'Logan" is as ambitious and aspirational as comic book movies get. Like Pinocchio, the toy that wanted to be real, "Logan" dreams of being something more than the latest notch on the Marvel belt; it wants its stand-alone story of Wolverine and Professor Xavier to be taken seriously as authentic drama. And, to a surprising extent, it succeeds.
As far back as their comic book days, Marvel heroes have been troubled and unable to find peace. But even in this group the berserker Wolverine has stood out. So it's not surprising to find him at the center of this brooding, melancholy, almost despairing X-Men film set in a future world where bad things not only might happen, they're pretty much guaranteed.
Making this world convincing is director James Mangold, previously responsible for "Walk The Line," "3:10 to Yuma" and the earlier, less successful "The Wolverine." Co-writing here with the expert Scott Frank and Michael Green, Mangold has recovered his footing and turned in a directing job that is both efficient and effective.
Of course, none of the success "Logan" has had for the most part in realizing its dream would be possible without the franchise's acting stalwarts, Hugh Jackman as the convincingly tortured Wolverine, a.k.a. Logan, and Patrick Stewart as the redoubtable Professor Charles Francis Xavier, the man who put the X in X-Men.
Strong actors appear in Marvel movies with some frequency, but rarely do they have the experience with their roles that these two have (this is Jackman's ninth Wolverine movie in 17 years). And even rarer do they have parts that enable them to express disturbing emotions like the bitter recrimination and agonizing regret that "Logan's" writers have created.
If all this sounds too good to be true, it partially is. This is a genre exercise, after all, with all that implies in terms of plot and peripheral characterization, and there is one area that's especially troubling.
For like Wolverine himself, always trying to find a balance between being human and the more brutish side of his nature, "Logan" as a comic book movie must periodically feed the beast and partake of the kind of on-screen violence that is its fanboy reason for being.
Because it was decided that more extreme violence fit with this film's darker, more serious themes, "Logan" has become the first X-Men movie to be rated R for, among other things, "strong brutal violence and language throughout," some of the most brutal of the violence unnervingly caused by a preteen girl.
While this carnage is defensible in theory, and while the filmmakers have taken pains not to linger on the horrific brutality Logan and his terrible claws inflict, the gruesome situations presented, including more than one beheading, work at cross purposes with the film's more serious intent and reminds us that a scot-free escape from the strictures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not in the cards.
Undaunted by the complexity of the story it's about to tell, "Logan" smartly chooses to begin in the middle of things, where all is confusion for the audience.
The year is 2029, and the world is not in a happy place. Neither, for that matter is Logan, introduced outside El Paso shakily fighting off a group of miscreants who realize too late who owns the Chrysler limo they're trying to strip.
Yes, the erstwhile Wolverine still has those lethal talons and those legendary recuperative powers, but not even his full beard and don't-give-a-damn attitude can disguise the fact it's becoming harder and harder for him to do what he does.
So when a distraught woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) pleads that he's the only one who can help her, he doesn't respond. The same is true for smooth-talking Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a villain with a bionic hand who tells Logan, "I'm a fan, by the way," but is interested in more than autographs.
Logan wants nothing to do with anyone because he's desperate to keep a low profile. He lives in an eerie, abandoned smelting plant across the border in Mexico with fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and Professor Xavier, who is, if anything, in worse shape than Logan.
Afflicted by periodic crippling seizures that cause paralytic chaos around him, the professor alternates between expressing bitter disappointment with Logan and a drugged-out state that he witheringly describes as being "pharmaceutically castrated."
Feeling fearfully out of place in an unfriendly world where no new mutants have been born in 25 years, Logan is hoping to turn his limo-driving gigs into enough money to buy an ocean-going yacht where he and the professor can more effectively hide.
Shaking up everyone's plans is 11-year-old Laura (effective newcomer Dafne Keene), a sullen wild child with no manners or morals to speak of, who ends up becoming Logan's responsibility whether he wants it or not.
As they take to the road pursued by all manner of miscreants, Logan, the professor and the girl become an unlikely multigenerational group, and the conversations Logan and Xavier have about family, disappointment and responsibility have surprising emotional heft behind them. If only those beheadings didn't get in the way.
MPAA rating: R, for strong brutal violence and language throughout and for brief nudity.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Playing: In general release.