Monday, March 20, 2017

How Good is Logan?



The most significant Sliding Doors–esque moment for 21st century Hollywood actually occurred in 1999, when the filming of Mission: Impossible 2 went over schedule. This forced the man playing the film’s villain, an up-and-coming Scottish actor named Dougray Scott, to drop out of his next project—playing Wolverine in a big budget X-Men movie. Instead, the role went to a little-known Australian actor named Hugh Jackman, whose screen career up to that point had totaled 18 episodes of various Australian TV shows, a remake of Oklahoma! for Australian television, and two Australian movies that didn’t open internationally.

To fully understand the implications of that casting switch, you must know three things:

1.  There hadn’t yet been a big budget movie based on a Marvel superhero, or a comic book movie that relied on modern special effects and CGI, and no one knew what to expect. In fact, there was wide speculation that the movie would bomb, and that characters like the X-Men simply couldn’t work in movies.
2.  The huge success of X-Men very directly led to the comic book movie boom of the 2000s, as well as Marvel creating their own movie studio and developing Hollywood’s first shared cinematic universe. Marvel movies now routinely make over a billion dollars per year (not a typo), and every other studio in Hollywood is now trying to create shared universes of their own.
3.  The huge success of X-Men, and arguably the reason the movie even worked at all, is probably because of how good Jackman was as Wolverine. It was a performance that had to be perfect for the movie to be anything but a joke, and Jackman nailed it.

So it’s really not that much of a stretch to suggest that, had Mission: Impossible 2 not gone over schedule, the movie landscape of the 21st century could have looked startlingly different.

It’s also amazing to think about the fact that Jackman has now been regularly playing Wolverine for 17 years, and Logan marks his 9th film appearance as the character. Those are numbers that, when taken together, are nearly unrivaled in the history of cinema. Sylvester Stallone has played Rocky Balboa over a period of 39 years, but only seven times and with two long breaks. Shintaro Katsu played the blind swordsman Zatoichi 25 times in a popular series of Japanese films, but those were all released in only 11 years. (He then did so again for a 26th time, but only after a 16-year break.) Several James Bond supporting players (M, Q, and Moneypenny) were played by actors that can beat both numbers, but they had bit parts that only required a day or two of filming. Christopher Lee played Dracula 10 times over 18 years, but there was an eight-year gap between the first and second film. Indeed, I can only find one example of an actor who regularly starred as the same character more than nine times over a span longer than 17 years—Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp, who he played well over 50 times from 1914 to 1936. So that’s how far back you have to go to better Jackman’s achievement—to Chaplin, more than 80 years ago.

Playing Wolverine has basically been Hugh Jackman’s entire adult life, and now he’s (allegedly) said goodbye to the character with Logan. The film has been widely acclaimed as one of the best superhero movies ever, but I have to loudly wonder why. As I’ve been thinking about Logan for over a week now, I actually keep finding myself wondering if it might be my pick for the most overrated movie of all time. Sure, there have been other movies loved by audiences that I didn’t like, but the critical community agreed with me. There have also been other films loved by critics that I didn’t respond to, but audiences didn’t respond either. Logan is the only movie I can think of that has been truly adored by both critics and audiences alike, yet leaves me alone in the dark, wondering why.

Reason People Love Logan #1: Because It’s “Grown Up”

The most common praise thrown onto Logan is that it (apparently) marks the moment that superhero movies grew up. But already, I have questions. Do people mean that it’s the first superhero movie with adult themes? Because I thought that was The Dark Knight, and seemingly everyone else in 2008 thought that too. So maybe people think Logan is “grown up” because of its R-rating? But Deadpool was rated R too. I guess maybe people could be referring to the fact that Logan showed superheroes aging and confronting their own mortality? But The Dark Knight Rises did that. I will grant that Logan is the first superhero movie to do all three, but once you shovel that deep to dig for specifics, every movie can be called the first of something.

