Image: 20th Century Fox

Before Logan, the third installment of the X-Men offshoot Wolverine film franchise (and supposedly the last time Hugh Jackman will play the titular role), the savagery of Wolverine’s primary weapon—the giant metal claws that are embedded under his skin—was an onscreen afterthought. Sure, he’d plunged those things into a chest or two during the preceding eight movies he’d appeared in, but these were quick, gore-free deaths that were easy enough to not even consider as such in the sanitized presentation that makes murder palatable for family viewing. See, the X-Men movies have been rated PG-13 (that goes for all of the Avengers-threaded Marvel Cinematic Universe, and virtually every contemporary superhero movie, save last year’s Deadpool). While the implied idea that sugarcoating death so that it’s more consumable for the masses seems more based on gut feelings (and how ick factor disrupts them) than actual science, cartoon violence that racks up body counts without making its audience so much as flinch is as American as apple pie and white supremacy.

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It is then impossible not to read Logan, which is in part a showcase for the various ways those metal claws can penetrate character’s heads (sideways through the crown, under the jaw through the top, from the back through the cheek), as a reaction to the current state of superhero movies. These are films where violence goes down as easy as the Icee in your arm rest and ultimately very little is at stake because you know another installment in these never-ending franchises is on the way and the film you’re watching is just a pole propping up an overall, slow-moving narrative. Everyone’s paycheck depends on the continued survival of these stories’ heroes. You know everyone who’s supposed to be fine will be.

Logan, thanks partially to a reported pay cut Jackman took, is rated R, and proud of it. Last year, Logan director James Mangold posted what he said was the second page of Logan’s script, which read in part:

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Now might be a good time to talk about the “fights” described in the next 100 or so pages. Basically, if you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie,” the script reads.

In this flick, people get hurt or killed when shit falls on them. They will get just as hurt or just as killed if they get hit with something big and heavy, like, say, a car. Should anyone in our story have the misfortune to fall off a roof or out a window, they won’t bounce. They will die.

If this sounds like a salve to the spandex fatigue audiences are experiencing from the past 20 years of superhero blockbuster after superhero blockbuster, well, few antidotes are as hard to swallow as Logan. This movie resides on the intersection of brutal and bleak. Much of its first act takes place in a desert near the Mexican border, and it is aesthetically washed out and muted with a tone as unsmiling as its title character, who has aged considerably and is living with suboptimal levels of his self-healing powers (additionally his eyesight is fading and he’s having trouble extending one of his claws). The movie takes place in 2029, and given the desert backdrop, it feels post-apocalyptic even if it isn’t explicitly so. Mutants have been wiped out through political measures to control them, and the ones who remain for the most part are ailing much as Wolverine is. Wolverine takes care of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who recites commercial copy and nursery rhymes to himself, sometimes doesn’t recognize Logan, and has seizures that infiltrate and vicariously vex people nearby. Xavier has, as one character puts it “a degenerative brain disease in the world’s most dangerous brain.”

Inspired by The Cowboys and Shane, which is explicitly referenced multiple times in Logan, Mangold interweaves a Western sensibility with ‘80s action-movie violence. But that doesn’t even begin to touch on the apparent influences, especially as Logan develops into a road movie, wherein Logan and Xavier transport a young Latina mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen), whose powers are virtually identical to Logan’s, to a supposed safe haven across the country. Mangold has listed the likes of Paper Moon, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Wrestler as his influences, but you’re likely to be reminded of Stranger Things (via Laura’s backstory and silent weird-kid-ness) and the first X-Men movie in this franchise (when Logan’s reluctant morality underscored his care-taking of Rogue). One scene depicting the external effects of an Xavier seizure reminded me of the time-freezing Quicksilver-featuring sequences in the last two X-Men movies, while an unrelenting and electrifying action sequence that closes out Logan’s first act brings to mind the breathless first act of Mad Max: Fury Road, and it’s just as exciting.

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Whatever the panoply of pastiche, it’s all rendered cohesive via the film’s pervasive grimness, and its enthralling performances. Stewart has never gotten the chance to show this much range in the role he’s been playing for 17 years now, and he’s more than up for the job. While Jackman’s gruff and vascular display of overt masculinity verges on cartoonish in ways not unlike those of the Village People, he embodies the Wolverine role as ever and really digs his claws into the grittiness of the script by Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green—here like never before on screen, Wolverine is a giant manchild who maims and says “fuck” a lot. But the biggest revelation is newcomer Keen, who holds her own opposite her co-star legends, and then some, expressing more in an arched eyebrow and a few blinks than most child actors get to in their entire prepubescent careers. I’ve never seen ferocity like this from a child actor and she avoids the annoying trappings of weird-kid roles with a preternatural focus (it probably only helps that she’s mute for much of her time on screen).

Logan settles into its simple plot of Logan, Xavier, and Laura getting from point A to point B, unfettered by the heaping-on of characters and frequently deliberate complications of modern superhero movies. To say that Logan is lean and mean would be an understatement as it is often flat-out savage during Logan’s battles with a gang called the Reavers (led by Donald Pierce, who’s played by Boyd Holbrook) who are attempting to retrieve Laura. One death-spree in the middle of the movie, in fact, verges on sadistic. I won’t elaborate further to keep this review for a movie that doesn’t come out for another two weeks spoiler-free, but said scene feels at least slightly tone deaf on a social level.

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Even at its most extreme, though, Logan’s brutality is justified in a story about how carnage—regardless of whether it’s in the name of heroism—weighs on one’s soul. In order to illustrate the direness of Logan’s situation, suffering must ensue. His existential crisis—“Shit happens to people I care about”—is one that more superheroes should be having, if we the audience are to believe they have souls to begin with.

Wearing a lifetime of battling on his body, Wolverine huffs and puffs while shuffling toward a nemesis in his likeness during the climax of Logan. Here he embodies not just the aforementioned spandex fatigue but his life’s great burden. “Has it all been worth it?,” we are left to wonder. Refusing to coddle, Logan is bold enough to suggest no.