[CAUTION: Major spoilers ahead for both films.]
Remember when superhero films didn’t constitute a genre in their own right?
Me neither, but beyond the reaches of our pop-culture-saturated memories, there was a time before Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) when superhero movies in general didn’t do that well.
Of course, superhero lore has thrived in comic books for decades. But during the 90s, fans who wanted to see their cartoon heroes brought to life had to make do with a rapidly-declining series of Batman sequels. (Joel Schumacher has since taken the credit – or blame, rather – for the infamous batnipples.) More often than not, comic book interpretations landed on the small screen, usually as animated TV series pitched at juvenile audiences. Even Superman couldn’t shake off the social opprobrium of 1987’s disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, remaining confined to the live-action television series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman during the following decade.
This side of the new millennium has seen the rapid change in fortunes for the superhero genre we are now accustomed to. Early outings by Singer (X-Men and 2003’s sequel X2: X-Men United) broke new ground in presenting fantastic superheroes and villains in a darker, grittier world – a realistic world. Adult fans no longer needed to use their children as human shields against criticism for seeing the latest superhero blockbuster – because the films were no longer the domain of children. Since 2000, the primary viewership of superhero movies has progressively shifted from children to older teens to adults, and the tone of these films has grown increasingly darker. Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboots led to a watershed moment in this trend: 2005’s Batman Begins set a newly dark tone for the franchise, surpassed by 2008’s phenomenal masterpiece The Dark Knight.
The epic success of The Dark Knight led to what many refer to as the Nolanisation of the superhero genre: with some notable exceptions, most superhero films from both DC and Marvel since 2008 have been deliberately darker. Indeed, Nolan’s legacy can be seen across Hollywood, from Daniel Craig-era Bond outings like Casino Royale and Skyfall through to gritty fairy tale live-action adaptations like Maleficent and Snow White and the Huntsman.
But in 2017, the tide may be changing. This is most apparent in the first two highly-anticipated superhero blockbusters of the year.
Logan is the ninth X-Men instalment (excluding 2016’s Deadpool) and represents Hugh Jackman’s final performance as the mutton-chopped, razor-clawed Wolverine. Set in a dismal, depressing-but-not-quite-dystopic version of 2029, Logan sees Wolverine (Jackman) as a battle-scarred, flask-swigging lone wolf (haha).
A far cry from his life with the X-Men, Logan’s twilight years consist of driving a limo around Texas to fund his alcohol addiction as his body slowly begins to shut down from adamantium poisoning, and to afford medication for the nonagenarian Professor Charles Xavier (played by an incandescent Patrick Stewart). The professor has been sequestered away in a remote, desolate part of Mexico (in this version of 2029, Trump’s wall apparently never got off the ground), cared for by the albino mutant-trufflehunter Caliban (Stephan Merchant).
The cause of this sombre new life is never fully elaborated; viewers only catch mentions of an “incident in Westchester” in which, in a psychic seizure, Xavier killed a heap of the X-Men and innocent civilians. The implication is that the other X-Men we know and love all died in the destruction of Xavier’s old mutant school.
After being begged for help by Gabriela Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse for biotech company Transigen, Logan discovers the corporation has been experimenting on a group of genetically-engineered child mutants. After Transigen ordered the children to be terminated, Lopez and other staff smuggled some of the child mutants out of the complex, including the 11-year-old Laura, who she now asks Logan to help transport to an imagined mutant sanctuary named Eden somewhere in North Dakota.
What follows is something like an indie road trip film mashed up with moments of intense action. After Lopez is murdered, Logan and Xavier whisk Laura away and head for Eden, all the while tracked by murderous and slightly unhinged Transigen goon Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).
The funereal tone of Logan was foreshadowed by the inclusion of Johnny Cash’s elegiac 2003 song ‘Hurt’ in its trailer. At the film’s opening, Logan is already on the verge of suicide, having crafted an adamantium bullet for the day he decides to top himself. And at the film’s end, his story is brought to a final end as he dies in the arms of Laura, who is revealed to be his cloned daughter.
Logan is brutal, and the first X-Men film to deliberately seek an R-rating (MA15+ here in Australia). Director James Mangold was quick to capitalise on the higher rating, with Wolverine dropping the F-bomb without restraint and slicing and dicing his claws straight through arms, chest and heads. The violence is brutal, but so is the toll the film takes on the viewer’s morale.
Despite the miasma of depression that clings like a cumulonimbus cloud to every second of the film, there is plenty to love about Logan.
The performances are stellar: if Hugh Jackman is looking to move on to film noir or any number of indie film genres for the next arc of his career, he’s presented a brilliant audition reel here. Stewart gives his best performance as Xavier, also: he finally has the leeway to present a more human depiction of the professor, and every endearing moment makes his on-screen demise even more gutwrenching (despite it being thoroughly telegraphed). Newcomer Dafne Keen is radiant as the young Laura – despite remaining taciturn for nearly the first half of the film, she holds her own against the film’s grown-ups and maintains a powerful aura.
The film’s writers also deserve props. Not only is the dialogue tight and effective, but the pacing is excellent, vacillating between bloody action scenes and quieter moments with just enough glimpses of emotional truth. Moreover, the deliberate decision to avoid a genre-typical over-the-top big bad – with the usual ‘save the world’ menace at the climax – is refreshing. The action is scintillating, but small-scale, and all the more resonant for it.
In fact, Logan as a film is exceptionally well made, poignant, and moving.
But as a superhero film, it absolutely sucks.
