Thoughts On: Logan - Role Reversals


Logan - Role Reversals

Thoughts On: Logan (2017)

A withered Wolverine and Professor X are thrown into a violent maelstrom when they encounter a rare young mutant.

The last superhero movie I subjected myself to was Dr. Strange, a movie I had put off seeing after sitting through the likes of Suicide Squad and Captain America: Civil War. None of these movie were particularly awful - many claim Suicide Squad was, but I didn't hate it - however, since Dr. Strange, I haven't been all that interested in superhero movies. This is why I held off seeing Logan; despite being a departure from the average superhero movie it was nonetheless unenticing. But, having finally seen it, I find myself in the same old position. This was a pretty good movie, but nothing particularly spectacular. Its main downfalls are that it sets itself up to be more than mediocre through an implication of heavy drama that it simply fails to provide. In such, Logan makes a clear sacrifice of scale for both the graphic aesthetics and the tough subject matter, but doesn't utilise either of these elements in a satisfying manner.

In short, Logan lacks an emotional punch. I say this having seen all of the X-Men movies, a few of the cartoons, though never the comics, and so are quite familiar with the characters as well as the world. In being a conclusion to the tale of Wolverine (unless we get a reprisal of his character - which wouldn't be unexpected), Logan didn't have a sense of finality or catharsis. The reason why comes down to the fact that the drama doesn't evoke any emotional reaction and that the spectacle is far too muted to be exciting or engaging. This leaves Logan, as a character, without any major inner or physical conflicts to overcome within this plot; he doesn't have to fight off the biggest baddest guy and he doesn't have to confront the most crushing of his inner demons. As a blockbuster, this was then quite underwhelming. However, there are hints within this movie that this was possibly intentional.

There is an attempt throughout Logan to provide a subtextual story about change. As with all of the X-Men films, this theme of change is linked to the concept of being different, excluded, a minority or an outsider. With the realist approach to the narrative being supported by this motif throughout the X-Men universe, Logan having a muted sense of finality implies that this film isn't so much just a goodbye to an old character - and an older form of superhero movies - but also a welcome to something new. Whilst I appreciate this attempt to provide complex subtextual material, it is unfortunately underwhelming. And I suppose that's a word I could use to describe almost every aspect of this movie; it is simply unremarkable.

This is a problem we are seeing across many blockbusters that, like Logan, are attempting to welcome something new. This "something" is of course a reflection of a shift in culture, one that is reversing many stereotypical roles. Within Logan, this is quite stark with the clear implication that "Wolverine" will now be a small girl. We have already seen this in other movies such as Kick-Ass and it has always come off as quite the gimmick. The same rings true within Logan. Whilst the character of Lauren is somewhat impressive as she flies through the air and murders men two times her size, there is a strong sense of fraudulence; it just doesn't feel genuine.

The main signifier of this is, of course, the iconic roar of Wolverine that has been replaced with a shriek. This entirely ruins the action sequences, pushing the already absurd visuals too far. Emphasising this is the so-so direction and choreography of the action set-pieces - which are, yet again, underwhelming. Imbued into the character of Lauren is then an undeniable lack of verisimilitude that is a significant symptom of this mediocre movie.

It's at this point that you could argue that these movies, superhero movies, are a mere form of fantasy and so act as wish-fulfilment that needn't be realistic. This is not the means through which I mean to criticise this film. I entirely appreciate and support cinema as wish-fulfilment. However, I think this role reversal is a trope that drastically reduces the quality of such a concept when applied badly, and so needs to be analysed. To begin just this, when we look to Kick-Ass, we find an example of this role reversal trope that we see in Logan handled much better.

With a scene like this, there is a formal recognition that the concept of a small girl killing a bunch of guys in a room is ridiculous. This is exactly why this is a comedic film with sensibilities in the choreography and soundtrack to match. Logan doesn't recognise the absurdity of its imagery and instead leans on the logic of the narrative for support - that logic being that this little girl is a manufactured weapon.

However, we all know that the whims of the screenwriter supersede the logic of the narrative - after all, the screenwriter invents this logic. This is why there is an inextricable absurdity imbued into a scene where small children kill or beat adults. A good example of this absurdity would be found in the end of The Incredibles...

But, just like with the scene from Kick-Ass, there is a counter-balance put in place in this sequence, and that is comedy. The baby or the small girl suddenly revealing incredible powers is tantamount to a punch line, but, when treated as such, it often works. When such an approach is dismissed, as it is in Logan, the absurdity easily becomes inescapably overt. This contributes to a lack of verisimilitude, leaving a sequence that contains an absurd role reversal as disingenuous or simply silly.

This is an idea that some may reject on the grounds that it criticises a movement that tries to see movies be more inclusive and less stereotypical. However, I wouldn't suggest that such a movement needs to be stopped, just that, in the case of Logan, its agenda is applied pretty terribly. What's more, if this trend of role reversals is to transcend a status of a cliche or a comedic trope, it will probably need to alter its approach - especially assuming we're going to be seeing a lot more from Lauren in future X-Men movies. So, in such, a film like Logan needs to essentially do two things.

