**Major spoilers for Logan are contained within. Be forewarned**
As a teacher of literature, I often preach the importance of understanding genre conventions. In trying to teach the concept of analysis, I have always found it important to build a bedrock of understanding that lies in comprehending the expectations present when examining a particular type of writing. I talk about text features, patterns, structure, etc. There are some who do not agree with this approach; that it hamstrings the person trying to formulate effective analysis because if they can’t tick a box they can’t generate a thesis, and while I feel that in some ways this is a logical argument, it can also easily be countered by taking a look at a selection that so readily establishes itself as a deconstruction of a genre itself or a commentary on the tropes and expectations contained therein.
Case in point; James Mangold’s Logan. The film, directed by Mangold based off a story he generated with a script by Scott Frank, is a direct response to the superhero genre as it has been established over the past ten years.
The “superhero genre” is one that, for a good while at least, was ill-defined at best. Many of the tropes schemes associated with the genre by the middle of the 1990s have been discarded, phased out in response to what feels like a steady rise in “focus group” or “Four Quadrant” mainstream film-making. While superhero films have been around for decades, it was the wave of films in the immediate aftermath of Bryan Singer’s X-Men in 2000 that started to form the mold that would be firmly solidified by the success of the Marvel cinematic universe in the wake of Iron Man in 2008. As a result, the expectations of the genre have, by and large, been set by Marvel Studios and Disney over the last ten years. Audiences are conditioned to look for certain elements; films that break from that mold are viewed as outliers.
What Marvel has done over the last decade is decide what tropes from published comic books they wanted to translate over to the world of film and television. It was Marvel studios that reversed the idea brought upon the cinematic landscape by X-Men in 2000 that heroes could not or should not wear their traditional costumes. There is also much to be said about the formula that they apply to their character archetypes, the structure of their narratives (Marvel never met a macguffin it didn’t like) and the congruous “house style” of their framing and color palettes.
While this has happened for films produced by Marvel’s association with the “Mouse House,” films produced by other studios have largely eschewed those conventions, either seeking to establish their own, or simply seeking to subvert them and comment on them in such a way as to stand apart from the herd. Warner Brothers attempted to sell their DC cinematic universe as “filmmaker driven,” as a dig at Marvel Studio’s perceived desire to keep their universe homogeneous to the point that, some argue, it renders the overall product increasingly bland. It is hard to see any WB/DC films, especially those under the guided hand of Zack Snyder as anything other than a direct antithesis of genre conventions established by the cultural powerhouse of Marvel Studios.
Where films like Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, et al. fail in that regard however is as a commentary on those conventions. The WB/DC films offer a counter-point in tone but do little to make an argument regarding that selfsame tone. What purpose does the implied darkness serve in the grander scheme of the narrative? In what way does reshaping the core fundamentals of firmly established characters shape the stories that they tell? It would appear that there is no such purpose.
Contrast that with other films that seek to deconstruct the genre; namely last year’s surprise (to some people, anyway) hit Deadpool and this year’s dark-horse candidate for comic adaptation of the year, Logan. Whereas the WB/DC films sought to provide a counter-balance to the Marvel cinematic universe in terms of tone, Deadpool and Logan seek to provide a rebuttal in terms, not only of tone, but of intent. Deadpool was a reverent, sophomoric exercise in showing that homogeneous, same-samey cinematic adaptions of popular characters could only get you so far. Trying to fit the character of Deadpool into the mold established by films like Iron Man and Thor simply would not work. Instead, they focused on subverting the genre expectations established by the films that preceded it, and utilized the character’s fourth-wall breaking tendencies to offer commentary directly to the audience. The subversion of genre tropes was both text and sub-text within the context of the film itself.
That commentary and subversion continues with Logan. It is no coincidence that Logan begins with a false-start that turns out to actually be a teaser trailer for Deadpool 2; both of these films, in their very DNA, a similarity in intent. Though the two films could not be any different if they tried, they share a connection that cannot be disputed; both films wear their R rating like badge of honor(though the reasoning and utilization of the freedom it allows are also quite disparate in nature), both scale back the drama in ways that make the narrative less about the external conflict with an ill-defined villain and more about the internal conflict with themselves, and both films seek to show that tone disparate from established genre norms requires that the intent of utilizing it also be addressed from a narrative standpoint.
