By now, we’ve all had a chance to see Logan, and it’s safe to say that for most fans and critics, the film serves as a great send-off for Hugh Jackman as he hangs up his claws after over decade and a half in the role.
There are several reasons for Logan’s success – including its smaller, more relatable scale and tighter focus on a small cast of characters – but without doubt a key reason why this Wolverine swansong soars is because it stands largely apart from the wider X-Men franchise.
Sure, it has links to earlier films in the series, but it also tends to gloss over (or even flat-out ignore) any aspects of the established canon that don’t fit with the story director James Mangold wants to tell, and in doing so, it reminds us that when it comes to storytelling versus continuity, the former is always more important than the latter.
HOW LOGAN FITS WITHIN THE BIG SCREEN X-UNIVERSE
Of course, you CAN make Logan fit within the wider big screen X-Universe. As Mangold himself commented in a recent interview with Empire:
“We take place in 2029, and X-Men Apocalypse ends in 2024. There’s five blank years there that are wide open to seeing how things got from here to there.”
Even so, it’s pretty clear when watching Logan that it’s a film not overly fussed with acknowledging or driving forward the continuity of its shared movie universe at the expense of the story at hand – which, in this current era of hyper-interconnectivity is refreshing in it’s own right.
WHAT WE MEAN WHEN WE SAY “CONTINUITY”
Incidentally, that marks the second time I’ve made reference to “continuity”, and while most readers will have a pretty good idea of what I mean when I use the word, let me quickly clarify what it means in the context of this article.
Whilst there are different types of continuity – for example, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart reprising the roles of Wolverine and Professor X represents a form of continuity – what we’re talking about here is basically the idea of actions (and character developments) within a fictional world having consequences.
So for instance, if Wolverine had lost his left hand in The Wolverine, we would then expect him to be missing that same hand in Days of Future Past and Logan (as these films are set at a later point in time).
Taking things a step further, when we use the term “shared continuity”, this is the understanding that certain fictional characters inhabit the same fictional universe, and that they can not only appear in stories together, but that the outcomes of those stories for each character will have a lasting impact on future adventures starring said characters.
Most notably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – much like its comic book counterpart – is built around this concept. For example, at the end of Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers relinquishes the title and shield of Captain America, so in Avengers: Infinity War, we can expect that when we next meet Cap, he’ll be sans star-spangled togs and super-frisbee (sidenote: you can obviously expect this particular change to be reversed rather quickly…).
CONTINUITY CAN BE FANTASTIC
The overall intention in allowing such repercussions to occur is that it creates a sense of history surrounding our characters, and – in theory, at least – provides writers with the ability to tell interesting stories based off changes to the status quo.
It also provides vital cohesive tissue and (as much as a I hate to use the word) a sense of reality to the at times tonally disjointed stories told across different entries in a given franchise.
As such, when used well, continuity can be fantastic, and it’s impossible to argue against the idea that stories which use it well – whether it be comics, films or some other medium – achieve a far greater richness and depth of character than would be possible if they were entirely divorced from any wider canon.
So yeah, when continuity is done right, I’m believer; when it’s not, however…
CONTINUITY – A DIRTY WORD?
Yes, there’s a reason why for some fans of comics and comic book movies (including myself), continuity can often be considered the other “c-word”.
For starters, there’s the simple fact that while continuity adds a sense of history to characters, after a while, this constant influx of accepted backstory can start to bog characters down and constrict the type of plots and character developments storytellers are able to use.
Consider if Logan had strictly followed the established timeline of the X-Men film franchise – how would Mangold and writers Scott Frank and Michael Green have justified the abrupt transition from the bright, optimistic future presented at the end of Days of Future Past to the dystopian, Mad Max-lite scenario presented in their film?
Next, there’s the issue of a new creative team coming onboard the latest instalment in a series and being lumped with plot developments from previous entries in that series that they either don’t connect with or audiences hated (or both!). How do these creators tell a satisfying story without without getting called out for breaching the existing canon?
This has been a huge issue for comic book creators working at both DC and Marvel – its the rationale for the seemingly endless stream of comic book series designed to reboot the status quo (particularly at DC) – and incidentally, was a driving force behind Fox’s decision to adapt the “Days of Future Past” storyline for the big screen (as it allowed the studio to jettison most of the derided elements from X-Men: The Last Stand – and effectively ignore those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine – going forward).
