Essays, Film

How James Mangold’s LOGAN Screenplay Embraces the Myth of Superheroes

This essay was written as part of my short time at university, for  Screenwriting class, prior to LOGAN’S Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards. It received a First, at 80/100 marks.

Since its release in March 2017, Logan, written by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green, has been critically lauded as “different from most comic-book superhero films.” (Gleiberman, 2017). Rather than being a “simple workaday superhero,” the character of Wolverine becomes “iconic and legendary,” argued critic Adam Smith in his aptly titled essay, Why Logan isn’t just another superhero film.’ (Smith, 2017). Similarly-natured essays and reviews dominated the cultural conversation regarding Logan, praising its themes, characterization, and emphasis on performance, to the extent where Forbes speculated it could receive a “Best Picture nomination” (Hughes, 2017). The screenplay’s status as one which is highly subversive of superhero cinema is clearly not without merit; however, this is too simplistic and rudimentary understanding of what Mangold, Frank and Green tried to achieve. Rather, it pays homage to the superhero genre, treating Wolverine as a legend, and explores the relationship between myth and reality.

Logan’s portrayal of its titular character is greatly subversive of traditional superhero characterization. Rather than being introduced as an inspiring hero, it is as “Drunk Wolverine,” surrounded by “empty bottles” and “fast food wrappers.” He is “older than we’ve seen him,” and “clutches a Tequila bottle.” (pg. 1). Nothing about this introduction indicates that he is even remotely similar to a superhero, and it is leagues apart from Wolverine’s previous cinematic portrayals. For example, the character’s preceding solo film, The Wolverine (2013), begins with Logan saving a Japanese soldier from the nuclear strike on Hiroshima. This unconventional introduction immediately establishes that the screenplay will subvert expectations of superheroes; rather than going out of his way to save innocent people, Logan is “drunk” in his limousine, forced to act because it is being stripped by criminals. While the unwilling, drunken superhero is an archetype previously seen on film, such as in Peter Berg’s Hancock (2008), this is the first instance that an established character has been reinvented as such, potentially inviting a jarred response from the reader. This is because Frank, Mangold and Green’s characterization is diametrically opposed to traditional superhero fiction. In his essay ‘Deconstructive Comics,’ Ronald Schmitt describes how superheroes were created to provide “fantasies of superhuman power overcoming the devastatingly dehumanizing forces associated with Fascism.” (Schmitt, 1992). Logan’s presentation in the opening pages does not exude a “fantasy of human power”; rather, Logan appears powerless. This was very much intentional on behalf of James Mangold; he can no longer “deal with some of the tropes of comic book movies,” (Hiatt, 2017) and he lamented how the third act of The Wolverine was a “capitulation” to the “epic, city-leveling exhaustion” which has become one of those “tropes.” With Logan, Mangold wished to make a “more intimate film,” which naturally involved stripping the identity of Wolverine away and focusing on Logan – his “shame,” his “darkness,” his phobia of “intimacy, commitment and love.” (Thompson, 2017). Mangold, Frank and Green even employ direct address to the reader at the beginning of the screenplay in order to make this explicit: “if you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity-defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie.” (pg. 2).

This subversion continues throughout Logan, bleeding into every facet of his character – his violence, his profanity, his motivation (or lack, thereof) – prompting him to tell his ailing mentor, Charles Xavier, “You always thought we [mutants] were part of God’s plan. Maybe we were just God’s mistake.” (pg. 14). This imbues the screenplay with a certain philosophical and religious significance, heightening the importance of these superpowered characters. The notion that mutants have really been abandoned by God is a potent one, marking unexplored dramatic territory in superhero cinema. The screenplay is set in 2026, where “mutants are history” (pg. 4) after an “incident” at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, which led to the death of the X-Men (pg. 60). It is a profoundly darkened and realistic world which the writers wish to present to audiences, one where superheroes die, and their remnants are not revered – only forgotten. Alternatively, it could be argued that mutants being “God’s mistake” is the natural evolution of their characterization. In both comics and film, mutants have always been a “parable of the alienation of any minority” (Reynolds, 1992); as such, it is perhaps logical that they would come to see themselves as a “mistake.” Logan’s belief in this foregrounds his powerlessness and humanity prevalent throughout the screenplay, leading to emotional failure as well as physical; later, when he watches Gabriella’s video of the mutant children, she directly tells him, “I see now you are not a hero … Maybe you never were.” Afterwards, his eyes meet Laura’s in the back seat – “holding … Logan blinks under the weight of her gaze.” (pg. 49). The balance of power inherent in this line is extraordinary, and the fact that he “blinks” rather than hold her “gaze” strongly implies that Gabriella’s words have impacted Logan. To put it simply – “Logan is truly alone.” (Adlakha, 2017). However, it is not so much the “weight” of a little girl, rather the weight of responsibility now facing him. While Gabriella’s words serve to explicitly humanize Logan, their true purpose is to give him a mission: to be the hero that Laura needs, to get her where she needs to go – the fictional Eden, a mutant safe-haven from X-Men comic books – and to, finally, pass away, no longer being “alone.” As such, Logan’s subversion serves a greater purpose than just differentiating itself from other superhero films. By beginning the screenplay with Logan at his lowest point, the only trajectory for him is upwards, to redemption. Therefore, Logan and its depiction of the main character is not merely subversive for the sake of it; rather, it serves to create compelling characterization.

