Stop trying to limit superhero movies

(Spoilers for “Logan” and various other superhero movies throughout; seriously, I would not read this unless you have already seen “Logan,” especially if you’re planning to do so in the near future.)

So it turns out “Logan,” the latest entry in the X-Men movie franchise and the seeming swan song for Hugh Jackman in the title role after nearly two decades, is pretty darn good (4 out of 5 stars in my book). It has well-staged, bloody action sequences, a story with real stakes and depth, a vibrant post-apocalyptic (by way of the Western) aesthetic and three great central performances from Jackman, Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Dafne Keen as Laura, the pint-sized female Wolverine clone (that’s not a spoiler; it’s in a trailer). The movie is a critical darling (92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which is an imperfect but useful barometer) and a box office hit.

All of these things, in the abstract, are good. It was about time Jackman got a legitimately great movie to go along with his star power as Wolverine, and finding new ways to tell superhero stories is a welcome development. And yet, I’m already starting to see an irksome trend in certain circles, particularly among the legacy media and older critics, when it comes to the reaction to the movie.

The argument usually goes something like this: “Logan” shows that superhero/comic book movies need to tone down their more outlandish elements to tell more grounded, emotional, realistic stories. You can see this thinking creep up in outlets from The New York Times and The AV Club to Matt Zoller Seitz at RogerEbert.com and the good folks at Vulture.

I’m not here to put the hammer down on any of these outlets or authors; they all do great work, and I value their insight. And they’re not completely wrong, only slightly. The problem is they’re blaming the wrong thing when it comes to bad superhero movies: It’s the not the gaudy costumes or loads of special effects, but basic storytelling issues.

To be sure, “Logan” is markedly different from both the prior X-Men movies and the broader superhero movie landscape. Its sun-drenched cinematography and brutal bursts of violence would feel more at home in a Clint Eastwood Western (“Unforgiven” is an obvious point of reference), and the fact that it eschews much of the previous X-Men movie continuity and gives Wolverine a definitive ending by (MASSIVE SPOILER INCOMING) giving him the death he so clearly craves gives “Logan” a standalone feel uncommon in the world of shared comic book movie universes.

Yet these individual features of “Logan,” while worthy of praise, aren’t what make the movie really work as well as it does. “Man of Steel” is one of the most visually impressive superhero movies ever made, complete with Terrence Malick-esque lyrical shots of nature (remember those early trailers?), but the character assassination job it does on Superman makes it a travesty. “The Dark Knight Rises” is another movie reflecting on the life and legacy of a tortured, brooding hero, but despite all the cinematic muster Christopher Nolan brings to bear, its fundamental screenplay issues turn the movie’s narrative into mush, and Nolan previously gave us “The Dark Knight.”

Speaking of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, we’ve already seen what happens when everyone starts raving about a really good superhero movie that happens to take a more grounded, grim approach: People learn all the wrong lessons, thinking it’s the “dark” aesthetic and tortured heroes that make the movie good instead of concentrating on complex themes with interesting characters and good filmmaking. The smashing success of “The Dark Knight” in 2008 spawned a wave of inferior imitators, culminating in the absolute nadir of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” “Dawn of Justice” is drenched in darkness, takes itself EXTREMELY seriously and touches on potentially interesting themes, only to get lost in a tidal wave of terrible characters, incoherent plotting and a suffocatingly morose tone.

Besides, superhero movies shouldn’t be limited to one approach. That’s certainly not true of the comics on which they’re based; your typical Superman story isn’t the same as your typical Batman story, which isn’t the same as your typical Spider-Man story or your typical X-Men story, and so on and so on. Sure, there are plenty of comics in the mold of “The Dark Knight” and “Logan,” but for the most part they’re outliers. And we’ve had several recent examples of stellar superhero movies that tell great stories with interesting characters while embracing the more outlandish elements the genre offers.

Don’t believe me? If there’s one superhero movie in the last decade that basically everyone loves that isn’t “The Dark Knight,” it’s “The Avengers.” And, if you’re one of the five people on Earth who hasn’t seen “The Avengers,” it has about as much in common with “The Dark Knight” as a toaster does with a giraffe, at least in terms of visual style and characterization of its heroes.

But “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” actually have a lot in common when it comes to what actually matters in good movies. Both movies have strong scripts that put the focus on character first and foremost; “Dark Knight” is about Batman embracing his role as “the hero Gotham deserves” by learning to make hard choices and sacrificing his reputation for the greater good of saving the city’s soul, while “The Avengers” juggles several arcs for many of its major characters, many of which go back to their prior movies. Iron Man learns to be a team player with his self-sacrifice play at the end, Captain America accepts his transition to the modern world and embraces his leadership role, Black Widow gets a shot at redemption in the movie’s best scene, and Bruce Banner only becomes the Hulk (willingly) after revealing his big secret and completing his arc by accepting that the Hulk is part of who he is.

Both “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” also have talented directors who work well with actors. Nolan is justly recognized as one of the great boundary-pushing visual stylists of our time (see: “Inception”), while Joss Whedon has steadily worked his way up from TV to become a great blockbuster director more than capable of his own visual masterstrokes: The montage of the various Avengers fighting together in New York is packed with great moments, from Thor and Hulk working together to take out one of the giant space worms to (complete with Hulk punching Thor as payback from their earlier brawl) to Hulk and Loki’s “puny god” moment.

The lesson here, go figure, is hire directors with skill and vision if you want your superhero movie to be good. This is a lesson “Logan” learned well, bringing back James Mangold to both write and direct from “The Wolverine,” which salvaged the Wolverine solo series after the abysmal “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Mangold has a solid track record in well-constructed genre pieces, from the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” (which earned several Oscar nominations as well as a win for Reese Witherspoon) to the throwback Western “3:10 to Yuma.” With apologies to Bryan Singer, who’s directed most of the X-Men movies, the best ones in the series are the ones he DIDN’T direct, including “Logan,” “X-Men: First Class” and “Deadpool.” Singer’s approach is mostly defined by being singularly unremarkable, with a drab color palette, a bland approach to action scenes and an outright dismissal of the comic book source material in many instances. Cyclops even makes a crack about “yellow spandex” in the first X-Men movie, but it’s not like his late ’90s leather club wear is that much better.

The takeaway here is there’s no one right way to make a superhero movie, and studios should embrace a wide array of approaches to bring in as wide an audience as possible. Comics creators have shown incredible imagination over the decades when it comes these characters, and there’s no reason we can’t expect the same when we see them on screen.

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