Thursday, March 9, 2017

'Logan,' the Marvel Cinematic Universe Curse, and the Future of Superhero Movies


We will not see a superhero film as good as Logan for a very long time. This is not an opinion, but simply an objective fact. James Mangold's superhero western is the best addition to the genre since The Dark Knight, a fully realized vision that takes a profound, emotional, and thoroughly tragic look at Logan during the final days of his life. It tells a moving and violently entertaining story to perfection, and it is a stylized, breathtaking work of filmmaking. To put it simply- it's the kind of blockbuster that Hollywood doesn't make anymore. Logan goes against everything that has defined the genre since the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe- it's R-rated, it's methodically paced, it tells a contained, standalone story, and it kills nearly every single main character. Studio executives would tell you that Logan is the kind of movie that people don't want to see, the kind of blockbuster that is doomed to fail. This weekend, audiences around the world proved them wrong.

For starters, let's dispel with the notion that R-rated movies don't make money. The industry maintains that the restricted rating keeps the ever-important demographic of teenagers from attending the show, but time after time, audiences have proved them wrong. Just take a look at this year's box office charts. Four of the top six films are rated R, and three of those are guaranteed to make well over $100 million at the US box office. Audiences are repeatedly showing up for R-rated content, and studios need to realize that the rating isn't quite as restrictive as they think. If the movie is good, audiences will be there. Logan and Deadpool have likely opened the floodgates in regards to R-rated blockbusters, and I'm sure that studios will be taking the wrong lesson from this and jumping at the chance to make more violent, profane blockbusters.

Like every phenomenon that happens in Hollywood, the studios are guaranteed to do something that contradicts the actual reason for success. Sure, the R-rating doesn't hinder a movie, but I don't necessarily believe that it's a ticket to success. These two movies worked because it fit the tone and source material- fans were hungry to see Wolverine in all his bloody glory, and nobody wanted to see a sanitized, watered down Deadpool movie. But does that mean that audiences want to see a gory, F-bomb filled Superman film? Absolutely not. The R-rating was only one part of the appeal for these two projects, and there's so much beyond the grisly violence that drove audiences to the theaters. Fans embraced Logan and Deadpool because they are utterly unique. There is nothing else like them in the genre, and the fact that they accept the core nastiness of the source material is an afterthought.

Superhero fatigue is clearly not a real issue. It just isn't. I don't find myself often siding with the fanboy community, but in this case, it doesn't exist. However, there is a growing fatigue with the idea of the shared universe, the concept of hit movies as grand-scale serialized television shows. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was downright revolutionary when it broke onto the scene- nobody had ever attempted anything like that, and the result was The Avengers, an unparalleled cultural event of epic proportions. But the interconnectivity and the constant desire to make things a piece of a larger puzzle is growing stale, and I have a feeling that audiences are slowly turning against the idea. What once was bold is now formulaic, and the tide will slowly begin to turn in a different direction.

Don't get me wrong- the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still enormously successful. Captain America: Civil War had the biggest opening weekend of the year in 2016, and it's safe to say that no other studio could have turned films like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man into the blockbusters that they became. But ever so slowly, things are beginning to go south for Marvel. Even though Civil War was one of the most acclaimed blockbusters of last year (it even made my top 25 list), there were some fans who were upset by the lack of consequences for both Iron Man and Captain America. Sure, they fought and tore each other apart, but the only real casualty was Rhodey's temporary paralysis, which will surely be reversed in future films. Nobody died, nothing that happened was truly permanent, and we all kinda know that they're going to be friends by the time that Infinity War rolls around. Civil War was great, thrilling blockbuster entertainment, but it still felt like a mildly inconsequential chapter of a larger saga.

