Logan is a Western, and it Changes Everything
Logan makes every other superhero film in the past fifteen years look like a cheap parlor trick. For two hours and twenty one minutes, it locks you in and makes you watch a movie that doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. It’s uncomfortable and messy and it doesn’t satisfy. Wolverine’s claws are uneven and his kills are ugly. People die with no last words, no proper sendoff and no closure. Logan provokes visceral reactions time and again, not because it’s violent, but because it’s painful, and everything else now looks plastic by comparison.
From the top, let me say I hope this doesn’t come across as some edgy rant arguing for more gore and profanity in superhero films. That’s not my point. I should also confess that I have no experience with the X-Men comics, or with comics at all for that matter. I’m not arguing that The Avengers would have been better with a few more fucks given. All I’m saying is that Logan changes things, and the rest of the genre needs to take notice and adapt.
I expect words like “raw” and “gritty” will be thrown around a lot in discussing Logan. I’m hesitant to use that vernacular because it’s the same language people use to describe The Dark Knight, and the two really aren’t that comparable. They both step outside the box of contemporary comic book movies, but where The Dark Knight is a thriller, Logan is a western, and therein lies the difference that makes Hugh Jackman’s final outing so important.
In the modern Hollywood superhero archetype, the greater message to the audience is apparent to the characters. Superman is a symbol of justice and goodness, and he understands that just as well as we do. In The Dark Knight, Batman represents the basic human struggle between morality and chaos that thematically pervades throughout the whole film. Both forces are at work in Bruce Wayne, and The Joker and Two Face bring that inner conflict into the spotlight. And Batman gets this. He understands he’s a symbol in some broader thematic picture.
In a western, Batman doesn’t get it. We get it, and therefore we have certain expectations about how Batman is supposed to act and how the plot is supposed to go. Batman doesn’t see the deeper significance of his circumstances, so his actions don’t match our expectations. He doesn’t stop to consider what he’s supposed to do in a narrative sense.
The Dark Knight is clean. Maybe that’s controversial, but it shouldn’t be. Yes, Rachel dies. Yes, Harvey Dent succumbs to The Joker’s twisted social experiment, and yes, Batman takes the fall when he shouldn’t have to. But that all makes sense. It fulfills the thematic ends we anticipated when we bought our tickets. We understand what Batman and Joker represent, and we’d be shocked if the movie ended happy. In the end, we get what we paid for. It’s clean. It satisfies.
Logan does not satisfy. It isn’t clean because no part of it understands the rules it’s supposed to follow. Professor X insists on being crass, pathetic and generally wrong about everything, despite our presumption that he’s meant to be kind, strong and wise. Characters die in the middle of fights, dazed and confused with no forewarning, no tidy arc or epiphany and no greater thematic significance. And when they’re buried, Logan offers no words to explain why. It doesn’t resolve the major plot points revealed in the film’s third act. It refuses to give us the explanations we demand. Hell, the whole crux of the plot is that Wolverine’s powers have stopped functioning properly. He doesn’t work the way he’s supposed to.
I also expect Logan will see a lot of comparisons to last year’s Deadpool. After all, the two films mark the first two consecutive steps in Fox’s ongoing experiment in R-rated superhero movies. The difference is that Deadpool puts a filter on the established tropes of the genre, while Logan takes a filter off.
At no point while watching Ryan Reynolds bloodily slice up extras and spout crude one-liners did I see Deadpool as some new norm. It doesn’t feel natural, it feels off. In a good way mind you, but off nonetheless. Logan, on the other hand, makes everything else feel off. Suddenly, every prior film Fox, DC and Disney have ever put out in the genre looks fake. Where’s the ugliness? Where’s the pain? I’m not asking Chris Hemsworth to start decapitating people in Thor: Ragnarok, but looking back now I can’t help notice all the lines, all the actions, all the moments that felt stiff and unnatural. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has always been primed and focus-tested, there’s no revelation there. The Hollywood blood was visibly coursing right beneath the skin, and everyone accepted it. But now Logan has cut an adamantium gash and the Hollywood is spilling out, impossible to ignore anymore.
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine holds a pedigree as old as the contemporary superhero film. Tobey Maguire’s masked debut in Spiderman made such a huge splash upon release in 2002 that lots of people forget it was preceded two years by the original X-Men. Long before Robert Downey Jr. became an idol for American children, Hugh Jackman and Wolverine laid the early groundwork that would become modern comic book blockbusters as we know them. The X-Men franchise built the foundation for the genre’s multibillion-dollar card tower, and in one breath James Mangold blew the whole thing down and showed us all what a façade it was.
Up until now, superhero flicks have been Hollywood’s Top 40 pop hits. Sure Batman might switch into a minor key and Deadpool slapped a parental advisory label on the cover, but they still played on the same stations. Logan composes in a whole different time signature. It’s new and different and feels unnatural, and it can’t be ignored.