My reaction while watching the new Fox superhero movie Logan was a series of variations on the word “fuck,” as in, “Holy fuck!” “Fuck me!” and “Fuuuuuuuuck!!!” uttered at regular intervals, not in anger but astonishment. The film is stunningly bleak and staggeringly violent. Major characters go down in showers of blood and gore. I’ve seen worse and so, probably, have you, but never from such an essentially wholesome corporate enterprise with a target audience so young and hopeful. (Onscreen product placements include Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.) Logan is rated R, but tell me that 10-year-olds won’t find ways to see it before the weekend is out. Child therapists are going to have a banner March.
I’m not complaining, exactly. It would be hypocritical to tut-tut over the carnage in print when at various junctures I screamed my approval as Hugh Jackman’s Logan — a.k.a. the Wolverine — shredded the gullets of sundry assassins with his adamantium talons. But it’s hard to reconcile the movie’s scorched-earth nihilism with its X-Men and Wolverine predecessors. Those giddy tales of so-called mutants coming to terms with their metamorphosing bodies and fragile place in the social ecosystem seem so far away now, like bedtime fairy tales. I picture Christopher Nolan saying of Logan, “Um, it’s kind of dark, isn’t it?”
The movie opens in darkness. Logan is passed out in the limo he drives by day, drunk and apathetic to anything but earning money to buy a boat and sail away with Patrick Stewart’s X-Men headmaster Charles Xavier, who seems to be melting down in his old age into a psychic lethal weapon. Logan is ill, too, poisoned by adamantium, the super-metal that allows him to decapitate and disembowel anyone who tries to take him out. Logan, Charles, and their X-Men brethren are like fallen rock stars, victims of having flown too high for too long. In that opening scene, some thugs are trying to steal the wheels off Logan’s limo and he barely has the energy to dismember them.
On the basis of Logan, I’d guess that the director James Mangold (The Wolverine, 3:10 to Yuma) and his co-screenwriters, Scott Frank and Michael Green, aren’t too happy about the direction in which the U.S. is going. (And Trump wasn’t even president when they wrote it!) In dribs and drabs they fill in parts of the picture, but not everything.
It seems — please skip this paragraph if you’d rather not be oriented — something bad happened to other X-Men characters. Mutant-kind has all but vanished. The military has joined forces with Big Pharma to do hideous experiments on Mexican women, while kids who escape the Nazi-like labs have to flee to sanctuary in — wait for it — Canada. Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses can only breathe free in the land of moose. Two people, meanwhile, are dogging Logan: A Mexican woman pleading for help for a mysterious, mute little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen); and a semi-mutant — I don’t know exactly what he is — called Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who’s hunting Laura and anyone trying to protect her. Pierce has what seems like hundreds of brawny men at his command, plus a superhuman surprise or two.
Logan is basically a long (nearly two and a half hours) and furious chase movie, like Terminator 2 with a dollop of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome — the one where the allegedly hard-hearted Max ends up leading a bunch of wild children to safety. There are also direct invocations of the classic cornball Western Shane, which little Laura watches on TV while she, Logan, and Charles spend the night with a black family whose farm is being threatened by a colossal, corn-syrup-producing agribusiness. Logan, of course, gets his own rousing Shane showdown: He accompanies the farmer, Munson (Eriq La Salle), to the neighboring property, where menacing corporate henchmen regularly shut off the water pump to his house and land. It’s the only scene that delivers a traditionally upbeat Western kick, but it’s largely there to lull you into a false sense of security. Honestly, folks, no matter how many murderous thugs get turned into hamburger, there’s no balm in Gilead — or Logan.
Hard to believe it has been 17 years since the first X-Men movie with Jackman as Logan, and in middle age he’s still muscled-up and ropy — maybe even ropier, given how alarmingly the veins stand out in his arms and chest. You can believe there’s something corrosive in those veins, like battery acid. He’s being eaten alive before your eyes, and in what could be Logan’s last stand, Jackman brings everything he has, from animal rage to mute despair. He gazes on Stewart’s rasping, declaiming, and howling Charles Xavier like Kent in King Lear, which made me think that this is Stewart’s dry run for his inevitable go-round with the shattered monarch. (I’ve seen, like, ten Lears in the last decade, but I’m all in for P-Stew’s.) The showstopping performance, though, is by Stephen Merchant. He plays a sun-averse albino mutant called Caliban, but despite the Shakespearean name, he’s like a tottering little scold out of Beckett’s Endgame. That’s fitting, since this is the X-Men endgame. That’s not to say there won’t be prequels, “reboots,” and many parallel-time scenarios. There just won’t necessarily be these particular mortals in the roles they created.
On its own terms, Logan is a crackerjack piece of work: The dialogue is crisp, the staging snappy, and the action scenes really pop. One of those scenes is screamingly perverse — a bit in which Logan turns a Las Vegas suite into a charnel house when a group of killers is frozen in place by the apocalyptic emanations from Charles Xavier’s synapses. But when my 14-year-old daughter — who I won’t let see the movie right now — said, “But Dad, did you like it?” I couldn’t give her a simple yes or no. I can’t remember the last time a blockbuster has left me so ravaged — and I’m including Rogue One, which at least ended with the word, “Hope.” My freak-out isn’t just about what happens to the characters. It’s the country in which they live and die that ushers in the nightmares. If this is the superhero movie that most accurately evokes how we live now, we’re in even more trouble than I thought.