For all their ups and downs, the single greatest constant in the X-Men movie franchise has been Hugh Jackman's series-defining turn as James "Logan" Howlett, a.k.a., Wolverine. Even going so far as to provide laudably memorable cameos in films ostensibly not featuring any part of his story, Jackman (who was a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott when Mission: Impossible 2 conflicted with the filming schedule of 2000's X-Men) has been so magnetic a screen presence that 7 of the 10 movies in Fox's franchise are mostly or entirely about him.
And he's absolutely defined the character for an entire generation of film-goers who have literally grown up with these movies. That's more than worthy of a good send-off now that he's ready to hang up the claws for good, and Logan absolutely provides that.
Mostly by being completely uninterested in being a show-boaty tribute to the title character or pandering to audience expectations.
Logan is an emotional wrecking ball of a movie. And I don't necessarily mean in an enriching or cathartic way, like a particularly heavy-hitting Pixar. Set more than a decade in the future, the movie takes bits and pieces from previous X-films lore and continuity (a timeline that, for this series, is patchy at best), using only as much as it needs to tell a harrowing, desperate, and at times disappointing and highly unpleasant story that has more in common with bleak westerns or dystopic films like The Road or Children of Men than anything in modern superhero cinema. This movie's Logan isn't just a grump, he's a bitter, depressed ass who's scraping together cash to get an ailing Charles Xavier out of hiding in Mexico and to the "safety" of the ocean. Both men are in declining health, Charles from a degenerative brain disease and Logan from a mysterious condition that's caused his healing factor to slow to a crawl, and the film makes no effort to romanticize how this state has worn on these one-time heroes.
But, as there often is in a film like this, there's "one last chance to do the right thing," this time taking the shape of Laura - a little girl with powers similar to Logan and her own set of claws, as well as a privately-funded death squad on her trail. All her hopes are tied up in stories of what the X-Men once were, stories that, in this film, have passed almost into myth via colorfully embellished versions published in comics that Logan scoffs at on sight. Deciding and then proving whether or not he's worthy of her hopes comprises Logan's arc through the movie, and while it's got some uplifting grace notes at times (Jackman and Stewart have always had dynamite chemistry as Logan and Xavier), it's more often a harrowing and even haunting look at someone who simply wants to end.
There aren't a lot of plot surprises in store for anyone who's seen more than a dollop of the marketing for this film, but what Logan lacks in Swiss-watch script mechanics it more than makes up for in raw, effective, cinematic story sense. Just because you'll likely guess how certain set-ups are likely to pay off in the end doesn't make those moments any less weighty, thanks to the near-reverence that the leads have invested in these characters for this finale. And the moments that are meant to be reveals pack both gob-smacking blindsides and poignantly deflating disappointments that give the film a sense of purpose that flies in the face of genre conventions to this point.
For all the caveats, I don't mean to imply that Logan isn't a good movie, or that it isn't worth your time. It's a great little film, with intimate stakes and real drama in every moment. Even the action scenes, here hardened with the red-splashed violence afforded by an R-rating, are either brutal affairs that will have the audience urging the characters to just get out of there, or explosions of righteous fury that provide some of the rare catharsis in the film. Here is where the movie plays its trump card, with Dafne Keen's Laura (who comic fans will know as X-23 / the New Wolverine) emerging as a near force of nature. She may not have a lot of dialogue, but her skills are immediately apparent both in the quieter moments as well as the brutal outbursts, and she can stand in the frame with two capital-letter Movie Stars and still own the scene.
Logan may be the most impressed I've been with a studio's allowance of a director's vision in a superhero film since Zack Snyder's Watchmen. Whatever else you think of that movie, it's absolutely not what you'd call a "crowd-pleaser," and neither is Logan. This is a film that is as brutal as its title character, but also just as quietly hopeful. If writer/director James Mangold's previous effort The Wolverine felt like it spun out in the third act, this absolutely feels like the film he wanted from back to front (maybe a bit familiarly so to anyone who's seen his 3:10 to Yuma). And while I don't want it to in any way become the new template for superhero films the way everyone rushed to "dark and gritty" in the wake of Christopher Nolan's Bat-films, it's a massively important step for the genre.
Namely, in that it dynamites the notion that "superhero movies" are a single genre at all. Hard to ask fora better way to say goodbye to old friends than that.