Ever since it was first announced, Logan’s been angled as Hugh Jackman’s final turn at the role that made him: Wolverine. Over seventeen years, he’s played the fast-healing Canadian in all nine main X-Men films (and was mocked mercilessly in Deadpool), but now it’s finally over with an adventure that – in a rather desolate not so distant future – sees him set to hang up his claws (and stop having to torture his body every time he wants a paycheck).
But no worries: it’s not just Jackman’s last go round, it’s also his best. The actor brings an extra layer of regret and struggle to the already well-tortured mutant, and alongside mentor-turned-patient Professor X and unconventional ward Laura tells a multi-generational torch-passing story. There are some narrative flubs in there, but all in all it’s a success in tone, character and themes. Where it ranks in the wider X-Men canon depends on individual affection (it has stiff competition from X-2 and Days of Future Past), but one thing is hard to deny: it’s the best solo Wolverine movie by quite a long way.
Yes, this of course isn’t the first time Fox has taken Wolvie by himself. He was the first character the studio spun-off from the main series ensembles and, given his all-encompassing popularity (he proved such a hit in print that comics needed disclaimers if he wasn’t in the issue) it wasn’t that surprising. What is unexpected is that’s it’s only now, after eight years of actively trying to make Logan a headliner that it’s finally worked.
The initial attempt, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is rightly regarded as the worst X-film by a wide margin. It famously ruined Deadpool and stalled his standalone film, but also halted the Origins prequel anthology enterprise (although elements of that did work their way into First Class). The Wolverine was better, dealing with a focused (and interesting) story of Logan in Japan, but is ultimately a forgettable experience; the plot is a muddle and the only action scene that lives up to its cool concept is the bullet train leap.
The X-Men series ushered in the new wave of superhero films and Jackman was its star, yet it took seventeen years to make a good solo movie with him. Why did it take so long to get it right?
The Superhero Genre Has Evolved
Logan is one of the more adult superhero movies – not just in terms of rating (although we’ll get to that) but the type of story it’s telling and the way it tells it. Superhero movies are typically bombastic tales of immensely powerful beings taking on Earth-threatening, insurmountable odds, and even those that diverge still stick to type; for all its irreverence, Deadpool told a formulaic story, and the grounded seriousness of DC’s recent output can’t hide the same.
Recently things have evolved; over the past decade some filmmakers have realized that the superhero isn’t really a genre, but an ethos that can slot into any kind of film. This started with The Dark Knight being a crime epic and has since become a mainstay talking point, with directors now almost expected to have a unique take. The Russos are particularly adept at this, with The Winter Soldier serving as a neatly pitched paranoia thriller. Standard superhero outings still exist, but they can often feel old hat or at the very least a throwback. This is partly why despite endless cries of the end of comic book adaptations, the bubble has yet to burst; creative types are finding new ways to advance.
Logan embodies this direction more than most. Whereas Origins was just a period spandex adventure and The Wolverine a stylized skin-on formula, this film feels more like a mash-up of a Golden Age Western and a 1970s dystopian sci-fi – the former is directly name-checked through Shane and the feel evoked in the desolate opening and piano music interspersed in the score, while the latter comes with the mutant inflections – than it does an X-Men film.
This feel and the storytelling and thematic avenues it enables is key to Logan‘s success, and could only happen now; what Mangold’s original, unencumbered The Wolverine could have been will now be a major “what if?” for fans.
The X-Men Franchise Was Lost For A Long Time
When looking at Logan as part of the superhero “genre”, you also have to consider the state of the X-Men franchise. It arguably kicked off the entire movement, yet by the time The Last Stand came around in 2006 things were getting clunky; progenitor Bryan Singer had jumped ship to make Superman Returns and Brett Ratner managed to butcher both comic book and movie lore in under two-and-a-half hours. And it only got worse.
