Storytelling VS Spectacle: Superheroes and the Legacy of ‘Logan’

Something unthinkable happened last week. A superhero movie released in theatres and everyone was surprised by how good, ballsy and unique it was. That’s an emotion quite alien to audiences nowadays.

The shock value is understandable when you take a look at the genre over the last two years - we’ve received one disappointing Avengers sequel (Ultron), one awful X-Men sequel (Apocalypse), one painfully atrocious experience that pitched Batman and Superman in the same film, and one even worse display of mindless plotting and ugly special effects (Suicide Squad).

So why were these films bad? It boils down to one common thread in all these films – they’re all trying to be the original Avengers movie. Massive set pieces of cities being destroyed with fake looking CGI taking centre stage over character development and emotion. There’s little investment in storytelling, the bigger focus is on spectacle.

It’s all about who can make the bigger explosion, the more expansive set piece of buildings being destroyed. So when Deadpool came out last year making fun of all the clichés of the genre, it was a breath of fresh air. But the question still remained – what more could the genre offer apart from bashing-itself-in-self-aware-comedic-manner?

The arrival of Logan therefore is a watershed moment in the genre. Logan isn’t a good movie because it is a superhero film – it is a great movie despite being a superhero film.

The biggest set piece in the film is a car merely overtaking a train. The stark nihilism, the depressing social commentary found in the film is something we’ve seen in films like Unforgiven, and the fact that a studio green-lit a superhero film with such little VFX scale and such bold themes, and an R rating, without money grabbing 3D conversion, is a minor miracle in itself.

The key to this is the significantly lower budget of Logan, compared to the likes of films like X-Men Apocalypse and Age of Ultron. Lowering the scale of the film gave director James Mangold the carte blanche to create solid drama that carries weight, and an emotional heft that makes you appreciate the nearly two decade long journey of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as his father figure.

Compare this film to the first X-Men movie, and you’ll see some similarities. The biggest one is that both films are about a road trip between Wolverine and his surrogate daughter (Rogue in the 2000 film and X-23 in this one). So Logan doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, it just offers a familiar conflict in an extremely relatable manner.

Take for example the dynamics between Logan and Professor X. It reminds you of the most painful experience you can go through in life – watching your parents get old and incapacitated. The fact that both of these people are superheroes and yet are still faced with the same ignominy that humans do, makes it all the more powerful to see on screen. It only makes bidding adieu to both Logan and Professor X in the final act of the film a moment you’ll always cherish.

The other question is where does the superhero genre go from here? Now that we’ve had two huge critical and commercial R-rated successes in the form of Deadpool and Logan, it’s opened the doors for studios to experiment with the genre. Marvel probably thinks it did something unique with Doctor Strange but it didn’t – it was the generic superhero product that they’ve been churning out for a decade, except with trippier visuals.

Benedict Cumberbatch in and as Doctor Strange.

What is the new Spiderman film going to offer? Probably a few self-referential in-jokes and a team up with Iron Man to defeat another villain of the week. That is clearly not reinvention or a direction one can be too excited about. What then are the options?

The answer to this question lies in not just Logan but also the new TV miniseries Legion. That’s superhero content that doesn’t depend on the superhero-ness of its main character to entertain audiences. It’s been acclaimed as one of the best TV shows of all time because of the way show-runner Noah Hawley decided to shoot it.

There’s all kinds of crazy elliptical narratives, memory jumps, hilariously unreliable narration and even shocking psychological horror that keeps you guessing what the hell is happening. The fact that Legion is Professor X’s son hardly matters.

Those making superhero films should take note and understand that new ways to tell a comic book story is the holy grail of keeping quality over quantity – it’s only a matter of time until the Marvel bubble bursts and people get tired of watching people in capes punching each other among falling skyscrapers.

With Deadpool, Logan and Legion in a space of a year, Fox is onto something special here. It’s hard to believe that the same people who made X-Men Origins: Wolverine would also be responsible for these entries. Going ahead, it’s pertinent to keep the budgets and the scale of a film low to be able to tell a coherent story that not just teenagers but adults can also appreciate. And with Logan getting some Oscar buzz for both Jackman and Mangold, the future seems exciting.

(Mihir Fadnavis is a certified film geek who has consumed more movies than meals.)