Spoilers for Logan.
With Logan, the modern comic book movie finally enters its revisionist phase. The film is the conclusion of a cycle: not just of a phase of Hugh Jackman's career and of the X-Men movies in general, but arguably, of the comic book movie itself. It places a tender grace note upon the myth of the comic book superhero, even as it begins to both uphold those myths as myth, and break them apart for the same reason, at the same time.
This is good. This is healthy. This is, perhaps, what many comic book movie haters (or at least, "tired"-ers) have been waiting for: the post-Sergio Leone moment, when a Western wasn't just mythmaking writ large on the big screen in Cinemascope any more, but could become other things - things which intentionally looked at the archetype of the Western, and critiqued it, and showed its flaws, and held the art form up even higher for doing so.
If the MCU and DCEU are the Dollars trilogy - a sensationalist genre at the height of its formal slickness -Logan is McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The myth of the American West is still there, but the people who populate its landscape can no longer live up to it. This is a film about itself, its viewers, and the culture that creates these stories, just as much as it is a film about a broken-down old Wolverine.
Of course, Logan is no John McCabe. Both die pitiable deaths in third acts meant to resemble, while deviating from, the tropes of their genre, but McCabe dies purposeless and alone, while Logan does - barely - accomplish the mission, and with nary a helicarrier in sight, to boot. Like The Dark Knight a decade ago, Logan serves as a reminder that the stakes of a comic book need not be apocalyptic, if the duel of the hero's soul is painful and true.
Here, Logan also further breaks with "Old Man Logan," the comic book run upon which the film is very, very loosely based. "Old Man Logan" is a tale of pacifist Logan falling from grace and popping his claws again after being tortured into near-insanity by malevolent supervillains, in a Mad Max-esque post-apocalyptic wasteland. Logan is the opposite: Logan, in an America that looks mostly like the one we have now, finally evolving past the ruin of his life into something resembling grace.
It's worth recalling that the first words spoken aloud in the X-Men films were Patrick Stewart intoning "Mutation: it is the key to our evolution." Stewart and Jackman's gorgeous, soul-searching pas de deux in Logan draws on themes which have been blunt till now: the mutant Wolverine/Logan has, as the last man to the X-Men's party, always struggled to evolve.
There's a sad, unspoken truth to Logan that builds on this. Forced awkwardly to become the X-Men franchise's de facto lead character in the films prior to now due to his popularity and an ability to slaughter a bunch of dudes with his claws, Wolverine has been given a redemption arc in pretty much every movie he's appeared in. As Logan starts up, finding Logan scarred and limping, sleeping one off in the back of a limo, and coughing from Adamantium poisoning that is finally killing him, all of his past redemptions have proven futile. Here, at the end of it all, is a broken man.
Another echo of franchise entries gone by: Logan encounters a young girl who needs his help. This, not to put it crassly, has been Logan's "thing." Rogue, Kitty, Yukio in the films, or Jubilee or Armour in the comics... Logan is forever being paired up with a teen or tween girl to whom he may play the gruff mentor-protector. In Logan we get the ur-example: X-23, Laura, immediately and unequivocally identified as Logan's daughter (via shadowy government experimentation, natch).
Being his actual daughter (and played like a cross between Stranger Things' Eleven and an extremely unpredictable feral bobcat by amazing newcomer Dafne Keen), Laura earns Logan's revulsion immediately. He can't stand himself, so of course he can't stand her. She is a highly inconvenient avatar of a worldview he has pointedly chosen to rebuke: that his life is anything other than purposeless, miserable, and over. She's rising water levels being thrown in the face of a climate change denier; so much easier for Logan to just ignore, ignore, ignore.
But Laura is a child, and children believe in bigger things, even when the adults have forgotten them. From Laura's backpack comes Logan's most daring textual gambit. She has a handful of X-Men comic books - actual Uncanny X-Men issues from the 1980s, the kinds of things I would have flipped past in the magazine rack at the convenience store on my way to a Batman or a G.I. Joe. Later in the film, one of Laura's friends is seen carrying a Wolverine doll - the Wolverine in the yellow spandex with the crazy pointed ears. Vintage.
In this world, then, the adventures of the X-Men (as we have, perhaps, seen them in the movies) inspired the comic books, not the other way around. Logan complains openly that "only a quarter of it happened and not like this," when talking about how his "real" life was adapted into funnybook pages (the meta-textual pretzel invoked is a beauty), but the purpose for this story is significant: regardless of where Charles and Logan have ended up in post-fascist America, the myth of the X-Men has outgrown them, and taken hold in the imaginations of a generation.
The meta-text continues. This is to be Hugh Jackman's last X-Men movie. 20th Century Fox isn't great at knowing when it's time to leave the party, but Logan nonetheless serves as a perfect epilogue for the whole cycle, even concluding with a funeral for that cycle, in the form of Wolverine himself.
It is a funeral attended by the next generation of X-kids, inspired by dolls and comic books and one final, astonishing act of heroism from the only X-Man they've ever met. As they trickle away into the deep background to cross the Canadian border to safety, and Laura tilts the cross on Logan's grave on its side to form an "X," we are witnessing an elegy for one whole chapter of a cinematic genre.
Logan, as a film, is terrific, one of the best comic book movies made since X-Men kicked this golden age off 17 years ago. That final shot, though - of the X-cross standing silent upon Logan's grave as his child, weeping, looks over her shoulder while leaving the frame - is transcendent, perhaps the first and only time I've been able to apply that word when describing a piece of filmmaking in this particular genre.
The moment reverberates with a holy awareness of everything that stories like this are created to do; it quakes with the power of myth. It leaves the popcorn entertainment behind and elevates the genre into something else, even while satisfying all the kooky thrills that popcorn movies should.
Early in Logan we hear a radio talk show on Logan's car stereo. The host asks, "It's 2029, why are we still talking about the X-Men?" The story's answer is clear: we always will, because we'll always need to.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.