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Logan, and the Evolution of the Superhero Flick

The recent cinematic finale of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character was a watershed moment that will likely shape the dominant genre in modern popular film

Australia 2020 Summit: Day 1
Hugh Jackman’s best Wolverine was his last Wolverine.
Photo by Stefan Postles-Pool/Getty Images

(Spoiler alert: While every little surprising nugget won’t be covered here, there will be allusions to plot and characters from the film Logan. If you haven’t seen it and want to go in blind, bookmark this post for later. Otherwise, game on…)

It started with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Then, there was the dark atmosphere of Zac Snyder’s Watchmen. The flames have since been fanned by Netflix’s gritty Marvel properties Daredevil, AKA Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage.

Last year, Hollywood finally broke a long-standing taboo with the R-rated Deadpool, a film that forever altered the standard for comic book films, not through ground-breaking CGI or plot intricacy, but through its narrow targeting of an audience that skewed deliberately adult. There was extreme violence (though admittedly, it was cartoonish comic violence), language, and strong sexual content. Deadpool was the first comic book movie to earn an R rating, and appropriately so, as the source material is as blue as one can imagine. The writers of Deadpool pulled no punches, and they faithfully reproduced the tone, visuals, and smart-assery of the original books. In doing so, they found ad exploited a niche which will only grow as the envelope is pushed further.

By now, it is evident that the superhero genre is evolving. The tone of comic book films began to change from the do-gooder sunniness of previous comic character flicks such as Christopher Reeves’ Superman films, or Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise. In those films, the good guys always won, and they could do so simply by always doing the ethical, morally-upright thing. Villains were doomed to perpetual failure because they skirted the norms of right and wrong.

But things began to change in comic-themed films. Attribute it to darker social times, a culture burdened with invasive technology that constantly broadcasts tragedy, or the aging of those who enjoyed the white-bread Golden Age of comics. As the genre, has grown over the last decade and a half, fans have become more sophisticated in their preferences and have transcended the traditional hero tropes. Initially, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a theatrical juggernaut that employed an ingenious plot formula to fill seats and church out billions. And while that formula still works, a new door has opened, one that offers a more violent, sadistic take on the fictional world of the super-powered.

Always viewed as pulp, a low form of literature enjoyed by children and simpletons, the comics genre has become the dominant trend in filmmaking (along with Star Wars-driven sci-fi). When the boom began, every major studio clamored to lock down established properties, creating a mish-mash of ownerships that has prevented the stories from being told as they originally were intended with ink and paper. For example, because of split ownerships rights between Fox and Marvel/ Disney, the X-Men will never cross over with the Avengers, nor will there be a battle between Mutants and Inhumans on the big screen.

Why? Because superhero movies are big business, and no one wants to cede control of their money-marked territory. Even if the fans call out for it, the stakes are just too high for the studios to budge for the common good of the genre.

Culturally, superheroes speak to a portion of the human heart that believes in the underdog. Ironic, it seems, that such come-uppance is displayed by those who, thanks to superpowers bestowed by a variety of means, become godlike. However, the theme is there, to be sure. Superheroes are almost universally outsiders: they’re disenfranchised. Whether because of their personal histories, social differences, or the very powers bestowed on them, superheroes are undoubtedly “others” in the worlds in which they exist.

“How is a billionaire playboy like Bruce Wayne disenfranchised?” you may ask. Because he is an orphan who watched his parents gunned down in the street as a child. He is separated from the 99 percent by his obscene wealth. He’s one of the lone forces willing to swim against the current of his hometown, a black sheep among Gotham’s owlish elite who will not cave in his convictions. It’s worth nothing that most superheroes seem to have dead parents in their histories (Oliver Queen, Tony Stark, Superman’s House of El, Barry Allen, Peter Parker, Peter Quill…the list goes on and on.) Talk about a recurring theme.

What does any of this have to do with Logan and the hyper-realism of the new wave of comic films? While tragedy seems to be an intricate part of the superhero trope, Logan takes the cliché to a whole different level (in a good way). In the film, death and destruction abound, which marks a dramatic departure from the kind of stoic, stiff-jawed action seen in other films of the genre. In those films, you know the good guy will win. You know Tony Stark will find a way to close the portal and stop the Chitauri. You know Thor will cease the march of the Destroyer. You know that Batman will snuff out the Joker’s nefarious plot just in the nick of time.

