Mar 12, 2017

Logan Should Be a Game-Changer, if the Industry Lets It

How Logan Should Change Superhero Movies

So it took a while, but I finally got to see Logan, and it did not disappoint.

I've got a strange relationship with the X-movies, because I've never been a fan of the X-Men in the comics. The first X-Men comic I ever read was The Dark Phoenix Saga, and it was so powerful to my 8-year-old brain that no X-Men story I read after it seemed to have a point. When you start off at the peak of a mountain, you're not gonna wanna come down.

I've also never really been a fan of the X-Men cartoons. I watched the 90s cartoon for a season (it was not good), I skipped X-Men: Evolution when I was in college (on account of, I was in college), and I only really watched Wolverine and the X-Men because I was recovering from surgery and had nothing to do.

I've also never really been a fan of Wolverine, even though, in the first X-Men comic I ever read, The Dark Phoenix Saga, this happens and made my little 8-year-old self mark out like when Stone Cold Steve Austin came out at Backlash 1999 to help the Rock beat Triple H.

A great moment, but when you're as overexposed as Wolverine was in the 1990s, some of the luster goes away.

So as weird as it is, I've somehow seen every single movie in the X-franchise and have hated all of one of them (I won't say which one. Though it's probably obvious.) at the time I watched it—it's actually entertaining on a rewatch. I have loved no X-Men movie, no Wolverine movie, and at most I get why the Deadpool movie is loved, but it's not for me. I've enjoyed all of them, which is a rare feat for any franchise, but I've loved none of them.

Until Logan.

It may be hard for some old-time readers of the site to hear me say I loved Logan, when a few years ago, I talked about the importance of having superhero movies that appealed to kids. And I still believe that, but here's another thing I believe in: diversity and choice. Logan is an R-rated movie featuring a children's character who is well-suited to be used in an R-rated movie. That's circular logic right there, but it works because you decide these things on a case by case basis.

There's a lot to talk about when it comes to Logan, from the way that it shows how endings are powerful moments that resonate to how it plays, masterfully, with the theme of fatherhood to why it makes sense for the heroes to kill in this movie but it's fricking idiotic in others. But the thing I want to talk about is its scale, its groundedness, and how it can and should change the superhero movies game.

For context, let's just name the movies that have, indisputably, been central in directing the direction of superhero movies. We'll start with...

  • Superman 1 and 2. I'm lumping these together because they were supposed to be one movie. In the 1970s, before the days of CGI, you'd have to use manual special effects, and as the tagline said, the movie made you believe a man can fly. These movies provided a blueprint for most superhero movies moving forward. It's all in there: the origin story, the discovery of powers, the villain with the exact same powers as the hero, the loss of powers and direction, and above all else, the need for a captivating actor to play your lead. 
  • Batman. The movie with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson took the blueprint in another direction, and really did cement Batman as the most commercial superhero of all time. It provided a template on how comics movies can be adapted into a more realistic setting, even though looking back on it now, it's really just Tim Burton being Tim Burton and jiving with that aesthetic.
  • X-Men. This is the first movie that took a franchise to three movies where all the main characters (Wolverine, Professor X, Jean Grey, Magneto) stayed for all three movies, and also is the first example of how a big-budget superhero team would work.
  • Iron Man. If nothing else, it kicked off the single most successful comic book franchise of all time. 
  • The Dark Knight. A film with one truly standout performance, its adolescent cry of "Look how adult I am!" still opened the gates for the exploration of darker and deeper themes. Okay, the plot falls apart if you examine it with any scrutiny (though not as much as its sequel would fall apart), and it lacks any sort of subtlety in its cry for attention from the "adult" crowd, but sometimes you need to cry for attention before someone gives you that attention, and, boy, did this movie get that attention. It's still seen by some as the greatest superhero movie of all time, and I'll never agree with that, but I can understand why they say it.
  • The Avengers. Because it proved a superfranchise could work, taking multiple movies of, really, different genres, and then mixing them together in such a way that makes them all tick and work. The Avengers provides the framework, for better or for ill, of much of what's going on in Hollywood right now. And, it must be said, it's the exact same framework that superhero comics have had since the Marvel Age of the 1960s. The Avengers is the first comic book movie to translate the actual feeling of comic books on the big screen with that level of success, without having to conform to the trappings of more "acceptable" Hollywood genres. (This is the actual greatest superhero movie of all time, because it actually has superheroes.)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy. Because the moment you made a movie with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree, the gates are open for virtually every character that has ever existed.
That's it. All of seven movies have directed the course for the superhero movie in 40 years. And for those wondering where The Incredibles or any of the Spider-Man movies are, then feel free to tell me the impact they made on the industry in terms of direction. (Seriously, there's a comment section below and a Facebook page here. Talk to me. Please. I need attention.) You could make an argument for Deadpool, proving an R-rated comedy could work, but I would first need to, you know, see another one do it. 

