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'Logan' Director James Mangold Told Us the Problem with Comic-Book Movies

We talked to the veteran filmmaker about political allegories, the fascism of superhero movies, and his astounding new Wolverine film.

by Larry Fitzmaurice
Mar 3 2017, 9:43pm

It's a statement that already reeks of cliché, but fuck it: Logan really isn't your typical Marvel film. James Mangold's blood-soaked, surprisingly tear-jerking standalone X-Men film sends off Hugh Jackman's iconic performance as Wolverine with gory aplomb. It's a dead-serious film about family and personal closure that finds its fun in decapitations, dismemberments, and just about every other way that adamantium claws could tear through human flesh. During the film's 137-minute running time, there's enough throat rips to give even MacGruber pause.

It's not all genre-subverting blood and guts, though. The temporal (and, at times, literal) isolation of Logan might stand apart from the increasingly episodic structure of today's comic-book movies, but Mangold's road-trip actioner—which focuses on the titular Wolverine and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) as they attempt to help an 11-year-old mutant girl Laura (Dafne Keen) get to safe harbor—also takes cues from other time-honored film genres from Westerns to dystopian futuristic dramas. It's a movie that feels like a movie—a sensation that, in the recent comic-book film landscape, has become increasingly rare.

I spoke with James Mangold earlier this week about the trouble with comic-book films, Logan's timely political allusions, and capturing the film's frantic sense of action on the screen.

VICE: Logan is a Marvel property, but unlike other recent Marvel films, it works really well as a standalone film.
James Mangold: I question the wisdom of [the Marvel cinematic universe] in general. One thing everyone's concerned about is the creativity and quality of these kinds of movies—and if that's the case, then it seems to me that the first order of business would be figuring out why they're not more interesting or exciting. In many ways, that has a lot to do with freedom. Fans—and the internet sites that serve the fans—put a lot of stress on continuity, and the idea that you should be able to cut these movies into one continuous, nine-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz of comic book–dom. There's nothing innately wrong with that, I guess—but it's a counter-movie.

When you find yourself in the captain's chair on one of these movies, you feel a little like Houdini—you're in a restraint system, and you're trying to figure out how to get out. Having made one of these movies already, it occurred to me that the way to get out is to build a movie that functions for anyone, not just people who have seen the other movies. You have to let go of whatever you need to let go of to make the movie function, in the same way that every comic-book artist in the history of comic books has let go of what their predecessors did.

I think fans would be a lot happier with the movies if they looked at comic books the way we look at Shakespeare—where we invite directors to take [the material] wherever they want, and then we judge them by the results.

There's a scene in Logan where Professor X and Laura are watching Shane on a hotel TV. Obviously, there's a huge Western vibe to this film, and you've toyed around with the Western genre a lot throughout your career—from Cop Land to 3:10 to Yuma.
The Western is pure cinema. Whenever you're confused while making a movie, I think it's the best direction to go in—the North Star on your compass. I don't see the Western as exclusive to other types of films. People call Star Wars a sci-fi film, but I think it has more to do with Westerns than it does with science fiction. Why should 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars be in the same category? Westerns aren't just defined by guns and dust and horses—there's architecture, just like a building.

One pitfall for a lot of comic-book films that we tried to avoid has been the reliance of actors in a room, arguing in pseudo-disagreement over what's going on as a way of explaining what the next action set piece will be. When people complain that there's a lack of character development in these films, you have to ask, "Well, why are there so many characters in them?" It's simple math. You've got 120 minutes, you've got to devote some of that to action sequences—more than half, in a lot of these movies—so if you've got ten characters and 60 minutes left, they each get six minutes to exist in the entire picture. That's less time than Wile E. Coyote has in a "Roadrunner" cartoon. It's no surprise that the characters are so thin.

Logan is set in the near future, but you only get little glimpses of what some would call "futuristic" technology.
There was the practical side of it, and there was the aesthetic side of it. The practical side was that we were making an R-rated film, so Hugh and I had to settle for less money to make it with. At the same time, that was an easy concession to make for the freedom we had, so I wasn't about to be able to build a wildly new world. But there was the aesthetic side, too—I didn't want an effects-driven movie from beginning to end, where actors are in front of green screens. Also, I've been alive a while now, and the world doesn't change that much. The iPhone looks the same as it did ten years ago, and the automobile looks just slightly different. Everyone makes these predictions about what's going to happen in ten years—I don't know what it is about the world at this point, but I think we don't move quite as fast as people predict.

In film at large, the vision of the future seems a lot less grand than it did 20 or 30 years ago.
One of the movies that always comes to mind when I talk about this is Blade Runner. That vision of the future was not only grand and imaginative and bleak, but also hugely influential on designs that ended up happening in real life.

But that wasn't my goal [for Logan]. In every way, my goal was to be non-epic. When I first pitched this movie to FOX, I said I wanted to make a very bloody Little Miss Sunshine—the whole concept, to me, was to run as hard as I could counter to what was going on at the moment. The primary cinematic influence on almost all of the comic-book movies of the past couple years has been Triumph of the Will—an epic, dark, fascistic vision of the future that I enjoy watching as a kind of spectacle, but did not seem right for this movie. That always feels overwhelming and over-designed—like the movie's pushing itself forward as the star of the movie as opposed to letting the characters star.

There's a scene where a bunch of mutant children are running toward the US-Canada border—an image that feels very current, especially alongside how much of the film is set in Mexico.
[Screenwriter] Scott Frank and I finished the first draft of this movie during the height of the presidential campaign and Brexit, so all that stuff was in our heads. Westerns were never really about 1885 because that moment never really existed—these outlaws, varmints, good guys, settlers, and the locomotives and train robbers. It's a beautiful fever dream of the arrival of the Industrial Age versus the end of the previous era—the same way the samurai film is a beautiful cinematic fever dream of Japanese history. The most successful Westerns and samurai films are incredibly powerful allegories about the time and place that they're made, not the time and place they take place in.

In 3:10 to Yuma, [Christian Bale's character] lost a leg in the Civil War, even though he never volunteered—he was drafted from the Massachusetts National Guard. That movie was made at the height of the Middle East conflict. I've always tried to make movies about the world we're in. The early X-Men films reflected on issues of bigotry and otherness—racial, sexual, and even integrated historic moments of genocide. That's what made those films so interesting, and I didn't want to lose that.

You've had a very productive, varied career as a filmmaker. In last year's Brian DePalma documentary DePalma, he mentioned that he's never had too much time to focus on negative reviews because he was always moving on to his next project.
I love making movies. I'm most happy when I'm working on a film, and I'm most confused and lost when I'm not. What Brian said is a key to staying above the fray in terms of getting lost in criticism. There's nothing wrong with hearing criticism, but you do have to move on and keep creating, because sometimes the most beautiful things about movies also are not appreciated the moment they come out. The most awkward parts about films are sometimes the most innovative—and in time, they find a way of being embraced.

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