Film

Don’t Call ‘Logan’ The Best Superhero Movie Ever

Logan shouldn’t be called ‘The Best Superhero Movie Ever,’ for reasons that have more to do with that flawed honorific than the film itself. “The Best Superhero Movie Ever” is a mostly meaningless tag, used by gatekeepers of good taste to extol the virtue more of their own judgment than of the film itself. As a title based on criteria which contradict its relevance in the first place, it damns Logan with faint praise, managing to undervalue it and all other superhero films simultaneously.

Read Variety’s Owen Gleiberman painstakingly outline his definition of ‘real movies’ while commending Logan for daring to be a “real film,” unlike the popcorn crowd-pleasers that are less in line with Gleiberman’s aesthetic preferences:

“Mine is old school, maybe analog in spirit: a series of scenes that connect together in an unhurried fashion, held together by a pulse of interaction and psychology, with shot language that creates a grounded and organic space — a sense of the place you’re in, whether indoors or outdoors, that doesn’t shift and toggle around with every cut. My apologies to the gods of fanboy mania if that sounds stodgy and old-fashioned.”

So there, fanboys.

Or this, a segment from a Complex review that eschews the ‘Best’ superlative in favor of an equally indefinable attribute with more apparent specificity: “Most Important.”

“While aesthetically the film is bright, nothing else about it is. Walking out of Logan almost feels like leaving a funeral, but truth be told, that’s the point.”

And, later in the piece –

“Logan is one of the first times where we get to revel in all of the hallmarks of superhero storytelling—the action, the suspense, the reckless abandon—in a movie that, ultimately, doesn’t feel much like a comic book film.”

A quick googling turns up dozens of reviews using different signifiers to engage one argument. “Unexpected Maturity.” “Complex.” “Real.” “Transcends the ‘comic book movie tag.” The argument is that Logan derives merit from beyond (or above) the superhero film tradition, but the argument, to exist, must simultaneously describe Logan with respect to that tradition. An artifact cannot be considered superior within a genre if its foremost attribute is artistic distance from the genre.

The argument is a not-so-subtle finger wag toward the larger superhero set, a declaration that serious consideration will be withheld until the colors are dimmed, the banter is muffled, and the blood sprays. The argument is self serving, but the argument is flawed, ultimately folding in on itself. For Logan to be considered the Greatest Superhero Film of All Time, an acknowledgement must be made that it is, in fact, a superhero film – but the same reviews awarding that distinction simultaneously appear to disdain the classification.

So, why make the argument in the first place? The impulse to discuss outstanding comic book adaptations as ‘The Best Superhero Movie Ever’ is curious, and unique among film genres. Every notable western is not met with a chorus of “Best Western Ever” conversation. Boxing movies, detective movies, gangster movies – none of these groupings host the same trite arguments as superhero movies. Perhaps this is because the proliferation of big screen comic adaptations is a relatively recent phenomenon, but more likely it’s because the superhero class is still considered in need of elevation, a nascent genre that hasn’t yet made a serious contribution to the medium of cinema.

“Best Superhero Movie Ever” hype has emerged at least three times in the last decade: The Dark Knight, Captain America: Civil War, and Logan were each burdened with legitimizing their peers when released. In each instance, some form of the same conversation surfaced – a film somehow transcends the comic book tradition, and is subsequently treated as a beacon of quality in an otherwise shallow swamp. In this instance, a logical whirlwind has taken place, a critical ouroboros unable to build consensus on the interaction between virtue and genre:

Logan is valuable and rewarding because it is more than just a superhero film.

Logan is valuable and rewarding, so it must be more than just a superhero film.

