Logan and Suphero Flicks

Logan is undoubtedly one of the best Marvel/superhero movies ever. I re-watched it recently, and I then listened to an interview with the director. He brought up two points that I thought worth considering.

  1. He stressed the importance of getting an R rating.

For those of you who’ve seen this movie, you know that the movie earns this rating with its graphic violence and coarse language. This isn’t what James Mangold, the director, said he was interested in, though. He pushed for this because he knew that if the movie were PG-13, studios would pressure him to make every scene palatable to a 12 year old. More than that, he knew every scene would need to fit a 12 year old’s attention span. While this seems obvious, I’d never considered how a PG-13 movie must be made so that it’s intelligible to a young audience. As these blockbusters continue to shape the moviegoing experience for swaths of America, what’s the effect of continuing to smooth the rough edges of a movie, the parts that make you stop and reconsider and feel?

One author described James Bond movies as “Wonder Bread.” James Bond undergoes little character development movie to movie, he merely moves from a state of incomplete to complete knowledge regarding some plot against him, the state, etc. Similarly, many superhero movies amount to being “Wonder Bread.” They allow for escapism and feeling good, as anyone will tell you, but transcending that is rare. Alejandro Iñárritu, a director who recently made Birdman and The Revenant, argues that superhero movies are fundamentally right-wing by exhorting violence against those who basically “do not believe in what you believe.” He adds that “they have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.” Perhaps, some of these shortcomings are due to the fact that killing anyone who disagrees with you and some explosions and shit on the side go down easy with a 12 year old. Genuine human emotion requires maturity to understand and appreciate.

2. He argued that the violence in the movie is character development.

There’s an incredible scene in Logan when Charles has a seizure. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Charles is a mutant (superhero) able to do incredible things with his brain. He can communicate with people across distances, read minds, and more. As he’s nearing death, he’s begun to develop Alzheimer’s. When he seizes, his brain is out of control. So, his seizures freeze those around him and can keep them from even breathing. His brain is classified as a WMD.

At one point in the film, armed men trap him in his room as they wait for Logan. When Logan comes to the hotel, Charles begins seizing. We watch as Logan struggles through the almost forcefield Charles’ mind has created. When he arrives at the room, still in this forcefield, Logan begins killing each man there. The killing is brutal, merciless, and unfair. The men cannot move as Logan puts his claws through them in fatality after fatality. There’s nothing sexy about this combat, no flashy choreography or novel claw uses. As the director noted, this is what combat would look like if you wanted to save someone you loved and you didn’t care about anything else. Logan wants to save Charles. That’s all that matters, and he doesn’t care if it is a little cheap killing men frozen in place. It’s a relatively brief scene, which you can watch here. Although, I’d warn you against it if you don’t have much of a stomach for violence. I mention this scene at length because I think it reveals another reason why Logan is so phenomenal. Everything is in service to character and story. Moreover, humanity is the heart of the story, despite it being about mutants and supernatural people. While not biologically true, Charles is Logan’s father. Logan later must learn to care for his daughter. As Iñárritu said, many superhero movies don’t say much about being human. Logan does.

A great writer, Alan Jacobs, noted some common fatal flaws of superhero movies:

  1. They’re at least 30 minutes too long;
  2. Most of that excessive length results from the decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many;
  3. The decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many stems, in turn, from the catastrophically erroneous belief that raising the stakes — putting a city or (better) a country or (better still) a planet or (even more better) the universe or (best of all) ALL THE UNIVERSES THERE EVER WERE OR EVER COULD BE at risk — will increase viewers’ emotional investment in the story;
  4. In order to turn the screw of tension ever tighter, some characters will be made to behave in ways wildly inconsistent with what they appear to be throughout most of the movie, while other characters will be pressed towards the absolute extremes of heroism or wickedness.

He brought this up in the context of Blade Runner: 2049, but his points are germane to any discussion of superhero films. Logan’s virtue is in its narrow focus. Logan was never remotely near saving the world. His concerns are all pretty reasonable. He worries about his father and daughter and his friend Caliban. He must face his own death from adamantium poisoning. He knows that he’s brought pain and death to those he cared about most, yet he still needs to care for a daughter he’s recently found.

In the final sequence, he faces off against a clone of him that’s superior in every way. The scene’s weight though isn’t fighting against all odds as an end unto itself. The world doesn’t rest on him besting this villain. This isn’t quite Return of the King, going out to the Black Gate to give Frodo time. He’s fighting to save some kids and his daughter. The stakes are low. These kids are mutants, but they’re also undocumented Mexican children. Their death or life won’t be news. But, the scene is overwhelming precisely because all of the violence is purposeful and character-driven. The emotional buy-in as Logan tries to defend his daughter is a hell of a lot greater than Sokovia, if you ask me.  As the torrential flood of superhero movies increases, perhaps it’s worth pushing back on some of the right-wing tendencies of films that paint any opposition as evil and substitute scale for storytelling. More than that, perhaps it’s time to ask that superhero movies say something about being human instead of falling back on explosions and shit.