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What makes an X-cellent movie?

What makes an X-cellent movie?

With so many heroes flying around, how do you make a movie that stands out from the crowd? Virgin TV Edit investigates…

Hugh Jackman’s last outing as Wolverine claws its way onto Sky Cinema this January. With many calling it the finest X-Men film to date, film critic Dan Jolin takes a deep dive into why it X-cels…

Logan. Available on Sky Cinema from 5 January. Cert 15. Also available in HD

Logan, directed by the Oscar-winning James Mangold (Girl, Interrupted and Walk The Line), is a rare comic-book superhero movie in that it actually features the comic books it’s based on. In one scene, Hugh Jackman’s aged, world-weary mutant holds up an old X-Men comic which purportedly adapts his own adventures… And promptly dismisses it as utter rubbish. “Maybe a quarter of it happened,” he growls, “and not like this. In the real world, people die […] This is ice-cream for bed-wetters.”

It’s an amusingly meta moment, also notable for the prevalence of swearwords (we left those out). Along with all the movie’s graphic violence, it places the tenth X-Men universe movie very far from the "it’s for kids!" territory where comic-book superheroes were once supposed to reside. But it’s more notable for its sheer, irreverent dismissiveness. Mangold wasn’t reading comic-books as inspiration — not even Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan, on which this brutal, 2029-set elegy is based. No, he was watching Westerns like The Cowboys, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven and, most significantly, 1953’s Shane.


This is why Logan has, rightly, been proclaimed as one of the best comic-book superhero movies yet made. Because it’s not really a superhero movie. There’s not a single cape-draped poser (to use a less cussy insult than Logan’s own) in sight. It’s a Western… only set in the year 2029, with a conflicted anti-hero who pops claws rather than slings guns. In it, Logan is a shadow of his former self, spending his days boozing, driving obnoxious characters around in limos and caring for an ailing Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart). When he encounters a young mutant girl and is forced on a rescue mission to the Canadian border, he’s drawn right back into the action.

“There's not a single cape-draped poser in sight”

Hugh Jackman’s last ride as Wolverine isn’t alone in its praiseworthy distinction. When Christopher Nolan made his second Batman movie, 2008’s The Dark Knight, he didn’t see himself as making a "superhero" adventure at all. He saw it as a full-on crime thriller. "I’m hoping it’s the sort of film that Michael Mann always did very well, like Heat," he told Empire magazine before its release, "but with the occasional psychotic clown running through it."

The Dark Knight

When film-making brothers Joe and Anthony Russo — previously best known for Owen Wilson comedy You, Me And Dupree — took on the second Captain America movie (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in 2014, they made it "a grounded, espionage, paranoid thriller" in the same vein as 70s thrillers like Three Days Of The Condor and The Parallax View.


More recently, the likes of Deadpool and Thor: Ragnarok were conceived and executed as full-on action comedies, the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies recall 80s sci-fi, while Spider-Man: Homecoming was rooted in high-school teen movies, particularly those of John Hughes in the 80s (right down to a sequence that directly mirrors 86’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). 

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol2

All these films were huge box-office hits (The Dark Knight took an astonishing $1 billion), and positively reviewed by critics. The secret to a great comic-book movie seems to be: don’t be a comic-book movie. Although Kevin Feige, the boss of Marvel Studios — behind all the Avengers films, from Iron Man to Black Panther — doesn’t see it as a "genre" at all. "You wouldn't say 'a novel genre'," he told Postmedia earlier this year. "You’d go, 'well what novel is it?' I don’t think people realise that within these comics there were different genres and different tones. All we wanted to do was showcase that in the different films."

“I'm hoping it's like Heat, but with the occasional psychotic clown”

He makes a good point. After all, you wouldn’t describe The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and 1962's To Kill A Mockingbird as being the same genre because they’re both based on books. Of course, that’s an extreme example and comic-book adaptations do share many elements — costumes, action, super-powers, villains — just as their source material does. So much so that Marvel (and now, less effectively, its biggest competitor DC) has connected all its films together into one, big cinematic universe that’s going to hit critical mass this summer with the cosmically epic Avengers: Infinity War (directed by those resourceful Russo brothers). 


But that’s all surface detail. It’s what you find deeper down in any movie that makes it click with people and truly resonate. The quality of the writing, for example, or the appeal and veracity of the characters. And an appropriateness of tone and style which, in the case of superhero stories, treat those characters as something more than a colourful cozzie and cool name.


It’s all about playing up to their real strengths: namely, their real identities. Spider-Man is a super-powered crime-fighter, but Peter Parker’s a high-school kid. Captain America’s a super-soldier, but Steve Rogers is a man out of his time, stuck in a modern world rendered morally murky in multiple shades of grey. And while Wolverine is an X-Man, costumed hero of comic books, Logan is an aging killer, waiting for his crimes to catch up with him — like a gunslinger of the Old West.  


Logan. Available on Sky Cinema from 5 January. Cert 15. Also available in HD

You can also find Logan, The Dark Knight, Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 and more on Sky Cinema Heroes/HD (CH 434/404) and on demand from 8 January until 4 February

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