Depending on how you periodize movie history, Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) marks the beginning of the modern era of comic-book superhero movies that could demand to be taken seriously without getting laughed out of the theater. Seventeen years later, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart recreate the roles they first played in X-Men, ostensibly for the last time, in James Mangold's follow-up to The Wolverine (2013). Despite their strenuous efforts to rewrite the past in order to salvage the future in Days of Future Past (2014), things haven't really worked out for James "Logan" Howlett, aka Wolverine (Jackman) and his mentor, Charles Xavier (Stewart). By 2029 they are two of the last mutants on Earth, mutation by birth having ceased earlier in the century and most of the X-Men having been killed accidentally offscreen by elderly Professor X in a fit of psychic dementia. Logan is reduced to working as a limo driver to keep house for Xavier and his caretaker, the albino mutant-tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant). His greatest ambition is to save enough money (after living expenses and clandestine drugs to suppress the old man's mental fits) to buy a houseboat. But live Xavier, he's stuck in a long decline. In his case, the adamantium in his skeleton has slowly been poisoning his blood and weakening his mutant healing factor. That makes beating up mere thugs tougher than it used to be, and there is worse to come for him.
It turns out that Logan can't escape his past or his legend. One of the nice touches in the new film is that Logan lives in a world where X-Men comics are published -- much as Marvel Comics exists in the Marvel comic book universe -- and Wolverine is a living legend among the few surviving mutants, whose number has been increased artificially by a corporation operating south of the border with mutant blood and genes, including Logan's. However inconspicuous he tries to be, Logan is tracked down both by a woman imploring him to protect a young escapee from the corporate experiments, and by a cyborg corporate mercenary hunting the girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Logan sticks his neck out for nobody these days, but after the woman is killed, and at Xavier's urging, he takes Laura under his wing. Known in comics as X-23, Laura is a mini-Wolverine with enhancements, most notably foot claws, and if anything more feral than her model and genetic dad. She wants to reach a reputed mutant enclave in North Dakota, a first stop on the way to a more permanent haven in Canada, but Logan discovers to his horror that these are only ideas taken from those hated X-Men comics. Nevertheless, his bridges are burning behind him, and soon there's nothing else to do but take her where she wants and prove that he actually can protect somebody after all these years....
In an odd bit of misdirection the film invites you in the most blatant fashion to think of it as a version of Shane, but the more obvious model, I think, is Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or at least the second half of it, with Laura as a feral kid in homage to The Road Warrior, a film that's also been compared to Shane. If anything, Logan invokes Shane in order to shoot it down, to reject the idea of Logan as Shane. That seems to be the point of a morbid mid-film episode during which Logan, Xavier and Laura befriend a family of horse breeders after a highway mishap, and are invited to spend the night at their home. We learn that this family has been holding out against an oppressive agro-company that arbitrarily shuts off their water supply. In scene reminiscent of the business with the tree stump in Shane we see Logan and the father (Eriq La Salle) work together to get the water running again while staring down the company's enforcers. This fairy tale sequence ends abruptly and cruelly with the massacre of the family (and Charles Xavier, and later the agro-company enforcers) by the corporate mercenaries and their secret weapon, the next-generation X-24 Logan clone (played by newcomer Huge Jackedman). If you look back, Logan has never been the best at protecting people, but this is the crowning disaster of his career, though it's really more Xavier's fault for overruling Logan and excepting an invitation that could only cause trouble for civilians. In a way, it confirms Shane's judgment on himself as one who can never remove the brand of a killer and live a normal life, but Shane at least could make life safer for normal people by killing the killers until there are no guns in the valley. By comparison, Logan seems to say that all its hero touches turns to ash, but then it gives him once last chance to help people.
Logan is a very good film, probably the best of Jackman's three solo films, but there's something forced about its resolution, as if with the finality of their exits Jackman and Stewart want to declare the end of an era that hasn't ended. As a comic-book reader of long standing, there are times when I look at superhero movies and TV shows with annoyance, because the live-action characters aren't doing what their print versions would. The final chase scene in Logan is a case in point. After shooting himself up with a temporary rejuvenation serum, Logan, who has delivered Laura to North Dakota and found exactly the enclave she was looking for, hurries to catch up with the young mutant refugees before the corporate mercenaries run them down. The children are shown running for their lives through the forest, pursued by guys with guns and at least one cybernetic arm. We have been told that these kids all have lethal mutant abilities and were raised to be killing machines. Yet they only think to use their powers on the mercs when they fall down and are about to be captured. Worse yet, the final battle pits Logan and Laura alone against X-24, when from what we've seen the rest of the kids have more than a sufficient power set to clean the monster's clock. Instead, the film has them waste their powers and time lynching a secondary villain, for no better reason than that the filmmakers want Logan to be killed, and only want X-24 stopped by the adamantium bullet that Logan has saved for whenever he should want to kill himself, but has been taken and fired by Laura. The clumsiness of the contrivances leaves a bad taste at the very end of the picture, which closes with Laura quoting from Shane to eulogize the dead hero -- so is he or isn't he? -- but it doesn't outweigh the film's many virtues.
The R-rated violence is appropriate for this film's darker, fatalistic tone, while Jackman and Stewart are great as tragic fallen heroes. If Logan is part Shane, part Mad Max, Xavier is a mutant Lear, and the idea of great power ravaged by age adds a fresh note to this very self-conscious "last" film. Whether it really is the "last" is up to the actors. It's clear by now that there's little continuity linking the solo Wolverine movies to the main X-Men series, or even to each other. Jackman's solo vehicles can be seen as "meta" movies, each an alternate reality unto itself, so that should Jackman feel sufficiently motivated he could do another entirely unrelated adventure of Logan -- and, of course, his character is still available for X-Men films which have only reached the 1980s in their retro-continuity. Comic book fans will tell you that seeing a character die doesn't mean you've seen the last of him, and despite its flaws Logan is good enough for people to withhold objections should Hugh Jackman change his mind about wearing the claws again.