With 2013’s The Wolverine, director James Mangold took a near-immortal, adamantium-clawed (thanks to a combination of mutation and rogue science) superhero named Logan and stuck him in a Big Sleep–style mystery movie. The results were...unimpressive. But with 2017’s Logan, Mangold drags that same man — much older, if not much wiser — into a Western, and ends up with the best superhero movie in recent memory.
It starts with that bit about being older. How can a guy with a mutant healing factor, a badass who fought in the Civil War, start to look like three miles of bad road — even if it is 2029? Why, when he loses his temper with some gangsters who are trying to strip his car’s rims, does one of his claws extend only halfway? Why, when the fight is over, do his wounds refuse to close with their normal alacrity?
Because something is very wrong. Because death has become possible. The same goes for super-psychic (and father figure) Charles Xavier, now over 90 and required to take meds to prevent dangerous mental events. And when superhumans are rendered with that kind of emphasis on the human part, it gets much easier to care about their super-powered struggles. (Many of the film’s finest moments come in the exchanges between Xavier and Logan, the broken geriatric full of childish hope, and the even more broken middle-ager who sees death everywhere he turns and calls it maturity.)
Speaking of death: Mangold & Co. wisely opt for an R rating here. This allows Logan to swear like the uncivil lout he is, but much more importantly, it allows him to show what a guy who fights with the equivalent of six short swords does to his enemies. It’s one thing to know he was turned into a killing machine without his consent; it’s another to see what he sees when he goes to work. Even when it’s warranted, it isn’t cool; it’s a horror show. Logan becomes tinged with the tragic; it may sound absurd to recall The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, but...well, never mind. Let’s stick with Shane’s Shane, since that’s what Mangold does via an extended bit where Xavier watches the film with the girl who gives Logan — the man and the movie — its meaning and motive. “A man has to be what he is, Joey,” says the heroic gunman to a child who wants him to settle down and stick around. “You can’t break the mold... There’s no living with...with a killing. Right or wrong, it’s a brand that sticks.”
About that girl: she’s a mutant, and she’s wanted by her owners, the people who made her. (They refer to her as a thing with a patent, and Mangold makes his feelings on the matter clear with a side-trip into the realm of corporate agriculture.) Except, of course, they didn’t entirely make her. Grew her, sure. But she started from a sample of mutant tissue, and one look into her fierce eyes makes it clear whose tissue that was.
Logan is tasked with delivering her to Eden, a mutant safe-haven that may or may not exist. The reference to the Biblical paradise is no accident, and neither is the leap of faith required to even begin the quest, let alone persevere in it. And just as there’s a reason the Bible sells as well as it does despite the bloody horrors described in its pages, there’s a reason for Logan’s surprising power and poignancy.