We are living in an age of peak geek cinema, especially when it comes to superhero movies. Which, in case nobody has noticed, are coming out at such a fast and furious pace that had you spoken of this to a movie-going comic book fan, say, 20 years ago, they would have cursed you for being a liar. Lots of things play into this, not the least of which is the presence of SFX and studio budgets that make possible superhero movies with the kind of heroic grandeur that the genre requires to feel right. Modern comic book movies now, finally, feel like comic books brought to the screen, instead of action movies distantly inspired by the pulpy adventures from which they originate. The X-Men franchise suffered from this, being perhaps the last great comic franchise to get going in the era of “movies about comic books,” rather than the following era of “comic book movies.” And for the most part, the X-Men movies get credit for trying, though the series produced diminishing returns over time. The breakout from all of this, of course, was the fan favorite Wolverine, played so perfectly by Hugh Jackman that the character got its own spin-off series. These never felt particularly connected to the comics, either, but they worked on their own terms, dwelling within a kind of universe that existed solely for Wolverine to inhabit. And for as well as any of them worked—either the X-Men films or the Wolverine films—absolutely none of them hold a candle to the story that puts a definitive end to its most beloved character: Logan.
It is 2029, and on the Mexican border, Logan, also known as the mutant superhero Wolverine, is dying. Despite his regenerative abilities, years of battle—as well as long-term poisoning from the adamantium metal lacing his unbreakable skeleton and providing him with razor-sharp, retractable claws—have taken their toll. Thanks to a kind of weaponized gene therapy, mutants have been all but wiped out. Logan’s old superhero team, the X-Men, are gone. And Logan himself spends his days as a raggedy limo driver while scraping together the drugs he needs to care for his infirm mentor, Charles Xavier. At 90+ years of age, Professor X—the world’s most powerful telepath—is also dying. Partially senile and prone to seizures that turn his brain into a weapon of mass destruction, he lives in virtual isolation with Caliban, a mutant who can detect other mutants. They all just want to buy a boat and slip away forever, but that proves impossible once Logan is contacted by a woman begging him to protect her daughter, Laura. When the woman ends up dead and a cyborg goon squad on behalf of the Transigen corporation come after Logan, Xavier and Caliban to retrieve Laura, Logan must do battle one final time—against Transigen, against a youthful doppelganger of himself, and against his own mortality—as he learns that sometimes family isn’t whose blood we share, but whose lives we embrace.
Logan isn’t just the best of the X-Men movies. It is one of the best superhero movies ever made, period. One of the big reasons for it is precisely because it feels so un-superheroic. Ironically, the very characteristics of this movie which for years held back this genre of film have in this case, become its greatest strength as we see a man deal not just with the ravages of time and the loneliness of growing older, but the haunting legacy of his own superhero career. (There is a delightful moment when Logan sees some X-Men comics written about himself and derides them as having been woefully inaccurate. But for the audience it’s a piece of rare fan service in which the comics that inspired the movie are then re-referenced as having been inspired , rather by the movie. That’s the kind of continuity trick you only get away with when superheroes are involved.)
The road trip structure of this story provides us with ample opportunities for Logan and Laura to explore their unique relationship as Logan must wrangle with his unwanted responsibilities as a father-figure, all while seemingly unaware that with Xavier, he’s been playing the role of unintended son for years. The familial bonds at work here become the thing Logan finds worth fighting for, and though the years have put quite a thick rind on a man who wasn’t particularly warm and cuddly to begin with, Logan still has the heart not just of a hero, but of a dutiful son and a protective father. When the claws come out and the blood begins to spatter—and boy, does it ever in an R-rated treatment this character has so richly deserved—the fighting takes on a kind of savagery borne not out of rage against the world, but on behalf of the things we love within it. That is the kind of power nothing can really hold back for very long.
This movie is all about endings, and as Logan must inevitably face his, he does so with the echoes of Xavier’s tearful confession over a lifetime spent in the fruitless attempt to build a world where his X-Men would be welcome, and the grim fate he inflicted on those whom he loved most. It would be easy for Logan to follow his mentor’s path, and embrace the nihilism that might come from his life of bloodshed. But his greatest act of heroism isn’t the way he disposes of his enemies, or defies his own death to protect his—dare we say it? New Mutants—but how, when his own moment of truth comes, he has the courage to let Laura in and share in her tears. Logan’s farewell is an earned moment of special poignancy that marks both an end, and a beginning, and is marked beautifully by that which best represents his legacy: not a cross, but an X.