The X-Men films are a lot of fun: arguably the most consistently entertaining superhero franchise out there. But the most perplexing thing about them is how insistently they keep the focus on Wolverine, the most tedious, one-note mutant of them all. Not only is he a major character in almost all the ensemble films, the producers keep rolling out mediocre spin-offs that snap the focus entirely to him. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason all Wolverine’s solo outings are duds: he’s just not that interesting.
The X-Men universe contains superheroes who are telepathic, psychic, lightning fast, super strong; mutants who can summon ice, fire, entire storms, laser beams from their eyes. Beings who can control metal, shape shift, teleport through space — teleport through time! And yet it always comes back to the X-Men’s Freddy Kreuger, that one guy who has lots of stabby things in his hands.
Logan is the most comprehensive, exhaustive, exhausting exploration of the guy who has stabby things in his hands. 50% of the film is him stabbing people with his stabby things; the other 50% of the film is him being stabbed by other people’s stabby things (he can heal himself, so accordingly gets stabbed about a bajillion times). The first few times the filmmakers go to town on their newly-minted R-rating it’s intense and exhilarating: the appalling violence brings a new heft to the franchise, grounding it in a reality of consequences and pain. There’s a particularly effective set piece where Professor X and Wolverine team up to brutally slaughter an entire squadron sent to their hotel room to kill them.
But there’s only so much you can take of watching Wolverine (and mini-Wolverine, who he picks up early on) stab the fuck out of everyone else’s head, torso and limbs. Usually in X-Men films, you at least get inventive action sequences – but it’s hard to be inventive when your superhero’s only power is having a lot of knives. Here the innovation eventually boils down to director James Mangold trying to work out how over-the-top he can make the scenes where everyone gets stabbed. Limbs ripped off here, heads decapitated there. Stab the men, stab the women, stab the children. In fact, have a tiny child stab everyone with her tiny stabby things. Create an evil Wolverine so regular Wolverine and evil Wolverine can stab the shit out of each other with their massive stabby things. Stab stab stab.
The wonderful trailer, with Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt, set a beautifully sombre, elegant tone. Then reviewers piled on to call Logan the best of the series, and a profound meditation on aging and death. You can see those elements mixed up in there, I suppose, and just occasionally they come to the fore. There’s a new-found sense of mortality and frailty that juxtaposes smartly with the idea of superheroes as demi-gods. There’s a deliciously dark undercurrent that hints at – but never fully explains – the destruction of the mutants that precedes the film. There are morsels of musings on grief and loss and the inevitable degradation of body and mind. But mostly this just manifests in Wolverine being sulky, truculent and boring: a thoroughly miserable protagonist.
For all that the film wants to venture into more philosophical, reflective territory, it has clearly been asked to toe the line. No audience member (it presumes) will put up with an X-Men film without violence. So it pays lip service to the adult film it wants to be, then immediately gets back to the more juvenile business of stabbing every single person on screen.
Having Hugh Jackman as Wolverine has undoubtedly contributed to the producers’ insistence that he has all the screen time in all the X-Men films. Yet the writers never seem to know what to do with him – sapping him of the charisma for which you would want to hire Jackman – and instead repeatedly presenting him as a brooding morose anti-hero. If this is where Jackman finally hangs up his claws, then please let it also precipitate a relegation of Wolverine from the screen. This was a fitting swan-song for all his fans, with an artful final scene and a noticeable absence of a post-credits vignette. Surely this wolverine has finally been flogged – wait, stabbed – to death.