Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.
IP has taken the place of actual movie stars. Instead of the subtle charisma of a Paul Newman, we have the cheap frisson of yet another rebooted Spiderman. We’ve replaced the creative innovation and the brilliant range of Gene Hackman (Popeye Doyle to Little Bill Daggett and then, finally, Royal Tenenbaum) with clumsy marriages between comic book IP’s and other genres: The Space Opera (Guardians of The Galaxy), Retrograde Orientalism disguised as New Age enlightenment (Dr. Strange), Old School Westerns (Logan), Greek And Norse Myths (The Avengers).
At the core of all of these unwieldy mashups is something that almost always mitigates against growth and evolution—characters that are carved in stone. They are so freighted down by their own backstories—curated and guarded by fervent gatekeepers that balk at anything even mildly transgressive regarding their hallowed IP’s—that the best anyone can hope for is dressed up reiterations of the same kind of stories. And as long as these gatekeepers hold any kind of sway, all we will get is their specific versions of these iconic characters reflected back at us. That is a recipe for creative stagnation.
Make no mistake though, Logan is a fine example of a thoughtful rebranding. It is a meticulously executed, often thrilling example of an innovative marketing scheme overlaid onto an already existing property. Within those parameters, it is entirely successful.
Unfortunately it is, at its heart, an empty exercise.
So much of what hamstrings Logan is the entirely wrong headed idea that fan service is something that should carry any weight at all in the creative process. Instead of adding richness and depth, these character’s slavishly adhered to histories that box them in. Any time they even begin to break into new territory they are immediately pulled back to the safe and familiar.
In Logan’s case, a veneer of R-rated violence and some foul mouthed dialogue from Professor X is a promising departure from the watered down, and often absurdly bloodless, incarnations of the IP. After all, Wolverine is a nigh indestructible mutant, with razor sharp, retractable claws and a skeleton made of unbreakable metal. One love tap would collapse a normal humans orbital bone. And in Logan, the logic of that plays out in some startling visuals. But there is never a moment that the characters break from previous depictions in any real way. And the story itself, once stripped of its blood-spattered window dressing, is utterly same-y. In fact it is very much an extended cut of a scene in X2 where Logan (Wolverine) tries desperately to save some mutant schoolkids from the deprivations of nameless government drones.
Logan, despite some hyperbole drenched reviews I’ve read touting it as a best picture contender, is nothing more or less than what Mark Cousins refers to as a bauble. Although a particularly finely wrought bauble. It’s great entertainment, and well worth the money you pay. The performances are uniformly committed and often surprisingly nuanced, especially Stephen Merchant as Caliban—and it’s also a pretty film, and tightly plotted, with few of the usual drop offs in tension that these films often suffer from.
What Logan isn’t, in any real way, is fundamentally different that what’s come before. It’s simply a well constructed example of branding as product. And that means that it will always play out in ways that are utterly transparent and obvious. Even when central characters die there is no real permanence to their ending, because you know that as long as the IP remains fiscally viable another incarnation or reboot is right around the corner. That strips any real emotional depth from the situations these characters face, and dooms them to a kind of mediocrity that seems inescapable.
I like Wolverine as a character, partly because he is one of the few in this milieu that even hints at what the real world consequences would be if a human being was gifted with these kinds of deadly advantages. But unless films like Logan can break free of the requirements that being linked to a marketing scheme and maintenance of the IP as a brand entail, rather than developing an evolving, complex character, they will always be a mile wide and an inch deep, no matter how good they look.
And to me, at least, that is a missed opportunity.