felt possible before. The weight he carries, the centuries lived, they all read on his face and physical stature and as the machinations of the plot present him with a very new kind of relationship dynamic. If this is Jackman’s last performance in the role, it’s a hell of a way to go.

But this is not the only wonder that Logan works, as Stewart, finally gets an opportunity to play the Professor in a way that is worthy of his acting chops. The tragedy of Xavier here is all Stewart, as he bounces between a confused old man, unable to recognize Logan and unaware of his surroundings, to the disapproving yet hopeful father figure he’s always been to Logan in this larger series. To see Stewart do something new with had been such a static fixture within the confines of this world is exciting. There’s even a tiny shred here or there where he’s taken cues from James McAvoy, perhaps underlining how in the twilight years we revert back to our younger presentations of self.

And then there’s Dafne Keen, who plays the third point of the lead triangle. To say she is an incredibly gifted actress both in physicality and expression would be an understatement. Her take on Laura is largely wordless, which would create a challenge for even the most experienced actor. The fact that an 11 year old commands the screen as fiercely as she does, regardless of those constraints, is remarkable. The relationship that develops between Logan and Laura is easily the most stirring bond that’s been presented in any of these films. It’s a pairing that becomes real from their first scene together and never lets up.

Logan has every trapping you’d imagine Mangold is aiming for: the tortured protagonist who must again take arms, the child who presents a new side of the hero, the wise old-timer that imparts moral support, the handsome blackhat rogue in pursuit, and multiple attempts at communal charity that lead to calamity. From that description you may think Logan lacks originality, but using these iconic tropes allows the filmmaker to pay homage not only some of the greatest motion picture visionaries to ever grace the screen, but also to the source material that embedded deep into Wolverine’s DNA. He’s had his Eastern. Now he has his Western.

 

23 COMMENTS

  1. “Say what you will about that effort [The Wolverine] and its flaws, of which that troublesome third act is a major one, but it’s surely the closest of these mutant-related excursions to resemble an actual film rather than a roller-coaster ride.”

    I would argue that the second half of that film was so terrible that it nullified that which I liked about the first half (particularly that train sequence).

    No, the best X-film (and the one that actually has achieved cinematic glory) is “X2” from 2003 (haven’t seen “Logan” so I can’t comment on it). “X2” is still, 14 years later, a pretty great movie, super-hero or otherwise. I’d rank it third on my list of favorite super-hero movies (behind “Dawn of Justice” and “Man of Steel” but ahead of “Superman Returns” and “Batman Returns” (I have idiosyncratic tastes).

  2. Clint Eastwood’s character in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES was reportedly the main influence on Mangold and Jackman in the last movie.

  3. Good review, tainted but that mention of Yasujiro Ozu, whose films couldn’t be further away from The Wolverine and who never did a samurai, or even epic, film.. Maybe (probably) you meant Akira Kurosawa, or anyone of the many Japanese filmakers who actually did great work in that genre.
    Or you really meant Ozu, whose best known films are minimalist pieces about family relationships in contemporary Japan with a strong whiff of melancholy, a dash of zen philosophy, and the most original filmaking style ever devised for mainstream films, in which case I would ask you to elaborate your case.

  4. Ah, I can see the confusion…the Ozu influence is visual and cited by Mangold himself, particularly FLOATING WEEDS. There are some lifted shots for sure..

    I probably should have separated those thoughts so they didn’t run together, or added some sort of further descriptor: “In terms of Japanese filmmakers overall…”

    I appreciate the kind words!

  5. George – good catch! Jackman looks a good deal like Eastwood in this movie, I’m certain that influence carried over here.

    And Daniel, it’s been forever since I’ve seen X2, but when I watched it last when the blu-ray box set hit, it felt like time hadn’t been super kind. But I grant most lean your way about that effort in my travels.

  6. The Logan/Eastwood similarities go back a ways. Some 35 years ago, John Byrne said he saw Wolvie as “Dirty Harry with a Canadian accent.”

    The 1982 Miller/Claremont “Wolverine” miniseries shows the influence of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns (as well as Japanese cinema, of course). Miller’s closeups of Logan, squinting with a cigarillo in his mouth, are ringers for The Man With No Name. And that character, as all cinephiles know, was loosely based on Mifune’s samurai in YOJIMBO (of which A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was an uncredited remake/plagiarism).

    Kyle, Daniel: I also liked “X2” when it came out in 2003, and thought it was better than the first film. But it’s probably been a decade since I’ve seen it.

