By now, the trailers for Logan (in theaters March 3) have made it very clear that this is not a typical superhero movie. Quiet and despairing, light on special effects and heavy on character drama, the third Wolverine solo film looks to be a drastic departure from previous X-Men films, not to mention the Marvel and DC Comics films that dominate the genre. At a December press event last year, I previewed the first 40 minutes of Logan, and I can tell you that superhero films are never going to be the same.
Logan takes place in a desolate near future, where mutants have largely died out and the glory days of the X-Men are long past. Logan (Hugh Jackman), formerly known as Wolverine, is a Jim Beam-chugging misanthrope who begins the film by violently slaughtering three armed criminals who try to steal his hubcaps. Living on a border town in Texas and driving a limousine for money, Logan has become the de facto protector of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who lives in hiding (his psychic brain has been classified by the U.S. government as “a weapon of mass destruction”) and suffers from severe dementia.
Watching these characters suffer so unheroically is incredibly depressing (not to mention how jarring it is to hear Wolverine and Professor X drop F-bombs). The film picks up considerably when Logan and Professor X find themselves in custody of an 11-year-old mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen), who appears to have the same powers as Wolverine. With a tattooed villain (Boyd Pierce) in pursuit, the three of them take off on a road trip to figure out who the girl is and what their next move should be.
Watch the ‘Logan’ trailer:
The road trip portion of the film wasn’t shown in the press preview, but seems to be the heart of the story. While the part I saw was violent and action-driven — like Breaking Bad with retractable claws — director James Mangold says that the rest of the film adheres more closely to his original idea. And that idea is very surprising.
“The first thing that occurred to me was doing Little Miss Sunshine with these characters,” Mangold said at the December press preview. “And that’s, believe it or not, what evolved into [Logan].”
Obviously, Logan is not the first R-rated superhero movie; Deadpool did it last year, to great acclaim. Nor is it the first to go to a very dark place, which has basically been Warner Bros.’ MO with the DC Extended Universe films. However, the idea of a character-driven, low-budget drama in the superhero universe is new. At least, it’s new to film — it actually resembles what Marvel has done with Netflix properties like Jessica Jones. But in terms of its feature films, Marvel has shown no interest in breaking out of its very successful formula of epic, effects-heavy, interconnected blockbusters. While Marvel and DC comics are pushing to make their extended superhero universes as far-reaching as possible, Fox is self-consciously shrinking the X-Men universe for Logan.
As Mangold sees it, this is the inevitable direction that the superhero genre has to take to survive. Speaking to Yahoo Movies’ Kevin Polowy in December, the director described it as opting out of “the CG arms race.”
“It’s like, ‘OK, you destroy a city; I’ll destroy the world.’ ‘OK, you destroy the world; I’ll destroy the galaxy. And then I’ll go back in time and do it a second time!’” Mangold said. “At some point, we’ve seen all this stuff. And the way you’re going to pull an audience in is still going to be the old-fashioned way: Characters that grip you from the heart, and that pull you into the drama and their predicament and their fears. And that other stuff is like chocolate sauce. It’s great, but you can’t eat that for two hours.”
And he’s right. One reason that the superhero comics industry continues to thrive is that it’s unafraid to diversify: Every genre — from slapstick to noir, sci-fi to fantasy — has played out in the pages of those books. Characters like Superman and Spider-Man have proven iconic enough to encompass all kinds of story arcs, belief systems, and unlikely team-ups without losing fans. If superheroes are to have that same kind of longevity at the box office, the films need to evolve in different directions, much as the comics have.
As of this moment, no major studio would fully take a risk on Little Miss Sunshine with X-Men; audiences expect certain things from their superhero movies, and a Wolverine film without wild action sequences would disappoint. But Logan is a solid step in that direction. In a best-case scenario, the film will show Hollywood that superhero movies have possibilities beyond the family-friendly popcorn movie. In a worst-case scenario, Logan will reinforce the idea that “grownup” superhero movies need to be bleaker than a Gotham City cemetery. Either way, the era of the strictly PG-13 comic book film is coming to an end. And it’s fitting that Jackman’s final Wolverine film is the one that marks the evolution.