The release of Logan, the latest film to feature Hugh Jackman as Marvel's Wolverine (whom he has played for 17 years now), marks, as Evan Puschak points out in a new video essay, a signal that the superhero genre is undergoing a new phase in its lifecycle. It's a phase that is familiar to all film genres.
As academic John G. Cawelti pointed out in his famous film studies essay from the 1970s, "Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films," film genres in Hollywood tend to follow four stages. These don't necessarily occur sequentially, but at some point in a genre's evolution, it will either develop into: burlesque, nostalgia, demythologization, or reaffirmation of the genre's core values.
Logan is a fascinating example of a film that serves as, as Puschak puts it, "a meditation on the violence that superhero movies imply." Let's look at these four phases and see what they mean for the genre.
In the burlesque phase, a genre turns to "ridiculous exaggeration," and parodies that genre's conventions. One of the masters of this form of genre film for the past forty-plus years has been Mel Brooks, who has done revolutionary work, particularly with the Western. (We'll see that, besides the superhero film, Westerns are perhaps the other most American of genres.) In the burlesque phase, genre tropes are exploded and exposed for the ridiculous conventions that they are. A recent example of a superhero burlesque is 2016's Deadpool, which effectively (and quite successfully) made an entire movie out of playing with the idea of what it means to be a superhero movie (all while in the context of being a superhero movie.)
Nostalgic films, when they are successful in their aims, "do more than evoke a romaticized past; they update tried and true story lines with contemporary elements." The example cited is Shane Black's under-seen 2005 detective pastiche, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which, though many of the tropes of the genre are de-romanticized, the audience is still made aware of the "relationship between the past and the present" inside of the film's universe. More importantly, in a nostalgic genre film, the plot follows the same script beats as its more serious forebears, and generally stays on the sunny side of the street, as it were.
The films that demythologize a particular genre are, as Puschak states, the "most complex." He cites the subject of Cawelti's essay, Roman Polanski's 1974 film Chinatown as the apotheosis of this variety of genre tweak. The Jack Nicholson film (which also features Hollywood titan John Huston, to very disturbing effect) draws upon classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. In doing so, the film pursues the genre to its logical conclusion, a dead-end street where "events become so dark, and twisted, and devoid of moral content, that justice is never served." The ending of Chinatown is, perhaps, the finest example of this phenomenon in all of cinema.
The film that reaffirms a genre is quite challenging for filmmakers to plausibly execute. This is because, while it acknowledges the verities of the other three mutations, it ultimately takes a stand, not that the genre's prevailing myth is real, but that it is necessary—or in fact, "something we need to believe." In Logan, Puschak recognizes an example of this reaffirmation film, and with it, "a shift in this extraordinarily popular genre." He hypothesizes that, if Deadpool signals a self-awareness that the superhero myth is losing its luster, "Logan is an attempt to interrogate the contours of that myth," in order to see whether or not there's anywhere left for it to go.
"Westerns are really the perfect genre to measure the superhero movie."
The film, directed by James Mangold, has strong thematic resonances with the classic western Shane, a film that, when it was released in 1953, at the height, perhaps, of the genre's popularity, popped the balloon of some of its most treasured cinematic conventions. As a contemporary review in The New York Times noted, "[Shane] contains a disturbing revelation of the savagery that prevailed in the hearts of the old gun-fighters, who were simply legal killers...it also contains a very wonderful understanding of the spirit of a little boy amid all the tensions and excitements and adventures of a frontier home."
Logan, which has an R-rating, hits many of the same story beats from Shane, including the stranger's arrival to help a struggling family (and defend them from hostile outsiders.) Logan gets considerably darker than Shane, but in the end, still takes a "turn" towards affirming the necessity of the superhero idea. "Westerns are really the perfect genre to measure the superhero movie," says Puschak, as both are about heroes "who act outside the law to protect the community at large."
The question still remains whether any film that truly seeks to strip the myths and fantasies away from the superhero film "could ever really get made," considering their audience and their basic driving philosophy. There are, of course, no answers as of yet, but, it is clear that "it's [in] transition periods like these when the really interesting things begin to happen." It will be fascinating to see how the superhero genre evolves in the near future.