The real problem was that franchises rarely used to run for very long – the general rule was to pump out a couple of good movies, then ride the slide of diminishing returns. Fox wanted to combat that, but didn’t quite know how to do it. As a result, the first Wolverine film was focus-grouped and butchered in an attempt to launch of sub-franchise (the writers’ strike also played a major part in this). The series came back swinging with the leaner First Class, but an overall direction still wasn’t clear – The Wolverine was not only reigned in on a gore level to secure a PG-13 rating, but also had its idea of Logan in Japan remolded and a typical final showdown with a bastardized Silver Samurai thrown in.
It’s only now, in the wake of Deadpool (a film that only exists thanks to a crazy run of luck) and the realization that making standalone movies that simply use the properties in an effective way is the best path to success, that a director could be given the keys to the motorcycle without any training wheels; Logan is the first time someone has actually had freedom with James Howlett.
The R-Rating Took The Character To New Places
It’d be churlish to suggest that any film is made great simply by having an R-rating. No amount of gore, profanity and nudity will offset a lack of genuine investment, and you can conversely tell expertly nuanced masterpieces with a U. But an R can enable a film to do things that it would otherwise be incapable to.
From the very start of Logan it’s established we’re in a different sort of X-movie to what we’ve seen before; the first line is the hero swearing and his first action is to hack a group of thugs to pieces in brutally graphic fashion. Across the film, Wolverine is battered and sliced, with a reduced healing factor meaning every attack leaves its mark, while X-23 is a coiled viper, causing blood spurts that actress Dafne Keen must be too young to actually witness. It’s a thrill to see, at first almost a novelty – R-rated X-Men! – but the long-term impact is more shaking. Jackman plays a hobbling, broken Wolverine and the ability to show violence highlights his tired fighting style and weakening physical state. Rather than having us be told, the violence allows us to really feel the torture the character’s going through.
That’s not the end of the R-rating’s impact, though. Ever since the superhero became a box office dominator, it’s been felt every single film needed to be able to play to as wide an audience as possible – ergo PG-13 became the default and budgets reached into the hundreds of millions. Deadpool showed that character-suited entertainment trumped brand recognition, and without lifting any of that film’s tone, Logan was able to continue that approach. The film going R meant it could be more targeted; it was playing with a smaller budget, which made for a tighter, fuller story devoid of requisite CGI showdowns and helped the movie to go to deeper, more mature places that probed the heroes in new ways.
It Needed Wolverine To Become A Singular Icon
An underlying problem with the previous Wolverine movies was a real uncertainty in how to use him. He’s a thoroughbred anti-hero, something that works great as part of an ensemble when there’s a straight guy to play off, but can be too much by itself; you either create something unlikeable or neuter the initial appeal.
Logan is the first film that really manages to make him work, and as we’ve discussed there’s a myriad of creative points behind this, but perhaps the most important is that to make a movie that could truly convey the weight on the 150-year-old’s shoulders, we needed Wolverine to become an icon. Jackman was certainly iconic from the moment he first fought in that bar in the first X-Men, but it’s only now he’s outlived two sets of heroes and kept going that it feels like there’s something fundamental to be mined. He’s no longer a character, he’s the character.
Crucially, though, he’s the character who works apart from the series’ famously flawed continuity. While Logan‘s story takes cues from previous adventures (the fight on the Statue of Liberty gets namechecked and a link to Apocalypse‘s post-credits scene is alluded to), what the film takes from the wider franchise isn’t story but context. There’s no direct link to the original movies (like the previous films had to, like The Wolverine‘s recurring Jean Grey dreams) nor is there even a cursory glance at the timeline issue.
Jackman simply enters as a fully-formed hero because, at this point, he eclipses everything else. This obviously allows the film to go beyond the simple hack-n-slash action and gruff demeanor to explore who he is – his relationship with Professor X aches with the sense of all they’ve lost and Laura represents not just the next generation and redemption but serves as a reminder of where he’s come from – but on a bigger, more tangible level it ultimately means the film is only beholden to one thing: Wolverine himself.