The urge to highlight films like Civil War, The Dark Knight, or Logan by diminishing their contemporaries ignores reality. The landscape of comic-book film adaptations is hardly swampy. Forget about box office dollars; even a cursory glance at Rotten Tomatoes scores for the Marvel Cinematic Universe tells the true story. Apart from a few outliers that, importantly, are still rated “fresh,” these movies are overwhelmingly appreciated by critics. Some, like Iron Man, Civil War, or The Avengers, are downright adored. Nolan’s trilogy, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films, Deadpool, somewhere around half of the X-men films, TV’s Legion, Netflix’ Defenders series –there is at least as much agreed-upon quality within the category as there is junk. Still, many of these breathless Logan reviews appear to have been written in an alternate reality where the the genre is nothing more than a deluge of Fantastic Fours and Suicide Squads, which is simply not the case.

The idea that Logan differs in caliber from its peers simply isn’t supported by critical evidence. While this isn’t meant to be a review of Logan, it’s important to say note that the movie is very, very good, and when reactions take the time to evaluate Logan on its own terms, they tend toward accuracy. The filmmaking and dramaturgy succeed in equal measure; this is an exceptional and singular entry within the larger tradition. Logan’s vision, in many ways, is more similar to Blood Father or 3:10 to Yuma (not coincidentally directed by Logan’s own James Mangold) than other X-movies, Marvel offerings, and superhero films.

Those reviews stray when they attach a magnitude to Logan that doesn’t necessarily exist by examining it as a either rebuke of other superhero films, or as a shining example of what superhero movies could be if they would just quit horsing around. The fact is that most of the language in these analyses – “maturity,” “real,” “gravity,” etc. – amount to little more than virtue-signaling by their authors. To applaud Logan solely for daring to be more difficult or more brutal than other superhero entries is really a way to say “Those other movies are good distractions, and you may like them and I suppose that’s fine, but don’t forget that I appreciate serious, thoughtful, and difficult movies more.” It’s a line of thinking that frames the rest of the genre as worse than it is, Logan as better than it is (no small feat), but most importantly, the writer as the rightful arbiter of quality, evidenced by their taste.

If there is a Best Superhero Movie, it almost certainly is not Logan, which is different than saying Logan is not the best movie to feature superheroes. To treat Logan as the star pupil of a genre, you must acknowledge the existence – and the fundamental qualities – of the genre in the first place. This is the fatal flaw within the “Best Superhero Movie Ever” argument. Once you identify the defining traits of superhero films, it becomes abundantly clear that Logan isn’t representative of (and can’t possibly be the best of) the larger grouping.

It’s an important distinction that isn’t purely semantic. Not all movies about cowboys are westerns, and not all movies about serial killers are horror films. Likewise – and this will maybe be Logan‘s lasting legacy – not all films about superheroes are superhero films. Calling Logan “The Best Superhero Movie Ever” ignores that distinction, effectively dismissing the merit of superhero films, while diminishing Logan by condescending to grade it on a curve.

To draw a line of demarcation between the superhero genre and only tangentially-related outliers (Logan, Kick-ass, Chronicle), there has to be a set of criteria established. These criteria are mostly obvious, as they apply to the overwhelming majority of movies about superheroes released each year.

Superhero movies employ a simple three-act structure, built around two, maybe three extended and intricate action set pieces. They are battles and chases, used as plotting bookends – fights that create problems, and fights that solve them. The Dark Knight is bisected by a truck-chase ending in a false victory, revealed to be just another of The Joker’s tricks, and ends with Batman’s apprehension of The Joker. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man and The Hulk battle at the film’s midpoint, destroying a city. At the climax, after coalescing once more, the heroes combat – and defeat – the film’s eponymous villain. In The Avengers, Loki’s introduction precedes an Iron Man vs. Captain America vs. Thor triple-threat match. That film ends with the Battle of New York, and finally a fully-realized Avengers unit. Getting the point? Logan also does this as well, as the film’s midpoint is marked by particularly bloody massacre, and an equally brutal battle serves as it’s climax.

