As the credits roll on “Logan,” the latest entry (although one that stands very much on its own) in the X-Men franchise—and Wolverine sub-franchise–it’s quite apparent that we have entered yet another era in filmmaking. It’s not so much that the film offers anything new to reinvent the wheel by way of character development or special effects—somewhat shallow in regards to the former and competently handled with the latter—but it’s more the fact that this may be the first super hero movie that could be completely retold without the super heroes.
It was bound to happen sometime. With the consolidation of the film industry and studios more dependent on franchises than ever before, it makes sense that the narrowing field of mainstream films would have to handle more territory. Movie ticket sales grosses are up, yes, but the actual number of ticket buyers is down. The result is that genres become blurred so you can kill two birds with one stone: science fiction comedy, harrowing action movies that just happen to feature super heroes, etc. And you have to cater to the audiences that are going to the theaters in the first place.
There are no bright, garish costumes in “Logan.” There are really only cursory mentions of the X-Men as a whole or the mythology even as background information—and mostly in derision when the comic books are brought out as a plot device. As a matter of fact, the opening scene is one we’ve witnessed a thousand times: The nameless, grizzled hero comes out of a building to see his car being vandalized and/or stripped of its parts. He comes across a group of hardened criminals who laugh at the idea that this one broken down old man is going to put up a fight. Only this grizzled, broken down old man is Wolverine–still played with gusto by Hugh Jackman–and he just happens to have razor sharp claws which shoot out of his knuckles.
The main cast is also actually quite small when compared to any X-Men ventures of the past as well. There of course is Logan, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart absolutely shines here), and Laura (Dafne Keen), the new mutant on the block. Other characters come and go, but there really is none of the usual superhero movie interplay, as far as the Marvel universe has come to deliver.
The plot is simple. It’s 2029 and Logan, aging and sick, is looking to live out the rest of his days in anonymity, trying to scrape up enough cash working as a chauffeur to make sure that he and Charles (also aging and sick) can find some sort of respite somewhere. Only he is confronted by a mysterious woman who claims that her daughter needs to be taken to the Canadian border. This girl is Laura, a genetically engineered proto-mutant with a DNA connection to Wolverine. She is fierce, savage, and nearly feral; her fighting ability is very reminiscent of the Wolverine himself.
Laura and her modified ilk need to be eradicated because the experiment which created them is flawed. And while Logan is reluctant at first to transport her anywhere, let alone the mythical “Eden” that she yearns for, he does cave in, grabbing Charles and the girl and hitting the road. But not before they are tracked to their hideout by a coolly evil bounty hunter type.
With a few elements switched or updated, it could be “Rooster Cogburn” or something similar. There are no grandiose displays; it could be any modern movie involving genetic engineering and control. The lead bad guy, Dr. Rice, played with aplomb and sinister enjoyment by Richard E. Grant, could be working for any huge, faceless, soulless corporation (you know, the kind that screenwriters love so much) trying to do a number of things—not just produce mutant soldiers without consciences. It’s more of a road movie, a Mad Max type quest, as Logan and Charles try to get Laura to safety.
From a filmmaking standpoint, credit must be given to James Mangold. In addition to directing “Logan,” he co-wrote the film along with Scott Frank and Michael Green. Mangold also directed “The Wolverine,” which was interesting if a bit convoluted. But look deeper at his resume and you’ll see the underrated “Cop Land,” “Girl, Interrupted,” and “3:10 to Yuma.” This is a well-made film and Mangold is familiar with the material. But what kind of movie did he make?
Once upon a time, a superhero movie was just that—a superhero movie. They were easily pegged by their trappings—costumes, lavish set pieces, and an even more lavish score, among other things. When “Superman” was unleashed upon the world in 1978, many of the elements remained untouched for decades (not taking into account when the franchise sank into farce with “Superman III” and ignominy with “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace”). Even when Tim Burton tweaked the notion of the superhero movie when he resurrected Batman in 1989, it still looked and felt like a superhero movie.
Both of Burton’s Batman movies are heralded for their darkness, but honestly, the only real darkness is in their gloomy look and cinematography. Both films are filled with campy moments and over the top villains that really aren’t that scary. Freakish yes—Danny DeVito’s Penguin was genuinely creepy—but really not all that dark. “Batman: The Animated Series” from the early 1990s was probably actually much darker than Burton’s films (and certainly darker than Joel Schumacher’s entries).
