Arguably, 20th Century-Fox’s X-Men franchise provided the template for the Marvel Cinematic Universe which now threatens to overwrite and obliterate it. Aside from anything else, Kevin Feige got into the comics movies business with producer credits on the X-films before becoming the Marvel movie tie-it-all-together guy. Whereas Marvel have come to a truce with Sony over the Spider-Man rights, allowing the character to cross over into their movies, it seems that the MCU and the 2FXU are in the kind of war only alternate realities in mega-crossovers can be … with Marvel Comics, in an astonishingly petty mode, deliberately scaling down their X-Men books (once the company’s flagship top-sellers) in order to boost the wholly-owned Inhumans (of the popular ‘What If … Anyone Gave a Shit About the Inhumans?’ storyline) as a replacement for mutants in their ongoing synergistic TV/film empire. The only thing Fox can do to retaliate is innovate weirdly – venturing into TV with the decidedly off-model Legion, going for a 15-certificate/R-rating with the post-modern snark of Deadpool and now sort-of winding the whole saga up with a gorier/swearier 2029-set last hurrah for Hugh Jackman’s Logan aka Wolverine aka James Howlett, linch-pin character of the series and swinging for the third time after two previous unsatisfying solo adventures.
X-Men Origins Wolverine and The Wolverine were probably too close to the regular X-Men films with their big jumbles of characters and super-power battles – and might well have got wiped out of continuity (along with Bret Ratner’s X-Men Last Stand) in whatever the fuck Days of Future Past did to the timeline … which is a slight cavil for Logan’s tragic finalities. We saw Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) die and be reincarnated by possessing his comatose mindless twin brother (a handy thing to have around) in the post-credits sting of a film made before Marvel movie audiences habitually stuck around for these things (there isn’t one in Logan, by the way) therefore confusing weak-bladdered, credits-skipping folk when he showed up again … and that fudge of a finish was probably revoked when history got changed to avoid Sentinel-plagued dystopia. So, the Trump-flavoured miserable world here – the plot kicks off at the Mexican wall – is provisional if any future movie needs to tinker with it, for all that Jackman and Stewart have sworn this is their last go-round as Logan and Chuck.
It’s not exactly specified how the world has gone to hell this time, but it seems to be mostly just old age for the characters and the franchise … which means Logan’s ageing process (stalled since the American Civil War) must have kicked in to match Jackman’s and Stewart gets a lot of play out of being ‘fucking ninety’. It might be an alternate universe to the whole series, though a shout-back to the Wolverine’s cage-fighting stint in Bryan Singer’s X-Men suggests not – apparently, Xavier has a degenerative brain disease which gives him fits in which his uncontrolled psychic energies cause disasters, and have killed seven X-Men. For the purposes of this film, it’s poignant to think that these are the best-loved characters in the ongoing series – though, for the purposes of films as yet unscripted, it might well be Maggot, Marrow, Pixie, Cable (I hate Cable – dullest character ever), Warpath, Sway and someone big league who’ll turn out to have been the Changeling in disguise. Mutants haven’t been born lately – which might have something to do with the universal popularity of a new kind of corn syurup used in soft drinks (?) since the movie rights to Scarlet Witch are with Marvel – and the busy, teeming supporting casts of nine or so films are no longer around for reasons too painful (or vague) to mention. We’ve been here often in comics, from the original Age of Apocalypse and Days of Future Past storylines (not to be confused with the films) to the more recent Old Man Logan or Future Imperfect ‘What If’ worlds (at Marvel alone). There are nasty cyborgs, a lone minion mutant (Stephen Merchant as Caliban) and a rising generation of clones – including moppet mcguffuin Laura/X-23 (Dafne Keen) – but the colour has been drained and Logan only uncovers a stash of comics to sneer at them, even as the thrust of the plot is to bring back the heroic verve of the character as envisioned by successive creators since the Hulk beat him up and he joined the All-New X-Men lineup in the 1970s.
The effect is to trim a lot of fat, but – as with Deadpool – also make the basic story (road trip!) feel undernourished. The baddies are both British-accented – mutant-hunting cyborg Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and Weapon X 2nd generation mad scientist Rice (Richard E.Grant) – and could well be the ridiculous nemesis from Deadpool split into two even less substantial characters. Playing to the strengths of director James Mangold (getting another shot after The Wolverine), the focus stays in a battered limousine with Logan (who has been working as a hire car driver to score meds for his mentor), Professor X and feral clone Laura as they drive towards a possibly illusory escape point to Canada (which Logan never talks about as his homeland). The leads are strong enough to make the two old crotchety gits engaging as if this were a remake of Harry and Tonto with Stewart as Art Carney and Jackman as the cat, while Keen alternates between cute-sad and snarly-stabby (she has all Wolverine’s powers plus an extra claw in her toes). Along the way, mostly predictable stuff happens – when an ordinary family invite the fugitives to stay over in an isolated farm, you just know things will turn out badly for all concerned (though the film mixes up expectations here with a surprise extra player and a moment as two sets of baddies who don’t realise they’re in collusion are pitted against each other. Mostly, the much-vaunted rougher tone involves swearing and slice and dice. In my review of The Wolverine, I said that the hero’s problem was having an 18-certificate superpower in a 12-A movie – here, he doesn’t quite go the full berserker rage, so we get clean impalements and decapitations, but no strings of entrails or cut-up characters who are more than faceless goons we can’t feel sorry for no matter how many monologues about the awful burden of being a mass murderer Jackman delivers. What we do get is decent claw fu and a lot of bad guys kebabbed and tossed away.
In a cinema multiverse – as with the comics – I still find the way the X-franchise has been dominated by Wolverine to the eclipse of potentially more interesting characters problematic. Especially since the only alternative Fox can come up with is Deadpool, who is basically the a Men’s Rights Activist version of Wolverine. I’d much rather the dying fall of the series had Charles teamed with Magneto, Mystique, Beast or Jean Grey. Hell, if Ben Foster’s Angel or Vinnie Jones’ Juggernaut (Charles’ non-vegetative, arguably non-braindead brother) were in the limo with Stewart’s cubeall telepath, I suspect I personally would have have enjoyed this much more. It’s admittedly the best of the three Wolvie outings. In lieu of a tag, you do get a cool Johnny Cash song over the end credits – but, as a proud Canadian, I’m sure James Howlett would have preferred Celine Dion.