Logan, the latest entry in the X-Men movie franchise, is easily one of the most striking and compelling comic book films to hit cinemas in a long time. It’s visceral. It’s emotional. It’s artistically cohesive.
It’s also one of the strongest arguments against the growing trend of cinematic universes.
Cinematic universes are the big thing in the film industry right now and are slowly being applied to all manner of franchises. What’s the difference between a cinematic universe and a film franchise? Well, it’s small but crucial.
A franchise progresses film by film, basing the need for a sequel on the success of a past movie until there are multiple entries comprising a franchise. Each of the movies usually tells its own story and when brought together, the completed series composes a larger story for its fans. Take, for example, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Each entry was created based on a single story the creative team wanted to tell and when the franchise came to a conclusion, it was truly finished. A cinematic universe creates an entire world out of multiple films that do not necessarily connect to one another in their narratives. Characters and locations are shared and when viewed together, they create a bigger universe for its characters to inhabit. In doing so, there is the promise of bigger things to come and implied incentive for the viewer to see every single film based on his or her investment into the universe as a whole, but not necessarily the individual films.
The X-Men franchise currently sits in a position where it both is and is not a cinematic universe. Films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse are pushing toward the idea of a cinematic universe due to their creation of many different possible spinoff movies and characters that could support their own films. Not only that, but upcoming films like X-Force and New Mutants are meant to turn this nearly two decade-old franchise into an interwoven universe. But at the same time, spinoff films like The Wolverine, Deadpool, and especially Logan all violate the idea of a universe.
These films push back against the idea of interconnectedness, both due to their very distinct tones and their conflicting ideas. The motivation behind the story of The Wolverine no longer exists due to time travel shenanigans in Days of Future Past. Deadpool actively makes fun of how the film may fit into a larger franchise. And when taken as a whole, the Wolverine trilogy of films makes absolutely no sense as both its own franchise and as part of the larger X-Men series.
Now, before we go any further. Spoiler warning for Logan. We need to dig into details about the film to see how it fights against the idea of a cinematic universe.
In both its premise and its conclusion, Logan completely tosses the idea of a cinematic universe out the window. Set in a dark future, Logan sees its hero, played by Hugh Jackman, living out a bleak existence. He and the now senile Professor X are some of the only mutants left in the world after the apparent death of the X-Men and the eradication of the mutant species as a whole. It’s a huge departure from the seemingly joyful future depicted at the end of Days of Future Past and predicts terrible, unavoidable tragedy for the band of merry mutants that will be shown from here on out in every X-Men movie to come. If Logan is canon to the X-Men franchise as a whole, the series feels almost doomed to a forgone, bleak conclusion. And if Logan is not canon, then it obliterates the idea of this being a cohesive universe. But let’s be honest, 20th Century Fox is never going to kill off all the X-Men and destroy their franchise, so what we’re left with is the destruction of a cohesive and expansive cinematic universe.
But what Logan shows us is that that’s not just ok, it’s great for films.
If Logan was a bad movie, the argument wouldn’t have as much strength, but that’s not the case. Logan is by far the best X-Men movie yet and is likely among the greatest comic book-based film ever made. It’s beautiful and brutal. Visceral and poetic. It tackles heartbreaking human tragedy while indulging in spectacular superhero action. It contains both feminist messages and commentary on our current social climate while still focusing on its lean and mean narrative. And that’s all because it’s a film that is allowed to break away from comic book movie tropes and the ever-more important idea of interlocking storylines. In doing so, Logan is given artistic freedoms and the ability to find a conclusion within its storyline that would likely be impossible when used as a single piece within a larger universe.
And a huge part of that is in the death of Wolverine, which is both a tragic and appropriate end for the character. If Logan wasn’t allowed to kill off Hugh Jackman’s character and end on a fairly definitive note for nearly every X-Men char acter, then the story would have been compromised.
Simply put, the hard R rated, emotional, artistically-bold Logan would likely not be possible in the rigid structure of cinematic universe building.
But to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of shared movie universes, let’s take a look at the true inspiration for the idea’s current popularity: The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Since the first hints at their interconnected films in Iron Man’s post-credits sequence and Tony Stark’s appearance at the very end of The incredible Hulk, Marvel Studios have been building up their film universe and stressing its importance. It’s the reason why a film like 2012’s The Avengers was so exciting and satisfying. We’d been told for several years that all these films and their respective characters lived in the same world and would one day collide with one another. The Avengers proved that to be true and made for a very satisfying collision of independently-crafted characters.
In the time since, Marvel has continued to expand their universe through more solo character movies, as well as multi-lead films like Civil War and the upcoming Thor: Ragnorok. There’s a built-in anticipation for each as Marvel consistently bills them as crucial building blocks in the lead up to their culmination in the Infinity War films. However, the interconnected nature of the MCU has specific restraints on its films.
The first of these is content. Films that exist within the MCU should appeal to all ages and broad markets. Plus, they can’t violate what has already been established regarding rules of the world or the motives of its characters. The second restraint is on tone. Although some films may feel darker than others and some may push their wild ideas further, a Marvel movie generally has a specific blend of comedy, action, and drama that stays consistent from film to film. While these don’t necessarily hurt the MCU films, they prevent major experimentation.
A film like Ant-Man can be a superhero movie with a hint of heist. Or a film like Doctor Strange can be a superhero movie with a dose of mysticism. When you go into a Marvel movie, you have set expectations and almost every film meets them, with a few exceeding them greatly. In doing so, Marvel has been able to make obscure characters into household names.
However, the problems begin when cinematic universes become the de facto approach for every film franchise.
The discussion of “superhero fatigue” has been happening since at least Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight opened in 2008. It seems that with every year, people wonder if or when the comic book movie bubble will burst. As Marvel and DC expand their cinematic universes and more potential players arrive on the scenes with their own spins on superhero adventures, the discussion has grown even more. But there’s no signs of slowing down. Critics still love well done comic book movies and audiences continue to eat them up, no matter how packed the years are becoming.
But what would actually cause fatigue? The answer is repetition.
Comic books are a medium. And like film, they are filled with many different genres and styles. So to say that simply having lots of comic book movies come out each year will cause fatigue is to say that every comic book is the same. However, the issues arise when every comic book movie feels like the rest. While the breadth of comic book films has shown this to not be the case, the idea of a cinematic universe means that more and more films will feel like one another.
Most studios approach the idea of a shared universe to mean that every film within it must resemble one another. Whether that’s dark and gritty or light and friendly, cinematic universes promote familiarity, and familiarity can breed contempt. Pair that with knowing the stakes are relatively low with each film and the excitement drains from a story. After all, the hero can’t die when his or her next solo movie has already been announced. If anything will burst the comic book movie bubble, it will be unoriginal approaches toward storytelling and world-building.
Like The Dark Knight, Logan has been hailed as something new and thrilling in the world of comic books. While James Mangold’s film may take large amounts of inspiration from classic films like Shane and Unforgiven, Logan feels so exciting in 2017 because of how hard it contrasts against the cinematic universes being built around it.
But film universes won’t be confined to comic books alone. It’s already been announced that the Universal Monsters will receive the shared universe treatment starting with The Mummy. In addition, the now-rolling MonsterVerse will incorporate Godzilla and King Kong. There are surely many more shared universes to come in every genre of film. That doesn’t mean they’ll be bad, but the inherent restrictions on creativity that they impose means that new and exciting ideas may be pushed away in favor of safe decisions that ensure return audiences.
You have to ask yourself, is one great film worth sacrificing the unity of a cinematic universe? Logan shows us that, yes, it is.