For whatever reason, the X-Men series on screen has had a wildly oscillating tone when you consider the last 17 years of releases. The films erratically move from laughably bad CGI to sombre deaths and concentration camp memories, sometimes in the same story. This time around the title provides a clue of what they are aiming for; much like other comic book adventures in recent years that deemed it necessary to swap out the colours and camp, they've dropped the usual superhero alias for a more serious moniker. If the number of years since the initial Bryan Singer outing introduced us to Hugh Jackman's Wolverine makes you feel ancient, then this is a movie which will certainly magnify that feeling. Like the tone the quality also varies within the franchise, but fortunately this one hits a high point... while being a depressing and down beat affair. If you thought the changes between his first and second solo outing made quite a difference, then this takes things to new extremes -- while maintaining a few staple ingredients, for better or worse.
The familiar elements are pretty clear as things progress. Wolverine has an issue that slows down his body's regeneration power once again. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) has problem with his psychic abilities. There's another young girl on the run and another hospital full of mutant test subjects. However much of this is heavily disguised by the way the story is told and how all of this is presented. This is a dry, harsh looking piece of work. The desert landscapes of the Mexican border location in the first act is weathered and the scenery is cracked and decaying. The same can be said of our eponymous hero and his one time leader Charles. They both have many long and tragic years written into their haggard, grimacing faces. You'll probably want to check recent interviews after seeing this to remind yourself they don't looks this decrepit. It's a very different final chapter to Days of Future Past.
Familiarity creeps in elsewhere as things progress, as a troubled girl Laura (Dafne Keen) enters their fugitive existence. Soon ideas from other genres start to appear. This is not your regular adventure with a climactic robot battle, though it does have a final showdown. Influences from Westerns are very apparent, sometimes in the events of the story and sometimes on screen within the film. It also becomes another story in which a special child and a grizzled parental figure must escape from nefarious forces. It's part road trip, part human drama. The characters are ageing and worn out, they spend time considering past mistakes and trying just to get by rather than fighting evil. There's no colour left in their world, and the comic book escapades of the past may even be fictional within this story.
Charles is suffering from a mental disorder for which Logan barters for medicine while trying to earn a living as a limousine driver. It's far from glamorous, but it allows the performances to be at the centre. You really get a feeling of how long these two have been stuck with each other, and that their days of being powerful and heroic are far behind them. There's a lot of pill taking, a lot of drinking, sometimes there are funerals, sometimes there are moments of madness. The once unstoppable Wolverine is scarred and exhausted. But it's not a totally humourless story, and many of the lighter moments come from their core relationship as a kind of dysfunctional father and son, despite the extended family being absent for reasons that nobody wants to talk about. The supporting cast do a solid job with Caliban (Stephen Merchant) proving some exasperated wit to the proceedings and Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) offering a charming but cold antagonist.
Of course this isn't just a slow burning exploration of grief, this is a film where someone uses retractable weapons in their fists to slay bad guys. However the direction they are taking this time is made crystal clear in the opening minutes of the film, in which Logan's first words are expletives and the results of his first actions are visceral and gory. For those waiting to see the sort of uncaged violence usually only present in other media, this will sate your blood lust. But it also provides a far better feeling of the impact of his actions, and as his psyche begins to feel the burden it's obvious why. In some ways they go a little too far, after all it's sort of numbing after so many limbs are dismembered and the f-bombs start to be dropped by almost every character. Some restraint within the freedom of a new higher age rating might have given it all a little more punch.
It's not a perfect movie, and I have some objections to things that arrive later in the third act. While many of the dramatic moments are given time and allowed to breathe with depth and nuance, others feel rushed or under used. Some of the music doesn't quite gel. There are also moments in which super powers are used, and others where they seem to be conveniently put aside to add drama when it doesn't feel natural. There are nods to past films that feel out of place in this super serious incarnation, and it could have been tightened up with a few minor changes. Some developments do cross over to standard comic book territory, particularly when Richard E. Grant's moustache twirling villain arrives and his final project is revealed. It gets a bit silly despite the obvious symbolism. But there are no doomsday devices; it's still a very personal story with smaller events and stakes. There are scenes of warmth and heart, mixed with scenes of rage and depression. For a last hurrah with these characters and a well executed story that takes things mostly seriously, it doesn't pull any punches.