Hugh Jackman has been synonymous with the comic book hero Wolverine since his debut in Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” arrived on screen in 2000.

Seventeen years later, Jackman takes his final bow as the claw-wielding, self-healing mutant in James Mangold’s “Logan,” a brutally daring epic that wows audiences from start to finish with its dark tone and ruthless efficiency.

The haunting, heartfelt character-driven drama is the first real attempt at prestige cinema in the superhero genre since 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” cementing its place as one of the all-time greats among comic book movies. “Logan” is unquestionably the definitive X-Men film and a career peak for both Oscar nominee Jackman and “Star Trek” heavyweight Patrick Stewart, now in his fifth turn as Professor Charles Xavier.

Bearing a striking resemblance in tone to classic westerns like “Unforgiven,” “True Grit” and “Shane,” the film opens with an aging James “Logan” Howlett hiding in plain sight as a limo driver working in 2029 El Paso hustling for prescription drugs. Long retired from his Wolverine persona, Logan and fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) keep ailing Professor Xavier safe from harm inside an abandoned smelting plant just across the Mexican border. Their secrets remain hidden until Logan’s path crosses with a young mutant and her caretaker on the run from a mysterious security force.

Performances in comic book adaptations rarely aspire to noteworthy – let alone award contending – turns, but Jackman turns in a powerful, nuanced performance as the titular Logan that will ultimately rank in the top three acting efforts in the history of not only the superhero genre, but of Jackman’s career as well.

While Jackman has always given the Wolverine character a rough, primal exterior, his inner turmoil bubbles to the surface like never before in the most intriguing ways in “Logan.” The pained, exhausted grimace his character radiates on screen from start to finish invokes the weary gunfighter motifs made famous by cinema’s most heralded westerns. His weapons may be adamantium rather than steel and stab rather than shoot, but Logan carries emotional and physical scars from decades of battles on his chest like a badge of honor turned into a constant, painful reminder of the hellish journey.

The entire film lives and dies on Jackman’s every movement, with the film’s harrowing action sequences only serving to reinforce the brutality and pain Logan has endured. In the hands of a lesser actor, the character as written on the page could have been woefully mishandled, but Jackman approaches each scene, each moment in time with such care and precision that a complete fantasy tale is enveloped with deep, rich humanity.

Thespian extraordinaire Stewart also rises to the challenge in a wonderfully compelling turn as Xavier, Logan’s mentor and the world’s most powerful telepath suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. The performance ranges the gambit from beautifully neurotic to outlandishly mad and back again to a warm kindness that belies just how perfect and secretly charismatic Stewart is in the role.

Making her feature film debut, Dafne Keen is quietly powerful as young mutant Laura, instantly bonded to Jackman’s Logan in a makeshift father-daughter kinship that works far more effectively that one might expect. Playing the character silent aside from the occasional grunt or howl, Keen does all the talking she needs to with her mesmerizing eyes that tells stories far beyond her young life. 

It should be noted that, unlike nearly all other films in the genre, “Logan” earns a hard “R” rating for deep, bloody violence true to the Wolverine character from the comic books, but largely missing from superhero movies in general. Whereas in most previous X-Men installments the camera cuts away as Wolverine stabs a bad guy with his claws, “Logan” forces audiences to face the brutality of the character head-on.

Mangold uses this bloody, graphic imagery not to engage the bloodlust of his audience, rather to reinforce the emotional stakes of the film by putting Logan’s visceral nature (and the toll that comes along with it) on display. Audiences are forced to feel the deaths Wolverine causes on an emotional level as the character does, further rooting Logan’s struggle in a more human context.

Visually, “Logan” is a dynamic, spectacular film that takes its lead character’s gritty persona and captures that same tone frame to frame with a sandy, worn hue. Fight sequences rely on expertly designed choreography instead of budget-bursting computer graphics and further accentuate the realistic tone Mangold sets out to achieve in the film.

Despite being released more than nine months before voting opens, “Logan” is the best chance a superhero film has had to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture since “The Dark Knight” and should be considered a serious contender for several technical awards as well.

Without question, “Logan” is an instant classic and one of the most intriguing, impactful performances in Jackman’s career. While some cursory background knowledge of the X-Men universe is certainly helpful in understanding “Logan,” it isn’t necessary to enjoy Mangold’s brilliant piece of cinema. 

Skipping a trip to the local theater to catch “Logan” on the big screen would be a mistake ardent movie fans tolerant of the R-rated gore and violence should not make.

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