It’s all too predictable that of all the X-Men, a group that’s forever served as a metaphor for marginalized people the world over, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) would become its breakout character on both the page and screen. The most generically individualistic hero in a group committed to the principle of cooperation, Logan (as Wolverine is also known) has been both the mascot and root problem of the film franchise, to the extent that 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2013’s The Wolverine delved deeper into the character only to find a man who’s lived multiple lifetimes but has just one story to tell.
Logan rectifies this issue, recognizing that the thinly veiled secret of Logan’s loner act is that he’s always been a cog of some kind, be it for the military industrial complex or Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and James Mangold’s film highlights that aspect of Wolverine’s personality by finally understanding him as a loner by default. The film is set in a dystopian future where Wolverine, one of the last of his kind, is so traumatized by the loss of all his friends and colleagues that he spends his days alternately lying low as a limo driver and drinking himself into a stupor. The only tether to Logan’s old life is Xavier, who barely clings to life as dementia renders him raving and susceptible to powerful, uncontrolled waves of psychic energy.
Where Wolverine previously provided a too-simple grounding element for the complexity of the X-Men, here the material meets him at his most elemental level. Xavier is a frail but optimistic foil for Logan’s survivalist, while Logan’s own morality is thrown into relief by the introduction of Laura (Dafne Keen), a child mutant bred and experimented on to have all of Wolverine’s adamantium-enhanced powers but with programmed ruthlessness. Logan’s reputation for feral savagery comes off as quaint when set against the genuine article of Laura’s inarticulate but howling rage. Traversing dusty American backroads haunted by the ravages of social downturns, this trio of interlocking misfits morph into warped western characters, a notion blatantly underlined by a scene in which Xavier and Laura watch Shane.
Further stripping away the polish of the X-Men franchise is the action, which leans heavily on the film’s R rating to provide the grisliest representation yet of Wolverine’s claw-fighting. The film is abundant in images of Logan and Laura’s metal claws ripping open veins and decapitating heads, sending up geysers of blood in the process. And the soundtrack heightens the gruesomeness of this savagery by amplifying the sound of blood gurgling into lungs and flesh being torn apart. There’s an unseemly trend toward making superhero films R-rated in an oversimplified effort to convey a sense of maturity, but this approach suits this particular portrait of Wolverine well. For the first time on screen, he comes off as scary and traumatized as he should, even as he finally reaches the limits of his body’s capacity to heal.
That said, the fundamental limitations of the character and franchise occasionally stunt the film’s momentum. The use of George Stevens’s classic 1953 western telegraphs too much of the story that follows, and to see Wolverine’s arc and personality change so little throughout Jackman’s 17-year run as the character saps Logan of some of its resonance.
Still, the film attains a haunting, poignant quality. Like 2003’s X-Men 2, Logan understands—and contrary to most superhero stories—that the most powerful villains are the most ordinary. In this world, it’s not the likes of Magneto or other super-powered rogues who truly threaten the lives of their genetically different peers, but the banal bureaucrats who draft repressive legislations and profit-driven corporate scientists who attempt to both reduce the natural mutant population and rebuild it with bioengineered weapons. Richard E. Grant’s researcher is so dull and cordial as the head of a research firm responsible for creating Laura that he cannot even be called a mad doctor. Yet the dismissive manner in which he can write off his wild creations as failed experiments in need of disposal speaks to the overriding horror of the film, which isn’t that the mutants are gone, but that no one seems to miss them.