The Secret to ‘Logan’s Success? Bringing Old Superhero Movies Into the Future
The following post contains minor SPOILERS for Logan.
My recent list of the most dated parts of the original X-Men movie included things like Hugh Jackman’s comparatively non-huge, non-jacked-man physique, Wolverine’s non-stop smoking, and the heroes’ black leather costumes. The list also included the relative lack of Easter eggs; even with about 10 major roles in the film, the first X-Men is, at least by contemporary standards, a small movie. There’s no sense of a wider Marvel Universe beyond the edges of the frame, there are few appearances by (or references to) other mutants, and there’s no post-credits scene to tease future films. It is a movie unto itself.
Interestingly, all of that is true of Logan as well. It also features very few references to a wider cinematic universe. It has a tiny cast of mutants. And it provides perhaps the most emphatic ending of any of the 10 (and counting) X-Men movies. Yet while all those elements make 2000’s X-Men feel old fashioned, those same components make Logan feel like a breath of fresh air.
For some people, it’s not a movie anymore. It becomes just an episode in the world’s most expensive episodic television show ... The reality to me is that you can’t have interesting movies if you tell a filmmaker, ‘Get in this bed and dream, but don’t touch the pillows or move the blankets.’ You will not get cinema. You will just get a platform for selling the next movie on that bed, unchanged and unmade.
We didn’t have to connect it to any larger ‘universe.’ Or, as Jim keeps saying, ‘We didn’t have to sell Happy Meals.’ And so that was great. Whereas, the last one, my favorite part is where he’s in the middle of rural Japan and with this woman and being a human being and feeling what it’s like to be a human being. But we’re not there very long before we're back to giant robots and stuff. And then it becomes just another superhero movie with a lot of CG stuff.
This has always been my problem with The Wolverine, a movie that got very positive reviews when it was released in 2013, mostly, from my perspective, for the simple reason that it was not as pants-crappingly terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Frank’s opinion is absolutely on point: The Wolverine had a solid idea, and worked well as long as it was a stripped-down character study. But by the end of the movie, Wolverine’s fighting a giant CGI robot dude. As a viewer, it felt like the beginning of one story was sutured to the ending of another — maybe because that story was expected to sell Happy Meal toys.
Although the final act does escalate its conflict significantly, Logan is a much more narrow and coherent vision of its protagonist. The comic-book characters who do appear, most prominently Wolverine’s female clone/daughter X-23, serve the story and its central themes — in this case, the notion of Wolverine as a man at war with himself, represented by his alliance with one copy of his DNA, X-23, in a battle with another copy, a duplicate with all of his powers and none of his soul.
The dystopia around Wolverine and X-23 is so devoid of mutants that it’s possible to read Logan as a subtle critique of the state of superhero movies in 2017. Remember: The X-Men aren’t killed by Apocalypse or the Hellfire Club or General Stryker; they’re killed by Professor Xavier himself after his abilities grew too large to control. The biggest threat to mutants here comes from unchecked power in their own midst. It’s as if Logan is set in a world where comic-book movies’ box-office clout became too big to suppress, and then it destroyed them.
Logan is literally caught between the past (the young, evil Wolverine) and the future (X-23), and maybe Logan is caught too; between different eras of superhero cinema. I don’t think Mangold and Frank would argue that Marvel is bad, or harmful to the film industry, or anything like that. The larger issue isn’t Marvel, or scale, or never-ending stories; it’s sameness.
Marvel has gotten so successful doing what they do (and with good reason) that everyone else in the comic-book movie business — along with many other parts of Hollywood that have nothing to do with comics — are racing to copy them. That’s what gave us a Batman versus Superman movie that interrupted its climax to feature commercials for upcoming films about Wonder Woman and Aquaman. That’s what’s about to give us cinematic universes about Godzilla and King Kong, Universal monsters, King Arthur, Robin Hood, and even a bunch of totally different Hasbro toys that have absolutely nothing to do with one another except for the company that owns their collective rights.
Plus, Marvel’s business model of interconnectedness ensures uniformity across all its various properties, and even across different mediums, from television to movies to video games. That compounds the sameness exponentially. It’s a bunch of movies that look the same, in an industry in which everyone is desperately trying to copy a formula designed to make a bunch of movies that look the same.
It’s worth remembering that when Marvel initiated its cinematic universe in the mid-2000s, it was a bold risk. It set them apart from their competitors — including those, like Fox with its X-Men movies, who were licensing Marvel’s own characters for their superhero films. Today the entire world has flipped; Marvel’s business model is the dominant one and big movies designed to stand alone as single stories are the rarity. Now before comic book companies make even one movie, they have to figure out how it will fit into the six movies that will inevitably follow it.
That’s the angle Logan rejected, and the one that made it feel so modern — even though, ironically, that’s the same angle that makes the first X-Men feel like something from a bygone era. Most pop culture moves in cycles; things become popular, they fade away, and then become popular again in a new context from new creators. The fact that Logan has been received so well — the best reviews in the franchise’s history, massive worldwide grosses, an impressive Sunday hold at the box office, an A- CinemaScore — suggests that even as Logan provides a definitive conclusion for its particular storyline, it also represents a new, smaller beginning for the world of superhero cinema; one where the story you’re telling today is more important than the stories you might tell tomorrow.