In Logan, the ninth and best throat-slashing, gut-stabbing Wolverine flick, star Hugh Jackman tries to convince audiences it's time to let him quit. Jackman accepted the role when he was 30. Now he's nearly 50, and director James Mangold makes him look it, even though his character is barely supposed to age. Logan is set in 2029, which, according to the biography in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, makes him just shy of 200. Finally, he's got gray in his beard and a limp in his left leg, already hobbled by being shoved into dad jeans. When he pads into a bedroom to discover 11-year-old mutant Laura (an outstanding Dafne Keen) reading a retro X-Men comic book, he rolls his eyes. "You do know they're all bullshit, right?" Wolverine grunts. He'll retire having never worn yellow spandex.
Mangold's phenomenal superhero movie has no space for such silliness. It also shuns that mopey, "why me?" navel-gazing that's turned Batman and Superman into a drag. Jackman's Wolverine is miserable, sure. "They're all bad days," he shrugs from his hideout in South Texas. But he keeps himself distracted with booze and a part-time gig driving a limo in this near-future when bachelorettes still flash their boobs and powder-blue prom tuxedos are back in fashion. When Wolverine does mope around a graveyard, he's not mourning his dead parents — he's just working a funeral. And he's not happy that a stranger named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse from Mexico City, blows his cover. "People saw someone who looked like Wolverine," Gabriela says, desperately searching this drunk chauffeur to see if he's healthy enough to fight. "Said he looked old." Gracias, lady. Go away.
Logan is a long-haul car-chase flick punctured with claws, which skewer chins and stab through foreheads, often in brutally thrilling slo-mo. Laura needs to get to safety — which for this Spanish-speaking girl isn't the States, but Canada. Yet Logan, the protector she's chosen against his growls, keeps driving into Mexico where he's stashed Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in a tipped-over water tower that's as sad and surreal as a modernist play. I kept expecting Xavier, his mental powers all staticky like a broken antenna, to start wailing lines from Waiting for Godot. (Stewart did star in it on Broadway in 2013.) Instead, the Professor attacks Logan for trapping him in this metal tomb. "You're waiting for me to die!" he howls. "What a disappointment you are."
This is the collapse of the sprawling X-Men family that Wolverine only begrudgingly joined in the first place. New mutants aren't being born. They're forged in a cruel laboratory where Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) and his one-armed goon, Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), are breeding a generation of killers. Laura and her labmates have never left their bunker. "Don't think of them as children," sniffs the doctor. Don't think of them as logical, either, or you'll get hung up on why half of them speak English without an accent. (One of Logan's dozen plot holes that are hard to ignore — along with why Rice could snatch Laura across one border in Texas, but not two borders in Toronto.)
Mangold teases Laura's powers until we, and two dozen unfortunate bad guys, are dying to see her rage. Up to the last second, she calmly eats cornflakes until it's time to strike. Keen is incredible. The bilingual preteen has wise eyes and adult-size charisma. Onscreen, she's as confident as Jackman, even though he's been playing the role since before she was born. She doesn't have a speck of child-actress sugar coating, and Mangold doesn't try to get cheap laughs from the contrast of seeing someone 4 feet tall slice off a man's head. He lets her kills be horrible, because they are, especially when she was never given a choice.
Most directors make kids too angelic, like Jeff Nichols's Midnight Special, whose magical boy was cute, obedient, and unbearable. Instead of a child, he was an icon of martyred Saint Sebastian. But Keen's Laura feels real, even when she's sucking bullets out of her own arm. Though she barely speaks, Mangold and his cowriters Scott Frank and Michael Green show us that she's still an ordinary, obnoxious girl who won't stop screwing with the door locks in the getaway car. Keen silently telegraphs Laura's need for normalcy. At a convenience store, she picks out a hideous pair of pink sunglasses. They're terrible, but the film doesn’t spin her fashion choice into a comedy beat. We simply like that she likes them.
Logan is the rare action flick in which the quiet moments are as compelling as any of the fights. Our characters spend a lot of time on the road, and we're wedged in with them groaning when the Professor is forced to make an undignified request to pee. The Professor hopes that Wolverine and Laura can become each other's new family, that a feral adult can raise a feral child. To the script's credit, it's less sure. It admires their matching his-and-hers knuckle scars, but spares us the sight of these two savages hugging to a Motown hit. When the film finally lightens up for a bit, the laughs are louder because this exhausted carpool deserves to smile.
The deaths, too, are earned. Like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Logan is after a maximum-impact body count. Yet where Rogue One used mortality like a cheat — death alone made its characters matter, a cynical and cyclical bluff — Mangold cares about every corpse. He's not above introducing strangers just to torture them later, but his camera looks over a person long enough for us to remember their face. Sometimes, he doesn't even show us their fate, leaving us haunted by a glimpse of a fisherman who mysteriously donates his truck to Laura, and the fear that the girl might never grow a conscience.
Maybe she doesn't need a heart. After all, what good did one do for Wolverine? Two centuries of saving the world and all he's got to show for it is a busted limousine and a stack of comic books he dismisses as "ice cream for bed-wetters." Still, those stories mean something to Laura and the kids like her at the lab, who grew up believing they could found their own mutant society. Fiction has a way of becoming fact. Without fantasies about people who flew to the moon, mankind would have never dreamed of and built rockets. Wolverine is a cartoon who turned into the bulk of Jackman's career. Though it's time to let the actor tell other kinds of tales, Logan honors his legacy. Even the costumes he shunned. If Keen's tiny terror wants to pair her pink shades with yellow spandex, I'm in.