The first aspect of Logan that needs altering is the level of power given to Lauren, the little girl. Whilst she doesn't simply destroy everything in her path, she never faces true antagonism - meaning, she is thrown to the side every now and then, but is never put in a truly compromising position. The reason for this weak sense of conflict and pressure may come down to the mediocre writing and direction, but, it is also pretty blatant that a movie depicting a small girl being beaten up is not going to be very well accepted. What this then further suggests is the absurdity of this role reversal which is reaching a little too far; people don't necessarily want to see small children in brutal action films. There are two sides within us all, one that is compelled by violent imagery of varying degrees, and one that is compelled to compassion. No one really needs to be told that our affinity violence doesn't extend to small children - even if they are superheroes. This is why it was a bad decision to use such a young girl in Logan; we want a brutal action movie, one that isn't subdued by the presence of a child.

This paradigm also extends to women in action movies. Whilst it is generally acceptable to see women fighting women and even women beating up men in action movies, women getting destroyed by men isn't very palatable under most circumstances (within a comedy or a serious and dark drama, this may work). This is what holds us back from verisimilitude and dramatic poignancy in action movies of this class. The trope of a woman or a child beating a man many times their size is often nonsense that only cheapens a film - especially when there is no real fight put up. We can understand why when we look to movies such as Alien and The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

In both of these films, we see the impossible seem probable. Within Alien, we see humans defeat a superior life form. And within The Planet Of The Apes, we also see a superior life form, ourselves, overcome. This is an archetypal kind of story that teaches a lesson in verisimilitude. In short, movies of this kind all feature the underdog beating the big-dog in a way that is unique to them alone. In such, in Alien, humans use the intellect they have and the aliens lack to emerge victorious. The apes within The Plant Of The Apes use their physical strength, that which humans certainly do not have, alongside their new-found intellect to overthrow us.

This is a screenwriting paradigm that is used to manage conflict that is best represented in the context of Logan through a film like Mulan. As in Logan, we see a classic role reversal within this narrative. However, it is not reduced to simple comedy and it is never truly absurd because Mulan always perseveres to find unique solutions to her conflicts...

A good example of this would of course be the arrow moment in the "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" sequence. Whilst all the men assume they can use their brawn to climb the pole, Mulan recognises that there are other ways to overcome adversity that are better suited to her abilities. It's exactly this that Logan lacks. Whilst Lauren has her own style of fighting, one that is unique to her small frame, she never exhibits any other idea than that she is the "little girl wolverine". In such, I am not saying that female characters should be given less power and then made to figure out what to do. I am instead suggesting that they should be given equal antagonists so there is a strong sense of conflict that must then be overcome in a manner unique to that female character. This has us come all the way back to the main signifier that suggests Lauren, as a character, is a weak one: her awful shriek that badly imitates Wolverine's roar.

What this small detail says about the whole concept of role reversal is that it is predominantly about antitheticals colliding. For many action movies, this unfortunately boils down to the idea that women are men. This stems from the notion that women can do anything that men can do - which is largely true, but not entirely. There is a distinction between men and women that is quite precious though equally obvious. It's great that cinema and filmmakers challenge this with movies such as Kick-Ass, but, if such a notion is ever to be taken seriously (as in, it works outside of a comedy), the idea that women can do what men can needs a little more nuance. As in Mulan, it should be made clear that there is a divide between men and women that can be transcended, but only through paths unique to a character. We may hopefully see this in later X-Men films through Lauren not just having feet claws that aesthetically differentiate her from Wolverine; she will hopefully have distinguished character traits that have her stumble as she tries to jump hurdles that Logan did, yet also other traits that allow her to overcome hurdles that he couldn't. After all, what is the point of this role reversal if we are to dismantle the image of a girl or a woman and just replace it with a man? If women would like to see themselves represented in the cinema, why is this so often done by taking the essence of male characters and simply forcing them into the shell of a woman?

What is the ultimate paradox of role reversals in a film like Logan is then that they are executed in such a way that the role reversal is made null: the girl is depicted as just a man in a tiny female body. It's this lazy, cookie-cutter mediocrity that has always been apart of the modern blockbuster that is now masquerading as progressive politics to win new target audiences over. This is quite a clever trick that filmmakers and studios have been recently employing as it morally obligates certain audiences to see a movie whilst putting up a moral shield against all criticism. A good example of this would of course be the recent Ghostbusters movie. Many people who critiqued this movie were dismissed as sexist. And whilst I can't comment on the film as I wasn't bothered to watch it, this seems to be a clear trick puppeteered, knowingly or not, by studios trying to reach the largest audience and stir up a lot of attention.

Because no one wants to see these new kinds of movies that depict non-stereotypical figures reduced to a trope with strong ties to mediocrity, even bad quality, it makes sense that we recognise a prevalent flaw of films like Logan. Because of its badly managed role reversal, Logan dug itself into a hole whereby it couldn't deliver on the spectacle of brutal action, nor provide a true dramatic punch that we could take seriously. If movies like Logan are to transcend this paradigm, they need to better select and match their protagonists and antagonists, but also allow their role-reversed figures to develop into unique characters, not just remain their antithesis within a different shell.

So, it's from this point that I'll leave things to you. Do you think the role reversal in Logan worked? Do you think it could have if managed differently? What are your general thoughts on this topic?

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