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Make the Case: The ‘Logan’ Screenplay’s Oscar Nomination Is a Step Toward Superhero Prestige

It probably won’t win the award, but the genre-bending realism of the script proves that comic book films can be taken seriously

A photo illustration of Hugh Jackman in ‘Logan’ 20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

As we approach the Academy Awards on March 4, conventional wisdom and conversation will most likely focus on Oscar front-runners like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. So in our recurring column Make the Case, The Ringer will focus on the less heralded—but possibly more deserving—Oscar nominees.

“Now might be a good time to talk about ‘fights’ described in the next 100 or so pages,” reads the script for James Mangold’s Logan. “Basically, if you’re on the make for a hyper choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon, this ain’t your movie.”

Two pages in and Mangold and his cowriters, Scott Frank and Michael Green, are already laying down the law.

“In this flick,” they write, “people will get hurt or killed when shit falls on them. They will get just as hurt or just as killed if they get hit with something big and heavy like, say, a car. Should anyone in our story have the misfortune to fall off a roof or out a window, they won’t bounce. They will die.” It reads like a mission statement—because it is.

Maybe it’s strange that 17 years into the X-Men movie franchise, an X-Men script should feel the need to announce early on that it’s not that kind of girl, so to speak—not the fast, furious “CG fuckathon” we’ve by now come to expect from superhero movies. But just short of two decades deep into the X-Men cinematic universe we, the people, are a little tired—much like our boy Logan, who is, per the script, “older now.” He’s a drunkard being poisoned from the inside by the factory-made adamantium plating that was forcibly fused to his bones in his days as a lab rat. He’s grizzled, grumpy, and more or less in the mood to die. He’s also a little normie: a limo driver in the year 2029, when most mutants have supposedly been eradicated thanks, in part, to an event alluded to only briefly as the “Westchester incident.” He’s saving up money to secure a life for himself and his ward, the aging Charles Xavier, who has lately been prone to horrifying seizures that make everyone in the vicinity, including Xavier, seize with pain. Their goal is a life at sea: free of other people and, relatedly, free of herodom.

It’s odd to think of the fiercest X-Man of them all, the guy with the skull-piercing claws and instinctive anger of a wild animal, working the gig economy to save up for the future like an everyday American. It’s relatable in precisely the way that superheroes, some of whom are mega-rich, typically aren’t. And that’s the point. Over the course of Logan, the titular character—who no longer seems to go by Wolverine—will be wrung through a familiar cycle of violence and heroics, injury and self-repair, only this time, without the promise of survival that marked his youth. Logan was once unstoppable; now, he’s falling apart, and anything that happens between the present and death is merely delaying the inevitable. “So by all means,” the script says, “go ahead and worry about him.” It’s that tone that stands out in Logan’s script, the deft combination of seriousness with a hint of a wink. It’s a play on the genre’s satisfyingly cavalier love of comic book violence that instead asks us to remember that violence is violent. This is, you sense, a call for a deliberately post-Snyder kind of superhero filmmaking. No cities will be felled here, the script tells us. Only the heroes trying to save them.

It was a little bit of a surprise to wake up on January 23 to the news that Logan’s script was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. (The script is loosely based on Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Old Man Logan arc of the Wolverine comics, which Vulture calls “the most influential single X-Men story in a generation.”) Even Mangold was taken aback. “I didn’t really imagine we were going to get a nomination, given several things,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “One was that we premiered a year ago. And then you add to that the mix that we are a comic book adaptation, and it dawns on you what a thrill it is to get nominated and to be among the incredible nominees.” This is Logan’s sole nomination and, given the competition, it seems safe to say that the nomination is the award. The other nominees are Call Me by Your Name, a Best Picture contender written by Hollywood luminary James Ivory; Dee Rees and Virgil Williams’s literary, astute Mudbound, which marks the first time a black woman has ever been nominated in this category; Aaron Sorkin’s 10-quips-per-minute poker drama Molly’s Game; and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber’s The Disaster Artist.

