The dirty little secret few critics dare mention is that Mangold’s last film, The Wolverine, was just as good as Logan, if not better. It somehow married a Fellini-esque journey through the hero’s tortured psyche with a samurai film, keeping its action intimate and character-oriented, and layering in an ensemble of female characters who actually had their own agency. But The Wolverine does undoubtedly go off the rails a little in its third act, which relied more on traditional big-budget superhero nonsense and a CGI monster. Mangold has learned his lesson on that front—Logan is mean, lean, and always keeps its camera close to the ground.
The film is set vaguely in the future, some years after super-powered mutants began to die out (including all of Logan’s pals in the X-Men). Mangold and his co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green take pains to avoid placing the story in any timeline too specific. This is a possible future, nothing more, making Logan an X-Men story that doesn’t have to worry about what the other 15 cast members of the last movie are up to right now. Logan lives in the Arizona desert with his shifty pal Caliban (Stephen Merchant), a sardonic, chalk-skinned mutant who helps him tend to Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, also giving a swan-song performance), the former leader of the X-Men, who’s slowly losing his mind.
Logan (he seems to have abandoned the Wolverine moniker for the most part) has also seen better days. The opening scene of the film sees him brutally fight off a gang of carjackers, but while his metal claws still work just fine, his healing powers are much diminished, now supplemented with handfuls of pain pills and healthy gulps of liquor. His final goal is to buy a boat and live out on the ocean with Xavier, but when a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) shows up on his doorstep, having escaped from some secret facility and sporting her own metal claws, that plan swiftly goes out the window.
If this is a Western, Logan is very reminiscent of broken-down antiheroes like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven—a trained killer nursing decades of regret and sorrow, with enough juice for one last mission. Mangold proudly wears his influences on his sleeve; a pivotal scene sees Xavier and Laura watching a clip from George Stevens’s seminal 1953 film Shane, about another grim gunfighter with a mysterious past. Logan prefers hand-to-hand combat, of course, but aside from that he’s quite similar to Alan Ladd’s character in that film, a trained killer who fought for the good guys but didn’t consider himself one of them.
Mangold is an excellent director with a solid, unheralded resume (including the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and the Sylvester Stallone neo-noir Cop Land). But Jackman and Stewart are, quite simply, why Logan works—they’re why the film doesn’t just feel like a cheap exercise in bloody violence, and why its subversion of typical superhero-movie tropes feels organic (unlike with the X-Men spinoff Deadpool). The actors bring warmth and grouchy humor to the story, barking at each other like the married couple they’ve become, as they go on a road trip north with their young ward in tow.