I’m glad Logan doesn’t end with a bonus scene plopped in the midst or at the end of the closing credits. In the cinematic landscape that is slowly, steadily being engulfed by the mighty Marvel model of moviemaking, the choice is novel enough to prompt a flurry of online interviews that call upon director James Mangold to explain himself. He has a few different explanations, slightly nuanced from each other, but the crux of it is always the same, and it speaks to precisely why I so appreciate the choice. Logan is — being blunt about it — a real movie and not another largely interchangeable entertainment burger sliding down the chute.
If that rationale is needlessly dismissive of the better Marvel superhero movies that have been released in recent years — such as James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy or Joss Whedon’s first crack at assembling the Avengers — it also speaks to a real and persistent limiting factor in the company’s output, including those they don’t hold as tightly in their creative grasp, like the X-Men movies. The movies serve a bigger picture and can feel a little purposeless when assessed on their individual two-plus hours of colorful mayhem. That’s also been true for the previous big screen solo outings of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), including the earlier installment directed by Mangold.
Watching Logan, I couldn’t help but feel this was Mangold’s endgame when presiding over The Wolverine, which hammered the character’s landmark 1982 comic book limited series against the anvil of dour self-seriousness. It’s as if he proved he could make the stern, safe corporate film in order to get the extra latitude to make a follow-up that resounded with artistic vision rather than felt molded into place by marketing department strictures. Logan is startling bleak and yet manages to be a bounding entertainment. It is witty and brisk and — more than anything else — fun.
Set around twenty years in the future, Logan (the alter ego of Wolverine, natch) is aged and grouchily depressed. His healing powers are clearly fading, and he’s traded in his adventuring for a dismal job as a rented limousine driver. This is in part because he needs what little money he can get to support Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now a doddering nonagenarian whose mental powers are going haywire as his intellectual capacities crumble away.
Reducing the sprawling casts of the X-Men movies to this core relationship is perhaps the smartest in the film’s many smart moves. It gives the film a welcome emotional grounding, a recognizable interpersonal conflict to keep circling back to. There is respect and affection, but the men have clearly worn one another out, a situation only exacerbated by the arrival of a mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who has both powers and a temperament that bear a striking resemblance to those of the scruffy fellow that gives the film its name. Charles’s mission of mentoring young mutants is revived, as if Logan’s instinctual aversion to forging connections.
There are rickety planks to the narrative’s stage, but Mangold and his collaborators primarily impress with their thematic ambitions and overall staging of the material. There are splendid details throughout, including real thoughtfulness to how the drama plays out. The sort of evil scheming that can feel like hollow impetus for storytelling momentum in other similar films has the weight of consequence here. (On that front, it helps that Boyd Holbrook is terrifically charismatic as the villainous Donald Pierce, a character who is miles away from the comic book iteration with which I’m familiar.) Superhero movies often get by on clattering spectacle. With Logan, Mangold demonstrates that there’s a largely untapped value in committing to them as if they really matter.