An era ends tomorrow when Logan, Hugh Jackman’s final outing as the mutant superhero Wolverine, officially hits theaters. The film screened last month for critics, with our own Nathaniel Brail writing in his review, “Logan sets the bar really high for this year’s set of comic book movies. It gave me everything I wanted in a Wolverine film. This was the movie I’ve been waiting for since the day I opened up my first X-Men comic. It had the right amount of action, blood, gore, and tear-jerking moments and performances that would make the most cynical person weep.”
After the awful reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the improved-but-still-mixed reaction to director James Mangold’s previous entry The Wolverine, it is the third solo Wolverine film that unequivocally succeeds, already earning 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with 120 reviews counted, ahead of X-Men: Days of Future Past (91 percent), tied with Spider-Man 2, just below The Dark Knight (94 percent). These are seminal entries in the genre and already Logan is right up with them. I thought it would be interesting to look at the factors here. What makes Logan – and by extension its critical bedfellows – so acclaimed and their lower-rated counterparts so derided?
For many including myself, Jackman was the first Wolverine they ever knew and certainly the most famous version, a taller, handsomer version of the stocky and rugged comic book version and sans yellow costume (as cool as it would have been to see, it just wouldn’t have meshed with Jackman’s take). Like the Harry Potter books I grew up reading, worldwide audiences aged with Jackman and his character. In the same way, the movies matured, going from the bombastic excess of X-Men Origins to the interesting-but-incomplete The Wolverine. Now, armed with an R-rating and liberated from the demands of continuity or future sequels, Jackman’s Logan gets to walk off into the sunset with grace, as the movie posters unsubtly show.
For some, the simple fact that it is the last go-around for Jackman makes some inclined to view it favorably. But that’s a very surface-level analysis. It’s true that that gave the film an importance that allowed it to be different, that allowed for a hands-off production that eschewed what got the previous entries in trouble. It opened the door to originality. Excising weight such as the computer-generated finales, the result is an adult road-trip drama about an guy who just so happens to be immortal and have metal claws. How Mangold goes about achieving lies the rub.
Logan succeeds by subverting genre, simplifying the story, embracing the tone of the characters, and investing in narrative tension. The second and third points were on display in fellow 20th Century Fox superhero pic Deadpool a little over a year ago. With a cast of characters under 10, the creative freedom of an R-rating, and plots that boil down to “revenge” and “evade” respectively, there is that much more time to focus on the characters, particularly the one at the center. It helps that Ryan Reynolds inhabits Deadpool as well as Jackman does Wolverine. The simple plots leave the films time to evoke the correct tone and to invest in the characters. That bring us to the fourth point.
Narrative tension is produced by emotional investment and character stakes. It was one of Mangold’s first moves on The Wolverine to weaken the character’s healing factor and make him more vulnerable. Here, he achieves the same thing by telling the story of an old man Logan whose powers are failing him. His fallibility instantly makes him more relatable, as does his relationships with Charles Xavier and a young girl with the same powers named Laura. While mutants have tragically disappeared, the world isn’t at stake. Instead of global stakes, Mangold wisely invests in human ones. In his hands, Logan confronting his fear of intimacy and protecting a single girl is more thrilling than almost any city or plant-wide threat seen previously.
But first and foremost is the frame Mangold hangs the picture in. It determines its contours and limits, a shortcut to all the factors we just discussed. As he argues, comic book movie or superhero movies aren’t sufficient to be genres of their own; they’re too amorphous and overlapping. As he points out, book adaptations aren’t called “novel movies.” Logan, by contrast, knows exactly what it is: it’s a Western.
The seeds were planted at the inception. Jackman brought Unforgiven to the table initially. Mangold most prominently brought Shane as an influence, even taking the simple one-name title convention of Logan. The latter is a tale of a gunslinger falling in with a family who teaches him to love again, echoing Logan’s relationships in the movie, which draw him out of hiding to fight once more.
But it’s more than just saying “Wolverine is now Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Print the money!” Like brilliant comedy, it takes surprise. It takes subverting expectations. By marrying some conventions of superhero stories to a Western frame, Mangold amplifies what works in both. Wolverine is a classic loner, a man who can’t escape his capacity for violence. By mixing and matching what works in both genres, Mangold creates a unique alchemy all its own. It’s not a rip-off or copy but becomes an original work that wears its influences proudly, in service of its own ends.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter for an article titled “In the Shadow of Superheroes, Westerns Are (Quietly) Popular,” Josh Garrett-Davis, assistant curator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, said subverting genre is big with recent Westerns and increasingly what separates many films.
“What I see in the recent [Westerns], like the Tarantino movies, True Grit, even No Country for Old Men, is they’re kind of meta. They’re doing the genre as a genre. A lot of the most artistically interesting and critically successful films recently have that sort of post-modern or meta level where you’re commenting on it as a genre.”
Subverting genre communicates to the audience that the storyteller is aware of the story they’re telling and intend to provide something fresh or new. Last weekend’s highly-acclaimed horror movie Get Out (which held a 100 percent initially. My review here) is written and directed by Jordan Peele, a comedian who understands not only the surprise of a good joke but the tropes of horror so can provide the best story for his audience. It worked to the tune of a $30 million opening weekend against a mere $4 million budget. A couple weeks prior, John Wick: Chapter 2 significantly outgrossed its predecessor by doubling-down on its post-modern genre trappings: the high body count, the slick choreography, the worldbuilding. Now, Logan, an R-rated Western masquerading as a superhero movie, is poised to finally deliver the Wolverine film we’ve all waited for. Garrett-Davis is right: audiences respond to confident, self-aware storytelling.
Comparing Logan‘s critical reception with those with similar Rotten Tomatoes scores also offers insight into what makes a superhero film critically-acclaimed. The closest X-Men film is Days of Future Past. With its sprawling cast and multiple timelines, it is hardly a simple story but it carries with it the goodwill of X-Men: First Class as well as the nostalgia of seeing the original trilogy cast one final time. There’s that emotional investment. Spider-Man 2 used the first film as a springboard to dig deeper into its themes in the sequel, while avoiding the bloat that sank Spider-Man 3. A similar method was used for The Dark Knight Trilogy, which yielded one of the most popular and revered comic book movies ever, The Dark Knight.
Like Logan, The Dark Knight changed up its title to subtly communicate a different kind of superhero movie. Also like Logan, given it’s Jackman’s finale, there was an inordinate amount of anticipation around its release due to Heath Ledger’s death. But the pop cultural significance wouldn’t have meant much if both films hadn’t been phenomenal. It’s often said Christopher Nolan essentially made a Michael Mann crime drama, basically Heat with Batman and the Joker as De Niro and Pacino. The vision was so clear that everything that hung on it worked functionally, from the slew of minor cop and criminal characters to the supporting cast including Two-Face, Commissioner Gordon, and Lucius Fox to the Bruce Wayne himself, who ends the picture on the run and despised by the city he protects.
I could analyze the reasons Logan works all day and I might get close to elucidating what makes it not only a great superhero movie, but a great film period. But one thing I can’t communicate is what the film means to you personally, or how it makes you feel. It’s the oldest special effect in Hollywood and one you can’t just buy. Jackman brought to bear nearly-20 years of playing the role. Over nine films, he built a relationship with the audience. Now his indelible take on the immortal mutant comes to an end.