Comic-book movies are such big business now that Hollywood has moved on to the next step, the process of proving to audiences that pictures based on hugely beloved comic-book franchises are not just fun—they’re good for you. Hundreds of culture writers have logged millions of words making the case that the mythology of the X-Men—or the Avengers, or Superman or Batman—is important because it’s boldly anti-fascist, or because it empowers those who, in real life, are often marginalized. Those people aren’t wrong—the ideas are definitely there in the material. The problem with hanging so much somber moral draping around comic-book mythology is that it presupposes that these stories are good because they’re good for us. A story’s darkness—or even just its alleged darkness—can be used as a cudgel against anyone who recoils from it: If you don’t respond to, say, stern, ashy images of largely dark-skinned children (read: immigrants) being hunted down in the forest, then you’re just willfully ignorant of the grim side of human nature.
The grim side of human nature is all over James Mangold’s Logan. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie. Logan, set in 2029, has been billed as the third and final installment in Wolverine’s solo saga (following the 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2013’s The Wolverine), and Hugh Jackman, as the adamantium-clawed title character, is looking mighty tired. He’s living somewhere near the Mexico border, driving a limo for a sort-of living, and he’s drinking too much. With the help of busy-body albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan is caring for the aged and predictably cranky Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who suffers from a troubling degenerative brain disorder.
In this futureworld there are, supposedly, no more new mutants, and the old ones are dying out. That’s why Logan is startled when a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen), with powers similar to his own, appears on the scene and, in her own fierce way, nestles under his protective arm. She’s desperate to get out of Mexico: She has read, in an X-Men comic, about a place called Eden, where kids like her are nurtured instead of persecuted, and she wants nothing more than to get there. Laura is a quiet, watchful kid, her eyes radiant with mistrust. But when she feels threatened, she becomes a mini wildcat, slashing and jabbing at her enemies—and at the world—with the claws that spontaneously shoot from her fists. For such a mite, she’s incredibly powerful: No wonder baddies like cranky cyborg Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, gnawing away at the role with the persistence of squirrel trying to crack a recalcitrant nut), and Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant, running through every exercise in the purring-villain handbook) are doggedly hunting her down.
There’s bleak nihilism aplenty in Logan. It’s as if Mangold, in the production’s infant days—he also cowrote the script, with Michael Green and Scott Frank—had looked into a crystal ball and seen a crisp vision of the post-election despair that many Americans would be feeling in the early days of 2017. There’s no doubt that Logan, with its focus on persecuted outsiders, is tapping the national mood of at least half the country right now.
If only tapping were enough. Because no matter what Logan’s intentions are, it’s less an effective political statement than a movie out to punish the audience with its virtue. Shot by John Mathieson in businesslike apocalyptic tones of brownish-gray, Logan is designed, visually, to bring you down, way down. Superspoiler alert: Characters X-Men fans care about will die. But come on—you knew that was coming, didn’t you? In a world this aggressively gritty, it’s never a surprise when anyone kicks the bucket. The issue isn’t that they die, but that their deaths carry surprisingly little weight. Humanity’s lack of humanity is just business as usual. At one point Logan holds up the X-Men comic that Laura has been clinging to as a promise of hope, asserting, in his numbed despair, that it’s all just made-up stuff—it isn’t real. That’s not abrasive, self-aware honesty—it’s more like an advertisement for how abrasively self-aware this picture is.
Mangold works hard to make Logan feel solid and important. George Stevens’ archetypal western Shane, with its classic overtones of nobility and sacrifice, is not only referenced but waved around like a gilt incense holder. Terrible things happen to wonderful people, because this isn’t just a comic-book movie—it’s America.
The violence in Logan is grisly and overbearing, just in case you’d otherwise failed to get the memo on its tone of unforgiving gloom. This picture is explicitly for adults: The MPAA has given it an R rating for violence, brief nudity, and curse words, the usual stuff the MPAA obsesses over. But there’s nothing exhilarating or pulpy about Logan. The picture is mostly tedious and unpleasant, which is a shame for the sake of the performers. Jackman works hard here, and his performance does away with vanity altogether: He looks appropriately thickened and heavy and tired—his face has the contours, and the character, of a battered hat. And Keen, as Laura, is wonderful. There’s a moody thoughtfulness about her, reminiscent of the young Natalie Wood.
Yet this isn’t a performers’ movie—it's too hung up on its mission for that. The themes of Logan are ragingly topical, pointing in the direction of things that every decent American should care about right now. But themes aren’t feelings or attributes or actions; they’re almost not even ideas. They’re not the explosions that shake you to the core, like the thunder of unease you feel after you’ve watched a movie like Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, or that picture’s natural predecessor, Ingmar Bergman’s Shame. They’re just things you make movies about. The great political movies of our time are yet to be made, and they will come. Logan, by either luck or prescience or some combination of both, feels political, but it’s really just business as usual in the comic-book-movie game. It sounds the alarm about how dark the world really is, as if we were incapable of reading between the panels on our own.