The buoyant launch of Logan has been greeted with a sigh of relief in mainstream Hollywood. The superhero season has begun, the big bucks are flowing again, and the costly confusions of Oscar time are behind us.
But here’s the rub: The superhero factories are sending forth confused signals of their own. The business model that has sustained Hollywood for a generation now confronts some serious questions as the market faces saturation.
Can the comic book genre satisfy the new demand for more violent, R-rated fare — F-bombs flying and blood spurting — without losing its teen and family demo? Logan represents what the ratings board calls a “hard R”; its violence is fervid. And the Marvel mantra is pervasive. Grittier characters from Marvel are even supplanting the milk-and-cookie diversions at Disneyland. Iron Man already is wreaking havoc at Hong Kong Disneyland (but not of R-rated quality). Can mutants be far behind?
Of course, the audience wants laughs as well as gore, but can witty guys like Chris McKay (The Lego Batman Movie) or Adam McKay (Ant-Man) produce the required hard-edge mayhem delivered by Zack Snyder (Batman v Superman)? The Marvel mavens are searching hard for new ideas: They’ve even tapped Ta-Nehisi Coates, a serious black writer who won a MacArthur Genius Grant, to create a Black Panther superhero series (Coates insists he was a comic book fan as a kid).
The fervent box office response last year to Deadpool ($783 million) reflects a demand for wit as well as grit. Yet new poll numbers released by Fandango indicate that 71% of superhero fans prefer R-rated films and 86% want their action to be more violent. The hilarious and nasty trailer for Deadpool II, attached at the front of Logan, promises appropriate nihilistic chaos to come.
But can Hollywood afford to change its superhero scenario too radically? The Disney machine now owns half of Hollywood’s gross revenues mainly through its allegiance to Captain America and Rogue One. Time Warner’s DC fare might seem plodding by comparison, but Suicide Squad still racked up $746 million worldwide and Batman v Superman grossed $873 million. To be sure, Warner Bros. now has named a new production chief in Toby Emmerich who has assigned his DC assembly line to new management. By contrast, those major studios starved for superheroes have been nurturing tamer species – Universal with The Secret Lives of Pets and A Dog’s Purpose, Sony with Angry Birds and Viacom with Ninja Turtles (Teenage Mutant-type).
As an outlier, I find it confusing to track the fast-changing schemes and inter-connections of the superhero business. Will Robert Downey Jr find his next millions as Tony Stark or in yet another Avengers spinoff? Or, for that matter, will the Avengers discover their next massive revenue stream from Netflix or Amazon Prime or Starz? Their sheer ubiquity is impressive. Further, can the market assimilate a continued invasion of new characters: Is Ghost Rider really a ghost and what new insects will Ant-Man relate to?
Logan is itself a cauldron of conflict – “a major stylistic shift,” Manohla Dargis calls it in her New York Times review. The $100 million movie tallied $85.3 million in the U.S. in its opening weekend.The F-bombs start detonating over opening credits and the level of bloodletting is extreme, much of it perpetrated by a feral little girl (albeit a mutant). In one scene, a bruised and limping Hugh Jackman (this is his 10th turn at Wolverine) advises the girl not to believe anything she reads in comic books, which seems like apt advice. She ultimately buries him — an appropriate response. I paid to see Logan before a regular audience that included (despite its rating) an abundance of young children, who were neither mutant nor feral but, after seeing films of this genre, might be well on their way.