The Lesson of ‘Logan’: Superhero Sagas Are Better When They’re Real Movies

Logan
Courtesy of Fox

Just about everyone who’s seen it — audiences, critics, “X-Men” superfans — seems to agree that “Logan” is a very good movie, one that brings the Wolverine saga to a soulful and satisfying note of dramatic closure. No matter how many more “X-Men” films ever get made, this is certain to go down as one of the highlights. Yet when you watch “Logan,” what’s striking isn’t merely that it’s better but that it’s different — different from the other entries in the series, and different from most comic-book superhero films. It’s a dystopian Western road movie that ambles and settles in and takes its time (it’s the opposite of fragmented), and it’s intently focused on the human side of Logan — who he is, what he wants, the feelings roiling around inside him — even though he’s a character that movie audiences have lived with for 17 years. (Other multiplex superheroes have had as long a run or longer, notably Batman, but never with the same actor.)

When Hugh Jackman first played the role, in 2000, he’d never done a major movie before, and for a long time afterward he had a hit-or-miss career as a leading man outside of the “X-Men” series (the time-tripping chick-flick awkwardness of “Kate & Leopold,” the CGI junkiness of “Van Helsing,” the wooden overreach of “Australia”). Ironically, what seemed to be hemming him in was the very thing that was likable about him: the grinning Aussie jocularity of his “star quality.”

Wolverine, which tapped his ferocity, remained his one and only defining role, but in the early 2010s a new desperate fire took hold in Jackman’s acting. He was quite fine in “Les Misérables” (2012), even though the movie itself slogged on for two hours and 40 minutes with exactly one good song, and then, almost out of nowhere, he was great in Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” (2013). Playing a man whose daughter had been kidnapped, he seemed to tear his performance out of his own demons; it was acting so possessed that, at moments, it flirted with a kind of madness. Virtually overnight, Hugh Jackman had upped his game, and that’s the level on which he works in “Logan.” He’s playing a superhero at a single dark moment in his existence, but his acting now breathes with the rough and ragged experience of a lifetime.

“Logan” does too. When I say it’s “a real movie,” I’m being honest in terms of what I think a real movie is, or should be, but I’m also aware that for a major segment of the audience, a swirling hyperactive FX mishmash like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is every inch a real movie, so we’re talking different definitions here. Mine is old school, maybe analog in spirit: a series of scenes that connect together in an unhurried fashion, held together by a pulse of interaction and psychology, with shot language that creates a grounded and organic space — a sense of the place you’re in, whether indoors or outdoors, that doesn’t shift and toggle around with every cut. My apologies to the gods of fanboy mania if that sounds stodgy and old-fashioned.

Yet part of what I’m saying is that even though “the audience” — that is, moviegoers around the world — now accepts and embraces a different kind of moviemaking, one that’s rooted in the more slippery and kinetic aesthetic modes made possible by digital technology, the loyalty to the old school of what a movie is, even when it’s a comic-book movie, isn’t nearly as out of date as we tend to think. It’s my theory that audiences are often grateful for “a real movie” in a pop context even if they might not always voice it that way.

The “X-Men” series is a case in point. To call it hit-or-miss would be generous. The majority of the 10 films have been glitzy glorified product, with a small handful of exceptions (to me, those would be “X-Men: First Class” and “The Wolverine”), but my point isn’t just that they’re mostly mediocre as storytelling. It’s that the “X-Men” series has had an essential commercial hook, one that expanded, like the original comic book itself (first published by Marvel in 1963), on the concept of the Fantastic Four (first published by Marvel in 1961), and that was this: Look! All these mutants with their fabulous diversity of powers! More, even, than other comic-book movies, the “X-Men” films kept throwing things at you: another eye-popping mutant skill, another transmogrified protoplasm of a body. But what was given short shrift across the entire series was the pivotal idea that the mutants were “alienated,” that in their hidden/outcast/pariah status they could be an emotional metaphor for the outsider in all of us. Sure, you could say that was the oft-stated theme of the series, and on some technical level you’d be right.

