Even the most "serious" and "grounded" superhero movies ultimately offer a warm bath of escapism – but not the fatalistic new twilight-of-Wolverine movie Logan, which feels more like having three metal claws puncture your cranium. This film is many things: the most daring mainstream superhero movie ever; a sharp dystopian vision of a post-Trump future America; a showcase for many, many decapitations and impalements, some of them perpetrated by an 11-year-old girl with a metal skeleton; everything Zack Snyder's Watchmen could have been, had it not been directed by Zack Snyder.
But for director James Mangold (who made 2005's Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and 2013's The Wolverine) Logan – which fits loosely, at best, into the prior X-Men canon – is also an argument for breaking free of superhero cinematic universes altogether. As he sees it, the insistence on making movie after movie fit together as puzzle pieces serves more financial purposes than artistic ones. "I feel like the public and the fans have been a little bit brainwashed," he says, "by what is essentially a fairly corporate agenda to sell toys, t-shirts video games, and Happy Meals."
Was your goal to elevate the superhero genre with this film?
I mean, I wasn't thinking about any global ambitions. My ambitions were extremely local in the sense of just satisfying myself with a film. Hugh [Jackman] had been hearing for a long time this slight disenchantment with what had come before, the idea that while a lot of fans love those films they just wanted something more. I just can't deal with some of the tropes of comic book movies in general. I just made a movie like my other movies. Instead of adapting myself to the aesthetics and tropes of the genre, I said, "What if in this one we just take Logan and drop him into what would be another movie of mine and ..."
Like, make a real movie?
[Laughs] Yes, actually, like that. Because, what's this pressure to make a movie that can be cut into all the other movies and that makes a nine-hour, never-ending universe movie? What is that desire based upon? The reality is that I don't think fans get served. I don't think they ever were served this way in the comic book universe that these characters originated from.
If you pick up a Superman comic ... the [character] in the original Joe Shuster [and Jerry Siegel] comic book has been completely redesigned and retooled and reinvented multiple times. The same with Batman, the X-Men, Wolverine, et al. So to me, the biggest thing would be actually respecting these stories the way we respect Shakespeare and say, "Let directors and writers come on and do what they will." I'd love to see Julian Schnabel direct one of these movies. I'd love to see all sorts of people come on and make their own version of one of these films.
How much resistance did you get from the studio on your ideas for this movie?
Honestly, most of my collaborators who've been with me on a lot of my movies – we turned to each other only a few weeks ago in the final mix and said, "I can't believe we got away with this." We kept expecting someone to go, "No." Particularly the meta-idea that [co-writer] Scott Frank and I came up with, where the X-Men comic books existed in the film. Which was justified in our mind by the way in Unforgiven, you know, Richard Harris is kind of writing about the legends. The relationship of superheroes and their own celebrity is really something that doesn't get explored that much, and if the hero is in twilight, there's a slight Sunset Boulevard reality to these characters. That seemed really exciting.
There's a moment when Logan dismisses the comic books, saying that most of it didn't really happen that way. You could take that as a possible statement about the previous X-Men movies – that maybe in your universe, they're a glossier take on a much uglier reality.
I was completely conscious of that when we wrote it. In a way, all these stories connect. But to say, at least from the perspective of this character where we find him ... he feels like those movies are are slightly aggrandized versions of their own past. But I hope you're never sure which it is we're saying – is it that Logan has gotten so disappointed in his life and in the direction that mankind has taken that he can no longer see the past realistically? Or is it that the past has been exaggerated?
When you said that you wanted to make this movie like it was any of your other films, does that mean that was less the case for your other Wolverine movie? Were you trying a little harder to fit into the tropes?
No, but I think there was a perception that making one of these [superhero] movies, there's certain things that you have to deliver. But then my own experience watching movies during that summer of 2013, when we came out ... I was suddenly experiencing the overkill. We came out, I think, in August, late in that summer, and I saw how one movie after another was participating in this arms race of destruction.
This idea that the world, or maybe the universe, has to be destroyed in the third act?
And not just the comic book movies – the Transformer films, all of it. This kind of massive, city-leveling spectacular. I found myself recently in another film with a similar third act, literally as I was getting bombarded with sound and light, falling asleep. Like someone wearing really loud headphones and your eyes rolling up in your head. Or maybe feeling a little like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange or something. But The Wolverine was very much the movie I set out to make, which was a fever dream of Hong Kong movies meeting Japanese films, along with a kind of Ozu period in the film's second act. But we did end up in a kind of more Marvel-esque third act.
Interestingly, I was more aware of it when I made [the 2007 Western] 3:10 to Yuma, that there are these gravitational pulls as a director that you have to be very wary of. Because when I made Yuma, one of the things I analyzed was why, other than Eastwood, do so many really gifted writers and directors fail at making Westerns in the current era? Why do they seem off in some way? And my own conclusion was that the filmmakers stopped being themselves. Something about the Western makes everyone start watching The Searchers over and over again, doing quote-y shots and kind of losing their own sense of voice. They're suddenly telling the movie in another voice, self-consciously, and I think that that's dangerous. I think that I could be guilty of that in The Wolverine, I don't know. But I was really aware with this opportunity that if I was going to do it, I didn't wanna make anything like that. It wasn't a repudiation of my last movie, but I wanted to make a movie that felt personal to me. And it was also the only way to do a proper goodbye to this character.
"What's this pressure to [do] a movie that can be cut into all the other movies and makes a nine-hour, never-ending universe movie? I don't think fans get served."
There's a lot of very relevant, Trump-era moments and ideas in this film – including the fact that the plot involves trying to get a young girl born in Mexico through the U.S. and into the safety of Canada. How did all of that come about?