Logan itself owes its existence to two movies on that list above: X-Men and The Dark Knight, the first one for obvious reasons and the second one for establishing that a children's character could be portrayed with that level of grit. But even The Dark Knight, a story about a man protecting his city from a terrorist in a clown suit, was huge in scale, with fights taking place all over the city and explosions galore. In contrast, Logan, for all its fight scenes and brutality and choreography, was defined by its smaller, tinier moments, such as when Laura lets him sleep on her lap.

It's moments like this that really set the movie apart from virtually any superhero movie that's been out there since... well, ever. Look at those seven movies up there and see what they did and how they affected everything else. It's either they changed the game via scale or via tone, but it's always a scaling up. Logan is the first time it's scaled down, and that's okay. Other superhero movies have emotional hooks (for a more subtle—and I use that word loosely—example, look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and for one that beats you over the head with emotion, check out The Crow), but none of them really spend their time dwelling on these emotional moments. In the other movies, the emotion is used to grab the viewer and then advance the story. In Logan, it's reversed, almost as if the plot was meaningless, being used to advance the emotional bond between Logan and Laura.

I loved watching Logan and I will never forget that experience in the theater as I saw Laura hold Logan's hand in a show of empathy, but I can't help but feel that most of the critics singing its praises (like this one) are doing so because of the stark contrast it has against the broader superhero movie landscape. Against Marvel's very successful foray into family-friendly entertainment, DC's less-than-successful and more-than-adolescent venture into "mature" territory, and Fox's mixed results with the X-Men franchise, Logan as an individual movie stands out because it is actually adult. If the Marvel movies are the entire family sitting down and enjoying a moviegoing experience about hope and idealism, and the DC movies are that one teenage kid screaming at his dad to treat him like an adult, damn it, Logan actually is what happens to the X-Men franchise, who is the elderly grandpa in this scenario. After doing his best to stay up and alive for this long, being an adult means things can be quiet, knowing when to pass the torch, and knowing when to say goodbye.

In the middle of Logan, the main characters check into a hotel where Shane, a classic Western is playing. I've never seen Shane, but my favorite Western movie is Tombstone (and the dude playing Donald Pierce was totally channeling Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday. Seriously, watch it again.), and more than once, Logan reminded me of it. These weren't quiet movies, not if you look at it against the backdrop of comedies and romantic dramas, but they are relatively quiet for action movies. Just a month ago, I was watching Tombstone with my girlfriend, who was seeing it for the first time, and she ended up loving it, and I thought, you know, CGI is great and all, and these big superhero movies are great and all, but one thing missing from movies today is the kind of movie Tombstone was. Action, yes, but grounded, low-scale action, which gives you more time to play up the emotion, more time to linger on the characters before moving on to the next plot point.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer)
from Tombstone
Logan can be a game-changer in this industry, not just because it proves that superheroes can be adult (comics proved that a long time ago), and not just because it shows that endings can be powerful, and not just because it shows that a children's character can be an adult's character too. No, it can be a game-changer in this industry because it proves that superheroes can be low-scale as well, that it can tell stories that dwell on emotion more than motion. We've proven that the big superhero event can work on the big screen, ad nauseum. Logan proves we can take a lower-scale story and infuse it with as much meaning, and as good a moviegoing experience as any.

I've said before that the beauty of the superhero genre is that it's basically multiple genres with a certain set of trappings. Marvel's success is helped in large part by the diversity of their genres (Iron Man is science, Thor is fantasy, Captain America is war and then espionage, Guardians of the Galaxy is space opera—for the most part there's something for everyone), while DC's failure has been its insistence that it's all one genre, one tone (hopefully changing this June with Wonder Woman). Logan just added a genre that wasn't there, the type of genre that overlaps with the best Westerns of yesteryear, the kind where yes, the fights happen, the fights are brutal, but it's the emotion that matters the most.

1 comment:

Justin said...

My favorite line from this post: "the beauty of the superhero genre is that it's basically multiple genres with a certain set of trappings."

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