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Legion and Logan mark a turning point for superhero cinema

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The superhero story — that isn’t

Logan (Hugh Jackman) leads Laura (Dafne Keen) by the hand. Ben Rothstein

Superheroes have conquered Hollywood in the seventeen years since X-Men, but there’s still a strain of performance anxiety running through the industry. Comic book movies and TV shows are always laying the groundwork for another sequel, dropping Easter eggs as if they’re afraid that the Marvel Universe will stop existing if it forgets to reference itself every twenty minutes.

That’s about to change with the release of Logan and the recent debut of Legion. The former is not a superhero movie as much as it’s a road movie that happens to star Wolverine, with imagery that owes more to Unforgiven than Iron Man. Similarly, Legion is a TV show about a mutant struggling with mental illness. The fact that David Haller is the son of X-Men patriarch Charles Xavier is only tangentially important.

Though it might seem insignificant, that’s a radical evolution for the superhero genre. There are shady organizations lurking at the fringes, but Logan and Legion focus more on individual characters than world-shaping conspiracies. The plots are self-contained. Any ties to the broader X-Men universe are subtle, so you don’t need to be familiar with the broader X-Men mythology in order to enjoy either as a standalone product.

It makes for a stark contrast with previous adaptations. The tie to a pre-existing franchise is the primary marketing bullet for a film like Logan, but Fox was willing to overlook those connections in the film itself. That indicates that Fox is comfortable assuming that audiences are familiar with the X-Men. The brand is so well established that connections no longer need to be explicit.

The takeaway is that films no longer need to set aside screen time to explain superheroes as a concept, which is promising for the future health of the format. As much as I love a good crossover, my favorite comic arcs are usually the one-off books or the limited runs that happen in between, because we get to see what superheroes get up to when they’re not saving the world. The characters become more relatable when we simply allow them to exist.

With Logan and Legion, those kinds of books are getting mainstream exposure. The time saved on expository world-building is instead devoted to complex character work that makes the heroes more human. Directors are free to experiment with other genres — from road movies to westerns to noir — and that drastically expands the storytelling possibilities for superhero films. A comic book can be about anything. The fact that a comic book adaptation no longer has to be a blockbuster is the surest indication that the medium has ‘arrived.’

Legion on FX
Frank Ockenfels/FX

Will that change Hollywood’s current output? Probably not. Movies like Logan have a chance to get made, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a lot of them will, and Marvel isn’t going to stop making Avengers sequels anytime soon. Spectacle is fun. Those tent poles help support the rest of the genre, and it’s enjoyable to watch attractive people get in fist fights with aliens, robots, and Norse gods. Superheroes ably meet that demand.

Logan and Legion merely allow quirkier things to happen in the periphery. If you’re trying to predict what will enter production, it’s probably best to look at the creative individuals backing a project rather than the perceived viability of any given property. Hugh Jackman has been playing Wolverine for nearly two decades and now that he’s aged out of the role, he’s earned the right to go out on his terms. Similarly, Legion showrunner Noah Hawley produces the award-winning Fargo for FX. It’s therefore no surprise that Legion looks (and plays) like prestige television. FX wanted to work with Noah Hawley and it wanted take advantage of the X-Men license. With Legion, they found a project that does both.

That’s the likely path for fringe characters like David Haller. No one was clamoring for a Legion spinoff, but the character jumped to the top of the list when the right showrunner expressed interest. We’ve already seen that dynamic on the big screen. That’s more or less what happened with Deadpool, which Ryan Reynolds quietly championed for years.

Of course, Deadpool was much more up front with its references, while the movie itself adheres to the standard action formula. Logan and Legion are noteworthy because they prove that spectacle is no longer a prerequisite for the superhero genre. That should give studios a little more confidence because they know that audiences will allow them to take creative risks as long as the movies remain entertaining.

In that regard, it will be fascinating to see what Marvel does in the next few years. Though the studio has displayed a willingness to greenlight unknown properties like Guardians of the Galaxy, even its more offbeat ideas still bend towards the house style. Marvel has jettisoned directors (Edgar Wright) and recast actors (Edward Norton, Terrence Howard) that were unwilling to conform.

However, the question isn’t whether or not Marvel would forego the Easter eggs, but whether or not Marvel could. At this point, I don’t think there would be any adverse effects if Marvel wanted to retcon Steve Rogers’ past into a harrowing WWII movie along the lines of Saving Private Ryan. That movie might not be a huge hit (and might be a terrible idea), but neither would it diminish Captain America’s role in the next Avengers.

Avengers: Infinity War concept art
Disney/Marvel Entertainment

It’s also worth noting that Marvel producer Keven Feige recognizes that different characters require a different touch, and the studio has started to explore new territory in its ongoing quest to become ubiquitous. Doctor Strange has a different tone than The Winter Soldier, while Luke Cage and Jessica Jones are much darker and work quite well as character pieces and standalone TV shows. Marvel has historically tried to find creative partners suited to the unique demands of each project. That’s why I suspect that Marvel would be willing to get on board if the right opportunity came along. It just takes time to build up the kind of clout that allowed Jackman and Hawley to make Logan and Legion, respectively.

For now, I’d guess that Marvel’s current strategy is more commercial than creative, and there’s no incentive to change course when that strategy has been so successful. Netflix will never let you forget that Iron Fist is building to The Defenders because it makes too much fiscal sense to remind everyone that a Marvel property is indeed a Marvel property.

The Runaways may be the litmus test for that kind of thinking. The upcoming show will air on Hulu rather than Netflix, so the references probably won’t be quite as aggressive. If that show does well, Marvel might be more willing to seed other networks with tiny pieces of its massive portfolio even if those networks don’t want to promote shows that appear elsewhere.

Until then, Marvel will keep making safe bets while plucking the biggest names from its roster. Logan and Legion are exciting alternatives because they hint at possibilities. Smaller projects are much more viable. That will only increase the breadth of quality content available to fans. Superhero movies no longer have to be all things to all people, and that means that film and television can finally reflect the storytelling variety that exists in superhero comics.