It has often been pointed out that the superhero film occupies the space once held by the Western. There are key differences between the two genres, of course: superheroes will never be quite as ubiquitous as Westerns once were, for example, as a typical superflick requires a sizeable effects budget while B-grade oaters were made using little more than horses, extras and dust. Another is their distinct relationships with genre revisionism.
Broadly speaking, Westerns started out as simplistic white-hats-versus-black-hats affairs; but later came revisionist Westerns, which offered more thoughtful takes on familiar conventions. Superhero comics followed a similar trajectory, but not so much superhero films: although revisionism exists in this field, it is far more erratic.
If we take 1978’s Superman: The Movie as the starting point for superhero blockbusters, we find that the cycle began with an odd combination of earnestness and camp. 1989’s Batman strove to present itself as a serious superhero film, in contrast to the 1960s incarnation, although its sequels later returned to camp. Spider-Man and The Avengers are light-hearted, but in a manner that is largely true to Silver Age Marvel, without the wink-wink irony that characterises the Adam West Batman. The Nolan/Snyder/Goyer Batman-Superman cycle attempts (with varying degrees of success) to be a complex and literary treatment of their source material, and are perhaps the closest in spirit to the revisionist Westerns. Topping it all off, we have out-and-out parodies like The Incredibles and Deadpool.
Each of these films is faced with the same problem: they all have source material that will look a bit silly if faithfully adapted for the screen. Some, such as The Dark Knight, try to avoid the sillier aspects of their sources. Others, such as Deadpool, treat the whole thing as a joke. Still others, like The Avengers, try to rekindle that childlike mindset where the silliness didn’t seem so silly.
X-Men, which kicked off the current wave of supermovies back in 2000, is something of an oddity in this respect. It apparently did not realise that its subject matter was a bit silly, and ended up playing a frankly daft storyline entirely straight. Later films in the franchise took different tacks, however, as when First Class embraced colourful kitsch. And with Logan, we have a superhero film that really, really wants to be a revisionist Western.
For a start, the film actually takes place in the American West, detailing a journey from the Tex-Mex border to North Dakota. The confrontations are staged to resemble spaghetti Western showdowns, albeit with unusual weaponry. A key sequence involves Logan holing up with some friendly homesteaders and defending them from a bullying authority figure during a dispute over their water supply – a set-up at least as old as John Wayne’s Angel and the Badman. The end credits and trailer each feature a Johnny Cash number. And just to drive it home, the film has a scene where the characters watch Shane, which Laura/X-23 later quotes from in her most substantial piece of dialogue.
But Westerns – revisionist and otherwise – are not the film’s only genre reference point. Outwardly, Logan seems like a film keen to ditch its superhero trappings, right down the title using the civilian name of its protagonist. But at the same time, it directly acknowledges its source material by using X-Men comics as a plot point (my WWAC colleague Rosie Knight wrote an entire article on this topic.)
It is established that these publications exist as loose fictionalisations of true events. Despite presumably being published in the twenty-first century, the specially-created prop comics are drawn to resemble titles from the Bronze Age: arguably the last gasp of the four-colour aesthetic beloved by pop artists, before it was smothered by digital gradients and Rob Liefeld.
In the film, Logan reacts with disgust at these comics, complaining that they have filled Laura’s head with lies about how the world really works. In particular, Laura has her heart set on reaching “Eden”, a haven for mutants that supposedly exists in North Dakota – but Logan finds out that this idea was from the comic. Still, pressured by Charles Xavier, he takes her to the destination anyway, if only to humour her.
As it turns out, Eden does exist. It is not the high-tech building depicted in the comic, instead being a ramshackle wooden structure, but it still offers refuge and companionship for Laura. It was built by her fellow mutant children, who were presumably inspired by the comic.
Message of the story: if reality is not as good as fiction, then do not blame the fiction – blame reality.
At the very end of the film, the protagonist gives his life defending the mutant kids from their oppressors; in doing so he ceases to be cynical Logan, and becomes the heroic Wolverine of the comics. At his funeral, while Laura recites dialogue from Shane, one of the other kids can be seen clutching a Wolverine action figure: the man may be dead, but the superhero lives on.
From the idealism of old-school superhero comics, to the disillusionment of the revisionist Western, and finally to a reconciliation between the two. How ironic that the X-Men series, one of the least consistent franchises in superhero films, has given us one of the most clear-headed meditations on the genre.