'Logan' Shows DC How to Make Dark Superhero Movies Work

'Logan' Shows DC How to Make Dark Superhero Movies Work

By Robert Dougherty Mar 08, 2017 09:04 AM
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox

Logan was built up as a darker and grittier superhero tale than usual, which should have made fans worried instead of excited. Thanks to the DCEU, darkness and misery don't have the best reputation in superhero movies these days, as a whole universe built on it is barely holding together. Nevertheless, Logan showed comic book movies how to use it in its one and only shot.

There are many easy answers for why Logan pulled off its brutal and bleak story, and DC couldn't pull off three such movies in a row. Factors like Logan being an R-rated one shot with no CGI overkill and no real obligations to a cinematic universe are obviously important ones. But those aren't the only major reasons Wolverine's farewell did everything DC has failed at since 2013.

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

It is no accident that Logan's darker take on the X-Men world came almost a year after the silliest X-Men movie to date in X-Men: Apocalypse. Although the quality of X-Men movies has been erratic for 17 years, most of them are about some important or ambitious premise, whereas Apocalypse meant nothing beyond setting up a new young X-Men team.

20th Century Fox

The X-Men helped legitimize the superhero movie genre before the MCU and the Dark Knight finished the job, in part because they spoke to larger issues of persecution and fitting in. Now Logan has given fans a reason to relate to the X-Men again, even if they are the much older versions of Logan and Charles Xavier who are on their last legs, but who find one last glimpse of family and heroism before they give out.

Getting back to these more meaningful matters, and brushing past the cartoonishness of what came before, makes Logan the beneficiary of perfect timing. That is what made Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy seem like such an extra breath of fresh air, since it came right after Batman & Robin seemed to tarnish Batman's big screen name for good.

Correcting course soon after a silly disaster helps makes a darker superhero movie go down easier. Yet in contrast, the DCEU directly followed the bleak Nolan trilogy in all but name, making it seem like the same old same old instead of a true change of pace. While Man of Steel was technically the first Superman film since Superman Returns, most everyone saw it as more of a Batman Nolan film, only one that didn't have the right director or approach to make the darkness pay off.

Nolan was just a rising star when he landed the Batman franchise, which helped make his bigger breakout with the Dark Knight look even more new. Zack Snyder was another matter when he was handed Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, as his signature brand, baggage and flaws were already well established, and ultimately weighed everything down when he doubled down on them.

20th Century Fox

James Mangold has technically had a longer career than Nolan or Snyder, yet he isn't a household name. But since he’s gone back and forth on films like Cop Land, Kate and Leopold, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma and The Wolverine, it doesn't seem like a stretch or a retread for him to do something like Logan. Since it is a superhero movie concept that hasn't been done like this, it is easier to pull it off with someone who doesn't limit himself to the same tricks over and over.

Most importantly, Mangold did what DC hasn’t so far and found a way to learn from his mistakes. He already tried to make a grounded and introspective Wolverine movie with The Wolverine, yet gave into the usual third act super battles and set ups for future sequels anyway. This time, Mangold made sure he didn't have to do that, as he was able to take the concept of Wolverine facing his mortality and legacy to a more personal and less over the top conclusion.

A huge reason he was allowed to was that Fox and Marvel actually gave him the freedom to do it. Since this was Hugh Jackman's finale, since it didn't need to set up any future adventures and since it didn't really interfere with the current Deadpool and X-Men franchises, it was easier to get Fox on board with Mangold and Jackman's vision. Of course, since DC is just starting its new universe and still has to connect and launch all its solo franchises and the Justice League, it doesn't have such flexibility.

20th Century Fox

That alone doesn't explain why DC has struggled, since it contends to be a more director-driven universe than Marvel. Yet that image took a hit after Suicide Squad struggled, and reports of interference with director David Ayer broke. It supposedly tried to correct the backlash against Batman v Superman's bleakness with lighter Suicide Squad reshoots, but it only made it more of a mess and further proved DC was learning the wrong lessons.

Logan isn't like the DCEU, in that it actually has legitimate forms of humor to balance out the dreariness, and not just in the meta commentary about X-Men comic books. Logan always has his share of quotable one-liners, but Charles is also far more humorous than Patrick Stewart has ever been allowed to be as the older Professor X, even though it is largely due to Charles's dementia stricken condition.

In addition, Boyd Holbrook's evil cyborg and Stephen Merchant's mutant caretaker get their share of one-liners as well, and so does young Laura/X-23 for a time when she finally gets the chance to speak. Even before then, her little kid sunglasses put a funny spin on action heroes wearing Matrix like shades too.

20th Century Fox

What passes for comic relief in DC's universe so far is turning Lex Luthor into a nonsensical laughingstock, remaking the Joker into Jared Leto's distasteful image, and the relatively sanitized versions of the Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman and Justice League are meant to turn this around, but at this point, critics will believe DC has learned to balance its tone only when they see it.

The greatest sign of the differences between Logan and DC is really saved for last. Technically, it really compares Logan and Batman v Superman, in how they both kill off a hero at the very end. But even before Superman leapt to kill Doomsday and get himself killed, and even before dirt lifted off of Superman’s coffin at the very last second, everyone with common sense knew it wasn’t going to stick.

When Logan finally dies, it is somewhat equally obvious, since there is no other way the movie and Jackman’s tenure could have ended by then. Yet when they get to the final close up of Logan’s grave, no one could be faulted for thinking Wolverine’s claws would rise up from the grave to leave the door open just in case. But unlike Batman v Superman and almost every other comic book movie that ‘kills’ a major hero, the door stays closed for a resurrection right to the end.

Warner Brothers Pictures

Superman’s death was a poor attempt to replicate his famed comic book demise, and pointless because everyone instantly knew he would return in Justice League anyway. What’s more, many pointed out he didn’t even need to drive the Kryptonite spear through Doomsday and could have just tossed it to Batman or Wonder Woman, yet Snyder just needed him gone in a final blow to a character he showed little regard for anyway.

While that was one final insult to a character whose ‘death’ is set up after just two movies, Logan gives a much more emotional sendoff to a character who spent 17 years and nine movies building to this end, and even gives him the dignity of letting him rest in peace for good with the only person left who loves him by his side.

20th Century Fox

It actually shows up Batman v Superman less than it does X-Men: The Last Stand, which poorly killed longtime characters and pretended to kill Charles and depower Magneto before teasing their return anyway. But this time around, death sticks and doesn’t just get used to tease sequels.

Logan is darker and drearier than any DCEU film to date, and not just because of its R-rating. But it also has more layers of humor, a director with more than one trademark mode and less reliance on explosions, a universe which actually allows heroism in a world that would seem to be devoid of it, a collection of characters actually allowed to care for each other even as they clash, a basic knowledge of when enough is enough, and the right timing in following and making up for sillier predecessors instead of being forced to deepen an already dark path.

Maybe DC’s road to recovery isn’t just in making lighter films, but in learning from Logan on how to do darker stories right. Then again, since it hasn’t properly learned from Nolan’s after all this time, it might be too tall a task.

20th Century Fox

Tags: Logan (2017), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), Hugh Jackman, James Mangold, Christopher Nolan, X-Men
About the Author
Robert Dougherty is a longtime online freelance writer, who wrote reviews, articles & editorials on movies/TV for several years on the now defunct Yahoo Voices.
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