Before James Mangold released Logan — the swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine character — online discussions suggested the film would draw on generic Western conventions. As early as May 2016, 10 months prior to the film eventually hitting theaters, X-Men franchise producer Simon Kinberg spoke to Collider about the film being “kind of like a Western in its tone.” After 20th Century Fox screened 42 minutes of the film to journalists later that year, strictly embargoed write-ups confirmed the film was indeed R-rated, violent, gritty, dark and every other synonym for “adult” — but also that Logan definitely drew upon generic conventions of the Western genre.
The lucky journalists present also received an art book containing Logan stills, and that’s when the first allusions to George Stevens’ 1953 Western Shane appeared, with the film’s closing speech reproduced at the front of the book. The now inexorable link between the films didn’t come from a critic’s insightful analysis of the footage or even an interviewer pestering any of the filmmakers, it came from Fox, and presumably director and co-writer James Mangold, putting the reference point front and center. This set the tone for the film’s approach to its cinematic heritage.
It’s become normal to ask every quasi-auteur taking on a franchise blockbuster about their cinematic touchstones — and that’s understandable. Every director will have other films in mind when developing a project. These reference points can often be helpful when pitching a film to executives, actors or a crew, and it can provide an engaging topic of debate for film fans and critics. With Logan, writers and fans alike began to speculate on how the Western links, and those to Shane in particular, could play into the X-Men mythology.
Shane stars Alan Ladd as the titular nomad who passes through the humble homestead of Joe Starrett, his wife Marian and young son Joey. Struck by their hospitality and kindness, Shane agrees to help out around the farm. When he learns of Rufus Ryker, a local cattle baron trying to oust Joe and his fellow homesteaders, he stands by the Starretts as those around them fall. Shane’s past remains unknown, but Ladd’s battle-worn performance hints at the darkness in his soul — a darkness brought out by Ryker’s bullying.
It’s a classic piece of American Western filmmaking and a cornucopia of inspiration for other tales about aging characters with dark pasts, of which Logan makes full use. The eponymous title is an obvious connection. And the fact that Shane’s full name is never revealed suggests that he, too, might have adopted a moniker to distance himself from his violent past. There are further parallels between the two characters. It’s easy to imagine the artist formerly known as the Wolverine wanting to move on from his violent past but still being dragged back. In fact, Unforgiven used that same basic narrative and won four Oscars for it.
Mangold even goes as far as semi-remaking Shane in a contained section of his film. Logan has been forced to leave the hideout where he was caring for Patrick Stewart’s deteriorating Charles Xavier (aka Professor X). With the old man in tow and young mutant Laura in his care, the nascent family witnesses a car accident that leaves four horses loose on the highway. The heroes help bring them all in and the grateful owners (the Munson family) invite them to dinner.
The Munsons are a husband, wife and son living on a homestead; a corporate farmer gobbles up the land around them and threatens to oust them from their home. Ring any bells? The imitation extends beyond the set-up, as the bigwig sends his goons to vandalize the Munson’s water pump. At this point, Logan — who, unlike Shane, is resistant to the Munson’s kindnesses — offers to help.
In true postmodern, neo-generic fashion, however, this swift reimagining of Shane reaches an unsavory end when Transigen — the ultimate big bad genetics corporation that bred Laura — sends in their next model, a soulless Wolverine clone, who slaughters Charles and the Munsons in their home. It’s a cruel end, but an effective way of surprising audiences, both those who know Shane (with its non-fatal finale) and those who don’t.
Shane, too, was considered to be a tough film upon release. While bloodless bar brawls and the like go on and on, Stevens’ camera calmly watches men smash chairs over each other’s heads. In the same way that Logan grounds the flashy violence of the Wolverine’s previous cinematic adventures, Shane removes the gee-whiz shoot ‘em ups of previous Westerns in favor of something more weighty and real.
While they’re different characters in many ways, Laura and Joey are significant because of what they bring out of both heroes. Each films looks to the future and expresses hope in the youth. As Shane leaves the Starretts, he delivers his famous speech to Joey, and Joey alone: “There’s no living with… with a killing,” he says. “There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, and a brand sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her… tell her everything’s alright, and there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
Logan shares similar advice with Laura in his final moments: “Take your friends and run. They’ll keep coming and coming. You don’t have to fight anymore. Go… go. Don’t be what they made you.” It’s a moving scene as the longest-running, single-actor, big screen superhero takes his final breaths. Then, at the makeshift funeral, Laura steps forward to deliver a slightly butchered version of the aforementioned speech from Shane. And this is an example of the Shane homage being taken a step too far. Mangold follows a poignant death with a funeral scene defined by reappropriation rather than creation.
The overt quotation is most egregious earlier in the film, however, when the central trio first hits the road. The group stops off at a hotel to freshen up; Laura and Charles watch Stevens’ film (a “very famous picture” that Charles first saw when he was Laura’s age) on television. Unimpressed with their film viewing, Logan leaves, just as the “there’s no living with a killing” speech plays out and Shane rides away from Joey.
Scenes like these come across as clumsy and the most overt examples of filmic quotation that I’ve seen in a long time. But why did Mangold feel the need to be so glaringly obvious in these moments, when so many of the references elsewhere in the film are well integrated? This includes beautiful touches like composer Marco Beltrami echoing the melody of “Abide with Me” (a song that’s featured various times in Shane, most notably during a funeral scene) to foreshadow Logan’s fate.
And, to add insult to injury, not only does Laura alter the speech at the funeral (which is understandable, diegetically, because she is recalling a speech she has heard just the once and she may not have remembered it word for word), but Mangold also edits the speech as it appears in Shane. Ladd’s dramatic, faltering pauses are repeated and streamlined to read: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, and a brand sticks. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her everything’s alright, and there aren’t any more guns in the valley.” Mangold has stated that Shane is one of his most treasured films, but the funeral homage almost feels sacrilegious.
Maybe the references are a play to make the film seem more sophisticated, albeit for a mainstream audience that doesn’t necessarily know Shane. And, while it may have the positive effect of encouraging some viewers to seek out the film, I’d argue that it removes the element of independent learning and cinematic discovery by making all of the allusions and comparisons for the viewer.
Where other filmmakers might’ve previously played with and referenced Shane’s visuals, plot points, archetypes or themes, Mangold and his team have their characters watch and quote the film in question. Quotation and reference have long been an integral part of filmmaking, but this simplified and sanitized approach seems like a cheap play for cinematic value. Logan goes beyond sharing the mythology of Shane to draw more complex allusions, before resorting to glaringly worshipping Shane, when franchise fans should instead be mourning the loss of Logan.
Mangold’s film isn’t the only recent superheroic culprit. Spider-Man: Homecoming appropriates generic conventions from John Hughes-era teen comedies. Again, it’s a nice fit for the character and distinguishes it from other superhero films (including the five other Peter Parker outings), but director Jon Watts similarly doesn’t know when to hold back. As Spider-Man runs through suburban gardens in a profile wide shot, eagle-eyed viewers might recognize this as a reference to a nearly identical shot in Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But this rewarding moment is once again interrupted by a shot of a television playing Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as Spider-Man swings by: “great movie,” he calls out honkingly.
If superhero films are going to continue channeling other genres (as I hope they do, because it has livened up a number of recent efforts), then they need to trust their audiences to connect the dots themselves. Heavy-handed “meta” moments make the allusions worthless, and superhero films will keep hitting a glass ceiling until they can start creating their own cinematic mythology. Fortifying a film with references to another can definitely be worthwhile, but to define a film with another limits the experience.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.