Well, it was just simply thinking of the United States itself as a hostile territory and our heroes as refugees. The very first thing that I pitched to Fox, as I've said, was a riff on Little Miss Sunshine and that requires a destination. What's built into a road movie is a place you're trying to get to and a place you're trying to go from. When I first started the movie, kind of on a napkin, I imagined that they were living in Kentucky in a bourbon mill; Charles Xavier was having some kind of dementia or Alzheimer's experience and was very dangerous, so Logan was keeping him separate somewhere.
Then, as we were working on how these [mutant] children were being developed, the idea that it could happen south of the border seemed really realistic to how nasty things like that happen in our world. And the idea of Laura being Hispanic was really interesting for both the obvious reasons – again, of reflecting our world and the sense of otherness that we apply to people – but also because I was very conscious that I didn't want to get into this kind of cloy father-daughter cutesy banter between Logan and Laura [played by Daphne Keen].
So instead, you mostly avoided dialogue between them altogether?
Yes, well, it's also much more cinematic that way. Any way I can make dialogue irrelevant, I struggle to do it. Because my own theory is that in Hollywood movies there's way too much emphasis on the center column. It's almost to the point where you can have a meeting, and you have two characters that are in love – and you can have an executive say to you, "How do you know they're in love? Neither of them ever says 'I love you.'" You find yourself making this argument where you're going, "People say 'I love you' all the time and don't. Words lie. It's the way they look at each other that tells you. In fact, you could write dialogue where they say, 'I hate you,' and the other one says, 'I hate you,' but the way they're playing the scene is love." That's cinema, to me.
That's actually a scene in The Lego Batman Movie!
Well, then, they've perfectly illustrated the point.
Patrick Stewart's performance feels strong enough to merit awards consideration.
It's a beautiful performance. I think all three of the leads in this film did some of the best work of their careers – well, obviously Daphne, it's the only work of her career. But in Hugh's case too. And Patrick is amazing in it. He was brave enough to really let me take him someplace fragile. And I think that's never easy for an actor in the sense of there's a myriad of fears that if you play old or weak you're going to lock yourself suddenly out of other things. I think that the performance in this movie is so fearless, so completely about delivering for the film itself.
After Walk the Line, do you have any thoughts of doing another music-based movie?
I'd love to. I'd love to.
Anything particular in mind?
Well, I can't tell you because there's been a couple of instances where I've actually approached artists. The trick is always, are they ready for that kind of treatment? And do you have something original to say? It's not good enough that they wrote great music or changed music history. You actually absolutely have to have a story. And there's many places where there's these stories that are fabulous, but will they ever let you make them into a movie? I don't know.
I'm a lifetime Springsteen fan, and I've always been fascinated with that moment after Born To Run when he couldn't record. You're always looking for moments like that. Then there's the whole idea in terms of Fleetwood Mac, these people who are all getting lost in interpersonal connections with each other. But the search is for this kind of unique moment that says something about the creative act or of being on tour, or of generating art.
"Getting an R-rating doesn't just free you for more blood. It also frees you to make a more interesting movie."
As in the way you zeroed in on Johnny and June Cash in Walk the Line.
What was so clear to me was that they fell in love onstage, and they were married to other people. So the only time they could be together was in front of ten thousand people. Now you have a really interesting cinematic metaphor to explore, where I have to create this intimate environment on a stage where you're being watched but you're also, in a way, alone and close. And the music is pulling you into this almost kind of rapturous kind of intimacy with the person you love, even though in that blackness beyond the flare of the spotlight are thousands of people and that the second the curtain comes down, you have to go away from each other.
After the parody of Walk Hard, does the idea of the conventional music biopic need to be ...
Rethought? I don't know. I think that you could say the same thing about the Western and Blazing Saddles. .I think it's really important that filmmakers never lose sight of the fact that the only reason satire's powerful is that the form they're making fun of is powerful. What always killed me about Walk Hard is that they made it for twice as much money as we made Walk The Line – and for the studio that passed on Walk The Line! "Wow, that's interesting. You guys wouldn't spend $24 million making the Johnny Cash story but you'll spend $50 million making fun of it two years later?" I could never quite figure it out.
That said, the makers of Walk Hard agonized over the fact that it didn't actually do well. It's more of a cult movie.
I thought it was really funny.
Finally, the R-rating of Logan gave you a lot of freedom with violence, but was there ever a point where you pulled back and said, "Maybe we can do without this or that impalement?"
There's a reasonable argument to be made that making a PG-13 or PG film in which hundreds of people get killed but with less blood is actually undermining of our own sense of violence and its costs more than what we're doing. The fact that you're seeing what knives do, you're seeing what death looks like, is more humanist than kind of just having people blithely fall off buildings and get mowed down with rapid-fire machine guns. I mean, it's a very interesting point that the MPAA basically views guns as much more palatable than knives.
You've also said the R-rating gave you more freedom in other ways.
Getting an R rating doesn't just free you for blue language and more blood. It also frees you to make a more interesting movie. And the reason is that there's a marketing machine in every one of these studios that is extremely powerful. That machine plans on how to squeeze every drop of milk out of the film. And if the film is a four-box film – that is, children, boys and girls, grownups, men and women – then there are avenues that then become exploitable in all directions.
The second the movie is R, those two boxes for children disappear. They're off the table. That means you lose pressure about scene length. You lose the worry of, can you talk about that in front of children? Can the scene go on longer than 28 seconds? The demand for the cute character or or the stuffed creature that will become an action figure. And when that pressure is gone, the movie suddenly never gets another note aimed basically at making sure the plot is decipherable for a nine-year-old child. And that's a big freedom.