When super hero movies got their big push start in the early 2000s, courtesy largely of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” and Sam Raimi’s deft handling of the Spiderman character, they may have been a bit more sophisticated than “Superman,” but not by much. Raimi especially favored bright colors and well-drawn battle lines as far as characters and motivation went. And you could easily envision a modern day treatment of Superman using CGI going much in the same direction.
And then came “Batman Begins” in 2005. What else would you expect from Christopher Nolan, who at the time was best known for “Memento” and “Insomnia?” This was the first real shift as far as Hollywood treatment went for super hero movies. While the comics themselves had long ago evolved towards adult themes and darkness, it had been an interesting mingling as far as cinematic costumed do-gooders went. But when Marvel and D.C. truly got involved in the business and the money became astronomical, all bets were off.
The Generation X demographic was now in charge of taste making, and “Batman Begins” was the first sign. And what better character to do it with than one of the most psychologically damaged characters in the world of comics? And certainly who was better than to channel Adam West’s ground breaking, complex performance than Christian Bale? Alright, so Bale probably wasn’t channeling West, but the die was set for how super hero movies were made for the next decade plus.
That’s not to say there weren’t other moments before “Batman Begins” that would signal the change in tone. But with the blockbuster era firmly in control, once it became quite apparent that super hero movies, conventions, and memorabilia were big, big business, the “sophisticated” super hero movie was king. There were (and continue to be) huge misfires as far as that’s concerned. While Bryan Singer may have done okay with the X-Men characters, his “Superman Returns” was one of the clunkiest, overwrought films to hit the big screen. Not that “Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder, was much better. Perhaps Superman should be rendered as the kids of the 1970s and 1980s remember him—a far sunnier guy parading around in blue tights.
The narrowing truly set in during the mid-2000s. The same directors (Singer, Snyder, et al) began directing films that looked and felt very much the same. Some humor, some darkness, and CGI of varying believability. Films were given release dates before there were scripts, and the tie-ins became insufferable.
This sort of filmmaking by committee has now entered its second decade; it’s even worse now. There are only a few post-production houses, which means that every superhero movie not only feels the same as far as script, story and characterization goes, they look the same. They all have the same blue tint. Every battle where a city gets leveled by a marauding bad guy fighting it out with the marauding good guy feels very much like the last city battle you watched.
And if you’re a Marvel fan, it’s almost as if you feel compelled to watch these movies. And not necessarily in a good way. On the whole most of the Marvel stuff is handled quite well—much better than D.C. has fared anyway. But the endless universe building has become a bit tedious. Characters are inserted into certain movies merely to introduce (or in Spiderman’s case—re-introduce) their own shiny franchises. And boy is there a template. Snarky dialog, the interplay of the characters, the mysterious twist…
Does any of this matter? If ticket sales are good, then fans are clearly flocking to see these films. According to boxofficemojo.com, six of the top 20 highest grossing domestic movies (not adjusted for inflation) are superhero movies, and internationally, it’s five of the top 20.
This is where it comes back to “Logan.” The journey of the superhero movie has now begun to incorporate other genres because it has to. It’s the narrowing of the industry. If you replaced the superhero elements of “Logan,” you’d have a pretty standard, post-apocalyptic chase film complete with grizzled anti-heroes and an optimistic child who is the dawn of a new day.
And since big-budget films rarely get made anymore without some sort of tie-in to an existing character, franchise or TV show (my God, who in the hell was screaming for a big screen treatment of “CHiPS” in 2017?), it makes sense that we would start to see “smaller” superhero movies. Why, the budget for “Logan” was only $97,000,000. That truly is a great value when stacked up against other super hero movies. Plus, you do need some originality once in a while.
So you may see a few more films like “Logan” in the near future. Mangold is a competent director and he’s delivered an entertaining, engrossing movie. It wasn’t absolutely groundbreaking, because it more or less just combined elements from different genres and made a film that feels quite familiar—albeit with a different setting. And in this era of top down filmmaking, that may just be enough.