But if any of the “X-Men” films had been made with the old-school analog daring to be more of what “Logan” is — a real movie — it might have taken that alienation to a deeper and more exploratory and memorable place. The alienation was usually just asserted, and it never trumped the mosaic of visual effects. That would have required one of the directors of the “X-Men” films to say: This is going to be a real movie before it’s a superhero movie. And that, within current franchise film culture, is a radical thing to say.

Yet when filmmakers do say it, how splendidly it works! Just look at the best comic-book movies. From the moment “The Dark Knight” was released — and let’s be clear, it wasn’t exactly preordained that Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film was going to be a culture-quaking smash, the rare movie that transcends mere monster-hit status — what everyone was talking about, apart from Heath Ledger’s performance, was the film’s distinctive quality of working like a 1970s thriller. The opening bank heist set the tone: We were in a dank gritty urban universe that happened to have Batman within it, rather than a gothic-playground “Batman universe” that could just make up its own rules. Ledger’s performance was part of that. The actor evoked the tormented audacity of Marlon Brando, but part of his commitment is that the Joker — for the first time ever — seemed an honest-to-God psycho, a seriously sick wreck of a human being playing a supervillain. He was all the things we want the Joker to be (scary, flamboyant, ghoulishly witty, a maimed agent of chaos), but the ultimate reason he was all of those things is that he seemed real.

There have been comic-book movies, here and there, that strike a nerve of reality, and always to the benefit of the movie. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” played off the timely tentacles of the American surveillance state, and did so with a paranoid relentlessness that raised its stakes as a thriller. And though I may be in the minority on this one, it’s my feeling that “Iron Man 3” possesses an unusually compelling dimension in terms of how it zigzags through the psyche of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark by stripping him of his powers. For much of the movie, he’s stranded in Tennessee with a faulty, sputtered-out Iron Man suit, and so he, along with the film, is forced to get by on sheer Tony Stark ingenuity and wits — a storytelling tactic lifted right out of the old comics.

They, of course, were narratives that twisted and turned like grapevines and relied a lot less on “special effects.” Yet every one of the movies I’m lionizing has spectacularly vivid and imaginative special effects, beginning with “Logan,” in which the director, James Mangold, stages some of the most elaborately exciting — and hard-R edgy — hand-to-claw fight scenes the series has ever seen. That’s the beauty of a superhero movie that’s also a real movie: When done right, it allows the audience to have its eye-popping effects cake and eat it too. But it also allows us to touch the hearts of characters who are presented as greater than human — something that should be a fantastic projection of who we are, rather than a literal aspiration.

 

WATCH: The Evolution of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine from X-Men to Logan

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  1. An extremely astute take on the parallels of what it means to be a “real” movie in a genre of pure unadulterated sensationalism. When it came to personal taste on the franchise is the only place we differ.

    I’m glad the fact that this film stood out as a real movie wasn’t lost on anyone in the press. Even as a manic fanboy having grown up with something precious (bronze age-modern age comics) to me, this film without a doubt may stand the test of time as truly the best in the franchise. Not because it’s an X-Men film, but because it’s a real film.

  2. Scott says:

    Yep, I fully agree here and I know that it will go against the grain a little. The dark knight was probably my favorite all time comic movie… Watchman was great as well as was brought up earlier. Logan has revitalized my interest in comic movies.

    Like the author I think I’m growing tired of comic movies that are all visuals with such a limited story. Suicide squad was a great example of a long drown out action scene, no character development and at the end I was fatigued and really could give a rats ass about any of the characters.

    When thought is placed into the plot, and making the audience connect with the characters, then you have a movie. Not just a POS Hollywood throws out there because they know it will make money.

    To the producers, cast, and crew of Logan. Bravo!

