Despite contributing to an oversaturated market, Marvel and DC’s never-ending stream of superhero introductions (and reintroductions) cast an unmistakable spell. Last year saw the release of Deadpool, an ironic and cynical response to the superhero genre, as well as the far less successful and yet equally cynical Suicide Squad. There was a bit of controversy surrounding reports that Suicide Squad had undergone millions of dollars’ worth of reshoots not long after Deadpool had raked in its budget more than 10 times over. Everyone knew Warner Bros.’ game. Sleazily attempting to mimic Deadpool’s cunning sleight-of-hand was only one problem in Suicide Squad’s litany of idiotic decision-making. It seemed that Warner Bros.’ lapse in judgment went beyond dodgy profit scheming and unveiled an even uglier truth behind the major studio’s flippancy and distrust toward filmmakers.
Warner Bros. demand for “more humor and lightness” in Suicide Squad seemed intent on amending the studio’s past shortcomings, tending specifically to the most misused and overused criticism aimed toward Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, that being their brooding self-seriousness. Logan—a spiritual antithesis to last year’s Deadpool—applies seriousness as effectively and creatively as Deadpool applies black humor. Despite the obvious contrast, Deadpool and Logan also bare striking similarities, not only achieving staggering early year success as R-rated superhero films, both use their prominent comic book iconography to deconstruct the superhero mythos as a whole. Logan’s hard-hitting approach proves more powerful, probing superhero legacy and nostalgia with empathy and responsiveness, eschewing Deadpool’s fulsome wit and misanthropy.
Just this past week, Logan (directed by James Mangold), already a critical and box office hit, establishes itself as perhaps the X-Men canon’s most self-serious entry—a daring feat these days. The very label “self-serious” in the superhero genre seem to imply something of an oxymoron. Christopher Nolan’s demonstrably self-serious approach in his captivating Batman urban crime operas seem to have been displaced, reduced to Zack Snyder’s arty smugness, which boasts neither imagination or drama. Seriousness, in general, seems to deny the superhero genre of its sportive texture. Logan, marking both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s departure from the X-Men films after 17-years, again convinces us that superheroes, like any other kind of fiction, are just as capable of forging harrowing human drama as they are harmless popcorn entertainment.
James Mangold (the director of the western remake 3:10 to Yuma) sets Professor X and Wolverine’s last legs against an all-too-familiar Deep South backdrop. Mangold employs sadness to his dying west, but such sadness also provides a functional depth. The scrim and dust of the dying west as an omnipresent motif for the end of an era prove not only to be an appropriate gesture, remarking a tenuous farewell, but a striking parallel of two dominant cultures largely responsible for colonizing American imagination: cowboys and superheroes. The character of Logan—standing among the rusty metallic clusters and neo-western decay as a broken relic—lays bare the method of Mangold’s Western swansong, tending to human vulnerability before human super-ability.
Death is one of the many concepts rendered almost meaningless by the superhero genre—Logan, attempting to reemploy it, finds tremendous power in individual tragedy, a concept which is taken for granted by both the MCU and DCU. In 2013, Man of Steel faced some backlash regarding Superman’s climactic showdown, particularly his blatant disregard for his surroundings. Its sequel, Batman v Superman, attempted to rectify the problem by turning Superman’s collateral damage into a plot ingredient, completely misunderstanding the moral point of the argument. Captain America: Civil War, among the MCU’s most acclaimed films, seems to find more solid ground with moral reckoning and individual culpability, but fails to provide those ideas with any lasting power when it eschews moral betrayal by the film’s end to strengthen moral empowerment.
Logan reminds us of death’s permanency—consider how superhero films before it have portrayed funerals. X-Men: The Last Stand uses it as cheap narrative economy, relegating a character’s absence from the production as phony affectation (James Marsden was busy filming Superman Returns). Or consider Gwen Stacy’s funeral in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and how it wasn’t actually about Gwen Stacy but Peter Parker’s narcissistic superhero-malaise. Batman v Superman, perhaps the worst of the 3 films, demonstrates the greatest disingenuousness, its funeral fake-out reminds us how counterfeit tragedy is in superhero films. Logan features two burials—both filmed with sobering, beautifully unfulfilled despair.
Assigning himself as the caretaker to a feeble Charles Xavier, we see Logan’s capacity for nurture, not to imbue false sentimentalism, but to contrast his equal (maybe greater) capacity for killing. There’s a pungency to Wolverine’s murders in Logan, they’re even more penetrating than the previous X-Men films. Mangold presses us to understand how death can’t simply be a sufficient means to an end, particularly when preserving life seems to be a far greater task. Mangold further emboldens this point when he reintroduces Wolverine to his id—a genetically engineered clone called X-24. X-24 embodies Wolverine’s primal, animal conditioning. Not just a cut-rate villain, the nonspeaking X-24 becomes a compelling reflection of Wolverine’s self-embodied evil, an entity ultimately resulting in Logan’s self-destruction.
Recalling back to Avengers: Age of Ultron’s farmhouse sequence, I’m reminded of how cliché Whedon’s perspective on domesticity are, especially compared to Mangold who knows how to use authenticity to his advantage. Logan depicts a similar scenario of homestead tranquility but with far greater exploration of familial and generational relationships. Charles, Laura and Logan seem to composite a small family, playing house with a group of friendly strangers, we’re introduced to domesticity not as retreat from Logan’s ongoing narrative, but an embrace of a broader moral truths. Logan’s attempts and subsequent failures to capture these truths might make it the one superhero film to draw the line between fiction and reality.
Despite watching these films for the past 17 years, Logan was the first one to convince me X-Men was always about a family and that it’s self-seriousness isn’t a product of self-importance but empathy. By and large, Logan strives for perhaps what the best type of fiction strives for, demonstrated in one moment when Logan approaches his estranged, in vitro, daughter Laura, carrying an X-Men comic in hand. He tells her, “Only about a quarter of this is true” and, metaphorically, he’s probably right. Laura’s relationship with Logan in film is only built off the fiction she reads, but it starts to become something more personal than flesh and bone. Logan’s refusal to encapsulate that part of himself, the one portrayed in the comics, seems to be Mangold’s rejection of the superhero genre’s artificiality, but when the boisterously artificial Shane (1953) is echoed at the end of Logan, in an expression of true feeling, Mangold cues us in on real-life and fiction’s intimate bond.