But Logan changed that. Logan isn’t funny. There are no clear-cut heroes, only operators in a moral gray area in which the audience is allowed (or rather, forced) to ponder the morality of acting as a super-powered agent of “good” in a world that would just as soon go back to normal. Throughout the film, there is a tension of the unknown, as major character after major character suffers the indignity of a ghastly death. And it’s not just the bad guys who meet the Reaper, but rather, no man is immune to his own bloody fate. Heroes, too, must die.

In a way, Logan is nothing more than a spaghetti Western tinged with modern scenery and super-powered mutants. The film meets all the criteria: a lone hired gunslinger (Logan) is challenged to complete a morality quest that involves preserving innocence (the transporting of Laura Kinney to safety) and restoring justice (she is being pursued by unethical “scientists” who treat her as patented disposable property rather than a human being. He’s baited in with promises of personal gain (which provides grudging initial motivation), but somewhere along the way, he grows into the heroism of his task and emerges as a hero.

Logan the character is the Pale Rider of Eastwood fame. He’s the High Plains Drifter, he’s the Outlaw Josey Wales with an adamantium skeleton. Only, unlike those other enigmatic gun-slinging characters, we know his history. We know the weight he carries with him. We know how being a super-powered individual has tarnished his existence, has led him to endure…and commit…unspeakable horrors. We know these things because of decades of backstory on the character, as Wolverine’s narrative is among the genre’s most established.

As the film unspools and the team traverses America’s West, the similarities deepen. Everything and everyone Logan touches seems to die. Whether it’s the caretaker of Laura/ X-23, the farm family slaughtered by the blood-thirsty industrial zealots and X-24, or the store clerks and waitresses unfortunately enough to serve Logan and his party as they run from the Reavers…everyone who encounters Logan is ultimately destroyed for their trouble. For just as in the Westerns, the “bad guys” harm the strong by attacking the weak, as emotional crowbarring is the chosen way to bring down an uber-powerful individual.

When Logan finally meets the most horrific of his progeny, the murderous biological automaton X-24, a mutant created in a lab without a soul using Logan’s DNA, the symbolism mimics the traditional Western meme. The two are nearly identical in appearance and powers, once a duplicate of the other save for a shred of morality. But as was the case in the Wild West, the heroic Wolverine sports a white tank (blood-splattered, of course) while his nemesis appears in all black…i.e., the hero in the white hat versus the villain in all black.

The creators of the film even wove a thread from a classic Western into the story (Shane), keeping it at the forefront and going to far as the reference it in the emotional peak of the film. Logan is a Western, with adamantium claws for six-shooters and pick-up trucks for horses.

As Western as it is, however, there is the hybridized superhero theme of parental baggage spliced in as well. With little known about his original parents, Logan instead came to look upon Charles Xavier (Professor X) as a proxy father over the years. Xavier took Logan in when he was a hired hitman, a soldier who’d seen too much death to be anything but muscle to the highest bidder. Xavier instilled in him purpose, taught him how to be better than his environment, helped him to become a leader and crusader for right (even if an overly violent one.)

In the film, we see Charles move into his final days, and we see Logan’s care of the old man despite the burden. Just as we all much watch our personal heroes (our parents) age and fall to the scythe of Time, so too must Logan watch as his stand-in father decays into the oblivion of madness.

And in Logan, the young Laura finds the father she never knew she had. He coaches her in the use of her powers (which duplicate his), and he engages in scowling self-sacrifice on her behalf. After all, she carries his DNA, and he is as much of a father as anyone born in a lab can ever have. His presence in her life gives him the chance he never had as a child, and one can only hope that the developing X-23 will be the better for it.

It’s a beautifully rendered story, and it represents the comics genre at its absolute best. It’s a story that could be told over any template, but it just so happens the people we develop feelings for in this narrative have superhuman abilities and near-immortality. The mastery is in the level of emotional investment the work conjures…gone is the detachment of fiction. The characters are credible: real people who evolve beyond the fantastical events through which they live and develop.

In the bigger picture of the film industry, Logan marks an interesting point in the history of comic book films. The audience has shifted. Most films are produced for demographic-hopping mass consumption. These are the summer blockbusters, the films designed to make as much from toy licensing as they generate in ticket sales. A parent could take a child to see an X-Men or Iron Man film without giving the subject matter a second thought. They enrapture five-year-olds as well as 55-year-olds with equal aplomb. The movies are wholesome entertainment in which the good guys win, few people ever actually die, and our heroes get to frolic about in sparkly costumes.

Deadpool began to march that standard back with Wade Wilson as anti-hero, and film was created with a decidedly adult audience in mind. Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds went as far as to record a PSA before he film dropped instructing parents that their underage progeny were not welcome. The film featured F-bombs a-plenty, some overtly sexual encounters between Reynolds and the fetching Morena Baccarin (and Deadpool’s My Little Pony totem), and enough gratuitous bloodshed to make the squeamish pine for the days of sanitized, bloodless superhero combat.