But even with those flaws, Civil War was a hit because it still seemed like the film that Marvel had been building towards for several years. For that reason, it got by with widespread critical acclaim. But something like Avengers: Age of Ultron didn't. Fans didn't quite embrace the film like they had with The Avengers, and critical reception wasn't as strong. That's because the MCU process creates films that solely exist as extended exposition for larger projects- Age of Ultron sets up Civil War and Ragnarok, while also serving as the culmination for Phase 2. With that much going on, it feels like a mere stepping stone for bigger and better films. Marvel's entire strategy could literally be summed up by the post credits tease. Fans are less concerned by what they're watching than by what lies ahead in the future. The business model hinges on generating excitement for what comes next, and making people think that if they don't see one of the films, they're missing out on important information for the next movie.

That's also why films like Doctor Strange and Ant-Man feel so bitterly disappointing. They're mere introductions to characters that will play a larger role in future films, rendered entirely pointless by dramatically inert plots and the knowledge that everyone will be okay. It's a formula, and when that formula permanently links characters to future films, there's no reason to get invested in the current apocalyptic scenario. And don't get me wrong- this isn't just a Marvel Studios problem. I'll be getting to DC and the X-Men franchise very soon. But this problem started with Marvel, and I think it's fair to place the blame at the source. The low stakes, the constant teases, the fan drive to consume whatever's next- this is all an invention of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even great standalone films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier are dragged down by the constant reminder of potential consequences for the next Avengers movie, and considering the incredible work Marvel can do with characters, that's a brutal letdown. It causes individual movies to feel less like exciting new stories, and more like obligations, cookie cutter product meant to advance the overall narrative of the MCU. When the latest Spider-Man movie is forced to include Iron Man, something about that rubs me the wrong way.

Marvel's biggest crime is consistent mediocrity and the total loss of stakes. However, that pales in comparison to the total incomprehensibility of the DC Extended Universe and Fox's attempt at a shared X-verse. Apocalypse attempted to introduce several characters to re-write the narrative of the franchise, and the result was a complete disaster. Meanwhile, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad felt less like movies and more like corporate powerpoint presentations, meant to establish characters in forced and uninteresting ways. When Marvel first established their cinematic universe, at least things came together naturally. Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad tried to force all the pieces into place, and the results were nothing short of disastrous. It doesn't get much worse than that. Going forward, the DCEU is looking for a complete reset, but they're a trainwreck so far.

And this problem extends beyond superhero movies. Hollywood's trend of overblown sequels and universe building has turned event movies into small pieces of a larger puzzle. I'm tremendously excited to see Kong: Skull Island, but I'm also concerned that Jordan Vogt-Roberts' 1970s-set film will serve as a mere setup movie for 2020's Kong vs. Godzilla. This summer's The Mummy simply exists to establish Universal's Monsters Cinematic Universe, and there's a good chance that the same could be said for Transformers: The Last Knight, as Paramount pushes to make more films with those characters. This curse has even extended to the Star Wars franchise- Rogue One only existed to fill in some pieces between Episode III and Episode IV. Simply put, these movies don't feel like actual movies anymore. They exist to get us to the next film, the bigger, more important one.

Which is why something like Logan feels so radical and different. Watching people bend over backwards to squeeze this film into the X-Men timeline, while also hounding James Mangold over why there isn't a post-credits scene, has made me uniquely frustrated, because it demonstrates a total lack of understanding of what makes this so special. Logan isn't about setting up 15 other movies, or uniting the disconnected X-Men universe. It's about giving closure to an epic character, and telling one last great story with a terrific actor. Logan is what happens when you give a director freedom to tell a story without any boundaries, and the result is beautiful. It why it belongs in that incredible class of blockbusters that includes Mad Max: Fury Road, The Dark Knight, and even some of Christopher Nolan's more esoteric spectacles.

