It’s the end of an era.
James Howlett/ Logan/Wolverine represents, perhaps more than any other comic book character, the triumph of synergy between character and actor.
In 2000 a relatively unknown Australian actor called Hugh Jackman portrayed this fan-favourite comic book character and made him a household name. Over the space of 17 years and 9 cinematic appearances Jackman has consistently added depth and nuance to the character, elevating him beyond the “badass with a heart of gold” archetype and transforming him into a legitimate cinematic icon.
And now we come to Jackman’s last bow as he re-teams with The Wolverine (2013) director James Mangold for an original story loosely based on the “Old Man Logan” and X23 comic book titles.
Free of the stylistic and narrative parameters of the X-Men films, Logan eschews traditional superheroics drawing its influences from the novels of Cormac McCarthy and Samuel Beckett’s claustrophobic one-act play “Endgame”.
Like its eponymous character, the film limps achingly through an existential desert of the soul, desperately chasing redemption and finding it in the most unlikely of places.
Logan is far more unapologetic and uncompromising in its violence than anything we’ve seen before in an X-film. The choreographed grace of previous entries is stripped away in a frenzy of flailing claws and blood drenched Mexican sand. Logan’s weary reluctance to engage in combat is more palpable than ever, although the film also offers us some of the most intense berserker rages in the cinematic canon.
The film sees Logan (interestingly now using his birth name James Howlett) once again paired with Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier and a reluctant Caliban (Steven Merchant). Early-stage Alzheimer’s has stripped the once near-infallible mentor of his faculties, rendering him the psychic equivalent of an unstable nuclear bomb.
Both Jackman and Stewart give stellar performances as they take their characters to their sad but logical conclusions. As the Xavier school lies in ruins and mutant-kind appears all-but eradicated, the pair are grudging accomplices in each other’s woe, drifitng aimlessly towards an escape that will never come.
Jackman’s performance brings a quality that has always eluded the character, vulnerability. His every movement and gesture is performed with laboured intensity and we can practically feel the creak of his adamatium laced bones. The healing capability that has so defined the character for decades is greatly diminished and the character’s body has finally caught up with his psychology- a mass of scars that will never completely heal.
Stewart’s Xavier is given far more range and dimension than ever before, alternately playing the aged and ailing Charles as a cantankerous King Lear and a drug addled Hamlet drowning in an ocean of loss and regret. There’s an infinite sadness to the performance, yet there are also a few moments where the Charles that we love and remember struggles to the surface.
The redemption for both characters comes with the character of Laura, better known to comic-book fans as X-23. An immature clone of Logan she, along with a small team of manufactured young mutants, has been raised by Dr Zander Rice (Richard E Grant) to be a living weapon.
From Hit-Girl to Stranger Things‘ Eleven there’s something empowering about badass little girls (a demograhic usually conditioned to nurture plastic dolls) and they don’t come much more badass (or spectacularly violent) than Laura.
Even in such illustrious company, young newcomer Dafne Keen’s performance is the unquestionable star of the show. Hers is a performance of haunted stillness and animal ferocity. In her young face we see every act of torture and debasement inflicted upon her by the Weapon X program. In her feral moments she is genuinely terrifying and in her more tender moments utterly heartbreaking.
Redemption is at the heart of the film’s thesis and it is in each other that Weapons X and X-23 find redemption, elevating themselves and each-other from warped living weapons to an unlikely family with Charles Xavier acting as the grandfather and facilitator of the familial bond.
As the sun appears to set on the X-Franchise as we know it, Laura’s character makes a compelling argument for where it could potentially lead to.
With so much character development amongst the leads, the villains are an inevitable casualty and neither Dr Rice nor his enforcer Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is particularly well-developed but the narrative doesn’t really require them to be. Their motivations and personal evils are made evident by the footage we see of the mistreated mutant children, so there’s little the actors need do to supplement it, though it is clear that both men are utterly convinced that they are the heroes of their own story. While the Marvel villain problem is a criticism that could be levelled at the film, it’s certainly not a hindrance to the plot.
Logan is not necessarily an easy watch but it is an ultimately very satisfying one. It’s always welcome when a film redefines what a comic book film can be and this dusty, violent, existential Western pushes that envelope with aplomb while still finding time to be an acting masterclass.