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When we first see Logan, who has delighted audiences for nearly twenty years, he is a pathetic husk of himself. Drunk and sloppy, he wins a fight only by default. He still can heal, and his claws cut through flesh like butter, but he looks and acts like a loser. This is a lowly state for Logan – aka The Wolverine – and also a statement of purpose. Logan does not just deepen the stakes of the superhero film: director James Mangold and his screenwriters turn it inside out, finding emotional reserves that escaped the genre for a generation.

In past reviews, I’ve said Hugh Jackman could play Logan in his sleep. He declines that here, and instead uses the past films to deepen the character’s constant self-loathing. The year is 2029, and most mutants have been wiped off the planet. Logan lives semi-anonymously, with an ashy unkempt beard, working as a limo driver in west Texas. His wages help his booze habit, and provide much-needed medicine for an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). A nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tracks down Logan because her preteen ward Laura (Dafne Keen) needs his help. Logan wants nothing to do with Laura, at least until he realizes she shares the same mutant powers as him. A paramilitary force led by Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) pursue Laura – they see her as property – so after Logan escapes with Charles and the girl, Logan becomes a road movie punctuated by grief and brutality.

One theme of the X-Men franchise is how superpowers are a burden. That has never been truer than in Logan, where time adds a palpable sense of pain. Logan bleeds more than he used to, and he’s meaner than ever because, well, all but one of his friends are dead. Charles is worse, too: now in his nineties, he suffers from dangerous seizures – his telepathy means that the seizures give everyone around him temporary paralysis and suffocation. Charles is lucid, mostly, so he and Logan must negotiate through the humiliation of their waning years. One of the funnier scenes involve Logan watching Charles on the shitter, so Mangold humanizes the characters through the indignities of old age. Jackman and Stewart also have fun because the R-rated script offers opportunities for f-bombs. If Logan has a flaw, it’s that Mangold – along with co-screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green – lay it on thick with the salty language.

Liberal profanity notwithstanding, the action and story are a marked improvement over the macro-scale superhero action film. Nearly every scene is from Logan’s perspective: we follow him from Texas onward through the Midwest and North Dakota, and unlike Bryan Singer’s films, Mangold does not introduce national landmarks into the set pieces. Instead, he adds palpable weight to the possibility of death. There is a sequence at a farmhouse that begins like a dream, only to descend into a literal nightmare. Logan has all the sneering rage of the previous films, minus some of his strength, but now he must also reckon with the loss of civilian life. Many superhero films do not dwell on the innocents who perish, and Logan’s willingness to scale down the action creates depth from smaller, more intimate violence. There is a lot more blood, with Logan’s claws creating crimson parabolas, and Mangold does not shy away from Laura’s power, either. Her claws are just as deadly, and the film never condescends to her. She is seen as a threat, even more so than Logan, and Keen plays her as a girl who was nurtured to be borderline feral.

James Mangold also directed 3:10 to Yuma, and he brings that same Western vibe to Logan. Cinematographer John Mathieson films with the harsh light of a world that’s been abandoned by modernity – there are no flashy gizmos or jets – and so everything feels rusted over. The movie wears its Western influences on its sleeve: at one point, Charles and Laura take a break to watch Shane in a hotel room. It should be no surprise to Shane fans that the movie within a movie serves as foreshadowing, and yet Mangold still has a few tricks up his sleeve. When Logan has his final rampage, snarling through the landscape like his namesake, Mangold puts Jackman/Logan through so much that the scene is more than thrilling. We’re not mere observers of Logan’s mindset – we feel like participants with him.

Ads and early reviews of Logan are breathless in their use of “gritty.” Indeed Logan is a gritty film, but not for its own sake. It is a film about loss, abandonment, and guilt. There is enough world-building, either through character choices or small details, so the despair always feels authentic. While Logan builds on X-Men films that precede it, the biggest parallels are to Terminator 2: Judgment Day. James Cameron’s sequel redefined the blockbuster, forcing its actors to do serious acting among all the mayhem, chases, and bloodshed. Like T2, the villains here are also implacable, which only make Logan’s constant, hopeless struggle all the more moving. Logan is not just the best X-Men film ever made. It is the best superhero film since The Dark Knight.