comic book movies

What Logan Gets About Telling a Great Superhero Story

Hugh Jackman in Logan. Photo: Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox

There’s a scene about halfway through Logan in which our grizzled protagonist doesn’t quite break the fourth wall, but we can certainly hear his accusatory voice on the other side of it. He holds up a superhero comic like a piece of pornography found under a kid’s mattress and denounces the idiocy of it and its ilk — “ice cream for bedwetters,” he calls them. Though such a pronouncement is a little extreme (let’s leave those who live with nocturnal enuresis out of this), he has a point about the facile simplicity and lack of vision that plague all too many superhero projects. Logan, miraculously, is not one of those pieces.

I’ll leave it to our film critic, David Edelstein, to determine the ways Logan does or doesn’t work as a movie, but it’s worth looking at why it works so well as a filmed piece of superhero fiction — especially in the context of the Marvel comics it’s based on, as well as other recent superhero pictures. To be blunt, it’s one of the best pieces of superhero storytelling to emerge since the dawn of the cinematic superhero boom two decades ago.

With its blood-freezing brutality, shockingly effective humor, and tear-inducing tenderness, Logan joins The Dark Knight and Unbreakable in the pantheon of great superhero movies that don’t need to be graded on a superheroic curve. It stands on its own as a stunning piece of mainstream auteur filmmaking that leaves you gasping and, if you’re like me, weeping at both its genuine sadness and its vision of hope — elements rarely seen in this oversaturated cinematic category. Logan, in short, gets how to tell a masterful superhero story.

Mild spoilers for Logan below.

Even the setting of this Fox project is more ambitious in its craftsmanship than its counterparts in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, which generally rely on being set in a facsimile of the present day or an idealized vision of a historical period. The film takes place in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico of 2029, but it’s a world notably light on advanced technology. Much like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men — a movie to which Logan owes an enormous debt — this is a world that has entered a spiritual and economic slump a long time before the start of our story, leading people to more or less give up on inventing things and thinking about brighter futures. Everyone, including Logan, is drifting through life, their goals minor and their pleasures basic.

Like Children of Men, its vision of the future has political teeth. In passing, we see massive lines of Latino deportees at an intimidating border wall. The mutant minority has mostly died out, and a Limbaugh-esque radio host says he’s sick of talking about their extinction. We learn of an American biotech firm that’s exploiting the uneven relationship between the U.S. and Mexico by setting up a lab conducting horrific experiments south of the border. Their victims are overwhelmingly black and brown — but so are nearly all of the non-Wolverine heroes of the movie. As is true of most great X-Men stories, the film is a story about the forgotten, the desperate, and the marginalized finding strength in one another. Logan is a superpowered protest against Trumpism — and a chillingly effective one, at that.

Speaking of chilling effectiveness: Unlike many superhero movies, this is one where violence hurts. Action in this genre is, for better and worse, generally quite cartoony. For instance, recall the big airport brawl in Captain America: Civil War: Though that scene is giddily exciting, we primarily enjoy the banter and the CGI acrobatics; the punches and energy blasts might as well be foam balls from Nerf rifles. That, to say the least, is not the case in Logan. The fights are all resolutely grounded, conducted by actors and stunt performers with minimal and unobtrusive computer assistance (you can use practical effects for a lot, but not for a thrice-pierced skull). No one flies, no one has lasers, and, as a result, you wince at every inventively gruesome kill. That kind of vicious, profoundly R-rated bloodletting might not be what you’re looking for in a superhero movie, but at the very least, one has to appreciate how tautly executed and different it is, compared to what we’re used to seeing, even in the allegedly “dark” super-flicks.

Indeed, Logan feels genuinely grim without employing grimness for grimness’s sake. Like somber comics masterpieces Watchmen and Kingdom Come, the movie knows that maturity and darkness are two very different things. A superhero story works when it’s trying to say something about power and responsibility, and gloom is only effective if it serves that purpose. Writer-director James Mangold gets that, and Logan is a passionate allegory about using our intellectual and physical abilities not just to survive and find personal fulfillment — we have to make sure others can, too. The best X-Men stories are about makeshift families, and Logan declares that our notions of family must expand if we are to be worthy of survival.

Dark superhero stories also only work if they’re not 100 percent dark — after all, they’re called comic books, aren’t they? There’s something inherently silly about the notion of the superhero, so jokes are baked into the genre. Unlike humorless slogfests like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Logan features healthy helpings of actual humor. The best Wolverine tales are built on the misanthrope protagonist’s difficulties in relating to other people, and this movie is no different: Hugh Jackman has cracklingly good chemistry with both Patrick Stewart and the remarkable newcomer Dafne Keen, who plays a mysterious girl Logan finds himself caring for. Unlike the frat-guy gags in Deadpool or the wisecracks in Ant-Man, the laughs in Logan come from relationships, and those relationships are ones that a viewer can relate to. Wolverine and Professor X fight because they love each other, even in dire times.

One thing that makes those times dire is how both men’s bodies are degenerating, which brings us to another concept that Logan shares with the great superhero stories: original ideas about superpowers. If a storyteller just uses its characters’ extraordinary abilities to show big fight scenes, they’re not trying hard enough — you have to take that premise and one-up what’s been done before. Here, we get the question of what happens when superheroes get old. Logan still has his healing factor, but we see that it’s become a curse: He wants to die of old age like everyone else, but all that his advanced years have given him are an inability to receive that sweet embrace of mortality and a repeated set of moments where he agonizingly recovers from massive injuries. (As old men know, some of his biological processes take longer than they used to.) As for Xavier, well, the situation is summed up well by one of the villains: He’s got “a degenerative brain disease in the world’s most dangerous brain.” The two men are simultaneously terrifying and pitiful.

And therein lies the key to the great superhero tragedies: the fragile humanity within the imposing superhuman. Reader, I wept. Three times over the course of the movie, I found myself crying, which is something I hardly ever do at the cineplex. I won’t spoil those moments, but they were all small. A chat between old friends, a reminiscence about childhood, and a brief quotation of an old movie. The stakes of the picture are personal, not global — Mangold understands that the master plans of the baddies are never the actual point of a superhero conflict.

When done right, superhero fights are ultimately battles against the biggest supervillains of all: cynicism and our own base impulses. In that way, this downer of a movie is, paradoxically, one of the most optimistic superhero films ever made. The good guys aren’t just fighting to save the world, but to prove that it’s worth saving. Logan does that, too, in the process proving that those silly comic books the main character hates so much might have actually been onto something.

What Logan Gets About Telling a Great Superhero Story