It is a little tempting to overvalue Logan for its novelty. And I do use "novelty" advisedly - it's no less than the tenth movie in the broadly-construed X-Men movie franchise to come out in the last 17 years, and one of God knows how many superhero comic book adaptations during the same period. But that's exactly what makes it stand out: not one of its predecessors has felt so little like it belongs to that genre. This is, nearly a fifth of a century after Blade inaugurated the modern era of superhero movies, the very first one (or at least the very first one adapted from one of the big-name titles published by Marvel or DC) to make good on the promise that these movies can be more than action movies with largely interchangeable climaxes. Only Christopher Nolan's decision to drop Batman smack dab into the middle of an urban crime thriller can really compare to this more or less explicit remake of the revisionist Westerns Shane (from 1953, about as early as you could dare to call a Western "revisionist") and Unforgiven (from 1992), that decides, almost on a lark, to replace the archetypal soul-scarred gunslinger with everybody's favorite cigar-chomping mutant, Wolverine.

Drawing little more than its sense of despair and fatigue from its notional inspiration, the 2008 comic miniseries Old Man Logan (almost certainly the best thing ever written by the generally toxic-minded Mark Millar), Logan takes place in a version of 2029 that feels like the first cousin to the 2027 depicted in Children of Men: technology and culture have kept on evolving, but not nearly as much as you'd think they would have, and this is probably a direct consequence of the all-encompassing hopelessness that seems to be pretty thick everywhere you look (that being said, unlike Children of Men, Logan isn't a post-apocalyptic film, unless you're a mutant. And since nearly all of the main characters are...). In this exhausted world, right on the heavily militarised border between the United States and Mexico, James Howlett, AKA Logan (Hugh Jackman), formerly Wolverine of the now-defunct X-Men, cobbles together money by working as a chauffeur. Thus does he pay for the medication to keep the doddering Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) from having the crippling seizures of a decaying old brain that are much, much more damaging when they're being experience by the world's most powerful telepath.

When not earning money and babysitting the sad shell of Professor X, Logan also lashes out in violent rages, as we see in the film's opening scene, which clarifies real damn quick what exactly the filmmakers wanted to do with that R-rating (Logan is just the second major superhero film to cross that threshold, after X-universe stablemate Deadpool - all due apologies to Kick-Ass and its sequel for declaring them to be non-major). It's hardly the most violent movie you could hope to stumble across, not least with John Wick: Chapter 2 having beaten it to theaters by less than a month. But compared to the carefully sanitary depictions of action in the untold, vast majority of superhero movies, including all eight of the earlier films with Jackman playing Logan, this is apocalyptic stuff: jets of blood gush and drop from Wolverine's claws as they protrude from the face of the wicked and the only moderately bad alike.

The violence isn't just trendy nihilistic window dressing, either, not like all of the films I can already imagine tediously lining themselves up to capitalise on Logan's instantaneous box-office success (the litany of "fucks" said throughout the movie is rather harder to defend. And there's one sequence that kind of does feel nihilistic, honestly: it's in the back half of the movie, and it involves three killings that I frankly think are crueler than the film earns.). That's where the Unforgiven part comes in. Logan, you see, is a movie about the exhausting, miserable sense of self-loathing and despair to accrues to a lifetime of violence, and Logan says so in words that come as near to "it's a hell of a thing, killing a man" as the propriety of the three screenwriters - Scott Frank & James Mangold (who adapted the story and also directs) and Michael Green - will allow. It is one of those kinds of Westerns, the ones about the wretchedness and the inescapability of violence, the once whose bloodletting feels driven less by a sense of what is cool and more by a desire to make the viewer feel increasingly awful. Lord knows, Logan is a feel-bad movie, but it rarely feels cheap about it.

Instead, it buries that feeling inside the audience's 17 years of goodwill for the character and Jackman's portrayal of him. And it's not cheap about that, either. There are explicit references to 2000's X-Men and rather surprisingly, the much-disliked 2009 prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and rather more muted references to X2 from 2003 and The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold) from 2013, but for the most part, Logan plays fair as a self-contained object, gaining depth from our knowledge of who Logan and Charles are, and never bothering to explain what the hell is going on with the whole mutant thing, but not actually requiring us to know more than what we get: the world is shit, and here's a man who is going to shit right along with it, poisoned by the exotic metal welded to his skeleton and looking pretty goddamn awful and broken for someone we had previously thought to be functionally immortal.

Into this joyful setting comes a little girl who doesn't speak but stares with angry dark brown eyes: Laura (Dafne Keen, an outstanding discovery), who has mutant powers of her own, very much like those of Logan: incredible healing ability, metal blades that emerge from her knuckles and can be used to kill the ever-loving hell out of bad guys, or simply those who piss her off for whatever reason. She is eleven, after all. This is the Shane part: Logan, quite against his will, is stuck in the role of the girl's father figure, and together they, and Charles, end up on a road trip across America to find a probably fictitious sanctuary for mutants. This middle part of the movie is far and away the film's best, with Mangold getting to flex the muscles for staging the towering landscape of the Western United States that he used to such extremely good effect in the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma (still his best film), here aided and abetted by cinematographer John Mathieson, a former Ridley Scott collaborator). Jackman and Stewart are extremely good throughout - beyond doubt, it's the most soulful, humane, in-depth work that either man has ever done in these respective roles - but they're at their best in the slow blossoming of feeling that comes along with the dangerous feeling of newborn hope.

I would be quite a liar if I said that it held up. The beginning of Logan is suitably atmospheric and the middle is a slightly miraculous neo-Western, but the ending is sort of flimsy. Even with all that it does to run screaming away from anything that any superhero movie has done, the film still ends with a conventional action scene, and it's not a very good one, clumsy and unclear in the blocking. The rest of the action, more concerned with force and brutality than choreography, is far superior, and there's just nothing positive to be said for an action movie that ends on its worst setpiece. The plot material, which I will absolutely not spoil, takes a turn for the thin and contrived, breaking the magic spell going on between Logan and Laura by resetting it in a new context that doesn't work. The film ends well, in the final couple of shots; it helps that the climax of Logan is almost beyond question the most consequential narrative development in the history of American superhero movies, a genre addicted to cop-outs and teaser hooks. So one hardly walks out feeling misused by the film. But the best parts of Logan are certainly far in the rearview mirror by the time it ends, and that does suck a lot of the  "best comic book movie of the '10s!" energy out of a film that, at its best, really does feel like it's making a strong play for that title.

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)