In a 1974 essay, Vivian Sobchack grappled with American cinema's new stylized violence in which the blood is rendered an unrealistic if not surrealistic bright red on screen, and bodies dance in a ritual as they break apart. Vietnam had entered America's living rooms and cinema was catching up. Sobchack didn't condemn this violence, but she examined her own fascination with it, and her willingness to sit through a movie like Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah, 1971), while avoiding the eye-cut scene in Un Chien Andalou (Louis Bunel, 1929). Straw Dogs "involves the kind of violence that one fears now, today. Sickened, terrified, I had to watch the film. I had to learn and know what I fear and, however painful the experience was, for the moment I found a certain security in the fact that I had not backed away from instruction. In short, I was doing my homework -- trying to learn how to survive." This is her binary: the violence that is somehow more real than real and that allows us to name that which we know (Straw Dogs) and the violence that is simply bizarre and gory (Un Chien Andalou) that, as Sobchack writes, "is not going to instruct me; it is not going to reveal to me something that is terrible, but which I need to know."
Logan (James Mangold, 2017) is the saddest and most brutal superhero movie I have ever seen. Marvel's 1960s superhero comics had a clear relationship to the sub-par EC-imitation horror comics its small group of creators were producing in the 1950s, and Logan is the only Marvel movie other than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy (2002-2007) that touches on the horror genre. In Logan, some serious baddies get major comeuppances at the hands of mutants, suffering the kinds of deaths no one will experience in our world. Most of the deaths are not so odd; characters are sliced and diced with Logan's adamantium claws or other sharp objects. Watching the tearing apart of legs, heads, and genitalia, I felt the kind of exhiliration I felt with the final death-by-a-thousand-bullets scene in Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967). These deaths elevate the humans and somehow make the spectator believe his own mortal body has potential for something superhuman. "The movement of the human body toward non-being is underlined, emphasized, dramatized and we all become Olympic participants of olympian grace," Sobchack writes.
Logan is the first superhero movie to hit the difficult questions that I could take at all seriously, without one single monologue or high-school civics-lesson debate. I loved X-Men (Bryan Singer, 2000) and X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003) and I took comfort in their coming-out parables, but man, the second season of American Crime (2016) reminds you of those movies' limitations. Neither Tony Stark nor any of the other Avengers thoroughly examined their roles as tools of American imperialism. The scripts of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012) were a Harvard undergraduate's version of Nietzsche. The problems aren't just in the scripts. It doesn't feel like anyone dies in these movies. I didn't for one second believe in the Auschwitz prologue of X-Men. The death of innocent bystanders in an African city in Captain America: Civil War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2016) was bloodless and lame. The mayhem in The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (Nolan, 2012) is slick, with no sense of dramatic timing. You don't need any monologues to get your unduly complex political points across, you just need to remind the spectator of what is at stake in a genre in which everything relies on the beauties and the possibilities of the human body. The King-Lear-crazed Xavier's death at the hands of a Wolverine clone is just possible enough to take, just enough to sense the destruction of his frail being and his wonderful mind as a tragedy and not as farce. People die in Logan and they never come back; there's no post-credits vignette to offer comfort.
If Bonnie and Clyde, Straw Dogs, and The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) are what violence should be for the generation that saw Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated live on television, Logan is what violence feels like in 2017. Everything in Logan either has happened or will likely come to pass by 2029, the year in which the film is set: driverless trucks, multinational corporations buying up farmland to produce ever more disgusting and unhealthy food, brutal medical experiments on non-white people. We fear violence at the hands of the state, poverty at the hands of an indifferent capitalist system, and a rapidly changing natural world that will no longer sustain us. Humans will have to become something a little more than human to survive another century; it's significant that the child mutants' powers in the final fight scene express a mastery over the natural landscape. Logan is never surreal. If anything, it is a piece of superhero hyper-realism.