Superheroes no longer just rule pop culture. They are pop culture, as deeply woven in its fabric as fairy tales, and just as open to reimagining (provided their corporate owners oblige).
Witness the recent rise of the stealth superhero story. Netflix's "Jessica Jones" is a noir-ish detective thriller; FX's "Legion" is a Stanley Kubrick-influenced head trip. Both are based on Marvel characters. And James Mangold's Logan is an austere western that bears far more resemblance to the director's 3:10 to Yuma (2007) than it does to his superhero flick The Wolverine (2013).
The fact that Logan is technically a sequel to the latter film — and to its junky predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine — is proof that the superhero genre now contains multitudes. The third time around, the X-Men franchise has finally given its most popular character a story that even viewers with zero interest in his saga can enjoy on its own terms.
Those viewers don't really need to know that Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is a near-invulnerable Canadian mutant who has been busily brooding since the 1840s, taking breaks to slash bad guys with his adamantium claws. Here he slips effortlessly into the archetypal role of an aging gunslinger with no fucks left to give.
In 2029, Logan toils in El Paso as a limo driver, sharing a homestead just over the border with his former mentor, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Once upon a time, the two men shared a mission, but now their kind appears to be going extinct. Dementia has turned the telepath's abilities into a dangerous liability, while Logan's body is slowly poisoning itself. This is no country for superpowered old men.
But then — as in every story like this — an innocent comes to request the gunslinger's protection. "Innocent" should be taken loosely: Laura (Dafne Keen) is a saucer-eyed kid with a spooky, feral aura and a knack for intense mayhem. Still, Logan reluctantly accepts the hero role, one last time.
Mangold isn't subtle about the film's influences: At one point, Laura watches Shane. But Logan earns those references by emulating the measured pacing and strong storytelling of the pre-blockbuster era. Fans who come to see Wolverine in brutal, bloody, R-rated combat will get their fill. But Mangold alternates those battles with quieter scenes that establish even supporting characters as people whose deaths matter.
Logan isn't an original vision so much as a novelty: a superhero flick that plays like a jaundiced, self-aware western from the early '70s. That self-awareness extends across genres and mediums: Laura dreams of a refuge for mutants she's seen only in the pages of comic books.
The mashup works largely because of the iconic imagery and the actors' commitment. Jackman's brooding feels more authentic now that he isn't speaking the terrible dialogue of Origins. Stewart's sly wit, always welcome in this franchise, makes his character's decline painful to witness. Keen is not cute. We accept Laura as a mortal threat in a small body controlled by a naïve, traumatized mind — and slowly, like Logan, we begin to see her as the potential torchbearer of a new resistance.
Critics of comic-book cinema like to call it kiddie fare — a questionable assertion, seemingly predicated on the belief that adults don't use fantasy and myth to cope with reality. But the prominence of themes of aging, decline and regret in Logan makes that objection seem downright irrelevant. Whether you take their source material seriously or not, comic-book movies are whatever their creators want them to be.