  7. I watched X2 again back in 2012 or so, shortly after Avengers, and thought it held up fine. I think it’s still the best of the series, though I haven’t re-watched Days of Future Past since it came out.

    The movie that has really aged poorly is Spider-man 2. Once good superhero films became a regular occurrence, it got a lot harder to overlook how much Spidey 2 beats you over the head with its themes.

    I’m really looking forward to Logan. The Wolverine is a pretty good flick outside of the 20 or so minutes it becomes SyFy-level garbage. Hopefully whatever happened there is avoided this time.

  8. I hope it’s a great movie and will go see it when it comes out but I have to question the critic in general when he so easily dismisses the first X-Men movie, which was the first movie to show a group of super-powered folk working together and fighting the bad guys in a way that didn’t insult the intelligence of viewers, to dismiss X2, which is one of the top five super hero movies ever, and to just as easily dismiss First Class and Days of Future Past, both of which were also very good movies. To imply that Logan is easily the best of the X-Men movies means that the critic has, for whatever reason, not taken the other four previously-mentioned movies seriously, which undercuts his credibility in my mind.

  9. ” I’d rank it third on my list of favorite super-hero movies (behind “Dawn of Justice” and “Man of Steel” but ahead of “Superman Returns” and “Batman Returns” (I have idiosyncratic tastes).”

    My favorite superhero movie is also Grant Morrison’s favorite: M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE. (Loved the surprise at the end of SPLIT!)

  10. Chungking Express… Ozu… Josey Wales…?!

    I wish Mangold would realise that visually quoting / homaging great films and film-makers doesn’t make you a great film-maker yourself.

    If there’s a mainstream director who’s successfully assimilated Ozu’s meticulous compositions, it’s probably Wes Anderson — whose ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’, incidentally, would’ve made for a perfect Tintin movie with a little rewriting.

  11. James Mangold explained how he made this film NOT wanting to sell happy meals, t-shirts, or action figures :

    P L E A S E more anti-American films like Logan -PLEASE!!!!

  12. “I wish Mangold would realise that visually quoting / homaging great films and film-makers doesn’t make you a great film-maker yourself.”

    Someone pass a note over to Christopher Nolan for me.

    But seriously, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with some reverence for the masters when the material allows for it. Much like I thought the usage of Mann and Lang in those Batman films was an inspired way to highlight the themes floating under the surface of that character, Mangold has done something similar with Wolverine, though MUCH more successfully in LOGAN.

    I do hope you’ll all return to this thread after you’ve seen it by the way, I really want to find out what ya’ll think!

    (Love THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL btw, I wish it had won Best Picture that year, it’s my favorite Wes Anderson probably)

  13. After seeing the exhausting JOHN WICK 2 yesterday, I need a break from violent R-rated action flicks. But I probably will see LOGAN eventually.

  14. :LOGAN is a tear-jerker, action, awesome special effects movie is the best super hero flick. It is just pure touching drama that reflects elements of today’s early 21st Century former-USA anti-culture.

    I tell every one to see this movie, and then when they ask me -“Are Marvel Comics as good as that movie Logan?”, and I say “Hell no -and definitely not at their b.s. $4.00 prices. Ban Marvel Comics. They are advertisment-identity ridden crap Read Image, or Black Mask, or Fatagraphics, or IDW…, but LOGAN rocks the shiznat foshizzle”.

  15. I think this review is making the common critical mistake of equating depressing films about horrid circumstances with quality. Not that “Logan” isn’t good but films like X2 and DOFP shouldn’t be dismissed just because they are…you know…fun.

    “Logan” suffers a little from the same problem as “The Dark Knight” in that it can drag on a bit because there’s almost too much neat stuff in it. The character of Caliban, who is weirdly treated as some longstanding fixture in the X cinematic universe, could have been entirely excised with no impact on the rest of the film. But when “too much goodness” is the biggest criticism of a film, everyone involved in making it should take a bow:

    Mike

  16. Mike: I just generally don’t have a high opinion of those Singer-directed entries. I quite enjoyed First Class though.

  17. One of my favorite critics, Matt Zoller Seitz, wrote a long and heartfelt review of LOGAN. He loved it, and points out how radically it differs from recent superhero movies:

    “Most contemporary superhero movies aren’t movies, but movie-flavored products. … The entire mentality of these movie-flavored products is superficial, deliberately so. … Modern Marvel and DC films aren’t really movies in the sense of “cinema” or “art,” they’re $200 million widgets that are either intended to fit together with other widgets to form a master narrative or sit adjacent to the master narrative (a la “Ant-Man,” the superhero movie equivalent of a sorbet) without jamming the gears and grinding the money-printing machine to a halt.”

