Is there any actor working today who has as consistently been as frequently featured in a single role as Hugh Jackman as Wolverine? If you count his rather brief cameos in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse he’s played this character in no fewer than nine different movies now including two movies that are dedicated Wolverine solo movies. Well, I suppose Robert Downey Jr. will exceed that count pretty soon if he sticks with the MCU and he’s certainly got nothing on historical examples of this like Shintaro Katsu’s 26 film run in the role of Zatoichi but it still seems kind of incredible in a film climate where the likes of Daniel Craig can’t seem to be convinced to play James Bond more than four times or Jennifer Lawrence seems to need endless pampering in order to be talked into playing Mystique more than three times. Still, I can see why this role would appeal so much to him. It’s a flattering role that makes song and dance man Hugh Jackman seem like the ultimate badass, an ultimate warrior who can win pretty much any fight and operate off of his id constantly. His enthusiasm for the role has however led to some regrettable choices, namely the two solo Wolverine movies which were probably low points for the series give or take an X3. The first of these X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a true embarrassment that few like to even remember, and the second called The Wolverine wasn’t bad so much as wildly forgettable. That second solo film was directed by James Mangold and promised bigger better things with its simple title, and that is why I’ve maintained some skepticism about this new Wolverine movie, the Mangold directed Logan, despite its cool trailer.
Logan is set years after the events we saw in previous X-Men movies and it’s not entirely clear where it fits within the various complex timelines of that series. The very first X-Men is referenced but otherwise the film avoids talking continuity. I’m pretty sure it’s actually meant to be what they call in DC comics an “elseworld” story, sort of a “The Dark Knight Returns” for the movie version of Wolverine. In this future mutants are no longer being born for some reason and many of Wolverine’s compatriots have been killed off by government hit squads. Logan himself (Hugh Jackman) is hiding out as a limo driver in Texas and many of his powers have been failing him in old age. He has however maintained contact with one person from his past, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is now in his 90s and in his semi-senile state has had his powers become unstable. He’s now hiding out in a water tower with a mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and is being kept medicated to keep him stable. One day Logan is approached by an unknown woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who is offering him money to escort a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a sanctuary she believes exists in North Dakota, which Logan considers because he could use the money to move Xavier but soon it becomes clear that Laura is being pursued by an agent named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who intends to steal her.
That Logan is a notably more gritty and stand-alone take on the X-Men universe would be notable enough but as you watch it you also quickly notice that these characters have suddenly learned how to say the word “fuck” more than once in a movie and also this strange red liquid is now pouring out of all the injuries that Wolverine has been stabbing with his claws. That’s right, Hugh Jackman and James Mangold have somehow convinced the fine people at 20th Century Fox to let them take off the safety wheels and make this thing as a hard R-rated movie with a high body count and graphic violence and it does feel like they were dedicated to this direction rather than sort of hedging their bets and trying to decide whether or not this would just be a PG-13 release with an “unrated cut” down the line. One could argue that they should have been filming these action sequences like this from the beginning given that this is a character whose defining feature is metal blades on his hands but it does become quickly apparent that this bloody violence feels more at home in the world of this movie than in the sort of half-dark half-lighthearted world of those other X-Men movies.
Logan is in many ways a movie that’s doing everything we’ve been asking the makers of big budget super hero movies to do. It tells a smaller scale yet still action packed story that doesn’t end with a city about to be blown up, it doesn’t feel too much like a setup for a million other sequels, it narrows in on its characters and their individual issues, and of course it doesn’t compromise in its violence and language. You can also tell that the people making the movie realized that they were being given something of a gift with this opportunity and didn’t want to waste it. Hugh Jackman is pretty committed to this worn down and cynical version of Wolverine and director James Mangold (a guy who has been a pretty inconsistent journeyman director over the course of his career) works hard to make this look different than your average superhero movie and to take full advantage of this opportunity.
However, for all the film’s merits it really only seems as creative as it does when compared to the incredibly cookie-cutter world of 2010s superhero movies and when you start comparing it to the wider world of entertainment it starts to have a bit of an originality problem. In fact the movie seems shockingly similar in tone, story, and imagery to a recent video game called “The Last of Us” right down to the look of the protagonists and of course that game was itself highly derivative of movies like Children of Men and The Road which were in turn inspired by movies like The Road Warrior, and the movie also has similarities with other “road trips with powerful children while pursued by the government” movies like Midnight Special or Firestarter. If this had been the first movie in recent years where a grizzled man finds redemption through escorting a young girl who represents hope for humanity through an apocalyptic landscape I’d be over the moon for it, but it’s not, and that does kind of bring the movie down a few pegs for me. Still, Wolverine is a cool-ass character and his presence does elevate pretty much any scenario you put him in and this is far from the least creative stock scenario they could have gone with. I’m willing to bet there are some younger viewers for whom this will feel a lot less familiar and they’re probably going to love this thing. It’s a movie that’s probably going to be over-rated in general in certain quarters but its accomplishments should not be discounted too much either. The fact that we live in a world where we can have a hyper-violent $100 million dollar post-apocalyptic western starring Marvel’s pre-eminent badass is pretty awesome and I’d rather enjoy that than nitpick it.