So after 17 years they finally made a good standalone Wolverine film. It’s not that the story was complex and it’s not that it was a classic from the comics. The plot is incredibly simple (as long as you ignore the continuity with the rest of the X-Men franchise films) but well executed. The tone, the acting, and the character work is what make Logan work. In short, it’s the small things that fit together just right, with the bigger picture (the Reavers, an industrial conspiracy, and a mysterious event in Westchester) being incidental to what makes the film work.
So how in the hell does a slice of a huge franchise come across as a small character piece?
After leaving the theater and discussing the movie with my wife I came upon the realization that this felt a whole lot like Rogue One to me. There are a number of differences; Rogue One is a prequel/interquel in the Star Wars universe while Logan is a sequel, and while Rogue One is firmly cemented into continuity while Logan’s placement is much looser. Those points aside, the things they have in common are worth looking into.
Both feature new characters that are given depth, both put a more realistic tone on a somewhat shinier universe, and both are self contained stories within a larger continuity.
It’s this last one that’s important. With franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the somewhat separate Marvel-Netflix shows, the DC Universe, the Fox X-Men movies, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien/Prometheus, Jurassic Park, Universal Monsters, and so on, we’re used to being strung along for years with our big budget films. Easter eggs and nods to source material abound, and any cameo is a potential spin-off or hint at the next movie’s central story-line. When these franchises are split into sub-series things become even more muddled. Captain America: Civil War was only a Captain America movie and not an Avengers picture because it didn’t have to do with Thanos. The DC Universe is reportedly going to base much of their world-building on flashforwards and flashbacks in the upcoming movies, again blurring the lines of the individual films into the larger whole. Star Wars is plotted out with mainline Episode films as well as spin-offs and TV shows and countless novels, making sure that viewers need to see more than just “Star Wars” movies to get the full story on some of the characters.
That’s what franchises are set up to do, after all. Pull in move viewers based on tangential interest. The new Thor movie is going to heavily feature the Hulk, which will pull in people that may have been on the fence after the previous Thor films. Iron Man/Tony Stark was a major draw to get people into the rest of the individual character films because whether they were compelling or not, Robert Downey Jr. surely would be.
Rogue One and Logan eschew this for the most part. The viewer doesn’t need to be steeped in the previous films to get these, they stand up fine as individual films. The focus narrows from the larger whole to these characters in a specific moment. And taking the endings into account, they’re not intended to hint at things to come. I think both of them say “this is the end of a journey” as clearly as possible, though the intellectual property owners (Disney and Fox, respectively) are still free to do what they want with the material.
As far as fulfilling their roles as prequel and sequel, these two films can suffice but don’t function this way as a necessity. Rogue One stands up perfectly well as a sci-fi military thriller, and Logan works as a dystopian political action movie. But being so separate from their respective franchises gives them a creative freedom that’s impossible in the rest of the series. It gives them the ability to have new characters. It allows for a story that has an ending! The main consistency in a major franchise is that they are incessantly running through the same story beats over and over. There’s an entire Iron Man movie where the major turn is that he decides to never create or use new suits, and the very next film he’s at it again. Iron Man is always fighting someone who’s stolen his own tech, The Avengers are always going up against a faceless army, and so on. These franchises would collapse if something significantly changed from one installment to the next.
But with these two movies we have parts of the franchise that exist alongside the main films rather than in a direct line. Less connected than sequels or prequels, these paraquels can actually change up the formula. Jyn Erso can come to terms with her father’s actions and turn her life around in the name of a larger cause. And die. Logan can finally embrace something larger than himself, whether it’s a figurative or literal family (or both). And die.
These huge franchises are relatively new in the world of production and that recurring death motif is not a coincidence. With Disney now the owner of Star Wars and Marvel, and with the rate that they’re pumping out both franchises, restraint isn’t something that these productions seem all too familiar with. Working those major deaths into the films mean that film is putting an explicit stamp of closure things. Had Jyn lived at the end then there would be nothing stopping Disney from making a series of movies about her that would occur during the original trilogy. And setting Logan in a future that may or may not be in continuity with the rest of the films at this point, in addition to killing him off, also puts a halt to just churning out more Old Man Logan pictures. X-23/Laura may or may not be pulled back into the main franchise, but the point of Logan (the film, not the person) wasn’t to set up her series. It was to tell Logan (the person, not the film) Laura’s story. Each new character in both Rogue One and Logan was there to be a character, not a franchise set-up.
I would like to take a moment to point out that, while both of these movies are very good, part of the reason they seem so refreshing and different is simply because they are telling a story from beginning to end. It strikes me as bizarre and, frankly, pathetic that such an intrinsic aspect of storytelling is rare enough to stand out when present. That the rest of the DC, Marvel, Alien, Star Trek, etc., movies don’t strike us as strange for having constant teasers, cliff-hangers, open threads, and setups for future installments. What’s even more disturbing is that, with franchises being such money machines, stand-alone films are becoming fewer and further between. Money is more often than not being funneled into these cinematic mints while individual features are getting sidelined.
The future looks bright, though. Some of the best parts of franchises are strange takes and risky offshoots, though they’re often coming from other media than film. Marvel’s doing well with their Netflix segment (exempting Iron Fist) and that’s barely connected to the larger MCU. Likewise, Fox’s take on the X-Men universe, Legion, is getting all sorts of attention that the more standard Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could never dream of. Even the Archie brand is doing bold things, with their New Riverdale comic series and the critically successful Afterlife with Archie run. The fresh ideas from these are even bleeding into the buzz for the show Riverdale, with people speculating that, although a long shot, it could possibly veer into zombie territory. So it looks like these properties do have interesting stories to tell, they’re just being shouldered out of the main media outlet.
Perhaps the money making behemoths aren’t the monotonous villains I’ve painted them to be. Perhaps they do serve a function, if an economic rather than artistic one. It’s possible that the main purpose of them isn’t to tell interesting stories but to just make money, and that those funds will be able to patronize smaller, odder, creative projects. Maybe looking for anything other than a high gross would be setting expectations too high. As long as the big budget movies are recognized for their flaws as well as their escapist entertainment, perhaps they should just be accepted as part of a symbiotic media relationship. I think that’s something we can live with.