In the era of superhero movies, “Logan” stands apart. This is, in part, evidenced by the film’s Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. This nod breaks with the “rule” that live-action superhero films are only ever nominated in technical categories — with the exception of Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor nomination and win for his role as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.”
Though the Academy is by no means the deciding qualifier for what is or is not considered good art, the fact that we are considering “Logan” alongside movies such as “Call Me By Your Name” and “Mudbound” speaks volumes to the artistic potential in the superhero genre, especially when the films themselves break with convention.
Looking back at Hugh Jackman’s first appearance as Wolverine in the 2000 “X-Men” film it’s hard to foresee the 17-year path he and his character would traverse. The “X-Men” series, despite comprising Marvel superheroes, exists separately from and predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, the franchise is often heralded with reviving superhero films after the damage wrought by the disastrous “Batman & Robin.” And while “X-Men” films will continue — the upcoming “Deadpool” sequel, for example — Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, who has been there from the start, has finished his journey.
Superhero comics are not fond of endings. Characters die and come back with dizzying regularity. Often the entire universe is simply rebooted rather than putting forth a concentrated effort for more consistent storytelling. Deciding what is and is not canon for any given character is a herculean, if not impossible, task.
Similarly, superhero films struggle with the perpetuity of their characters. “The Dark Knight Rises” came close to committing to an end, though ultimately the film showed a new character (Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake) inheriting the Batcave. “Iron Man 3” concluded with Tony Stark destroying all his suits, only for him to return in full armor for “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
“Logan” does not fall prey to this proclivity for ambiguous fates. Logan is dying — he has reached the limit of what he can heal from. The X-Men are gone. Mutants are nearly extinct, or so it was thought. When faced with the realization that a new generation of mutants exists, Logan is left to decide whether he can muster any hope that the survival of their species is possible.
Superheroes are modern mythology — “Logan” understands this, as well as being aware of the tragedy that almost always haunts mythology. While superhero films ultimately can and should be a source of triumph and hope, there is something deeply honest in recognizing that those things are often wrapped up in profound sadness.
That the X-Men franchise exists separately from the MCU carries a certain poetic irony — mutants’ stories are fundamentally different than other superheroes. Mutants’ powers do not come from external sources such as a suit of iron, or a super-soldier experiment. They are fated to face the realities of being a mutant from the moment they are born. “I always thought we were part of God’s plan,” Logan admits. “Maybe we were God’s mistake.” Though Logan’s conclusion ultimately — thankfully — is proven untrue, this tendency toward despair is palpable throughout the movie.
The MCU is often lauded for the extent to which production and story arcs have been mapped out years in advance, but “Logan” shows there can be some benefit to giving directors more autonomy and creative control. “Logan” isn’t worried about setting up an upcoming movie, and the value in not having that restriction is made clear by the strength of the film.
Superheroes are human — their lives have consequences. “You’re going to have to learn to live with that,” Logan tells his daughter, Laura (a poignant performance by Dafne Keen) — “that” being the people they hurt and are hurt by. Furthermore, there is no guarantee in the final moments of “Logan,” no sense of certainty — one could argue there isn’t even much hope. There is the possibility, though, that a safe haven exists and that the new generation of mutants will survive. It’s the possibility that though heroes are met with defeat, even death, they will never go extinct.
Superhero movies should not be afraid to tackle more difficult questions and conflicts. In allowing heroes to face realistic struggles, and all of the hardships they entail, the films may finally bridge the divide between a popcorn movie and the kinds of movies that tend to accrue awards consideration.
Contact Danielle Hilborn at [email protected].