  3. JoeR says:

    This is the first article I’ve read that mirrors how I feel exactly. Warners’ Kevin T. once said ” Marvel makes great comic book movies. We want to make great movies that happened to have comic book characters in them.” Instead, they call in Trailer Park to destroy David Ayers’ Suicide Squad. Now more than ever, I hope Mel Gibson cuts a deal for SS2.

  4. Timely Comment says:

    Y’know it took awhile to get this comics fan behind a 6′ 2″ singing-and-dancing Strine playing a 5 ‘3″ feral Canuck in the movies…

    But Jackman’s actorly chops won me over, and was often a highlight in his portrayal of a certain version of Wolverine in the films. (Eventually— Patrick Stewart was PERFECT, but Halle Berry’s Storm instead of Angela Bassett?)

    Chris Claremont’s writing him as a failed Samurai in the ’87 seminal WOLVERINE Limited Series (with Frank Miller’s artwork and begun in a drive back from the San Diego Comic-Con), broadened and deepened the character, giving him the fictional gravity that made him last so long in the comics— and it is THIS character that was fully unrepresented in previous, PG X-MEN films.

    FINALLY in this rated R film, we got to see the berserker-rage Wolverine doing what he does best— bloody, gory, and it ain’t pretty with all those squibs and red dye splattered on the cinematic screen.

    Too bad it the LAST Jackman Logan performance…

    • Timely Comment says:

      (NOBODY corrected that Claremont’s WOLVERINE was written in ’82? Thought that some VARIETY readers were also comicbook ones too..)

  5. Steve Barr says:

    First Les Miserables had one good song ! Really just one? Also Watchmen is still one of the best comic book movies ever made and it was hard R .

  6. GodShake says:

    I’m amazed at how soon people have forget that X2 is a pretty goddam movie.

  7. Also Unbreakable did this before Dark Knight and whilst people don’t see them as “batman” films,, clearly one of the things Burton tried to do was explore the Psyche of Bruce Wayne and his villains, Catwoman especially.

  8. You make some interesting points, but fundamentally miss that having your cake and eating it too comes via having all kinds of films. Logan, Deadpool, Blade, Dark Knight, Avengers, Guardians of The Galaxy and so on.

    There’s more than one way to make a film and more than one way to enjoy them.

  9. Ahsoka says:

    The Dark Knight proved this. It was one of the best superhero films of all time. And you know, because Nolan too out all the cheesy BS. He made the story and film real.

    Logan was the second best superhero film I have seen in a very long time. But it seems like the mass strive for cheesiness and having everything thing spoon fed to them when it come to film. Certain films are a rare exception.

  10. Bobby says:

    Hello Owen, I think you’re missing the “real” point. I don’t think the lessons from Logan is that superhero films can be real movies. The lesson here is that, we can have our cake and eat it too. As a long time comic book fan, I’ve always enjoyed reading them because they weren’t “real”. Why do we have to compromise the fantasy and escapism that comics provide just because the medium changed from comic to film? Cant I like a movie like The Martian with its “realness” as much as I like a movie like Aliens? Both are sci-fi films, yet one is more of a personal, grounded tale. The fact is, the movie industry is just now coming to the realization of what comic book fans have known for years, that with the comic-book world, there is room for personal “real” stories just as much as there is for fantastical stories about men (and women) in tights.

    • Ahsoka says:

      Bobby I think YOU are missing the real point of the article. But don’t worry you can still cream your pant for the next comic/superhero movie coming out this year. The Dark Knight proved that comic book film can be real, and Logan reinstated it. All these Marvel vs DC nonsense has become artificial that many of them have missed the point that they can take risks and actually make a “real” film.

      But I guess you know more than anyone since you are a comic book reader/fanboy.

      • Liza says:

        Ahsoka,

        Wow, way to be an ass for no reason whatsoever. Bobby stated his opinion – like it or not – in a reasonable way, and you responded with rudeness and adolescent name calling. You’re inability to disagree w/ Bobby in a respectful manner undermines any points you may have.

      • You know you can disagree with him without insulting him right?

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