The stakes have never been higher. Magneto's raw power is tearing entire continents apart, and Apocalypse threatens to gain the abilities of Charles Xavier himself. The Kryptonians have arrived, led by General Zod, and only one man has the power to stop them. Alien invaders are pouring out of the portal, and if it isn't closed, they'll conquer the entire planet! Superhero films have become addicted to these high-stakes, world-threatening plots. Logan, we now know, won't follow the same pattern — and as a result, it looks set to be a film that can teach the entire superhero genre an important lesson.
Drama Not Scale
Logan looks set to have a more intense focus than any other #XMen movie. It's centered in upon the relationships between the three core characters; Hugh Jackman's Logan, Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier, and Dafne Keen's X-23. The film is designed to put the classically 'lone wolf' Logan in the context of a strange, distorted family dynamic. You have Charles Xavier as his father figure, now needing his support, and X-23 as a strange kind of surrogate daughter. The whole film will stand — or fall — on the strength of the interactions between these three characters.
We're not going to see another world-threatening menace in Logan. The only ones threatened look set to be the three core characters. The fate of the world isn't at stake; the fate of Dafne Keen's X-23 is. We won't see any blue portals opening in the sky, we won't see continents shuffling around, and we won't get an alien invasion of the Earth. Director James Mangold has gone for drama, not scale. And in so doing, he's hoping to teach Hollywood an important lesson.
The Heart of the Matter
In an interview with Fandango, Mangold explained that he hopes Logan has the power to change the superhero genre (I use the term loosely, as Mangold isn't actually confident there actually is such a thing as a superhero genre).
"I do not want to go to every movie and wonder whether my world is going to exist. It’s just about the characters."
For James Mangold, the scale of the action isn't what gives a movie real value; it's the character of it. Later, he casts back to the boom of Westerns in the '50s, and how — just a few decades later — the bad Westerns have been forgotten, and only the classics are still in distribution.
"I imagine the same thing will happen with comic book movies, where in 30 years when we look back it’ll be the movies that touched us that live. It’ll be the movies with heart that live."
Logan, Mangold hopes, is a movie with heart. He foresees a time when countless blockbuster hits will be forgotten. Logan, he hopes, will endure.
We're Becoming Numb to the Scale
The problem with constant world-ending plots is a simple one, according to James Mangold.
" There is a way where you can keep raising stakes and keep spending more on computer graphics, but in a weird way we’re getting number. It’s like an arms race, where people keep trying to climb higher and raise the bar, but they’ve already raised it so far and frankly the graphics are so good on video games now that really they’re not doing anything that we can’t do at home on our own sets. The one thing movies can still do that no other medium can do is move us; is reach inside us. Make us feel. It’s the power of a great performance."
The end of the world has become mainstream in Hollywood. That's not just the case in superhero films, of course; last year saw Ghostbusters and Independence Day: Resurgence both threaten the future of the human race too. The visuals are becoming interchangeable, with shimmering pillars of light and iridescent portals; do those words make you think of The Avengers, Ghostbusters, Fantastic Four, or Suicide Squad?
Director Scott Derrickson even consciously chose to invert this in Doctor Strange:
“It was literally the play on that whole, 'oh, every Marvel movie ends with a city being destroyed during a fight, and then a portal that opens is closed just in time'. I said, ‘well, dammit, we're going to un-destroy a city and we're gonna leave the portal open and Strange is going to go into it and we're going to see what's on the other side. That's how fresh my movie is, dammit!’”
According to Mangold, though, the problem isn't that so many films are choosing to threaten the world in the same way; it's that we're assuming superhero movies need to threaten the world in the first place. He argues that, even as the graphics improve, audiences are simply becoming numbed to the spectacle. Studios need to remember that, at the most basic level, they're telling stories; and stories are about people. The stories we'll remember the most are the ones with heart, the ones that connect with us on a deep, intimate level, and compel us to return to them time and again.
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James Mangold is right. Too often studios have zeroed in on scale and special effects, forgetting that what will truly make their films endure is whether or not they have heart. There are positive signs that at least two more of 2017's superhero movies will demonstrate the same lesson of course; Spider-Man: Homecoming looks set to face the web-slinger against street level foes, while nobody could ever accuse James Gunn of making films that lack heart! Still, the reality is that Logan is going all-out for this, abandoning any sense of scale in order to tell a compelling story. If it works, then Mangold's hope is that it will transform the genre; that it will remind the film industry that there's more to superheroes than world-shattering danger.
That sounds like an important lesson to me.