REVIEW | Darker tone sets 'Logan' apart from past X-Men films

Yes, James Mangold’s “Logan” is another “X-Men” film wherein mutants are pursued/hunted down by some ominous government or corporate entity. Yes, “Logan” is another “X-Men” film in which the grumpy and lonely Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) plays the reluctant hero and is forced to care about others. What’s fresh here (in the context of the superhero genre, particularly the Marvel films) is the tone, which is dark and vicious with an undercurrent of humor and fun, gleefully embracing the pulpier aspects of its narrative and genre. “Logan” hits hard while still being a fast paced, exciting, and accessible superhero picture.

Overall, Mangold’s film is a morose, intimate character-driven drama mixed with a stripped down old school action flick. Traces of the “Mad Max” and “Terminator” franchises can be detected (among others) and the film gives off a noticeable Western vibe in its visual and thematic elements--echoing such films as “Shane” and “Unforgiven.”

“Logan” is firmly grounded in reality; actions have consequences and people die. Not just evil henchmen but civilians--families, children. It’s the first “X-Men” movie to be rated R and it certainly takes advantage of that freedom. There are a number of vicious, bloody action sequences; within the first three minutes, as Logan fends off a group of carjackers, limbs are cut off and guts are slit open. “Logan” is the first superhero movie I’ve seen in a while where I’ve cringed during the action scenes. There’s visible and visceral pain being inflicted on screen.

While an R rating doesn’t guarantee a film will be good I think in the case of this character and this particular chapter in his life, the hard R is necessary. Wolverine may be the most tormented superhero outside of Batman. He’s lived for decades and has seen decades of pain and suffering. Time has molded him into a jaded loner — reluctant to help others because he’s afraid he’ll let them down, as he has before. In “Logan” we see Logan at his most angst-ridden and depressed. He basically wants to kill himself, or let himself be killed. He’s getting older, his wounds aren’t healing or they’re healing very slowly. He drinks at least a gallon of hard alcohol a day but that doesn’t appear to be numbing any pain.

However, as hard as he tries, he can’t get away from helping others. A young mutant named Laura, (Dafne Keen) being hunted by a shadowy corporation crosses his path. So, along with his old friend Charles Xavier aka Professor X, (Patrick Stewart) Logan attempts to bring Laura to safety. Mangold’s film provides a familiar but refreshing take on the Logan character. He’s as snarky and grouchy as he always is but this time there’s an additional dimension of vulnerability and mortality. This is a fading, more world-weary Logan who, when getting shot, isn’t so quick to get back up. Not just because he’s physically unable but also because he doesn’t want to. 

I also liked this version of Professor X, which, like Logan is familiar but different. Charles is getting older himself — deteriorating both physically and mentally. When we first see him (holed up in an old, rusty tank) babbling about whatever he resembles an old man in a nursing home with dementia. It’s a vulnerable side of the character we haven’t seen before. The theme of impending mortality resonates strongly throughout the picture.

And yet, for all this moroseness, Mangold doesn’t overdo it. He knows to balance it out with kinetic action sequences and visceral kills, along with moments of black comedy and comedic banter between Logan, Laura and Charles. This is after all still a movie about a muscular dude with metal claws in his hands, (who originated from a comic book) meaning it doesn’t have to be all brooding and depression. Near the end of the film there’s a shot of Logan charging after the bad guys, his claws out, arms facing forward, doing his best battle cry, an image that elicited a laugh from myself and the other critics at my screening. It’s a giddy, triumphant moment that embraces the inherent silliness found in all superhero movies, while also providing a brief and endearing glimpse at the Wolverine that once was. (The movie is full of these giddy moments).

Finally, “Logan” pretty much avoids all the annoying narrative tropes and clichés found in recent superhero movies. There’s no object McGuffin (no Infinity Gauntlet or Power Crystal to retrieve) or power-hungry villain who wants to destroy the world. The stakes are high without the whole world being in Jeopardy. The film’s road trip structure takes us out of the big city environment, instead being set in the wide-open plains of the Midwest and deserts of the southwest, (further giving the film a Western feel) meaning there’s no big city destruction. The protagonists don’t have to close a stupid interdimensional portal to save the day and there’s no cross promotion — which is by far the most annoying thing about superhero movies these days. It makes a lot potentially good films feel overstuffed and convoluted (“The Avengers: Age of Ultron”). “Logan” isn’t trying to set up future “X-Men” movies, meaning it stays focused on the narrative and characters at hand.

I have minor reservations concerning “Logan,” most notably involving an additional and superfluous antagonist who shows up part way through. But the more I think about Mangold’s picture the more I like it, which is rare for me. Even the recent superhero movies that I’ve liked somewhat (“The Avengers”) I don’t really have a desire to revisit them. I think “Logan” will have staying power; it’s dark and nuanced, appropriately bloody, and also fun (in the way that 80’s and 90’s hyper violent action movies were). It’s the best superhero movie I’ve seen in a long time.