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Logan is the best X-Men movie since 2003

Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine is a lonely, pre-apocalyptic Western. It’s great.

Hugh Jackman plays Wolverine for the last time in Logan.
20th Century Fox

At one point in the first half of Logan, the new Wolverine movie starring Hugh Jackman (who has sworn this will be his last time playing the character), the film’s central players pause just long enough to watch the classic 1953 Western Shane on a hotel room TV.

They’re on the run from people who are attempting to round up mutant children who were created in a lab. One of those children — dubbed Laura by the nurses at the lab — is technically Logan's daughter, though he’s only just realized she exists. (He’s ditched the Wolverine moniker, hence the film's title, which is the character’s given name.) Taking a couple of hours to rest up in a hotel and watch a classic Western is a huge risk.

Shane, in case you’re unfamiliar, ruminates on the incompatibility of open violence with civilization. It’s about a gunslinger who saves a little farm, then has to leave, while the child who’s come to love him shouts his name endlessly after his retreating form. Filmed out in the great wide open of the Rocky Mountains, it’s a classic of elemental Western storytelling.

So when I saw that film — and its most earnest, schmaltziest portions — quoted in an X-Men movie, as big and cynical a corporate machine as you could ever imagine, I rolled my eyes. “Jesus,” I thought. “What are they even doing here?”

It turns out the filmmakers are calling their shot. By the end of Logan, I was deeply, genuinely moved. It’s not as great a film as Shane, but it’s not embarrassed by the comparison, at least. Here are five reasons Logan is the best X-Men movie since 2003’s X2.

1) Logan places an emphasis on character drama instead of action

Laura (Dafne Keen) is the daughter Logan never knew he had.
20th Century Fox

If there’s an obvious complaint to be made about Logan, it’s that at 136 minutes, it’s probably a little long. But since the extra scenes all seem to build up the story and develop the characters, rather than ladle on action-packed spectacle (as in 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse), I’m inclined to forgive them.

At heart, Logan is a father-daughter story, or a story of parent-child reconciliation, or just a story about learning to forgive others and yourself for transgressions. It’s about trying to outrun your demons, first on a figurative and then on a very literal level.

The movie spends most of its time on the road with Logan (who’s working as an El Paso limo driver in the film’s near-future, pre-apocalyptic setting, where mutants are mostly extinct), Laura (terrific newcomer Dafne Keen), and Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) himself. Logan needs to get Laura from El Paso to North Dakota, where she can slip across the border to Canada and avoid mutant-hunting squads.

Logan’s self-healing body is running out of steam, Laura doesn’t understand how to fit into human society, and Professor X is in his 90s and suffering from an undisclosed mental ailment. This setup provides the fodder for either a serious melodrama or a kind of goofy road trip movie. That Logan manages to split the difference between the two is truly impressive.

And it’s all thanks to the three actors, who spend a lot of time just bonding in a car. Where director James Mangold (and his co-screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green) could insert big action beats, they mostly eschew them in favor of people just talking to each other. That’s something superhero movies increasingly lack, and it’s more than welcome here.

2) The movie knows we know how superhero movies work

One of the best things about Logan is that it strips away most of the over-explanatory bullshit that bogs down too many modern superhero films. Gone are the scenes where somebody explains another person’s powers in detail. Mangold trusts his filmmaking — or our now voluminous knowledge of the X-Men universe, learned from the many other films set within it — to get the point across.

In one scene, a character simply suggests that a degenerative brain disease could be a big problem in a brain as powerful as Professor X’s, and that’s all we need to know to understand why certain things happen throughout the film. Incidents in the past are referred to but never entirely spelled out, instead becoming part of the tapestry of Logan’s generalized guilt. And Laura’s struggle to reconcile her humanity with her powers is illustrated without dialogue. “You know this story,” Mangold seems to be saying. “You don’t need more exposition.”