Reason People Love Logan #2: It Portrays “Realistic Violence”

Ummm, well, first of all, no, it doesn’t. It portrays an old man with metal claws and his pseudo-cloned young ninja daughter fighting cyborgs and a faster, grunt-ier cloned version of himself. But okay, I know I’m just being sassy, so let’s dig deeper into what people mean when they laud the film for its realistic violence. Do they mean that it places the violence into a context of actual bodily harm? Well, no, not really, because the two principal heroes and the principal villain all possess powers that let them heal from anything. Is the violence just realistic-looking? Again, no, because the heroes are constantly defying gravity to fly through the air, and breaking the all-time on-screen grunt record while doing it. Seriously, if the Academy Awards handed men Oscars for grunting the way they hand women Oscars for scenes where they have to wipe their snot away, Hugh Jackman would be next year’s best actor shoo-in. So these aren’t exactly Bourne Ultimatum–level fight scenes in regards to realism. The only concession I can get to here is that I guess the fight scenes are bloodier than any other superhero movie, but blood quotient isn’t what makes a great film.

Reason People Love Logan #3: It’s Not a Superhero Movie, It’s a Western

Okay sure, there are several ways in which Logan has more in common with a classic western than with modern superhero movies, but again, we’re not in new territory here. We’ve seen multiple Marvel movies try to structurally and/or thematically evoke other genres, such as Ant-Man (heist flick), Captain America: Winter Soldier (conspiracy thriller), and Guardians of the Galaxy (space opera). Yes, this is arguably the first superhero movie to try and be a western (at least in as much as all superhero movies aren’t already westerns), but that brings us back to the “getting too specific to identify how it’s the first” problem.

Reason People Love Logan #4: It Cared More About its Characters Than its Plot

Nope, disagree. Every single scene in the film is about advancing the plot, except, arguably, the Eriq La Salle farmer segue—but I would posit that sequence wasn’t about advancing a character arc, but rather about introducing greater stakes and consequences to the story.

Reason People Love Logan #5: Because it has Powerful Themes About Friendship, Fatherhood, and Responsibility

Okay, sure. I’ll take beef with the use of the term “powerful,” but yeah, those themes are there. Tell me again how that makes Logan so amazing? Most bad movies still have major themes of the human condition.

Reason People Love Logan #6: Because it’s “Just Great Filmmaking”

And now we get down to it. All of the “is it really the first to…” talk is just that: talk. Being the first to do something doesn’t make a movie great, and not being the first to do anything doesn’t make a movie bad. They’re all just reasons we concoct to develop or attack an argument of taste. Is Logan great filmmaking? I say no. I didn’t find any nuance in the film. As mentioned above, the fight scenes are all grunting, growling, and leaping. The film kills major characters, but doesn’t wrestle with death. It also kills scores of minor and unnamed characters, but doesn’t ask the audience to experience the gravity of so much killing, it just asks us to think its cool. And, by the way, I find nothing wrong with cinematic violence being cool, but I do think we can’t have it both ways—we’re either dealing with awesome cool violence or consequential violence, never both. But Logan asks us to watch its cool violence and then feel it to be consequential and weighty, and my pleasure centers don’t quite work that way. I’ve never really found myself thinking, “That was so bad ass! And it gave me so many feels!” One or the other.

Logan also suffered from a villain problem that I’ve come to think of as the “Iron Man Problem”—once the first Iron Man movie gave us a villain that was basically just a bigger, more powerful version of Iron Man, the sequels could only up the stakes from there. (Dozens of Iron Men!!) Logan doesn’t give us a real villain; it only gives us a younger, more savage version of our hero. And, conveniently, one who can’t talk, because the movie implicitly knew it had nothing for him to say.

Ultimately, I think to love Logan requires a kind of “I didn’t know superhero movies could be like that” type of thinking, and maybe I’ve just read far too many comic books to ever have that train of thought go through my head. I’ve read dozens of adult, violent, superhero stories that dealt with mature themes and mortality, and I’ve seen them done better than Logan. My requirement to loving superhero movies, of which I love many, has never been to show me something I haven’t seen before, because I already assume that isn’t happening. I merely want to see something done really well, and devoid of any “it’s not like everything else” modifiers, I just don’t think Logan was a well-crafted story or movie.


But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all still tip our hats to Hugh Jackman. I had just graduated high school when he first donned his prop claws, and now I’m 35 years old. Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for my entire adult life, and his performance as the character has done more to plot the course of 21st century Hollywood than probably any other thing or person.


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