The superhero neo-western, heartbreaking drama, tragic redemption tale, epic blockbuster Logan hit theaters on Friday, and audiences and critics are loving it. With an impressive international haul of $238 million opening weekend and boasting an impressive 92 percent on RT, it's needless to say that Logan is a bona fide hit. I can honestly say that it is a worthwhile film for any audience member — fan of the X-Men/superheroes or not. It's an emotionally taxing, gut-wrenchingly violent, somber, raw take on one of the most beloved pop culture icons of our day.
Coming out of Logan, I had a sinking feeling that the true greatness of the film might be missed by Hollywood. The film business is, first and foremost, just that: a business. They need to make money to keep the industry thriving and keep everyone employed. Though the art is an important aspect of moviemaking (hopefully, the MOST important), without funds and audiences, movies wouldn't exist. So, Hollywood is out to found out where the next hit is coming from.
After Deadpool was released, a whole stream of rumors came out about all the new R-rated superhero flicks like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice The Ultimate Edition, the Gambit film, a new Spawn and even Logan. We all hooted and hollered about how Hollywood missed the point, but this isn't the first time they learned the wrong lessons about a film.
After James Cameron's Avatar, suddenly every movie had to be 3D and on a technicolor landscape. After The Avengers, suddenly everyone wanted interconnected cinematic universes. After Gladiator we got hordes of B-level swords and sandals films. After Star Wars, space was the hot ticket. It's been happening for decades and decades. Hollywood has a knack for missing the mark on what makes a movie successful and appealing when it comes to something new. Here are four lessons that should not be taken away from Logan and hopefully four clear lessons you should learn. Let's begin.
4. It's (NOT) About The Rating
Rated R films have been the critical rage ever since the advent of PG-13. For some reason — perhaps because of it's adult appeal or creative freedom — the Academy and other critical bodies have favored R movies over any other rating. In the last 20 years of Best Pictures, only five of them have been PG-13. Hollywood looked at Deadpool and said, "Its success was purely because it was R rated. If we make more R-rated superhero movies, they'll continue to be successes as well."
With Logan's reception, this point seems to be true — except when you look at the history. Deadpool and Logan are the exceptions to the rule, not the rule itself. When you look at Watchmen, Kick-ass, Dredd, Punisher, Punisher: War Zone, The Crow, Constantine, Sin City 2 and a whole plethora of films, you'll see that it's not necessarily about the rating. The rating is reflective of the story — on the characters specifically. Of the films above, their R rating did not equal success.
If the R rating gives a director and project room to explore the story they want to tell, then that's when the rating is appropriate. But not every character needs to be in a violent, profanity riddled, over-sexual world like Deadpool. The first priority should be catering to the characters at hand and the story that needs to be told. There shouldn't be ratings mandates by the studio if it hinders the film's success in the end. Logan could not have been as impactful in a PG-13 lens. Sam Raimi's Spiderman would have fell flat on its face through an R-rated filter. It has to be about the tone and the story.
3. Violence Is (NOT) The Answer
Logan was an incredibly violent film. The action is superb because you feel every hit, you live through every slash. It's a violent film about a violent character. Wolverine is a murderer — a vicious, feral animal that kills and kills and kills. He's always been this way. Yet, over the years the character has been somewhat neutered; he hasn't been able to let loose and really show what his claws can do. In Logan, we get the amazing opportunity to actually see it all. And it works. Oh man does it work. But it works for Wolverine, just like it worked for Daredevil and The Punisher on Netflix. Would it work for Superman? Should Batman callously brand and murder his enemies like a crazed serial killer? As entertaining as some of those might be, it doesn't fit the character.
Overly violent characters need to exist in worlds that reflect violence. Violence for violence's sake is meaningless and bland. Forcing a character to be more brutal or savage than his or her natural may seem fun in moderation, but in a full-length film it just doesn't mesh. The violence has to work with the character and story, not work against it. (I bet you're sensing a pattern here.)
2. Dark Tones Do (NOT) Equal Good Movies
This is a lesson Hollywood has been struggling with for decades but it's never been more prevalent than after The Dark Knight. When Nolan's magnum opus smashed its way onto screens, everyone was BLOWN away. It was a dark, grounded, gritty telling of the Batman story and the world ate it up. So the lesson learned was "gritty." Everything, even to this day, feels like it has to be gritty, like it has to be this dark, somber slog through a hero's journey who doesn't want to be a hero.
However, a dark tone does not automatically make a movie good. There are plenty of dark films that crashed and burned or just didn't feel right. We have this idea in our heads that dark=good no matter what. Dark, dark, DARK! That's how you make money in this business. Forget faithful adaptations or hopeful messages. Forget moral fiber and bright colors, we want it to be so dark that you can barely make out the characters against the black, green-screen background.
