Over a year has passed since Deadpool lit up the box office, setting records for the month of February, R-rated films, and the X-Men franchise as a whole. Now Logan is experiencing similar, if not quite as overwhelming success. Are we entering the era of the R-rated superhero film, or is there something else about these two films that the genre should be learning?
Deadpool and Logan are so wildly different in tone that they could easily be from different cinematic universes. Logan leans away from colorful superhero costumes and antics – with its titular hero scoffing at the way his adventures are portrayed in comics. Meanwhile, Deadpool and his X-Men allies wear comic-accurate costumes and dive straight into explosive action, complete with superhero landings. But what these two movies have in common is that they don’t shy away from the inherent trappings of each story’s vision. While the R-ratings may have removed some of these restrictions, another key factor is that (for the most part) these two movies were not created to sell toys, and they had more conservative budgets than the core X-Men movies. As side projects rather than central pillars of the franchise, Logan and Deadpool both had more freedom to get creative.
Of course, the R-rating helped this aspect on both accounts. Both Deadpool and Wolverine are heroes whose primary method of fighting involves slicing and dicing their enemies, and the fact that previous appearances for both characters tended to shy away from the fallout only lessened their impact on screen. Deadpool’s humor also didn’t need profanity to be funny, but profanity is a natural extension of his personal brand of vulgarity. Even the Deadpool 2 teaser‘s primary humor comes from the scenario of allowing an old man to be shot while he’s changing in a phone booth.
The X-Men franchise has often seemed to embrace its source material begrudgingly. The original film mocked the idea of yellow spandex while dressing the heroes in similarly absurd black leather. While subsequent films (including Deadpool) have done comic-accurate superhero costumes incredibly well, it’s fitting that Logan moved away from a superhero look. The film was, after all, about failing to live up the legacy you inspire.
Deadpool and Logan each pushed the superhero genre further into unique directions than it had ever before. There have been plenty of films to poke fun at the superhero genre (The Meteor Man, Mystery Men, Kick-Ass), but none have been so well implemented as Deadpool. The tricky thing about parodies is that in order to be successful, they must understand and match the appeal of a genre, while having some fun at the expense of its tropes. Deadpool may point at the impracticality of the 3-point “superhero landing” – but we still get to see that awesome superhero landing. Deadpool leans into superhero tropes because they’re fun, and they get him closer to making cheeky observations that fans of the material will appreciate. The film wasn’t an evisceration of the genre – it’s an observation of why people like it, from the point-of-view of a hilarious nutjob.
Logan may not be the first R-rated superhero film, but it’s likely the most mature. The distinction doesn’t come from bloody violence, profanity, or nudity. These aspects may make a film unsuitable for children, but not necessarily mature (see Deadpool). Logan attains maturity by focusing on the struggles that adults deal with – the decay of health and closeness to death, the inglorious responsibility of caring for the weak and infirm, and the realization that you are your own worst enemy. Each of these aspects has been touched on in previous superhero films, but for Logan, it’s the focus, and no world-ending conflict distracts from that.
The (Super)hero’s Journey
Deadpool and Logan succeeded by focusing on the personal journeys of their heroes, rather than outstanding acts of heroism, or grandiose stakes. When Simon Kinberg discussed the artistic failures of X-Men: Apocalypse, he pointed out that, “Scale and scope don’t matter. Audiences today know it’s fake, they’ve seen the world blow up a million times in video games and movies.”
He has a point. Considering it’s a given that the hero will never fail to save the world, what has become far more interesting is the personal stakes involved. Both Wade Wilson and Logan lose a lot on their journey, and how those losses affect them colors the drama, humor, and action more vibrantly than any grandiose conflict.
Explosive movies can be fun to watch, but the experiences that leave a lasting impression are those that build a deep connection to the heroes. The superhero genre is growing every year, and will quickly buckle under its own irrelevance if a compelling, original, and personal tale doesn’t accompany its trademark bombastic action.
Big Ambition, Modest Budget
Because of 20th Century Fox’s insecurity about Deadpool‘s chances, the film was only given $58 million to work with. Logan had a bit more wiggle room with a budget of $97 million, but both of these pale in comparison to even the oldest and least expensive Marvel Studios projects ($140 million). Big names, superhero costumes, and CG spectacle cost a lot of money. How well these comparative budgets were spent is naturally subjective, but Deadpool and Logan‘s box office success offer tangible evidence that worthwhile superhero experiences can be designed for less.
These two films may have been slim on spectacle, but because they were so focused on creating a good story, they managed to get more emotional bang for their action buck. Deadpool famously cut both a motorcycle chase and an extended finale to save on its budget. Would these have made the film better? Possibly. But the film still felt complete without them.
James Mangold’s previous effort, The Wolverine, began with a somber tone and ended with a mecha-samurai. The film’s budget ($120 million) was higher than Logan‘s and it may have been worse for it. Mangold (like X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s director, Gavin Hood) was at the mercy of the studio’s script decisions, though a lower (or rearranged) budget could have resulted in a better ninja fight and a more comic accurate Silver Samurai. It’s not just what fans wanted – it likely would have made for a more tonally consistent film.
It’s hard to parody a genre that’s rarely been done well. Blazing Saddles may be the most famous Western parody of all time, but it came after many decades of successful inventions and reinventions of the genre. Superhero parody films came along before Deadpool, but most were box office bombs and none made much of an impact. Deadpool came at the tail of a decade of superhero hits, which has grown into a veritable saturation of the market. Mainstream audiences finally understand what comic nerds have been geeking out over for the past half a century, but this new understanding also lends itself to new questions about genre conventions. Comic fans appreciate that Deadpool has been mocking their favorite superhero straight men since 1990, but mainstream audiences hadn’t yet enjoyed his fourth wall-breaking antics. In a year that derided Batman v Superman for taking itself too seriously, Deadpool came as a breath of fresh air.
Fortunately, Logan has struck a chord as the right kind of serious, but it’s able to get away with it by dropping its superhero trappings almost entirely. This would have been a let down to see at the beginning of Wolverine’s career, but there’s something deeply poignant about seeing a long-beloved iteration of the character reduced to a chauffeur. It helps that the film followed through with an examination of the hardships of being an uncelebrated, real life hero. The character first hit the big screen in 2000, learning what it meant to be part of a family. Logan is a fulfillment of that arc, illustrating the grit it takes not only to keep a family, but to accept a new one after the loss of the first.
Deadpool and Logan are each very different films, but their similarities in their successes didn’t end at an R-rating. Hopefully, Hollywood will take the lessons that really matter away from the equation. Focusing on unique, focused, aptly budgeted films that aim to expand their genre rather than contract it will be important to superhero films moving forward. Haters have been predicting superhero genre fatigue for a decade now. Hopefully, movies like Deadpool and Logan will continue to prove them wrong.