The second key component of how Logan subverts superhero genre tropes is its thematic exploration of time and legends. Time is integral to Logan on multiple levels: Logan and Charles are dying men, slowly succumbing to the natural decline of their bodies; the X-Men have faded into myth and legend, surviving only in bastardized comic books; and the emotional core of the screenplay only functions because of the extratextual existence of the X-Men film franchise, with Hugh Jackman concluding his seventeen-year-long portrayal of Wolverine. Charles is just as ravaged by time as Logan; he suffers from dementia and his brain has devolved into “a weapon of mass destruction,” (pg. 26), regularly emitting psionic blasts which freeze and suffocate all those within his vicinity. Upon Charles’ introduction in the screenplay, he violently resists taking his medication from Logan, instead, asking him: “Who are you?” Once he has taken them, he tells Logan to “fuck off.” (pg. 12). This is a significant departure from the character audiences have known since 2000’s X-Men; not only does he not recognize Logan – a man he has known, in-universe, for almost thirty years – but he swears. With the exception of similarly subversive and violent superhero films such as Kick-Ass (2010) and Deadpool (2016), superhero cinema does not typically indulge in such profanity. Therefore, the kindly, benevolent Charles Xavier telling somebody to “fuck off” is a great transgression, not only of the family-friendly genre but also of Charles himself. Just like how Logan’s world-weary portrayal establishes a contrast with previous cinematic iterations, Charles’ ailing and bedraggled characterization entrenches how this will be a different kind of Charles Xavier. He then reminds Logan how, when he found him, he was “pursuing a career as a ‘cage-fighter’”. (pg. 14). This time marker provides vital emotional context for both the characters and the reader. Their friendship was sparked when Logan was that “cage-fighter” and Charles took him in to become a member of the X-Men. For the reader, it has been seventeen years since those events unfolded in X-Men. By referencing the past in this way, it becomes apparent that this story is only being told because of the pre-existing history, both in-universe and on film. This is somewhat ironic, given the filmmakers’ desire for Logan to stand alone from other superhero films, and, indeed, the X-Men film continuity, to the extent where Hugh Jackman described it as a “stand-alone movie … not really beholden to time lines and story lines in the other movies.” (Fletcher, 2017). Nonetheless, the emotional subtext of the screenplay is reliant on these characters having existed for a long time, even if prior events do not directly impact the plot. As such, Logan is, in many ways, a direct product of time, just as Logan and Charles are.