Lastly, there’s the issue of working out “what counts”. As mentioned above, we’re now at a point where the continuity of comic book movies is becoming almost as muddled as that of their paper and ink source material, thanks to a series of reboots and retcons undertaken by DC Entertainment, Marvel Studios, Sony and Fox.
Given the context of this article, it’s fitting to note that the X-Men franchise has arguably the MOST messed-up continuity of all, and I’d go so far as to say that the series’ timeline is pretty much broken, thanks to the sheer number of incongruities that Days of Future Past either couldn’t fix or actually created itself (and don’t even get me started on X-Men: Apocalypse…).
So how to resolve this conflict? Should we keep the concept of continuity (warts and all) or abandon it entirely?
FINDING THE MIDDLE GROUND
As I’m so fond of always saying, “I think the answer to this problem lies somewhere in the middle.”
Continuity done well brings so much to the table that it seems a shame for filmmakers (or any creators, for that matter) to completely chuck it out.
On the other hand, as Logan reminds us, when it comes down to a situation where continuity is getting in the way of telling a great story, the story should always win out.
Fortunately, I can think of at least two solutions to this conflict (are we calling it a conflict?) that could ensure cracking yarns can be produced without completely sacrificing continuity either.
The first is for studios to embrace the alternate universe approach for some of their spin-offs.
Comics fans are already family with the concept of some stories being explicitly set outside of the accepted continuity – (hell, the source material Logan very loosely adapts, Old Man Logan, even falls into this category).
Given how quickly cinemagoers are catching on to the comic book mindset, it’s entirely possibly that they could quickly wrap their heads around the idea that some superhero flicks are going to be completely divorced from the shared continuity of their franchise, provided the main entries in the series still follow the canon.
It might take some clever writing to make it clear to audiences exactly WHICH films are in-continuity and which are outside it – if nothing else, it provides Marvel Studios a chance to introduce cosmic continuity pevert The Watcher to the MCU – but I honestly think this is the best way to move forward.
After all, fans of DC’s heroes have shown themselves able to easily distinguish between the big screen world of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and its unrelated small screen counterpart. In effect, isn’t this proof that the “alternate universes” approach already works, and could easily be applied to individuals entries in a film franchise?
That said, if this plan of attack won’t wash, my other suggestion is for studios and creators to adopt what can best be described as “vague continuity”.
At this point, some of you are probably groaning in remembrance of when this terminology was applied to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns – a film which served as a sequel to some (but not all) of the classic Superman films starring Christopher Reeve, and which also contradicted several developments in the films it was supposed to gel with, resulting in a bit of a confusing mess.
However, if a more disciplined approach is taken, this could really work well – after all, it’s the basis for much of the 007 franchise’s success and longevity.
Essentially, all it requires is for certain major events and character developments to remain established and unchanging touchstones within each successive entry in the series, with the specific details defined in an intentionally loose way.
Let’s use Superman as a guinea pig, in order to illustrate how this might work.
Any creator looking to make a movie about the Man of Steel would have to accept the following fundamental continuity elements – alien baby rocketed to Earth from his doomed home planet, raised by kindly farmers, becomes a superpowered champion for good and operates under the disguise of a news reporter – and from there, unless they contradict any of these immutable facts, they have pretty much free reign to tell their story however they like.
In this way, you’d be able to stop the endless cycle of reboots and continuity resets that currently plague cape and tights cinema – after all, if it all counts and nothing is expressly conflicting, what is their to reboot or reset?
And if the characters are recognisable, there’s still a sense of them having a history, and – most importantly of all – the adventures they take part in are fresh and exciting, isn’t everyone getting what they want?
Ultimately, shared universes and continuity are great fun – but they do have their downsides.
With the continuities of big screen comic book movies growing ever more convoluted, it’s tempting to consider throwing the whole concept out, but there are at least two approaches (that don’t involve rebooting) that could help to alleviate this problem.
Nevertheless, in the here and now, Logan reminds us that when you get down to it – whether you’re a comics fan, movie buff or both – what matter most of all are good stories.