NEWS FLASH: Not every characters is the same! What works for Batman does NOT work for Wonder Woman. What works for Hellboy doesn't work for Star-Lord. What works for Logan sure the heck does not work for Spiderman. The variety of the characters' tones is what make them so appealing; like a tapestry of nerdom, woven from scraps of quilts all brought together to make a perfectly balanced, diverse picture. Be faithful but — even more importantly — be honest to the story you are trying to make.
Oh, and one more thing. Life is inherently humorous, especially when you're going through hardship. Movies without a semblance of levity and calm are movies that don't understand human nature. If Manchester by the Sea has more comedy in it than BvS, we've got a problem. Human beings are naturally comedic. It doesn't have be forced or over-used like some of the MCU films, but if you force it to be so self-serious, you have a fundamental misunderstanding of humanity. Logan had some genuine "laugh out loud" moments and it's a film about a beaten ol' killer saving a young killer from a band of hunters. Levity and humor are not the enemy of respectable films, they're tools that need to be applied wisely.
1. All Superheroes Should (NOT) Be Deconstructed
Deborah Snyder, producer of BvS and wife to director Zack Snyder, infamously said:
"The main thing we learned [on 'Batman v Superman'] is that people don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed."
She was responding to the fan and critic backlash against the blockbuster and decided it was the "deconstruction" that people had a problem with. It's understandable to jump to this conclusion, despite overwhelming evidence that it was, in fact, the directing, editing, writing, and acting that most people had a problem with. Deconstruction and parody is a difficult thing to get just right.
The reason a film like Deadpool can lampoon and satirize #XMen films and the superhero genre all together is because we have had truly GREAT superhero films. If the same exact movie came out in 2002 (with a few adjusted jokes), it would not have been as well received because it would be parodying something that hadn't really existed yet. Deconstruction is just as tricky.
When you deconstruct a superhero, the most important part is truly knowing about and embracing that hero. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is possibly the most famous example of a deconstructed hero. Serving as the main inspiration behind BvS, TDKR is a graphic novel that really delved deep into what makes Batman who he is. If you're unfamiliar, the story centers around a 60+ year old Batman who has been retired for decades. Due to a combination of wrath and insanity, he jumps back into the Batman suit and decided to find redemption in one last ride as the Caped Crusader.
It's a deeply moving, raw, impactful look into Batman and is hailed as one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. But the only reason it works is because up to that point we had had decades and decades of Batman at his prime. Strong, happy, even optimistic Batman who kicked names and took butts! Logan is the same way.
Without seeing Hugh Jackman and the X-Men in their prime for X-Men, X2, Last Stand or even First Class, Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, it wouldn't mean anything to us if he was weary and beaten. Without seeing him dispatch dozens and dozens of men with ease, it wouldn't be as heart-punching to see him get taken down by four carjackers. You can't deconstruct something that wasn't built up yet.
We don't care about Affleck's Batman going mad because we never saw him sane. We don't care about Garfield's Spiderman wanting to give up if he was barely even Spiderman. You can't have Civil War before The Avengers. It's like if Clint Eastwood's first film was Unforgiven or if Rocky Balboa came out before Rocky. You have to earn it.
So the moral of the story is this:
It's a fairly simple truth that I seemingly dragged out into far too many words, but there it is. In the last two Fox X-Men films, they have proven that if you are true to the character and let a dedicated creative team have the freedom they need, audiences will come out to see it. Audiences appreciate genuine storytelling. They appreciate stories that have something to say and have people behind them who know how to say it. Deadpool and Logan couldn't be more different. One is a crass, high-energy, poppy comedy and the other is an introspective, deliberately paced, violent drama but they are both great and incredibly true to the characters they are bringing to life. The formula isn't R-rated, mid-budget, violent action flick. Sure, those are some of the ingredients but what good are two eggs, a tablespoon of vanilla, and a cup of flour without a recipe?
The number on lesson to be learned from Logan is this:
- Find a story you want to tell and people who can tell it.
- Be true to that story and the characters in it.
- Gather whatever ingredients you need to tell the story the best way you know how.
- Have a vision and stick to it.
Audiences appreciate vision and they will support what you have a passion about. If you asked me a "hard-hitting, emotional, road-trip drama" is what I wanted from Hugh Jackman's last Wolverine film I probably would have said no. However, with the right dedication, a deep understanding of the characters, and a story with a message to tell, any idea can be a great one.
Logan sure was a great one. Thank you, Hugh Jackman, and thank you everyone behind the scenes for this wonderful story. You will be missed, Mr. Jackman.
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