The extratextual nature of Logan is exacerbated by the metatextual involvement of real X-Men comics, which are an integral plot device: Gabriella reads an issue about a mutant haven known as Eden on the Canadian border, and, believing it to be real (“I have read about a place in the north. A place for mutants. They call it Eden.” (pg. 48)), sends Laura away with Logan and Charles on a journey to get there. Much to Logan’s surprise, Eden is real – it is where Laura’s fellow new mutants are, who also learned of it from comics. This is thematically significant in itself, articulating how comics have a profound impact on the lives of these characters. It is comics which inspire the children to escape from the Transigen Project (when Logan and Laura arrive, one of the children is described as holding an “armful of X-MEN ACTION FIGURES” (pg. 106)) and they are what originally convinced Gabriella that Logan was a “hero,” which she, of course, later retracts, stating he is “not what she read about.” (pg. 49). This is an example of the divide between fiction and reality generating conflict, with Logan spending much of the screenplay deriding the comics. He tells Laura: “You do know this is bullshit, right? A quarter of it happened. And none like this. In the real world, people die and no self-promoting asshole in a leotard can stop it.” (pg. 53). As well as an example of his pessimism, it also separates Logan from the broader X-Men canon, an implication which was James Mangold’s intention: “he feels like those movies are slightly aggrandized versions of their own past.” (Hiatt, 2017). Later, when examining Laura’s comics, he simply utters “Jesus Christ.” However, the scene description notes that “the images weigh on Logan” (pg. 55). This is similar to when Gabriella said he’s “not a hero” and he blinked under the “weight” of Laura staring at him. From both excerpts, it is clear that Logan is troubled by the dichotomy between his public perception and how he perceives himself. He does not see himself as worthy of being a superhero, prompting him to simply dismiss it all in anger. Logan is, willingly, a “myth,” as Siddhant Adlakha articulates: “a shell of himself. A drifter without a purpose. The Wolverine exists in the pages of comics, but Logan struggles to retain that heroism. The world has given up on all those like him. He’s giving up on it in return.” (Adlakha, 2017). Yet, Logan also initially misunderstands why these comics are so relevant to the new generation; despite them being not “real,” Charles simply tells him, they are “for Laura.” (pg. 78). Logan is concerned with the emotional truth of fiction, and its relationship with reality. While the comics are “aggrandized versions” of history, they are responsible for Gabriella’s, Laura’s, and her fellow mutants’ impression of Logan, and it is their perception which pushes him to take Laura to Eden, in spite of not believing in its existence himself and no longer truly having a reason to, after Charles’ murder. It is what leads Laura, upon Logan’s own death, to give the screenplay its definitive final image: “As she passes Logan’s makeshift cross, she looks at it a moment, considering, then kneels and tips it on its side to make — an ‘X’.” (pg. 125). The emotional potency of this does not derive from the fact that Logan was the Wolverine, that he was one of the X-Men, but rather that he is. In sacrificing himself to save Laura and her friends, he becomes the “hero” which Gabriella only saw in the pages of comics and reaches the inner peace which has eluded him for his entire life: “he’s happy in his final moments on this earth. He’s happy. He feels somehow satisfied,” as James Mangold iterates (Wakeman, 2017). Much like how Logan cannot exist without the X-Men film franchise preceding it, it also cannot exist without the superhero genre. Laura and the mutant children are audience surrogates, drawing hope from fictional superheroes. Perhaps, therefore, it is too rudimentary to state that Logan is simply a subversion of superhero cinema; rather, it is an embrace of superhero heritage and the simplicity of hope.

Logan is a screenplay which intentionally subverts and rejects conventions of the superhero genre and its homogeneous modern style, whilst also paying respect to the core appeal of superheroes: their ability to inspire and create hope. Through this, Logan transcends what is expected of a modern superhero film. Yet, rather than being simply reactionary, it builds something new; it offers self-commentary and a reminder of why superheroes became popular originally, establishing how there truly are no boundaries to what superhero cinema can achieve.

Bibliography

  1. Gleiberman, Owen (2017): The Lesson of ‘Logan’: Superhero Sagas Are Better When They’re Real Movies http://variety.com/2017/film/columns/logan-hugh-jackman-x-men-1202002329/
  2. Smith, Adam (2017): Why Logan isn’t just another superhero film – it’s the tale of a modern legend http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/logan/why-logan-is-not-superhero-movie/
  3. Hughes, Adam (2017): ‘Logan’ Could Be First Superhero Movie to Get Best Picture Nomination https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2017/02/17/review-logan-could-be-first-superhero-movie-to-get-best-picture-nomination/#21e45fa8ef70
  4. Hiatt, Brian (2017): How ‘Logan’ Director James Mangold Made the Most Violent Wolverine Movie Yet https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/features/logan-director-on-making-a-wolverine-movie-for-the-fans-w469808
  5. Thompson, Anne (2017): ‘Logan’: 10 Ways Hugh Jackman and James Mangold Convinced Fox to Make a Bold and Bloody Superhero Movie http://www.indiewire.com/2017/03/logan-hugh-jackman-james-mangold-wolverine-1201788392/
  6. Schmitt, Ronald (1992): Deconstructive Comics, The Journal of Pop Culture, 153–61
  7. Reynolds, Richard (1992): Superheroes: A Modern Mythology
  8. Adlakha, Siddhant (2017): LOGAN: The Things We Leave Behind http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2017/03/05/logan-the-things-we-leave-behind
  9. Fletcher, Rosie (2017): Logan is not set in the same universe as the X-Men movies, says Hugh Jackman http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/wolverine/news/a819480/hugh-jackman-says-logan-different-universe-x-men-films/
  10. Wakeman, Gregory (2017): Why The Logan Ending is Actually a Happy Ending, According to James Mangold https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1660350/why-the-logan-ending-is-actually-a-happy-ending-according-to-james-mangold

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