Logan could easily take its place at the top of the Marvel pile, but at the same time it's too different tonally. It's completely set apart from the universe that has cultivated Hugh Jackman's Wolverine from X-Men's debut in 2000. It's more comparable to a stripped down Children of Men than anything with the word "infinity" in its title (as if we can no longer count the number of CG effects being implemented).
And thank god.
In Hugh Jackman's final installment as the brawny, sin-filled, angry hero, Wolverine is at the end of his rope. His eyesight is fading, his regenerative abilities seem on the wane as well, and he's filled with debilitating booze just as much as piss and vinegar. The year is 2029 and mutants are a thing of the past. Saving up money as a limousine driver, his only hope for the future is to buy a ship to sail off into the sunset with Professor X (Oh Patrick Stewart, you wonderful man. If anyone could make a superhero movie Shakespearean, it would be you). This all changes when a mysterious woman shows up to solicit his help to transport a young, bright-eyed girl named Laura (a brightly talented young Dafne Keen).
There comes a point in any movie, especially a superhero one, that has been allowed an R rating where we realize, "oh, we're definitely in different territory." That moment, for Logan, comes less than ten minutes in with a skewer of blades straight into someone's head.
Director James Mangold and Hugh Jackman insisted on telling the story on their terms, satisfied with handling a smaller budget if that was the consequence. The limitations are definitely an asset in this story, which is more of a character piece with physical action. The parallels to a Western are a little too ham-fisted, but not unwarranted. We have time to develop relationships with these characters, understand the consequences of their actions (or inaction), and therefore care more deeply about what happens to them. An actual last stand means far more when we comprehend the true stakes at hand.
Logan is more adult, not because of the intense actions sequences that abound, but also because of the resounding thematic material as Wolverine grapples with his own sense of mortality and identity. Each hit he takes in this movie stings because he struggles to recover each time, just as in the beginning of The Dark Knight we begin to see the toll of Bruce Wayne's actions in that brief moment he takes off his shirt and we see the scars lacing his back. Wolverine is not invulnerable, neither physically nor emotionally and so each action he takes is a sacrifice we are able to feel keenly.
We're able to say goodbye to Hugh Jackman's portrayal of Wolverine (over a mind-boggling 9 movies) with respect because of how Logan was made. Because Logan was made without the limits of its rating and also without having to cater to future movies, it's able to stand alone and service itself entirely instead. Rather than others of its ilk, although certainly stylish, Logan is given room to breathe and is more like Mangold's earlier films such as Walk the Line which were simpler narratives driven by relationships. Mangold's directing is similarly simple, as he often chooses to use a single camera in smaller intimate scenes, rather than interjecting with close cuts and quick edits that often jar the connection between the viewer and the moment being captured.
Can future superhero movies take a leaf out of Logan's page? It's unlikely, although Logan is certainly a welcoming breath of fresh air in the staid superhero miasma of contemporary Hollywood. There's just too much going on (how do you service a character properly if there are 12 main characters in the span of 3 hours?), and too much expectation for the movies to be setting themselves up for the next big thing. If at all possible, hopefully future movies can take away the mantra that less can indeed be more. But in the meantime, it's refreshing that a movie like Logan has surfaced.