The following contains spoilers for Logan and Deadpool.
Last year Deadpool fired a gratuitous amount of lead into the notion that superhero movies had to be child-friendly, bloodless affairs. Earlier this month, Logan rammed three adamantium claws into that notion's still twitching body.
The success of R-rated superhero movies is undeniable. Deadpool cleared $783 million at the box office, and Logan has already taken a cool $438 million. But as fans and studios begin demanding more superhero films with inflated violence, it's time to really consider the success of these movies. Are audiences really baying for blood, cursing and nudity, or has the new trend been misunderstood?
The Curious Incident Of The Suicide Squad
Film studios have learned to take risks. The most obvious of these is to buck the Marvel formula of family-friendly adventures in favor of adult superhero outings, despite slashing their potential audience (and often angering parents whose kids want to see these films).
However, Suicide Squad provides us with a useful comparative tool. It was marketed with a similar promise of comic badassery — Warner Bros. actually went to great expense with reshoots to boost the film's crowd-pleasing, arse-cheek-grabbing attitude in line with the success of Deadpool — but these additions feel very clunky.
More problematic than this was that the film they were bolted onto was a dilapidated house. Despite the box-office success (and the Oscar), Suicide Squad was not well received — currently it only boasts 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
There may be a demand for R-rated superhero movies, but they have to be adult in quality and content if you want them to satisfy. Deadpool is exciting because of the abundance of bullets, explosives, action sequences and Ryan Reynolds in lycra — but it's entertaining because of its originality, cohesive style, high-quality acting and well-written script.
- In Only Two Tries, Fox Has Perfected The R-Rated Comic Book Movie
- Do We REALLY Need R-Rated Superhero Movies?
- 'Logan' Triggers Calls For More R-Rated Superhero Movies — But Are They Wise?
Breaking The Formula Is The Winning Formula
Making an R-rated movie allows the filmmakers an extra level of freedom, from the murky underworld that Deadpool endures to the existential torture that Wolverine is subjected to. Both films feel weightier and more adult, not because of decapitations or dick jokes, but because the characters face difficult and grown-up decisions.
Logan must deal with his mortality (and the lack thereof); even the title Logan — as opposed to The Wolverine — marks the shift in focus from hero to human. He is a has-been and stooped alcoholic, psychologically and physically scarred by severe violence; that's why the (genuinely difficult to watch) gore of the film is not an extraneous factor and does not feel gratuitous. It shapes our protagonist's attitudes and behaviors.
Violence causes Logan to become an emotionally withdrawn tragedy of masculinity, while it causes Deadpool to become an extroverted parody of masculinity.
As the Dark Knight demonstrated in 2008, audiences respond well to the mixture of gritty realism and heightened storytelling. When superhero films are done well, they work very much like good science-fiction, operating in the world of allegory — painting metaphors to fuel and support the explorations of characters and relationships.
Logan can be brought face-to-face with himself, physicalizing his internal struggle between the callous animal and the man with a conscience. It can be unsubtle at times, but when it's done right, it's powerful.
Ultimately it is not the on-screen violence that makes these films so good; it is the act of violence they represent against the uninspiring, formulaic conventions of superhero films. They have shredded, stretched and mutilated the genre. Logan has long action sequences and middle-distance stares, superpowers and super-responsibilities, yet at the same time it reminds me of Little Miss Sunshine. It has the feeling of an indie film, a road trip story with an unlikely family of misfits, including an old man with Alzheimer's and a young girl raised in a scientific facility. It's ripe for drama.
The independence of these films also liberated them from stylistic constraints. The MCU and DCEU seem to have been blighted with the need to build characters that can cross over with one another, using their films as franchise building blocks instead of independent statements. There is an overarching style that may give the universe a sense of cohesion, but prevents more interesting and engaging stylistic decisions.
It is hard to even compare Deadpool's style to much other modern filmmaking. With the meta elements from the comic book (most strikingly the protagonist being self-aware), the movie is something unique. There is an element of 21 Jump Street spliced into its DNA. This awareness allows Deadpool to reflect upon its own status as a superhero film and what these movies teach us, making for a far more engaged viewer experience.
Making A Film Vs. Building A Franchise
The finality of Logan was unmistakable, and the decision to end the stories of two fantastic characters was incredibly brave, creating emotional heights in the film. Professor Xavier's death, seemingly at the hands of Wolverine (until we realize otherwise), was particularly well-managed.
Logan felt like a genuine attempt by a filmmaker to make a good film, not just another opportunity for a corporation to please its shareholders. Similarly, Deadpool (despite laying seeds for some future storylines) maintains a sense of completeness and cohesiveness.
One of the greatest pitfalls of the franchise era is the glut of sequels and prequels and the ever-pressing need to raise the stakes. This is an idea best demonstrated by the successes of Rogue One and the failures of The Hobbit. Many franchises have fallen prey to the idea that bigger is more dramatic.
In Logan, Wolverine's humanity, Charles' mind and Laura's freshly discovered freedom are on the line. These are crucial, precious things — and as such, it is thrilling to watch the characters fight to keep them. We don't need an army of robot-pirate-ninja-alien-death-spiders to raise the stakes. Even Deadpool, which goes through henchmen at the same rate my washing machine eats my socks, grounds its narrative in Wade's love, which is so clearly integral to his life that we are swept along.
When this character- and story-driven focus is coupled with quality direction, great actors and meaningful dialogue, it makes for great watching. The violence is secondary.
What do you think makes Logan and Deadpool such great films? Let me know in the comments!