In many ways, Logan reminds me of Westerns made in the ’50s and ’60s, when audiences were so familiar with the rules of the genre that they welcomed more iconoclastic takes on these stories. I don’t think Logan has broken free entirely from its comic book trappings — it’s still a little too enamored of secret plots by corporations and/or the government — but it feels like a huge step in the right direction.

3) The movie is bloody and violent, but with a purpose

Wolverine is ready to fight.
20th Century Fox

Logan is R-rated, which means its fights are darker and bloodier than in typical PG-13-rated superhero flicks. Gore flies through the air, and both Logan and Laura (who has sets of retractable claws in her hands and feet) spend a fair amount of time stabbing people in the head.

But around the movie’s midpoint — when the central trio stops to rest on a little farm with a friendly family headed up by actors Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal — all of that violence starts to gain a terrible weight.

People die in Logan, yes, but there’s a focus on the moments of their deaths, on their struggles to maintain honor in the face of doom. And the film’s focus also falls on those who kill them, and on how it feels to commit murder, even with a righteous cause.

Unlike many superhero movies, this is a film where the deaths of random individuals, including villains, have meaning. As the bodies start to pile up, and as Logan is responsible for more and more of those deaths, the film genuinely digs into the moral exhaustion inherent in being a killing machine, as well as a father’s hope that his daughter might not follow in his footsteps, even though she’s perfectly equipped to do so.

Like the Westerns it emulates, Logan at least tries to address what it means to be a hero, rather than assuming something is good because its main character does it.

4) Mangold has settled into the Wolverine world with aplomb

I quite liked 2013’s The Wolverine — Jackman and Mangold’s previous collaboration — but its action sequences were a little lacking. Its climax was especially muddled, and kept a solid film from becoming the very good one it occasionally flirted with being.

In Logan, Mangold seems as if he’s better equipped to complete the task at hand. The director has always been good at character interplay and at orchestrating stripped-down scenes that economically reveal who the people in his movies are. (Notably, he had great success with the 2007 Western 3:10 to Yuma, which feels like a dry run for this film.)

What’s changed here is that his action sequences are, for the most part, inventively filmed and smartly choreographed.

In one, late in the film, he announces Logan’s arrival in the vicinity of the action simply with the sound of Jackman bellowing in the woods somewhere offscreen, then pauses to prolong the tension of when he might finally join the fray. When he does — for, again, what might be his final fight as the character — it feels suitably epic.

But Mangold and his co-writers have also created a nicely structured story, where problems pile up on each other, complications ensue, and Chekhov’s adamantium bullet will inevitably be fired. I was particularly enamored of their choice to have Laura know her father’s exploits mainly from X-Men comic books — a neatly underplayed bit of meta-commentary on how threadbare some superhero tropes have become.

5) The performances are, top to bottom, terrific

Who knew Boyd Holbrook (left) had it in him?
20th Century Fox

Mangold’s skill at directing actors in all sorts of films didn’t always shine through in The Wolverine, but Logan is another story. Yes, the central trio is great. But every role in the film boasts a talented actor who brings something to the story.

Elizabeth Rodriguez pops up briefly as the nurse caring for Laura, while Stephen Merchant takes the role of mutant Caliban, now working as Professor X’s caretaker. The bad guys include such malevolent presences as Richard E. Grant and Boyd Holbrook, the latter of whom turns out to be much better at playing a villain than he is a cop on Narcos. Even the film's little side trips into other characters’ stories — as with that stop on the farm with La Salle and Neal — boast great acting.

Too many superhero films turn the characters who aren’t superheroes into props or love interests. They’re often used as props to serve the story, and rarely have their own lives independent of the main characters.

What sets Logan apart and makes it so impressively moving in the end is the way it suggests that everyone — from its hero down to characters with only a handful of lines — is fumbling through existence like the rest of us. The ultimate goal by film’s end isn’t to beat the bad guys or even to connect with a long-lost child; it’s to find ultimate meaning in life, to figure out how to define oneself as both a person and a good person. It’s, unexpectedly, resonant, bittersweet, and maybe even profound.

Logan opens in theaters Friday, March 3.