If there’s one thing 2017 didn’t need more of (aside from Bashar al-Assad), it’s “X-Men” sequels. That’s what I thought before seeing “Logan.” Well-reviewed, R-rated and variously characterized as “grown up,” “emotional” and “the most violent film in the series,” “Logan” looked worth a shot. True to form, the violence was graphic, the plotting predictable and the emotional core not altogether disingenuous. However, far more interesting was an aspect noted but left unexamined in every review I read: “Logan”’s self-aware relationship with that grand old man of our less socially conscious filmic past, the Western.
“Logan” is a movie about its genre, the superhero flick. As Hugh Jackman’s last portrayal of the brooding and brutal Wolverine, the film is drenched in finality. At the same time, a passing reference to events in the franchise’s establishing film (released 17 years ago; does that make you feel as old as I do?) positions “Logan” as a sort of closing remark for the series.
A scene in which the road-tripping protagonists watch the classic 1953 Western “Shane” on TV at a hotel provides the key to understanding how “Logan” understands itself. While this superhero movie is influenced by Westerns, we’re asked to see the spiritual thread running between Westerns and the superhero genre more generally. Hugh Jackman may not be the John Wayne our times deserve, it tells us, but he’s the John Wayne we need.
The inheritance is clear: Embodying an updated sense of hardy self-reliance, Wolverine dishes out pioneer justice until it’s time to sacrifice himself for his ideals, which he does dutifully and diffidently. Like an all-American Hercules, his power inevitably brings harm to those he loves, and he labors constantly to avenge them and redeem himself. At one point, Logan is even taken in by a good, clean farming family, who seems wholesome beyond belief until we see them summarily murdered.
“Logan” then offers the possibility of recuperating the old American values so central to the Western; they may appear stale or untenable at first, but the superhero is here to reaffirm them in spite of it all.
At their best, the Western’s “Logan” looks to emulate achieve a level of moral complexity that few if any superhero movies have (the obvious exception being Christopher Nolan’s exceptional “Dark Knight”). If “Logan” aspires to the level of a film like John Ford’s “The Searchers,” it falls short because of its aversion to ambiguity. In “The Searchers,” John Wayne’s character makes deeply questionable choices that remain unresolved by the film’s end; violence has consequences even when wielded by “the good guy,” and we’re left to wonder if this story has a hero at all.
In contrast, it takes a sharp tree, some ugly crying and all of five minutes for Logan’s moral status to be self-seriously restored. The fact that he kills dozens of people over the course of the film, often in pretty horrific fashion, hardly matters. This is a superhero movie, after all. Still, such a tidy resolution doesn’t seem fitting for the best superhero movie ever made. As is too often the case, “Logan”’s aesthetic failings can in part be traced back to the practical constraints of its production.
In the age of the Sequel Machine, moral complexity has become vanishingly scarce because such high-mindedness is a financial risk. When a studio has $200 million sunk into a project, it puts out a film aimed at the lowest common denominator (case in point, 12-17 year olds have the highest per capita attendance at movie theaters). Once a film like “X-Men” manages to capture an audience, it’s more financially viable to excrete sequels ad nauseam than to risk multi-million dollar losses on a superhero picture that doesn’t offer the easy enticements audiences expect from the established formula.
The crappy state of the movie industry is a bed we’ve made for ourselves (granted, accidently), and we have little choice but to lie in it. Uncreative sequels are nothing new, and we’ll certainly see more. It’s also easy to forget how many lazy, uninspired Westerns were made out of purely commercial motives, since those less accomplished examples tend to fade into history. Still, if superhero movies are the Westerns of our time, as “Logan” would have us believe, maybe the end of this chapter means that the best is yet to come.
“Logan” isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it’s not quite as unambitious as its recent peers. Hollywood has churned out so many mediocre superhero movies for so long that its unconvincing aspirations shine in comparison. Now how long will Marvel manage to keep it in their pants before they decide on a premature reboot a la “Spiderman”? At very least, what little is left of the film-going public deserves better than that.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.