While some would argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn't get its start until 2008 with Iron Man, it is my humble opinion that Sam Raimi's Spiderman was the birth of the modern superhero franchise. That was all the way back in 2002. It may also be the best metaphor for the course of the superhero genre in general. Since then, Spidey has completed an entire trilogy, had two other films in a failed re-boot, and most recently was re-booted again purely with intention of taking a more prominent role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
These characters are too financially valuable to die.
By now, we can all come to the agreement: superhero fatigue is real. And in his latest video essay, The Closer Look makes a pretty compelling case for why we've reached this point. It all comes down to the fact that, as of now, these characters are too financially valuable to die. But if they can't die and no real resolution is ever reached, then why should we care?
There is one superhero movie that stands out from the multitude of others released this year and it's purely because it does away entirely with the "building a franchise" convention. Logan brings the audience out of the world they've come to expect with comic book fantasy and instead focuses on a few of the more brutal realities of life.
The key to Logan's success starts with scale. Somewhere along the line, director James Mangold realized that the epicness of a film's action doesn't matter as much as the way its message is delivered. It has become customary for Marvel and DC to go huge and focus on large battles where flying robots are killed off easily by the hundreds. Meanwhile, no one in the audience could really bother thinking twice. Who are these guys fighting again? Why?
"The Avengers" Credit: Disney
That’s why Logan works so well. There is no world-ending threat or colossal tragedy on the horizon, just the end of The Wolverine and Professor X who we have come to know and love. To focus the camera on this one relationship is infinitely more powerful than to focus onto the swatting away of hundreds of stock villains and their goons.
Focusing on the small details of the story is what inspires empathy. For example, Tom Hanks losing his volleyball in Cast Away is an impossibly heart-wrenching moment. But without the relationship we witness building over the course of the film, it's just a crazy man with a volleyball.
Logan is the most intimate superhero film of all time, in part because it is brutally real. The frightening realities of life and death take center stage over some science fiction monstrosity that we, as audience members, will clearly never face in our lifetime. The film takes this idea a step further when it acknowledges the fact that comic books and superheroes are purely ridiculous. Logan’s views of the X-Men comics parallel our own, further immersing us into the world the film.
“If Marvel and DC do not eventually deliver a final ending, then they are depriving the audience not only of one of the fundamental parts of a good story but also the most beautiful and most emotionally touching parts as well.”
Mangold makes a point in the film of hinting that if superhero movies continue down the path they are currently on, with endless sequels, then they will go out with a whimper and not a bang. If they were to bow out at their peak, however, people will look back on them with nostalgia. If they keep going on and on and on with endless reboots and rehashes of the same character, then they are nothing more than a tired excuse for studios to make money—and people will take note.
The lack of finality is the number one problem the superhero genre faces today. As The Closer Look puts it, “If Marvel and DC do not eventually deliver a final ending, then they are depriving the audience not only of one of the fundamental parts of a good story but also the most beautiful and most emotionally touching parts as well.”
Eventually, these stories will not end because they have reached the natural conclusion of their narratives, but rather because they no longer make sense for studios to finance when audiences have lost interest. Logan finished off on a strong note in the main character's story and will bow out gracefully because of it.
But is he truly gone forever? Mangold certainly does everything in his power to make us think so, but who knows what the studios will do?