Logan is an R rated film. It earns the R rating not only through a veritable overload of graphic violence but through a cavalcade of cursing that would feel right at home in a film directed by Quentin Tarantino. Both of these points seek to reinforce that Logan is, itself, a commentary on the genre itself. Hugh Jackman has played the character of Wolverine for seventeen years. To put that in perspective, if Wolverine is Jackman’s baby, that baby is now old enough to purchase a ticket to Logan without a parent or guardian present. Fans have clamored for an R rated Wolverine film for almost as long as there has been an X-Men franchise. Following the release of X2, fans lamented the bloodless nature of Wolverine’s berserker rage as it was presented on camera. In that film however, it simply would not have been appropriate with regard to the tone being established. The violence in Logan is a commentary; from the very first scene it is established that Wolverine as a character is trying to move past violence. Just as the world has moved on, so too has he. The men trying to steal Logan’s limo initiate the violence with a cursory shotgun blast to his chest. Even after taking the hit, Logan attempts to talk his way out of the situation. Once the situation reaches an apex, only then do the claws come out. Every bit of violence that follows is deliberate and meaningful. It echoes the world that surrounds it. The world has fallen into decay. Logan, too, has fallen into decay. The veil of humanity and civilization and structure and order is now simply a specter, thus allowing the levels of violence and bloodshed shown on screen to be congruous with the story being told. The reason we, as an audience, didn’t need to see people getting claws shoved through their skulls in previous X-Men films is because there was still hope in the world where the narrative was transpiring. There, Logan was making an attempt to live within the norms of society; here, that restraint is gone, and so too is any censorship of his actions.
This same lack of censorship can be applied to the linguistic aspect of the script as well, specifically the casual nature with which the central characters drop f-bomb after f-bomb. The X-Men franchise has been toying around with this for several films now, with each film utilizing their one MPAA approved, non-sexual utterance of the word to varying degrees of comedic effect. Here, however, the word is not played for laughs, aside from perhaps the first time we hear Patrick Stewart’s Xavier use it because we feel it to be so far out of the natural confines of his character. But as we move deeper into the film and we as an audience come to understand the depths of sorrow and despair that have plagued both Logan and Charles since things all went sideways, the blue nature of the dialog begins to make organic sense, as it is a distillation of their emotional turmoil and serves as a means of non-violent catharsis. Again, this is something that would have been out of place in other entries in the franchise but is tied heavily to the film’s own thematic statements that when the credits roll you would be hard pressed to find an audience member who found the dialog to be incongruous with the story being told.
The single biggest challenge to the established expectations of the superhero genre however come simply in the form of the climax and the focus of the narrative. A majority of major comic book superhero adaptations feel the need to have an exaggerated climax, usually involving an under-developed villain and their desire to control/regain/destroy some type of macguffin. This usually ends with some sort of sky-portal or something falling from the sky. The sky is almost always involved. (Avengers had a sky portal, Avengers: Age of Ultron had a country falling out of the sky, Guardians of the Galaxy had a ship falling out of the sky, Thor: The Dark World had something falling out of the sky, a pattern does seem to develop) Logan eschews this in favor of focusing the narrative around Wolverine’s internal conflict; to what degree does he owe anything to Xavier, to Laura, who comes into his life at a time that could only bring complications, to Caliban, and ultimately to himself. It is ultimately fitting that Logan does battle with himself in the literal sense when he ends up fighting X-24; a younger, more virile version of himself that represents the unsuppressed violence that he had so desperately tried to control his entire life.
Ultimately, Logan is not a film that simply has Hugh Jackman violently stabbing people and dropping f-bombs for the sake of novelty; there is purpose and intent in the film’s construction. Logan serves to show that when you work within a genre, there are boxes that the audience is expecting you to tick, and if you don’t there had better be a reason for it, otherwise why would you be working with that genre to begin with? James Mangold took superhero DNA and infused it into a western, then used it as a way to hold a mirror up to the entirety of the superhero genre and show them a reflection of their own conflict. Not every film needs to do this. In fact, Logan’s success is largely dependent on a mold being present to break free from. What remains to be seen is what, if any, lessons upcoming films will take away from Wolverine’s last ride.