‘Logan’ And The Dystopia Of The R-Rated Superhero Film

The success of Logan and Deadpool has people wondering if R-rated superhero movies are the wave of the future, but maybe they shouldn't be.

Logan Hugh Jackman Wolverine

This article contains spoilers for Logan.

The weekend is over, the dust has settled, and now, we can say without reservation that Logan was an unqualified success. It garnered near universal praise from critics, effusive enthusiasm from audiences, and made a whole ton of money along the way.

It also happened to be rated R.

Conventional wisdom has always held that any movie with ambitions of mainstream success would be crippled by an R rating. After all, anyone younger than 17 would be restricted from paying money to see the film. But between the triumph of Logan and a similar success story for last year’s Deadpool, the question of the day is, “should we be making more R-rated superhero movies?”

The answer, in short, is no, and interestingly enough, Logan itself presents the strongest argument for why this is the case.

Logan is set in a world that’s very different from most other superhero movies we’ve seen. It’s meaner, uglier, crueler. Punches hurt, wounds bleed, and there’s a real, tangible sense of danger to the proceedings. It’s a far cry from the bright, poppy, largely bloodless X-Men movies we’ve gotten previously, but that is very much the point. Logan is a deconstructionist commentary on the entire superhero movie genre; in fact, it’s the first one that fully works. Zack Snyder has attempted twice to deconstruct our cinematic superheroes, but each time his efforts have come up short. Snyder is clearly influenced by the great deconstructionist comic books of the ‘80s, but while Alan Moore had decades of storytelling to comment on, Snyder’s Watchmen came as superhero films still hadn’t quite come of age. The idea of what a superhero movie was even supposed to be still hadn’t fully solidified, so there wasn’t yet a structure that existed to be deconstructed. On the other hand, while Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had more than sufficient material to comment on in the 14 combined Batman and Superman movies that had previously existed, it too was hampered by the fact that the film was meant to be the foundational cornerstone of a new cinematic universe. You cannot build something at the same time as you’re breaking it apart. That’s why stories like The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke were, at least initially, meant to exist outside the mainstream DC continuity. These stories could only work if they were allowed to comment from the outside looking in.

This is where Logan succeeds. To the first point, not only are superhero movies now a monolithic institution – thanks, in no small part, to Marvel Studios defining the genre with their approach to a cinematic universe – but there are also eight previous X-Men movies to comment on. However, like Batman v Superman, it wouldn’t work if this were intended to just be another X-Men movie. That’s where a crucial detail comes into play: Logan exists outside the continuity of the X-Men series.

This is not something that is ever explicitly stated in the film, but it’s heavily implied. On the most fundamental level, Logan does not look or feel anything like the other X-Men movies. In its very first scene, the film uses its R rating to make a statement that this is going to be very different from any of the previous films. Dismemberment and gaping wounds are captured with unflinching focus while Logan and the punks he’s fighting all move and act in ways that are far less heightened. Even the visual texture reinforces how different this is. High contrast, deep shadows, a more naturalistic color palate – this isn’t a bright, four-color splash page, it’s a noir movie.

Beyond the mere aesthetics of the thing, the movie also deliberately thumbs its nose at continuity nerds by referencing events that should have been erased by the time travel shenanigans of Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier mentions the incident at the Statue of Liberty from the first film, and Logan still keeps the samurai sword he was given in The Wolverine. But the new timeline is also referenced by the presence of X-23, whose role was set up in the post-credits tag of Apocalypse. These timelines can’t have both happened because one was specifically designed to cancel out the other. The movie, however, provides a simple explanation, and it’s represented by the X-Men comics that Laura reads.

When Logan sees these books, he reacts with disgust at what he considers to be insulting, sanitized trash that disrespects everyone who fought and bled and died in the real life events these stories purport to be based on. They’re cheap pablum that promise happy endings for children despite the fact that there’s nothing happy about the way the world has turned out. But Logan isn’t a movie about comic books, it’s a movie about movies, and this whole discussion of the comics is a way for the filmmakers to wink at the audience and reveal what this film is really about. What the movie is saying is that none of the other X-Men movies happened. Certain events from them might have, but not exactly in the way they played out on screen. It’s a deconstructionist critique of the whole institution of superhero movies. Silly, unrealistic, bloodless affairs that momentarily distract us from a world that is turning back towards fascism and is growing more hostile to those who are different.

Mutants have always stood in for groups of oppressed minorities, but unlike movies where conflict is resolved by the end of two hours, and the X-Men emerge as triumphant heroes, Logan shows us a world where mutants are reviled to the point where genocide is enacted upon them under the guise of public safety. A world where drunk, American assholes chant “U.S.A.!” as they cross the Mexican border. Make no mistake, it’s no coincidence that Laura is a Mexican refugee attempting to escape capture by the United States government. Logan presents a near-future that looks frighteningly like one we could see if current trends carry on unabated, and it makes no bones about the meaningless pain and suffering and death that would happen as a result. There is no pathos to Charles’ death, Caliban is tortured until he betrays his friends, and even the cause of the mutant genocide was not by some display of totalitarian force, but rather by banal institutional machinations. What good are silly superhero stories when the real heroes are being quietly exterminated while the world goes to hell?

It turns out that Logan has an answer to that question too. As much as it’s a deconstruction of the superhero genre, it’s also a passionate plea for why there movies important after all. The answer lies in Laura, a child living in this horrible, broken world, who finds the strength to carry on by reading these goofy, escapist fantasies. The X-Men comics she reads talk about a place called Eden – a safe haven for mutants hidden away in the mountains north of the Canadian border. Logan is convinced that Eden is bullshit, but for Laura, it represents all the hope she has in the world. Hope enough to organize with the other children survivors of the Weapon X program to work to find a better future. At the end of the movie, we never get to know who was right. Perhaps Eden exists after all, perhaps the children find this mythical safe haven, but more likely, Logan’s doubts were justified. There is probably no Eden, but the literal existence of this place matters less than the hope it inspires. Logan’s end game is to take Charles to a place isolated from the rest of the world, wait until his mentor dies, then blow his own brains out. For Laura, though, even if it turns out Eden doesn’t exist, she has a path to find a better future. She’s escaped the people who want to harm her and she’s found a community to support her.

And it’s all because of these silly, unrealistic superhero stories.

Logan is a terrific film, one that manages to accomplish something no other comic book movie has before. It’s a smart, effective deconstruction of superhero movies that has the weight of nearly two decades of storytelling to back it up. But as comics have shown us, deconstructionist stories can’t be the standard bearer for an entire industry. In their desire to duplicate the success of books like Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and The Dark Knight Returns, publishers tried to give every series its own bleak, cynical, masturbatory headline-grabber, and it led, in part to the near-death of the industry in the ‘90s. Good as those first few books may be, their legacy has forever been tarnished by the undeniably negative ways they impacted the world of superhero storytelling.

It’s great to have movies like Logan and Deadpool that either critique or lampoon these stories, but it doesn’t do anyone any good if these are the only type of stories being told. Superhero stories are, and always have been for children. They’re stories of hope and good triumphing over evil that, at their best, can inspire kids in profound ways that might affect the way they live the rest of their lives. There’s incredible power in that, and it’s not worth throwing that away entirely just so some 25-year-old can get his rocks off at seeing blood in a funnybook movie.

David Daut

David Daut

Though his taste has been described as ‘broken’, David maintains that the Fast & Furious series is the greatest cultural achievement of the modern era.