James Mangold’s Logan

Logan, the second Wolverine film directed by James Mangold and featuring the final performance of both Hugh Jackman as Logan and Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, is a great film, without caveat or qualification, a grim, near-future Western that’s firmly grounded despite the metal claws and psychic mindquakes. What the film also is is a very definite finish; I don’t see where else the current form of the X-Men film series can go now; Logan isn’t simply a great film, but a series-ending one as well.

That Logan is robustly-presented and strongly-performed ironically leaves me with little to say about it, but: Hugh Jackman has never been better, Patrick Stewart is outstanding, his nonagenarian Xavier equal parts wit, charm and pathos, and Dafne Keen is so convincing as the borderline-feral Laura that if there’s any justice she’ll get her own sequel. The rusty, dusty cinematography by John Mathieson is a delight, the score by Marco Beltrami is understated and mournful, and James Mangold’s direction is articulate and punchy. The violence and action is far more brutal than we’ve seen in previous X-Men films, but equally less fantastical, always a last resort, never presented as cool or flashy.

Yes, the film is bleak, but not gratuitously so. This isn’t a film where dark things happen just because the writers wanted to torture the audience and characters a bit more; it’s plausibly bleak instead. Set in a near-future in which the diversity of mutant-kind has been hunted down and extinguished and prevented, in which those who now have the power are bland and blonde and enhanced only with identikit bits of machinery. It’s a near-future in which farmers fight for water rights against a mechanised Big Agriculture, and brown-skinned women are used and discarded. Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past painted an apocalyptic future for humanity, but with its giant killer robots and scorched-skies, it was an outlandish horror, too far removed from our own reality to feel like a threat. The future of Logan is instead horrifying in its banality, a horror to be found in what the film leaves unsaid as much as in what we’re shown. It’s a horror we can see in our own world, in our own time.

The end of an era

As for where the film sits in the wider franchise, Logan is to the X-Men film series as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was to Batman comics, in that both can only convincingly exist as a response to what came before them. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice showed what happened if you tried to skip past the years of shared cultural history and go straight to the shock of seeing your heroes aged and compromised and fallible: you end up with something that feels and smells like the craft of an angsty teenage boy. Conversely, Miller’s work was both ground-breaking and genre-defining precisely because it came after decades of those characters being portrayed in a specific, and different, way; Miller’s portrayal was a reaction, and could only work in that context.

Equally, Logan can only exist as it does because Jackman and Stewart have inhabited these roles for nearly two decades, with Jackman having featured in every X-Men film since the series debut, and Stewart absent for only two of them. I can’t understate how meaningful and gut-wrenching it was to see these two, who have been in my cinematic life for as long as I’ve been an adult, so physically, mentally and emotionally reduced, eking out a bleak existence in a bleak new world, and coming to a bleak end.

That Logan as as good as it is suggests to me that, just as Miller’s work shaped the way comics and film adaptations for decades later, Logan will redefine how future genre films will be made. This, combined with the film’s studied maturity and grizzled beards and pervasive bleakness, is why Logan is probably a series-ender — the film has given the X-Men franchise a convincing, canonical ending, with Jackman’s presence through all of these films a lone thread of continuity that inescapably dooms everyone. How can audiences be expected to now sit through, for instance, a brightly-coloured, 1990s-set film with Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner and god knows who else, when we’ve seen how badly things end for everyone?

Logan does, at least, end on a hopeful note. There are survivors, there is redemption, there is a way forward. But, it isn’t for everyone, and the film is clear on this: the future of the X-Men, and the future of humanity, won’t be found by looking backwards.