In his keen, recently published book Hit Makers, Derek Thompson explores the tricky waltz between our inherent neophilia (love of the unfamiliar) and neophobia (aversion to the new), and how the rare work of popular culture that satisfies both can become a smash. Novelty and familiarity, he argues, often have to trade the lead to produce gripping mainstream art. Confront something too radical and the result is total confusion. Encounter something too familiar, on the other hand, and you’re adrift in boredom. But engage with an enduring formula that’s been tweaked just so, and B-I-N-G-O, out springs a blockbuster franchise such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings.

Industrial design pioneer Raymond Loewy first identified this principle and, in turn, coined the term MAYA: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. Push the limits, though not too far (Most Advanced). But also give your audience an “aha” aesthetic response to something they’ve seen countless times before (Most Acceptable). Repackage the old as a thrillingly original experience, and you may have a hit on your hands (full MAYA).

Which brings us to James Mangold’s superb new film, a somber post-apocalyptic Western (Most Advanced) that functions within a whiz-bang, comic book tableau (Yet Acceptable). Logan is the latest installment in the creatively scattershot X-Men cinematic series, a resplendent black swan wading beside innumerable Marvel and DC ugly ducklings. It’s a shocking picture, both in its intent and execution. A jarringly profane, big-budget bloodbath, Logan ultimately pokes and prods at the nature of this mortal coil with a humane touch. Few movies so explosive and gruesome will consequently bring you to tears (which it did for me, twice). Likewise, I doubt another picture this ruminative will ever again feature characters with extraordinary powers.

Logan is set in a crumbling, near-future America where mutants have, for the most part and without explanation, been wiped away. The few mutants still around are left tattered, weary, despondent. It’s 2029 and Wolverine (a grizzled Hugh Jackman), now an alcoholic, cares for an ailing and psychically hazardous Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in a rusty hideaway south of the Mexican border, with the help of the albino mutant-hunter Caliban (an unrecognizable Stephen Merchant). We find Logan (no one calls him Wolverine anymore) at rock bottom, a sad specimen to match Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, in his spare time earning a paycheck as a limo driver for the likes of screaming prom-goers. The status quo of our central trio is upended when Laura (the remarkable newcomer Dafne Keen) – an adolescent mutant whose superhuman abilities are strikingly Wolverine-like – enters the story and instigates a northward, cross-country adventure toward a Canadian sanctuary named Eden, which may or may not exist.

Hot on their heels are a band of misfits called the Reavers, led by Donald Pierce (a menacing Boyd Holbrook), at the behest of Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), a mad engineer of fresh young mutants. Ripped straight from the comics, this bit of extraneous mythology plays out as little more than a MacGuffin. In other words, a big chase commences, and a reluctant Logan, unconvinced of this mission’s worth, is dragged back into action. Once the good guys hit the highway, though, Logan transforms into a sly concoction of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and (best of all) Luc Besson’s The Professional. If this sounds to you like a dubious description for a superhero movie – you’d be right, it is. That’s because Logan doesn’t cleanly fit into that tired genre in the first place.

The X-Men films arguably remain the most influential, and yet baggy, of the current capes-and-masks glut. Bryan Singer’s debut installment, released way back in 2000 (the seemingly distant past), offered audiences and, crucially, Hollywood a proof of concept of what a team superhero movie could be. In the same way, Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman, early touchstones, proved solo superhero adaptations could work on the big screen. (Sam Raimi resuscitated the latter format, and built upon X-Men’s success, via two excellent chapters in his Spider-Man trilogy.) At best, subsequent X-Men sequels and offshoots were sharp action movies that doubled as paeans to outsider inclusion (X2, X-Men: First Class). At worst, they were bloated and muddied messes (the rest of the crop, really). And then there’s Deadpool.

Logan, with its Tarantino-esque violence (sudden and pitiless) and dialogue (expletive-laden throughout), wouldn’t exist were it not for Deadpool’s massive box office earnings. The two films, however, share little in common other than a strong R rating. While Deadpool sought to eat its meta cake and have its genre too, Logan wants nothing more than to tell a simple story, one of an old man besieged by immortality and a lingering sense of moral obligation. Sure, the old man in question happens to be one of the most popular comic book heroes ever, but that’s what makes Mangold’s film so astounding. Logan is a modest, human tale enrobed in adamantium, which is huge. How, exactly, did this thoughtful movie – with its long stretches of silence, vast natural vistas, and a devastating final act – get made at all? And how will the bloodless, summer beat-em-ups, with their urban annihilations and unseen casualties and smirking one-liners, that somehow pass as entertainment nowadays, survive in its wake? Battered and bleeding, I hope.

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