Logan proves that audiences aren't afraid of a complex superhero
Spoilers for Logan follow.
Last week, before the movie's opening weekend, Logan director James Mangold announced on Twitter that he is working on a black and white version of the latest Wolverine film. It sounds pretentious for a superhero movie—a technique saved for arthouse films, not for comic book blockbusters. But, Logan, stylistically at least, has more in common with an indie drama designed for niche audiences than it does with the typical comic book blockbuster. Logan—and a handful of superhero movies to come out in recent years, particularly last year's Deadpool—is proof that studios are willing to experiment with the genre.
Logan made headlines long before its release by getting the much-avoided R-rating. This is usually a death sentence for blockbuster films that hope to appeal to wide audiences, but star Hugh Jackman reportedly took a massive pay cut to make up for it. The result is the most brutal X-Men movie ever made, with Wolverine hacking off limbs and impaling faces with his claws.
Beyond its full-throttle violence, Logan goes to emotionally dark places, too. Inspired by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's graphic novel Old Man Logan, the film depicts the washed-up Logan as an alcoholic former hero—the last of the X-Men—driving a limo to make ends meet. The tone is post-apocalyptic, with the last of the heroes dead besides our titular hero and Professor X. And both of them are in bad shape. Charles Xavier is suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder that sends him into seizures, causing his telepathic powers to decimate everyone within radius. Logan, meanwhile, can't regenerate the way he used to. He's got a limp, a body full of scars, and open wounds that are slow to heal. Even extending his claws is a struggle.
Our heroes are pretty much beaten to shit throughout the entire movie. These aren't the godlike, attractive superheroes of the Avengers series. Logan and Professor X are flawed, and more human than mutant. Though civilization is very much intact, Logan feels more like a dystopian thriller than your average superhero flick.
There aren't godlike, attractive superheroes. Logan and Professor X are flawed, and more human than mutant.
Though the "dark and gritty" comic book adaptation has been overdone since Christopher Nolan popularized the concept with his Batman trilogy, Logan manages to avoid feeling like a parody of the style. This isn't a superhero movie, and these two aren't gods—they're mortal men whose fate is ticking ever closer. They're coming to terms with their past, their failures, and their inevitable demise.
When Logan and the Professor become the guardians of Laura, one of the last mutants, they begin a doomed trek across middle America. It's a journey as if Quentin Tarantino directed Cormac McCarthy's The Road, complete with themes of mortality, memory, masculinity, and fatherhood. Though Logan's reluctance to be a hero becomes exhausting (hasn't he been through this a few times in several X-Men movies?), the film succeeds in exploring these themes through the wide-open expanse of red states. At a time when doomsday feels near and movies like Hell or High Water are reminders of an often-forgotten America, Logan's setting feels like the perfect place.
Early reports show Logan made an astounding $85.3 million domestically in its opening weekend—the biggest opening for an R-rated film in March. And critics have given the movie universal praise, with a 93 percent average on Rotten Tomatoes. Last year saw a number of superhero films gross less than expected, including Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad—both DC films which made well below the goal of $1 billion worldwide. Meanwhile, X-Men: Apocalypse also did worse than expected in the U.S., with its domestic box-office receipts coming in below the film's $178 million budget.
These three films have put studios in an interesting place. Even though they made a lot of money, they failed to beat goals and were skewered by critics and audiences alike. Marvel's offerings, on the other hand, exceeded expectations; Doctor Strange and Captain America: Civil War, the latter undoubtedly propelled by the wildly popular Avengers canon, were both critical and box-office successes. While Civil War was the typical onslaught of big-budget action with its all-star cast going to war with itself, Doctor Strange offered a more visually stunning take on the superhero genre, making up for its dull plot with mind-bending timeline twists and abstract combat that was visually comparable to a Terrence Malick film.
Logan follows in Deadpool's formula; also released by Fox, Deadpool is the most surprising comic book adaptation in recent years because of its irreverent humor (and, like Logan, an R-rating). Following a fringe X-Men character, Deadpool was shot on a relatively small budget ($58 million) and grossed $363 million domestically. It seems ridiculous in hindsight that it was a surprise hit; receiving glowing reviews, it was even a dark-horse contender for an Oscar nomination after earning a Best Picture nod at the Golden Globes.
The takeaway is this: Fans will spend money on just about any superhero movie—even for the maligned ones in the DC canon that earn horrible reviews. But this security gives studios the freedom to experiment with the genre. The traditional superhero genre grew stale a long time ago. If comic book adaptations will continue to be easy money for studios, it's worth trying out some innovative stories—stories that bring as much character development and larger themes to the plate along with an overstuffed plot and big action sequences. Logan's success in its first weekend proves that audiences are willing open their minds. The end might be near for Wolverine and Professor X, but they might have saved an entire superhero genre.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.