But Logan took that trend to another level. It wasn’t just the violence or the language. Granted, the violence was extreme (and it wasn’t the campy physics-defying violence seen in Deadpool or previous laughable attempts at a meaningful Punisher flick). It was gritty, base, primal…the very characteristics that made fans of the Wolverine comics fall in love with the character in the first place. Heads rolled (literally), blood was spilled by the buckets. It was all Berserker rage and blood-splatter to the tenth degree. It wasn’t just Jackman’s character bringing the pain. Laura Kinney was savage, her vicious aerial attacks accompanied by a rabid wildcat-like howl and unrelenting brutality. Surely, seeing a 10-year-old hack apart her elders is a little much for her real-world peers, and even as an adult, I was taken aback somewhat by her brutality. And villain Donald Pierce was downright disgustingly sinister in his species-ist handling of his life’s work (namely, hunting and killing mutants).

Make no mistake: Logan is a film made for adults. And in this characteristic, it’s different from anything else that been done to date.

What Deadpool, the Marvel Netflix properties, and now, Logan, have done is prove to producers that there is a thirst for more: fans these days relish seeing the comic book genre to taken to the next level. At first, when films like Raimi’s Spiderman rolled out, longtime comic fans simply geek-gasmed over the thought of seeing their favorite characters on the big screen, and were willing to overlook flawed films and tired tropes for the sheer spectacle of it all. But now, we expect something more…it’s not just about flashy costumes, neat special effects, and slick marketing. Now, we require a depth of story-telling mastery that has parallels the work of the best comics writers in the industry.

Logan fulfills that need in a real sense. It is easily the best film of the Wolverine series, and it’s considered by some (myself included) as the best film of all the X-Men projects to date.

But it does so at a price. I have raised my children in the world I enjoyed as a child. My kids love sports, and they love Star Wars, comics, and superheroes. We generally go see these movies together, and then discuss them for weeks afterwards, a kind of shared cultural common ground upon which we can all pitch our tents and commune across the generations. As much as I love the Deadpool comic property and appreciated the film, I must admit, I was a little sad that it was the first superhero film we couldn’t attend as a family. Logan was the second. As excellent as the film was, it wasn’t the same, sitting in a theater by myself with no one to share my awe at what the filmmakers had done. I couldn’t talk about it with anyone on the ride home. I couldn’t reference it in general conversation and have my kids understand me. And honestly, that sucked a little.

Though all superhero films are not going dark with an R-rating, there are already plans for additional adult-only films on the books. Deadpool 2 is filming, and an X-Force movie with an R-rating is in development. There are rumors of a Justice League Dark film in the making, and that movie would build upon DC’s already-gloomy tone with an R-rating. Netflix just wrapped the upcoming Punisher series starring Josh Bernthal’s rendition of the character, and if there’s anything we know about it, it’s that show creators will build upon the ultra-violence displayed by his character in the Daredevil series. And recently, a stand-alone Venom film was announced, in which the classic symbiote nemesis of Spiderman will join serial-killer-cum-powered-individual Carnage in a horror-level splatterfest.

I am all for it…sort of. While the lifelong comics fan in me is all, “HELLZ YES!”, the maturing dad in me hates to see things go this way. I’m legitimately torn.

I’m sure there will always be family-friendly, All-‘Murican superheroes out there willing to take our box office (and merch) dollars and continue to provide high-end summer spectacle of the highest order. At least those movies will continue to exist as long as such films remain profitable and in-demand. But likewise, there is a burgeoning movement towards a realistic, dark, violent filmography of comic book characters, and that trend seems to be gaining momentum. As much as I will love it and likely support it with my movie spend, it also concerns me. After all, aren’t comic movie and superheroes supposed to give us a respite from the daily drubbing of murder and war and death and negativity?

Logan was great. Fantastic. One of the best films in the history of the genre. But in the bigger picture, it marks a decided turn towards darkness for these types of film, and while I am tentatively excited about in part, I also hope its sensationalism doesn’t toll the death bell for the types of rah-rah, good-guy-always-wins superhero movies upon which the genre has been built over the last decade. We need both types of films, and I hope that there remains room for both to prosper.

So what do you think? Do you like the new R-rated, morally-nebulous superheroes that are emerging in film? Or would you rather see it stay old-school? What are the pitfalls of pushing the envelope? Is there room for the two branches of the comics tree to coexist in an industry that bows at the altar of the almighty dollar?