It also does something that no other mainstream action film has dared to do- it kills its main character. Now, this is something that I've been wanting to see for years. I wanted to see a studio and a filmmaker go for broke and kill off a lead character. Given the excess of heroes in the MCU, I figured that they would be the first to kill someone off, especially with the circumstances of Civil War. However, they missed that opportunity, and I can't even say with absolute certainty that they'll seize their chance with Infinity War. Star Wars: The Force Awakens came close by killing Han Solo, but he wasn't the main character of that film. Logan takes the gamble, giving both Wolverine and Xavier a definitive final chapter by putting the indestructible mutant and the genius professor in the grave for good (don't even bring up the chance of a return in Deadpool 3). As someone who has been clamoring for this kind of risk for a very long time, I was interested to see how it would play on the screen. It surpassed even my highest expectations- Logan's death is tragic and heartbreaking, especially considering everything that comes before during the course of the movie. It's hard to watch a beloved character meet his end in such emotional fashion, and I can't praise Mangold enough for how he handled this superhero breakthrough.

Logan is perfect, and I wish that more movies were like it. But is that a pipe dream, or is that something that could genuinely occur during the next few years? I can't definitively say, but looking ahead at the schedule, I'm not encouraged. Sure, there are a few outliers this year, but the overwhelming amount of blockbusters fit into that safe, standardized void that I was discussing earlier. Even something like Alien: Covenant apparently has six sequels coming down the pipeline. If audiences keep pouring money into movies that are mediocre puzzle pieces, then we're going to get more mediocre puzzle pieces. However, if audiences turn to movies like Logan, films that take risks, tell stories, and stand on their own, then maybe there's a chance for us to get more movies like this.

Look, Hollywood has a lot of problems. A focus on sequels, a desperate need for brand recognition, and an excess of terrible movies- these are all issues that have plagued the system for years. But right now, I think the most concerning trend of all centers around big blockbusters not feeling like actual movies. This may seem like a foolish notion, but it is real and it is dangerous. There's a new Spider-Man movie coming out on July 7, and I guarantee that 99% of people will just be talking about the post-credits scene on July 8. That is something that I simply do not want to see anymore, and the existence of something as bold and incredible as this only makes that even more upsetting. Movies like Jurassic World, Mad Max, Skyfall, and Deadpool are beacons of change in the world of mainstream action cinema. My hope is that audiences start to turn against the formula, embracing things that are satisfying and thrilling on a deeper level.

Maybe all of this is totally unrealistic. Maybe the Marvel mold is the way of the future and we're forever stuck with a world where blockbusters don't matter anymore, where movies are nothing more than extended TV shows with a bigger budget. Maybe we'll have to deal with only having a few truly interesting large-scale movies each year, things like Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, and even War for the Planet of the Apes. Maybe films like the upcoming Han Solo spin-off and the next few installments in the Fantastic Beasts series will be just as pointless and soul-sucking as their predecessors. Maybe superhero movies will never figure it out, and they'll be stuck in this flat, stale void forever.

But we can hope. We can hope that the studios take the right lessons from Logan. Make films with a distinct vision, films that tell a resonant story. Give directors more creative control. Make sure that your major blockbusters have stakes. Make sure that the audience cares about what is happening on screen. These all seem like simple ideas, but the studios haven't been delivering. The product has been there, but the soul is gone.

Maybe Logan is an anomaly. After all, we've seen great standalone movies fall on their face at the box office. But I'm going to maintain the hope that Mangold's film has opened the door to a utopian future, a world where blockbusters have heart, soul, vision, and real characters that the audience cares about. Realistically, I don't think that we'll see anything like it again for a very long time. But to take the lesson of Logan, when things seem darkest, we need to embrace the light. Logan is a brutal, nasty vision of hope, and I'm going to hold onto it for as long as I can. It could change the game if we let it.

Also, a few articles about Logan that I really enjoyed:

"LOGAN: The Things We Leave Behind" by Siddhant Adlakha at Birth.Movies.Death

"'Logan' Shows Comic Book Movies Should Embrace Genre and Ignore Continuity" by Scott Mendelson at Forbes

Image Credits: 20th Century Fox, IMDB

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