Superhero movies are graded on a curve—even in the midst of the best ones, we look past the genre’s failings. We’re willing to sit through another dull origin story to see likeable actors doing goofy shit (see Doctor Strange). We know that by the third act, anything funny and unique will be obliterated in a maelstrom of CGI (see Guardians of the Galaxy). And we make peace with the fact that character, story, and momentum will be sacrificed upon the altar of corporate synergy (see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, or, better yet, don’t).
Even when a superhero movie is legitimately good—be it The Avengers or Captain America: The Winter Soldier—it usually comes with a disclaimer. The Dark Knight is impressive, so long as you focus on its stunning parts and not the crudely taped-together whole. Iron Man 3 is witty and subversive, so long as you’ve memorized every Marvel movie leading up to it.
But now, 17 years after X-Men kickstarted the superhero genre, we get something like Logan. Something that isn’t just a great superhero movie, but a great movie. No disclaimers, no curve. Logan is fantastic.
Make no mistake: Logan is such a superhero movie—such an X-Men movie—that at one point Logan (Hugh Jackman) flips through an X-Men comic featuring his spandexed alter-ego, Wolverine. He’s not impressed. “Maybe a quarter of it happened,” he grumbles, “and not like this.” Despite his crankiness, Logan is full of the same stuff as the yellowed pages of X-Men and Wolverine: Super-powered mutants. Nefarious evildoers. A rock-solid belief that violence fixes everything.
But for all Logan’s nods to genre—and it’s as much a western as a superhero movie—it’s about bigger things, too. This Logan is burned out and worn down: Not for nothing does he grunt softly when hoisting himself out of a car. Not for nothing does he wear cheap reading glasses. (Superman wears glasses as a disguise; Logan wears glasses because his eyes aren’t what they used to be.) And not for nothing does he glower when one of his claws refuses to SNIKT. (Whether they make Viagra for mutants is, alas, never addressed.) Logan is a movie about what it’s like to get old—to realize that one’s body and memories offer more pain than power, that one’s optimism and love have hardened to stubbornness and regret.
Logan spends much of his time looking after Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart)—the once-great man now feeble and flailing and furious—and Laura (Dafne Keen), a silent young mutant with powers suspiciously similar to Logan’s. Xavier is leaving this world, Laura is coming into it, and Logan stands between them—he knows the pain Xavier has endured, and he knows the sorrow waiting for Laura. Xavier, meanwhile, knows something Logan is still learning: that our legacies are rarely what we think they are, and that in the end, all that matters is what we leave behind.
If I’m making Logan sound sad (very sad), that’s because it is. But I don’t want to diminish everything else it offers: The bloody (very bloody) action is exhilarating. The humor is sharp and knowing. And the performances, from Dafne Keen’s stoic determination to Boyd Holbrook’s winking sneer, are dead-on. (Logan also contains some of the best work Jackman and Stewart have ever done, and it’s clear why both have declared this is the final time they’ll play these characters—best to quit while ahead.) Director James Mangold deftly balances Logan’s mayhem and melancholy, keeping this whole bloody, dusty thing moving, cutting through its stripped-down narrative with bursts of emotional resonance. Like its protagonist, Logan doesn’t pull its punches.
In other words, there’s a reason Logan ends with a Johnny Cash song—and a reason it seems to slam the door on future X-Men movies. There will, of course, be more. Seventeen years after X-Men, Fox is still cranking out sequels, reboots, and spinoffs. Seventeen years from now, they’ll likely be doing the same. None of them will be this good.