On the surface, Logan seems to check all the boxes for a superhero film. People have superpowers. Those superpowered people are compelled to act against their own interests in the service of those not so empowered. Logan is not just a superhero film though. It’s not even strictly speaking an X-men film. I’ll back up. The reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe works so well is each individual film takes some of the conventions of superhero cinema, but then adapts its tone, aesthetic, plot, and theme to whatever genre style best serves the character and story. Captain America: Winter Soldier is a spy thriller. Thor is a sci-fi/fantasy romp. Logan? Well Logan is a western, and a damned good one.
In a bleak near-future all but devoid of mutants, Logan (Hugh Jackman) works as a limo driver to support himself, a degenerating Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and former mutant hunter Caliban (Stephen Merchant). This dismal existence is interrupted by a nurse and a mysterious young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen). She pleads that he escort them to an enclave for mutants on the run in North Dakota. Matters are further complicated by the platoon of cybernetic mercenaries called Reavers on their tail, led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).
Like most westerns, this film’s plot is pretty straightforward. Like the best superhero films though, this is okay because there are so many well done and satisfying things hanging off what would otherwise be a boring frame. This would be the characters. Logan himself is Jackman nailing the character better than ever. He’s a man who’s given up on a world he fears has left him behind. He has all the guilt, resentment, and cynicism of someone who’s clearly had a very long, rough life and is by now just so goddamned tired that he’s unsure if he’s even still capable of heroism, but always unable to refuse the call. He’s Ethan Edwards, Rooster Cogburn, and Shane all rolled into one.
And his traveling companions are no less interesting. From the first second we saw him roll out in that chair nearly 20 years ago, we all just agreed that Patrick Stewart is Professor Xavier. Like Jackman, he brings the character forward in this portrayal. A central component to Xavier is his dream for a peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants. In this future, he’s utterly failed that mission, and it has clearly worn him down, although not entirely. Just as Logan reclaims the role of the protector, Xavier once again finds the best part of himself as a guide and teacher.
And Laura. Holy shit Laura. I don’t know who this kid is, but she owns every second she’s on screen. She doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue and most of it is in Spanish. Still, with almost no explanation we know what she’s all about by drawing parallels between her and Logan. She knows her own strength and is instinctively drawn to using it to defend others, just like Wolverine. And when she does? Hoo-boy. Imagine a 12 year old girl throwing a genuine temper tantrum with the fighting skills of River Tam and limbs full of murder spikes.
The secondary characters all do there job, if not unremarkably. Donald Pierce is a sufficiently brutal and menacing foe to add the right amount of danger and tension for our heros. Caliban helps fill in some exposition, patches up some plot holes, and acts as a sounding board to help flesh out the other characters, but not much else.
This film is brutal, bloody, and definitely not for kids. Unlike the violence in Kick Ass though, it isn’t played for laughs or juxtaposition, but rather to give a greater context to the effects this has not only on the losers, but the winners as well. Part of what makes Logan complicated is that he’s spent a very long lifetime mangling and mutilating people in ways the filmmakers are finally free to display fully. It doesn’t matter if it was all the dismembering was done to bad people, that still takes a psychological toll especially if in the end, it didn’t seem to really accomplish anything.
The X-Men and many westerns explore the responsibility of the powerful to protect the powerless, often thanklessly. Logan weaves these together to tell the story of a character who would fit right in a cowboy film. What Deadpool did for blending superheroes and comedy, Logan does for superheroes and frontier storytelling. It’s right up there with Winter Soldier and The Dark Knight in expressing how good and nuanced a superhero film can be.