Logan won’t win: It’s just happy to be here. But maybe we should’ve had more confidence in it being nominated to begin with. It’s not so much that Logan has been sweeping up the major awards this season, though the script being nominated for the Writers Guild Award in the same category last month was probably a tell. The real reason to temper your surprise is that Logan was always self-evidently a superhero movie trying to shift the weight from “superhero” toward “movie.” It’s a Western, for one, with a central hero who’s working toward his own private frontier. He’s a man who’s out of the game and would prefer to stay that way, not unlike the wary ex-crook Will Munny of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, only in place of Munny’s dead wife, Logan has dead friends. It’s a movie you could likely summarize to someone who hates superhero movies without even having to reveal the fact it’s a superhero movie. You could tell them, instead, about the young girl Laura, who was born from a test tube in Mexico and has lived her entire life to date in a lab. (Maybe just leave out the part about her adamantium claws.) You could tell them about the movie’s incorporation of whistleblowing, border crossing, and other recent bits of real-life context, drawn from national headlines, that make Logan seem immediately relevant.

It’s no wonder Logan is the first live-action superhero movie to be nominated for writing: It self-consciously, as early as Page 2 in the script, announces itself as “for adults,” all the while trafficking in tropes familiar to both superhero movie fans and fans of the older genres, such as Westerns, that superhero movies have increasingly started to resemble. It is familiarly classical, which translates across multiple generations of audiences (to say nothing of Oscar voters). And perhaps most importantly, it’s structured to end not with the whiz-bang CGI theatrics we usually expect to see in the third act of these movies, but with something richer. The arc of Logan isn’t action; it’s emotion. By that standard, even the path-breaking Wonder Woman, which revises the superhero cinematic mythos in laudable ways, is conventional: It still concludes with a fiery tumult designed to knock TVs off their stands. “There’s only one clear explanation for Wonder Woman’s snubbing,” opined Screen Rant after Oscar nominations were announced. “It’s a comic book film.” Logan, meanwhile, can be sold as an action movie of the sort that seems to have gone out of fashion: an exceptionally violent film for people who need the stakes of their movie violence to seem immediate and morally real.

The likes of Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody, and before them Billy Wilder, Paddy Chayefsky and many others—screenwriting auteurs—get nominated on the basis of the actual writing, whether for adaptations or original works. We love them for the fiery crackle and wit of their dialogue, most especially, even as their approach to structure, character, and ideas matters as much, if not more. Logan isn’t auteurist screenwriting; it’s just good screenwriting, strengthened with good ideas. It’s the concept that appeals, more so than what’s said or done. That concept is summarized early on, in those descriptions of how violent the movie should be, how real it should feel, and how anti-mythic it should seem, even as the idea of an aging, crumbling, but still badass Logan is itself an irresistible bit of myth. Let’s not forget that the Academy rewarded Birdman, a movie that playfully thumbed its nose at the Superhero Industrial Complex and the Hollywood egos it burns for fuel, with Best Picture. Revisionist attitudes toward the genre are welcome.

It should be said that the actual mechanics of Logan’s script are solid in their own right. Mangold, Frank, and Green gave the script more than its share of effective lines, such as when a heartless Transigen scientist, speaking of the lab-grown kids like Laura, says, “Do not think of them as children: Think of them as things.” And what goes unsaid is equally powerful. No one outright explains the “Westchester incident,” but the script folds that event so thoroughly into Logan and Xavier’s characters, and into their attitudes toward the future, that no one really needs to. The bickering of these two men, played by Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, is another highlight. It’s refreshingly sharp, very much the wigs-off attitude of two people who love but spend way too much time with each other. Their interplay is enjoyable for having less to do with plot advancement than with giving us a sense of who these men are. But isn’t that what every script ought to do? It’s refreshing, but likely because so many of the genre’s scripts feel deficient.

Logan makes you wonder if we’ll someday get a superhero noir, or even a genuine superhero comedy; already, with the upcoming The New Mutants, we’re anticipating our first superhero horror movie. Is this what it takes for avenues of prestige like the Academy Awards to take movies like Logan seriously? It’s funny to remember that not so long ago, the Academy was bending over backward to change its rules to bring more movies like Logan into the fold. We get up to 10 Best Picture nominees now, with the obvious but unstated goal of never again excluding popular, well-made hits like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. So far, it hasn’t paid off: Those extra slots keep getting snatched up by Blumhouse and A24.

So, Adapted Screenplay it is. This is a nomination that feels like an acknowledgment for the genre as a whole. The Academy has fallen just short of pinching superhero movies’ cheeks and exclaiming they’re all grown up—but in this case, they are. Logan didn’t innovate superhero prestige. But it’s a positive reminder of how far the genre has yet to go.