In its look at human frailty and death, James Mangold’s Logan is unlike any superhero film ever produced—and it just may change the genre for good.
As it happens, Logan also works as a spiritual sequel to the director’s 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Making a name for himself with songs that exalted “heroic all-American Lazaruses,” Cash reveled in larger-than-life legends and outlaws whose grand exploits and staggering fables live long past their deaths. Later in life, however, a newfound humility would come to dictate the country singer’s twilight recordings. For example, in his 2002 cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Cash laments an Ecclesiastian life lived in pursuit of future and fame. And, in one of the last songs he penned before his death, “The Man Comes Around,” the Man in Black concedes to a greater Man that all—legend and gunslinger alike—will eventually be held accountable to.
Like the characters in Cash’s early discography, Hugh Jackman’s comic-book mutant, Wolverine, is a Lazarus of sorts, too. Armed with metallic claws and regenerative ability, over his eight previous film appearances in the X-Men franchise, audiences have seen him shot, stabbed, and drowned—only to gaze in awe as he rose moments later.
It’s fitting, then, that Logan, a story about a once-invincible superhero now facing the perils of old age, would end with Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” For all its comic lore and surging action pieces, Mangold’s breathtaking project first and foremost functions as a deconstruction of the mythical, impregnable crusader. Logan’s stark message is true, even if we choose not to think about it: All of us, including those once thought indestructible, will lose our physical freedom and fade into helplessness. No individualism or self-realization will offer a life preserver. Myth will be separated from reality.
This is where we meet Wolverine (a.k.a., Logan) at the beginning of the film—broken, bleeding, and with pus squeezing from his knuckles. Set in 2029, Logan’s world is a sun-soaked dustbowl that John Ford might have crafted if he were a baby boomer obsessed with Frank Miller. New mutants stopped appearing 25 years ago, the X-Men are all but gone, and the ones left—Logan and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart)—are slowly losing both their powers and mental fortitude. A chauffeur for rich businessmen and spoiled teenagers, Logan quietly cares for the ailing Xavier, dowsing his sorrows in a steady stream of booze.
Logan’s suppressed empathy wages war against his alcoholic nihilism when a mysterious young mutant named Laura (played with mature confidence by Dafne Keen) elicits his help. As the film’s villain, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook)—a tattooed solider who works for a research corporation named Transigen—arrives to take the girl, the plot shrinks to a small circle. Planet Earth doesn’t hang in the balance—only one seemingly insignificant life.
More a mashup of movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, Looper, and the classic western Shane than a Marvel tentpole, Mangold’s creation effectively blends throat-clogging intensity and a gritty tenor with moments of profound stillness and intimacy. Logan bottles the emotional stock accumulated over Wolverine’s other films, but resists the need to connect the story to any wider “universe.” And while most movies of its kind live in a sort of areligious ecosphere, Logan exiles itself to the Island of Patmos—immersed in a Book of Revelation–type language of doom and judgement, rebirth and redemption.