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The Lesson of ‘Logan’: Superhero Sagas Are Better When They’re Real Movies

Variety logo Variety 3/5/2017 Owen Gleiberman
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Just about everyone who’s seen it — audiences, critics, “X-Men” superfans — seems to agree that “Logan” is a very good movie, one that brings the Wolverine saga to a soulful and satisfying note of dramatic closure. No matter how many more “X-Men” films ever get made, this is certain to go down as one of the highlights. Yet when you watch “Logan,” what’s striking isn’t merely that it’s better but that it’s different — different from the other entries in the series, and different from most comic-book superhero films. It’s a dystopian Western road movie that ambles and settles in and takes its time (it’s the opposite of fragmented), and it’s intently focused on the human side of Logan — who he is, what he wants, the feelings roiling around inside him — even though he’s a character that movie audiences have lived with for 17 years. (Other multiplex superheroes have had as long a run or longer, notably Batman, but never with the same actor.)

When Hugh Jackman first played the role, in 2000, he’d never done a major movie before, and for a long time afterward he had a hit-or-miss career as a leading man outside of the “X-Men” series (the time-tripping chick-flick awkwardness of “Kate & Leopold,” the CGI junkiness of “Van Helsing,” the wooden overreach of “Australia”). Ironically, what seemed to be hemming him in was the very thing that was likable about him: the grinning Aussie jocularity of his “star quality.”

Wolverine, which tapped his ferocity, remained his one and only defining role, but in the early 2010s a new desperate fire took hold in Jackman’s acting. He was quite fine in “Les Misérables” (2012), even though the movie itself slogged on for two hours and 40 minutes with exactly one good song, and then, almost out of nowhere, he was great in Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” (2013). Playing a man whose daughter had been kidnapped, he seemed to tear his performance out of his own demons; it was acting so possessed that, at moments, it flirted with a kind of madness. Virtually overnight, Hugh Jackman had upped his game, and that’s the level on which he works in “Logan.” He’s playing a superhero at a single dark moment in his existence, but his acting now breathes with the rough and ragged experience of a lifetime.

“Logan” does too. When I say it’s “a real movie,” I’m being honest in terms of what I think a real movie is, or should be, but I’m also aware that for a major segment of the audience, a swirling hyperactive FX mishmash like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is every inch a real movie, so we’re talking different definitions here. Mine is old school, maybe analog in spirit: a series of scenes that connect together in an unhurried fashion, held together by a pulse of interaction and psychology, with shot language that creates a grounded and organic space — a sense of the place you’re in, whether indoors or outdoors, that doesn’t shift and toggle around with every cut. My apologies to the gods of fanboy mania if that sounds stodgy and old-fashioned.

Yet part of what I’m saying is that even though “the audience” — that is, moviegoers around the world — now accepts and embraces a different kind of moviemaking, one that’s rooted in the more slippery and kinetic aesthetic modes made possible by digital technology, the loyalty to the old school of what a movie is, even when it’s a comic-book movie, isn’t nearly as out of date as we tend to think. It’s my theory that audiences are often grateful for “a real movie” in a pop context even if they might not always voice it that way.

The “X-Men” series is a case in point. To call it hit-or-miss would be generous. The majority of the 10 films have been glitzy glorified product, with a small handful of exceptions (to me, those would be “X-Men: First Class” and “The Wolverine”), but my point isn’t just that they’re mostly mediocre as storytelling. It’s that the “X-Men” series has had an essential commercial hook, one that expanded, like the original comic book itself (first published by Marvel in 1963), on the concept of the Fantastic Four (first published by Marvel in 1961), and that was this: Look! All these mutants with their fabulous diversity of powers! More, even, than other comic-book movies, the “X-Men” films kept throwing things at you: another eye-popping mutant skill, another transmogrified protoplasm of a body. But what was given short shrift across the entire series was the pivotal idea that the mutants were “alienated,” that in their hidden/outcast/pariah status they could be an emotional metaphor for the outsider in all of us. Sure, you could say that was the oft-stated theme of the series, and on some technical level you’d be right.

But if any of the “X-Men” films had been made with the old-school analog daring to be more of what “Logan” is — a real movie — it might have taken that alienation to a deeper and more exploratory and memorable place. The alienation was usually just asserted, and it never trumped the mosaic of visual effects. That would have required one of the directors of the “X-Men” films to say: This is going to be a real movie before it’s a superhero movie. And that, within current franchise film culture, is a radical thing to say.

Yet when filmmakers do say it, how splendidly it works! Just look at the best comic-book movies. From the moment “The Dark Knight” was released — and let’s be clear, it wasn’t exactly preordained that Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film was going to be a culture-quaking smash, the rare movie that transcends mere monster-hit status — what everyone was talking about, apart from Heath Ledger’s performance, was the film’s distinctive quality of working like a 1970s thriller. The opening bank heist set the tone: We were in a dank gritty urban universe that happened to have Batman within it, rather than a gothic-playground “Batman universe” that could just make up its own rules. Ledger’s performance was part of that. The actor evoked the tormented audacity of Marlon Brando, but part of his commitment is that the Joker — for the first time ever — seemed an honest-to-God psycho, a seriously sick wreck of a human being playing a supervillain. He was all the things we want the Joker to be (scary, flamboyant, ghoulishly witty, a maimed agent of chaos), but the ultimate reason he was all of those things is that he seemed real.

There have been comic-book movies, here and there, that strike a nerve of reality, and always to the benefit of the movie. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” played off the timely tentacles of the American surveillance state, and did so with a paranoid relentlessness that raised its stakes as a thriller. And though I may be in the minority on this one, it’s my feeling that “Iron Man 3” possesses an unusually compelling dimension in terms of how it zigzags through the psyche of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark by stripping him of his powers. For much of the movie, he’s stranded in Tennessee with a faulty, sputtered-out Iron Man suit, and so he, along with the film, is forced to get by on sheer Tony Stark ingenuity and wits — a storytelling tactic lifted right out of the old comics.

They, of course, were narratives that twisted and turned like grapevines and relied a lot less on “special effects.” Yet every one of the movies I’m lionizing has spectacularly vivid and imaginative special effects, beginning with “Logan,” in which the director, James Mangold, stages some of the most elaborately exciting — and hard-R edgy — hand-to-claw fight scenes the series has ever seen. That’s the beauty of a superhero movie that’s also a real movie: When done right, it allows the audience to have its eye-popping effects cake and eat it too. But it also allows us to touch the hearts of characters who are presented as greater than human — something that should be a fantastic projection of who we are, rather than a literal aspiration.

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