When the Man Comes Around: Logan, Unforgiven, and the Evolution of Genre
“What I said the other day, you looking like me, that ain’t true. You ain’t ugly like me, it’s just that we both have got scars.” — Will Munny, Unforgiven
(WARNING: Minor spoilers from Logan and Unforgiven ahead. Though if you‘re upset at having Unforgiven spoiled, come on, the movie’s as old as I am…)
Wolverine has clawed his way back to the top. Following a great opening weekend and raves from the critics, people are saying Logan is poised to be the first comic book movie since The Dark Knight to actually have a shot at a Best Picture Oscar. The early buzz, though a little presumptuous is not without merit: Logan is as good as everyone says it is. What sets Logan apart from the typical fare is its ability to blend genres in order to expose something new: a modern Western exploring the themes of legacy, morality, and redemption under the guise of a comic book blockbuster.
Watching Logan, one can’t help but notice a different tone from the usual films that have become the standard moneymakers for both DC and Marvel. This could be because Logan is not just a comic book movie. The best genre films tend to be ones that work within the constraints of the rules only to usurp them. The Dark Knight is a crime drama about justice, morality, and corruption that also just happens to have Batman and the Joker in it. What makes Logan so compelling is it plays within the boundaries of the genre it’s placed in the while borrowing from various Westerns from Shane, to Paper Moon, to the one that seems to be the clearest influence: Unforgiven.
Logan finds an aging Wolverine hiding away with an ailing Professor X, steering clear of his heroic past. Until a young girl named girl named Laura, revealed to be his daughter, comes along forcing him to embark on a quest across the country where he confronts enemies outward and within. Aside from it being Wolverine instead of Clint Eastwood, the basic plot and arc for both Logan and Unforgiven’s Will Munny are eerily similar. Munny also lives on the down-low, trying to put his past as a murderer behind him, until the Schofield Kid enlists him to collect a bounty. Logan and Unforgiven play with characters we know, Wolverine and a Man With No Name-esque character, age them, and use that to explore deeper themes.
To Munny and Logan world around them has evolved into something that is unfamiliar to them. The West of Will Munny’s time is at its end as outlaws and gunslingers are disappearing as the Wild West becomes tamer. Logan lives in a world without mutants and heroes, his fellow X-Men a distant memory immortalized in comic books that he scoffs as inaccurate. Munny and Logan not only live with the pain of their past, but also carry the burden of their legacy, crushing themselves trying to get away from who they truly are. They are men from another time, accepting of the fact they are obsolete gears on the growing machine of progress.
Only when the next generation comes along do Logan and Munny embark on their quest, albeit with reluctance. The Schofield Kid and Laura grew up on these idealized legends of the grizzled old men they’ve enlisted to assist them. As such they act as the unbridled heir apparent to their subsequent legacies, however they fail to see the danger of actually assuming the same status as their idols. The Schofield Kid is desperate to be as tough if not tougher than Munny while Laura is filled with uncontrollable rage reminiscent of her father. However, Munny and Logan both stress on the dangers of becoming like them, a legacy they do not wish to pass on.
Logan and Will Munny both try to deny who they really are, only to have their true natures get the best of them. However, it is here that the difference between the two men’s paths becomes clear as they go in opposite directions. Munny tries to live a straight and narrow life, denying his past as a cold-blooded killer, while Logan tries to deny his status as a hero/savior/overall good person. Both men keep rebelling against their fate until the circumstances around them force them to embrace who they are, for better or for worse. Both men attempt to fight fate and lose to their true natures. Once the beasts are unleashed, no one is ever the same.
The Schofield Kid and Laura learn from the errors their heroes have made, which shows the progress of the next generation. Westerns have toyed with themes of learning from the mistakes we inherit from the generation that came before. In the end, Laura and the Schofield Kid are able to bury the burdens of the past in order to create a brighter future. Exploring those themes is what allowed the genre to continue for so long as storytellers found bold new ways to explore it. Logan feels like the first comic book film in years to a explore rich thematic story and pull it off. Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice try to embark on higher ideas, but choose to show more super heroic fisticuffs instead of truly sticking to its guns and having something to say, a lesson they could learn from westerns.
Westerns were once king and were king for a long time. From The Great Train Robbery, to John Ford, to the Man With No Name, westerns were once an abundant and popular way to explore the duality of humanity as well as the light and dark aspects of the American dream. Over time though the number of Westerns went from a massive boom to a small trickle. Westerns are still being made, but nowhere near the frequency they used to. To some they seem as antiquated as the gangster picture or Bible epic. It happens to every genre eventually, some sooner than others. Westerns were able to survive for long because it learned to evolve, but even that could not prevent the inevitable bust.
Marvel in particular has found their formula and stuck with it for the last decade as well they should because it works well. However, the comic book genre has become a massive bubble in danger of popping. Marvel’s formula took years to perfect so it makes sense why they’ve stuck with it for so long. There have been moments where they’ve flirted with discussing serious subjects (like the collateral damage/massive death tolls caused by battles explored in both Civil War or Batman vs. Superman), but right as Marvel or DC are about to do something different, they pull back in favor of what we’re used to for fear of the risks not working.
Logan isn’t afraid to pull back. From the beginning, we can tell we’re not in the same movie we’re used to seeing. It feels darker, ruthless, like a classic neo-Western. With director James Mangold having directed the remake of the western 3:10 To Yuma, that’s no coincidence. It’s genre-mashing in the best way and other comic book movies should take example. Not by copying exactly what Logan did, that’s a real pitfall of the genre to just copy the same thing with every movie just because it worked for one (looking at you, DC…) because that’s counterproductive. A genre survives by being ahead of the curve and one fears if Logan is the start of something new or the last hurrah of a dying genre.
It sounds cynical, but Logan, despite its darker story and tone, is one of the most hopeful superhero movies to date. One cannot help but see it as an overall statement about the current state of the genre itself. The heroes we loved in our youth are getting older, times have changed, and it’s time for the new era to take over. Hints of that are starting to show throughout the genre, but only time will tell if this new era will make an impact. It sparks the prospect that other filmmakers will follow suit and continue to build on the foundation that Logan has cemented.
Logan serves as a mediation on the comic book genre just as Unforgiven did for the Western, while both explore new ground. At a time where blockbusters come a dime a dozen, it’s refreshing to see that there is still life and potential in something that seemed like it was growing stale. The themes explored are buried deep in our cultural consciousness, which makes it all the more effective when exposed in a new light. Who knows if this early momentum will carry Logan all the way to the next Oscar season, but for the first time in almost a decade, it actually feels possible.