    Seitz points out that LOGAN is a real movie and the character Logan is an actual adult, not a teenager’s idea of an adult (like Deadpool or Zack Snyder’s versions of Batman and Superman).

    But he fears that Marvel fans may not be ready for a real movie:

    “I saw “Logan” on a Saturday night in Bay Ridge. There was some grumbling as the final credits rolled. One audience member yelled “That was bullshit!” at the screen. A young woman said angrily to her date, “What the hell is that? That’s not an ending.” I chalked this up to Marvel and DC conditioning audiences not to want a movie that leaves them feeling melancholy or uneasy, thinking about their own regrets and mistakes and what they’re going to do between now and when they die. But it was still disheartening.”

    He expects LOGAN’s box office take to drop drastically in its second weekend, as word gets out that it’s not an upbeat popcorn movie. We’ll see.

    You can find Seitz’s full review at rogerebert.com.

  18. “But he fears that Marvel fans may not be ready for a real movie:

    Marvel makes plenty of real movies. They just make the same one over and over again.

    And as a middle-aged man who had a weird feeling watching a film about a childhood icon dying after years and years of misery and suffering, there was a part of me that wondered about the sort of people who thought THIS is appropriate for a fantastical character created to entertain children. I mean, at least Spielberg……….*SPOILER*…………. didn’t kill Peter Pan at the end of “Hook.”

    Or to put it another way, who is more immature?

    Grown adults who want to watch a super-hero movie that’s a fun adventure or grown adults who want to make a super-hero movie that isn’t a fun adventure?

    Mike

  19. Mike: Death is a part of life. This partnership/conflict/duality is what informs most of the world’s philosophies and religions. It’s hardly immature to address it in a film, let alone the way Mangold did in Wolverine.

  20. Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman also liked LOGAN, and wrote a column titled: “The lesson of LOGAN: Superhero sagas work better when they’re real movies.”

    “When I say it’s “a real movie,”” he writes, “I’m being honest in terms of what I think a real movie is, or should be, but I’m also aware that for a major segment of the audience, a swirling hyperactive FX mishmash like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is every inch a real movie, so we’re talking different definitions here.

    “Mine is old school, maybe analog in spirit: a series of scenes that connect together in an unhurried fashion, held together by a pulse of interaction and psychology, with shot language that creates a grounded and organic space — a sense of the place you’re in, whether indoors or outdoors, that doesn’t shift and toggle around with every cut. My apologies to the gods of fanboy mania if that sounds stodgy and old-fashioned.”

    Both he and Seitz fear LOGAN will be rejected by those moviegoers — especially young dudes — who just want a feel-good popcorn flick. LOGAN is more like Clint Eastwood’s grim Westerns, such as UNFORGIVEN and PALE RIDER, than any recent superhero movie. It delivers the violence, but doesn’t make it look cool or fun.

  21. “Mike: Death is a part of life”

    You know what isn’t a part of life? Mutants, killer cyborg soldiers, super-human powers, clones, Adamantium, etc. The immaturity I’m mentioning is the unwillingness to give up childish things when they no longer satisfy, but twisting them beyond recognition to tell stories they were never meant to tell.

    Mike

  22. Mike: so Alice in Wonderland, The Tempest, the Bible, Watchmen, American Gods, Frankenstein, Neuromancer etc etc etc also have nothing to tell us about life and death?

    None of the elements you mention are inherently childish or adult. They are just things. I think someone mentioned that Logan reminded them of We3 – certainly Morrison and Quitely used the very same elements to tell a very powerful tale.

    I’m no fan or boring stereotyped superhero stories, but the elements of superheroes can clearly be used to tell real stories with heart. That’s why its frustrating when they don’t.

  23. George,
    I don’t follow Matt Zoller Seitz, but I remember that he didn’t distinguish himself in my eyes when he claimed that superheroes had something vital to learn from ZOMBIE FILMS.

    Here’s my contemporaneous dissent from that opinion:

    https://arche-arc.blogspot.com/2010/05/seitz-warning.html?m=0

    As for LOGAN:

    It;’s a good film, but no classic. I don’t mind referencing other creators/films either, but I don’t feel that Mangold came up with anything comparable to, say, Sergio Leone. The action-scenes are strong, and some if not all of the character-scenes work well, but I never quite felt like the whole was more than the sum of its parts (though that may have something to do with the source material, which I’ll be checking out later).

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