Fanboys weren’t filled with excitement at the prospect of an R-rated Wolverine movie for the chance to see Wolverine and Professor X exchange F-bombs with each other (although they would get just that). No, it was the promise of finally seeing Wolverine and his unbreakable claws unleashed in all their berserker fury. After being held back by the PG-13 rating in the previous X-Men films, Wolverine would be released, and the blood and gore would flow like it rightly should. But the smartest of the many smart things Logan does is to take that anticipatory glee and blunt it with the stark reality of just how damn awful the results of such a rampage would be. For people on both ends of those famous claws.
Logan is practically drenched in weariness, in the idea that everything, even just continuing your existence, has its toll. It’s there in the way Professor X lingers on in a drug-induced haze, meant to prevent a repeat of a terrible psychic accident that left several X-Men dead. It’s there in the angry-beyond-her-years stare of Laura, a young mutant experimented on in an effort to make her a weapon on par with Wolverine. And it’s there in Logan himself, slowly being poisoned from within by the very adamantium that made him such a badass for so long, a shell of his former self, getting by on sheer stubborn rage. Even the world these characters inhabit feels like one winding down, all rust and dust.
But director and co-screenwriter James Mangold has more in mind than just two hours of misery. In Laura, Logan sees a version of himself that has a chance for something different, who might avoid the long life of violence that haunts him if he can only help her escape it. It’s a conflict that’s given literal life in the form of a younger version of Wolverine, grown from Logan’s DNA and unencumbered by such hindrances as conscience and morality. It’s the very thing Logan has struggled all his life not to be, and the very thing he fears Laura might become. Now it’s been unleashed against them, a specter of sins past threatening to wipe out the future.
It’s after Logan’s first encounter with this more brutal version of himself that Mangold really takes the bloom off that R-rated rose. We see the cavernous wounds in Logan’s body left by his opponent, vivid red gashes juxtaposed with the twisted, scarred flesh of past battles, his healing factor finally unable to keep up with years of damage. In the context of the film, it works as a way of setting the stakes for the inevitable final confrontation, but in a meta sense, it’s Mangold staring down all the rabid Wolverine fans in the audience and saying, “This is the result of what you’ve been dying to see. And it’s awful. So maybe you shouldn’t be so eager for it.” You could even extend the metaphor further and say that in Logan, Mangold is positing the end of the superhero boom, a time when we’re all just tired of the whole enterprise, where super-powered fights lose their luster and just become destruction porn. I don’t think Marvel is near that point yet, but it’s telling that Mangold sets Logan in 2029; a dozen years is plenty of time for us to grow bored with Avengers movies.
And yet Logan ends on a hopeful note. Yes, there is loss and pain. But also the idea that those are a part of a life worth living. And that what we pass on is more important than what we leave behind. We might bear scars from terrible wounds, but that means we were alive.