Logan is perhaps the best example of taking Nolanisation to its extreme: a superhero film so dark, so gritty, so goddamn devoid of fun and fantasy, that it renders itself irrelevant.
What good is it to escape from our shitty, depressing lives into a world that’s even more depressing and shitty?
Worse, we suffer with Wolverine for two hours for nothing. There’s no real victory. He gets killed, bleeds out, dies and is buried. The child mutants hold a makeshift funeral for him in the woods and then move on. For a film that concludes Wolverine’s story – the story of the main character of the X-Men films – this death is unexpectedly minimalistic and devoid of pathos. There is no link back to any of the former films, nor any of the former characters. No life-before-your-eyes moment. A brief flashback of Dr. Jean Grey would’ve been appropriate here, but there’s zip.
There is a coldness to this kind of film making. Mangold’s subtext is that emotional moments are the purview of lesser films – something like those camp Tim Burton or silly Joel Schumacher films – not hip 2017 productions. Melodrama is out and cool detachment is in. Even when you’re ending your main character’s life.
The same detachment pervades and undermines the film. The superhero genre has always been a source of escape from the harsh realities of our brief human lives and unjust world. The genre became popular escapism because it not only offered us fantastic heroes who had powers far beyond our own, but because it allowed us to imagine a world where good triumphs over evil, and justice can be served.
Logan offers no such proposition. In fact, it actively rejects it; even the title refers to the protagonist’s human name, not his superhero name. Mangold certainly knows what he’s doing.
But to subvert a genre to such an extent at this late stage – the final part of a series – jars horrendously.
Capping the X-Men legacy with Logan is like dining on a sumptuous eight-course meal and being served a miniscule molecular gastronomic foam for dessert.
In terms of folklore, it’s like watching Frodo get murdered by Gollum just before he can destroy the ring, or seeing Voldemort destroy Hogwarts while Bellatrix Lestrange toys with Harry Potter’s corpse. Is it dark? Yes. Is it what Nolan would do? Probably. But it is also poor storytelling and emotionally unsatisfying.
The 2017 Power Rangers reboot may not seem worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Logan, and in terms of filmmaking prowess that’s probably true.
But in terms of genre and purpose, Power Rangers is a better superhero film than Logan could hope to be.
A remake of the 1990s television and merchandising juggernaut, Power Rangers tells the origin story of five American teenagers who discover coloured coins that give them superpowers. They are suddenly imbued with super strength before locating a spaceship buried deep underground. On board, they learn the meaning of their powers from a robot, Alpha 5 (Bill Hader), and an ancient warrior named Zordon (the original Red Ranger from 65 million years ago, voiced by Bryan Cranston). The five teens are charged with defending the precious Zeo Crystal from a vengeful former ranger named Rita Repulsa (an excellently over-the-top Elizabeth Banks).
The plot and premise are predictably naff, and also very reminiscent of the 90s television series and an era before 9/11. An era when superhero stories were targeted at children and teens.
That’s not to say Nolan’s shadow doesn’t loom over this film, too – as Doris Lessing said, no person can resist the current of their own time. The 2017 Power Rangers may still be lighthearted and fun at its core, but it’s being remade in a post-9/11 and post-Nolan world. There are shades of a more serious tone here and there, from Zack’s relationship with his mother to Trini’s sexuality and Billy’s autism.
The difference is that, rather than dominate the story, these aspects serve as they should in a story of fantasy: as decorations and trimmings to the central story.
The relationship between the five teenage leads begins awkwardly, and takes a little too long to warm up, but once the flames of connection are stoked, a sense of bonding takes place – not just between the characters, but between the characters and the audience. Flashes of well-placed vulnerability endear the teens to the viewer. Even the cocky Jason (Australian-born Dacre Montgomery), the Red Ranger and leader of the group, is given some moments of both angst and arrogance that allow Montgomery chances to show off his charismatic presence on screen.
The initial tension between the teenagers is superseded by genuine affection part way through the film. Then comes a slew of really rare concepts for today’s flicks: youthful hope, collaboration, friendship, justice … even some laughter here and there.
Is Power Rangers as realistic as Logan? Well, of course it isn’t. Rita Repulsa’s name alone is juvenile. She can also summon a giant monster dude who’s made out of molten gold. The rangers should die about three times each, but they don’t. They can produce magical armour through the sheer force of will. And they have giant dinosaur-themed machines that combine into the giant Megazord, once a staple of 90s kids’ toy boxes.
Power Rangers is silly and unrealistic. But good lord, is it unexpectedly fun. When I heard the brief bars of the original theme song, I felt like a kid at the movies again.
As blogger Robert Selth noted, when legendary film critic Roger Ebert reviewed Batman Begins, he astutely observed that, “The movie is not realistic, because how could it be. But it acts as if it is.”
Ebert’s insight goes to the core of post-Nolan superhero genre’s success – and why it’s growing ever more rotten. Because our current measurement of how successful a superhero film is whether or not it is realistic, instead of whether or not it is fun.
Logan was realistic, and an excellent film. But as I walked out of the cinema and back into a world where essentially everything is screwed up, I felt more depressed than when I walked in.
Conversely, I went to see Power Rangers expecting to roll my eyes, and unexpectedly left the theatre with a smile and a spring in my step, buoyed by the prospect that the good guys did win something for once.
And isn’t that why people have historically turned to the idea of superheroes for entertainment? In a postmodern, post-9/11 world, the idea of being briefly diverted for two hours with ideals of hope and believing in something is appealing.
There’s room enough for both types of film, of course. But do both of them have the right to call themselves superhero movies?