Superhero movies don’t always formally innovate, but they always use contemporary technology to try to inspire awe. This has been the case with every blockbuster superhero release this century. The re-imagined Batmobile in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight made that truck chase distinctly memorable, particularly after the appearance of the Batpod. The Avengers’ breathtaking CGI and clever choreography give The Battle of New York an unprecedented scale and sense of immersion, a sense that gives enormity to that sequence’s crowning shot: the Avengers, posed before a circling camera, ready to defend earth. These are Moments, but Logan goes in a different direction here; the only boundaries tested by the film’s action are found in the MPAA guidelines. The film’s R-rating enables Wolverine’s claws to find their targets with a groundbreaking visceral atrocity, and the signature moments forged by the heroes’ thrashing violence inspire more introspection than wonder.

Superhero movies commonly serve more than one master, telling their singular stories while simultaneously revealing a larger universe. This is a necessity born from source material; there frankly is no way to adapt Marvel’s mythology to the screen without realizing the never-ending storm of sequels, teasers, origin stories, and cliffhangers that critics (rightly) deride. It’s an unfortunate symptom of the impossible task of adaptation that very good movies can quickly feel like little more than hours-long previews for the next big thing – and the next, and the next. Still, it’s important to remember that there could be no Guardians of the Galaxy without all the Iron Mans, and Captain Americas, and so forth. The unstoppable industrial machinery of the genre is what allows oddities like Ant Man, Deadpool, and even Logan to exist.

These films are inexorably built around a villain, or at the very least a compelling explosive for the heroes to defuse. This is the largest point of diversion between Logan and the genre at large. Marvel and DC films each feature superheroes trapped in a boss structure resembling something like a video game. Origin stories inevitably end with the vanquishing of some low level villain, while sequels, crossovers, and crossover sequels steadily raise the stakes. Logan stays closer to the X-men spirit than most X-movies, with villains that mostly stand in for some toxic idea or another; in this case, fear-based oppression of The Other. An argument could be made that the marquee villain in Logan is mortality, or father time, or loss. No matter which you takeaway, there is certainly no god-man watching over the proceedings from a chair in the clouds.

The Superhero Genre, then, has definition. And if that’s true, then The Best Superhero Movie ever is not Logan; the title is more fitting of Civil War, a movie with every generic marking that still amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Civil War has flaws, no doubt – it is certainly bloated and overlong – but, consider it this way – if, for some reason in some strange hypothetical, a person’s life depended on their ability to illustrate the appeal of Superhero Movies, using one film, to someone with zero working knowledge of the tradition, that person with a gun to their head would choose a more quintessential Superhero Movie, one emblematic of the entire genre but resonant in its own right. They’d pick Civil War, or The Avengers, or The Dark Knight. Unless, of course, they were trying very hard to reflect impressive tastes.

Logan is an outstanding movie about superheroes, but it too has flaws. The film uses its R-rating in part to justify its existence; it is impossibly violent, with a body count that far outnumbers the film’s survivors. This is mostly to raise stakes in lieu of an unstoppable villain; and to service a story that is plainly not new – it is well-known that Logan is a tragic figure, defined as much by the horrific losses coloring his life as he is by his adamantium claws. The film is a fitting denouement for Jackman’s Wolverine, and the actor gives his best performance as the titular character to date. For all the profundity imparted by clawed limbs and stabbed heads, however, Logan doesn’t expand the characterization of its protagonist, or truly subvert any comic book tradition; the mold remains unbroken. Going further, Logan’s pacing, performances, and filmmaking may be critical catnip, but the movie basically operates like any other Superhero offering. It takes a beloved character – one already understood universally – and tells a new story, in a new setting. It is too much a superhero film to be the genre-defying exercise many are describing, and at the same time, it’s vision is too distinctive to be truly genre-defining.

Logan deserves high praise. It is rich enough a text to be evaluated on its own, apart from the genre to which it undeniably belongs. The “Best Superhero Movie Ever” title prevents such an evaluation from taking place, short-sells both the film and the superhero genre, and tells us more about the person awarding the title than it does about the film itself.

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