You can’t really blame Wolverine for giving up on his own story. The gruff, adamantium-boned superhero endured nearly 200 years of grueling physical and emotional pain—not to mention a cinematic dud or three—before Logan, James Mangold’s devastatingly lovely swan song for the character. By the time it begins in 2029, the world’s already gone to hell. The X-Men’s war against persecution is lost. Mutantkind is all but extinct. And everyone Logan’s ever loved, save for a fast-deteriorating Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) is gone. His wounds don’t heal like they used to; his face has grown worn and tired; old scars and fresh blood crisscross his chest, but he barely cares. Hidden away in a lonely part of the north Mexican desert with Charles and their mutant-sensing friend Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan has neither the will to live nor the motivation to die. He’s a failure in his own eyes, and a real “disappointment” in Charles’s.
And yet, Logan, Hugh Jackman’s ninth and final outing as the Wolverine, is really a profoundly hopeful film. It loves and deeply understands its characters and the fraught, familial relationships between them. Its action scenes—brutal, bloody, and thrillingly inventive in a way comic book beat-em-ups rarely are—are as character-driven and impactful as its story. (Like, really impactful: You feel each punch, stab and dismemberment. Bless that R-rating.) This is a Western that happens to star superheroes; a road movie grounded in quiet, tender moments. It’s an elegy, wholly unconcerned with franchise-building or connecting distant universes. And with the introduction of Laura, a young mutant with powers similar to Wolverine’s, it becomes a portrait of makeshift families, empathy, and finding normalcy, too. That’s what the best X-Men stories are usually about. Turns out no one knows this better than her.
Newcomer Dafne Keen lends Laura (project name: X-23) a strange, fierce intensity, and a superhuman fury as she shrieks and slices into men twice her size. She is spectacular. Laura’s existence itself is a miracle—no mutant births have been recorded for years—but Logan insists to Charles that she’s “not our problem.” He’s not a hero. Not anymore. He’d rather go back to driving limos, staring passively at rowdy bridesmaids flashing him from the backseat. (It’s a living.) Then a Mexican nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) summons Logan to a motel and desperately pleads with him to take Laura across the border. Her goal is to get her young charge to a secret location in North Dakota, where the girl can then flee north to Canada. The catch? They’re being hunted by agents of a sinister American biotech firm, led by a bionic arm-wielding brute named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). In covert peeks at the firm’s Mexico City facility, we learn it exploits local women, disappears them, and turns the children they bear (repeatedly referred to as “things”) into living weapons.
It’s no coincidence the film’s working title was Juarez, after the Mexican city plagued by unsolved disappearances and an epidemic of violence against women. (“You can’t leave a warzone behind you like you did in Juarez,” Charles warns Logan, one of many mysterious past traumas alluded to only in passing.) It says a lot about Logan’s politics that even so, it isn’t Mexico but the United States that’s depicted as a minority-hating, capitalist dystopia. The film’s opening shots include a glimpse of an imposing wall along the Texas-Mexico border and lines of deportees. Laura herself speaks mostly Spanish, same as the other kids from the lab she grew up in. It was taught to them by their nurses. (“They thought we were too stupid and poor to understand,” Gabriela says, painting a picture of the American firm’s arrogance.) Those mutant kids, hunted by hateful men who call themselves “good guys,” are the future in this story—and they’re largely female, black, and brown. That’s no coincidence either.
Again and again, Logan resists the imperative to help Laura—to be the hero he’s cracked up to be in both our world and his. He scorns the X-Men comic books he finds her hiding, the ones that detail “made-up” adventures starring himself in that iconic yellow suit. “Ice cream for bedwetters,” he calls them. This despite a near-imperceptible beat when he sees the cartoon Rogue, another gifted young woman he once took under his wing in real life. The pained look on his face proves he’s wrong. Stories and images do have power, including the ones in comic books. We see this time and again through Laura, who absorbs lessons about morality and family norms from everything around her, from mannequins to old Westerns on TV, like a four-foot-tall little assassin sponge. When it turns out the coordinates for her secret North Dakota hideout are copied straight out of one of her comics—sending Wolvie into a fit of rage, convinced he’s on a wild goose chase—Charles pushes Logan to forge ahead. “It’s real to her,” he implores. Not just to her, X.
To chilling effect, Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green supply only bare bones of exposition. We never learn what happened to the X-Men or how the world spiraled into a mutant extinction crisis. No one says the words “Magneto” or “Mystique.” Every apocalyptic detail of the past is simply baked into the dusty desert background, acknowledged only briefly in atmospheric details. A bigoted radio host’s rant. The darkness in Charles’s tone when mentioning “Juarez” or “what happened at Westchester.” A few easily-missed sentimental props, relics of Logan’s long, convoluted past. The adamantium katana hung on his wall. The military dog tag engraved with his nickname. He never once mentions the lost love of his life, Jean Grey, the woman he killed.
That’s not to say that the weight of everything left unsaid doesn’t hang over every frame. It’s written all over Jackman’s face. It nearly crushes you in moments like when Charles, frail and voice quivering as Logan wheels him away, begs “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” over and over to civilians he almost harmed. And yet Logan manages to be cathartic, not oppressive. (It’s far from the joyless, unearned gloom of Batman v Superman, in case you’re concerned.) It’s also wonderfully funny, often in sweet, unexpected ways. Charles admonishes Logan for carting him around in such a hurry: “I’m not a box of avocados.” He sticks his tongue out in an otherwise serious moment, eyes twinkling. Laura, for all the tragedy of her upbringing, still acts like a regular kid. She likes pink sunglasses and mechanical pony rides. She’ll open and shut the car door lock until it drives you insane. In a getaway scene that cleverly plays with action-movie conventions, Logan’s speeding limo gets awkwardly stuck in a fence rather than bulldozing right through, the way he (and we) expected. The look on his face is priceless.
Logan isn’t perfect but bum notes come far and few between. One hits with a rushed and impossibly opaque plot involving the evils of the military-industrial complex and, uh, corn syrup. Some might also find the film overly long with a runtime of 135 minutes. For what it’s worth, I barely noticed that. Logan resists easy answers, even when we think we want them—a dynamic usually effective at keeping audiences engaged. Charles may voice all our hopes for Laura and Logan to bond and protect each other like family, for example, but the film itself acknowledges that’s a picture-pretty fantasy ill-fitting to both as individuals. (There are shades of the virtuosic, character-driven apocalypse game The Last of Us throughout Logan, not least in this not-quite-father-daughter relationship.)
Of course, caring is understandable. Logan comes with 17 years of real-life baggage from this influential, wildly uneven franchise. I was twelve when Stewart and Jackman first suited up and X-Men kicked off the modern superhero movie boom. Dafne Keen hadn’t even been born. The X-Men movies remain a seemingly never-ending cycle of highs and lows—for every X2, there’s been a Last Stand; for every First Class, a shambolic Apocalypse—but to its credit, Logan uses the fraught legacy of its two oldest stars to full effect. It’s one of the best superhero films to date, and the singular goodbye to the X-Men-verse that both Jackman and Stewart deserve.