Tales From The Box Office: Logan Succeeded By Letting Wolverine Go Out On His Own Terms

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

Superhero movies have become such a staple of cinema that it can be hard to remember a time when they weren't the pillars holding up the box office. While Marvel's "Blade" certainly helped get the gears turning, 2000's "X-Men" was the true turning point, teeing up the ball for 2002's "Spider-Man," which in turn cemented the course that led us to the current moment. It was in "X-Men" that we first became familiar with a then relatively unknown Hugh Jackman, who brought Wolverine to life in live-action for the very first time.

This kicked off a nearly two-decade long journey for Jackman, who played the part many times over the years, with major highs ("X2") and shocking lows ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine"). But there was no higher high than 2017's "Logan," which not only served as a high point for the "X-Men" franchise critically but remains, five years removed, one of the finest pieces of comic book-based cinema that we've ever been treated to. 

In honor of "Logan" celebrating its fifth anniversary this week, we're going to look back at how the highly artistic take on Marvel's most popular mutant came to be, what made it so damn successful, and why it's hard to imagine we'll ever see anything quite like it again.

The movie: Logan

Director James Mangold was tasked with righting the ship of the solo "Wolverine" films following the release of "X-Men Origins" and he did just that with 2013's "The Wolverine" which was, to say the very least of it, a marked improvement over its predecessor. But it could hardly be accused of being transcendent or groundbreaking. "The Wolverine" was good, if not great, but there was more to be mined with Mangold and Jackman working together — that much was clear.

The idea came to craft something a bit more intimate for Wolverine that would ultimately serve as a swan song for Jackman, who was going to use this as his big goodbye. "The Wrestler" and "Unforgiven" were said to be stated as reference points by Jackman during the film's development, but a version of that kind of story for this character in a world filled with super-powered people. One of the biggest differences here is that Jackman was very involved in the development alongside Mangold and the other writers, Scott Frank and Michael Green.

It needs to be stressed that by 2017, the overall "X-Men" franchise at Fox had become quite messy. Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a well-oiled machine with everything working as it should, and every little thing in its right place, this franchise was all over the place: Two different generations of characters, spin-offs, seemingly no direction, wildly mixed results, and a destroyed timeline. Making sense of it was a whole-ass thing. One of the biggest decisions that helped make "Logan" what it became was that Mangold opted to set the story far enough in the future where he could, more or less, make a standalone feature unconcerned with continuity. Speaking to Discussing Film in 2020, the filmmaker had this to say:

"You're talking to someone who has no sense of duty to connect it to everything else. I didn't see myself as making the last episode of the TV show. I saw myself as someone trying to make the best movie I could about this beloved character. Of course, to a degree, we referenced where he's come from or what's happened. We did it when it worked for us, but we also skipped or frog-leaped over other stuff that didn't work for us. The priority was the most heartfelt and personal movie – not the best movie that wired into everything else."

That decision proved to be the movie's magic touch, as it was indeed allowed to tell a wildly effective, personal story about a man out of time who has lived several lifetimes and suffered more than any one person can imagine. The other secret sauces came in the form of Patrick Stewart, who reprised his role as Charles Xavier, bringing the long on-screen journey between these two characters to a head, as well as the addition of Dafne Keen as Laura, aka X-23 — who was, by way of genetic experimentation, Wolverine's daughter.

Part road trip movie, part futuristic western, at times feeling like a horror film, and able to go no-holds-barred with an R-rating, this was a comic book movie the likes of which we hadn't really seen before, made all the more effective because the audience had literally grown up with this very specific and beloved version of this character (not to mention Professor X). It all made for an emotional and impactful drama that just so happened to center around a mutant with metal claws. The artistic and personal approach ended up paying off in a big, bad way.

The financial journey

"Logan" hit theaters on March 3, 2017, helping to cement the pre-pandemic trend of essentially extending the summer movie season into March and April, as the actual summer months had become far too crowded to make room for everything. That strategy worked quite well for Fox at the time, as the "X-Men" flick rode into theaters on a wave of near-universal praise that went beyond the standard "good for a superhero movie" sort of qualifier. This was on another level.

Domestically, "Logan" opened to an incredibly good $88.4 million that very nearly matched its $97 million budget. While the movie did suffer a pretty tough 56.9% drop in its second weekend, it did enough sustained business during its run to be firmly considered a hit, taking in a total of $226.2 million domestically. It performed very well internationally too, doing $392.7 million worth of business overseas for a grand total of $619 million. Making more than six times your production budget is what the kids might call hella good, bub.

One caveat that should be made here is that "Deadpool," which had come out in 2016, set an almost impossible standard for R-rated films. Ryan Reynolds' fun-filled take on the Marvel favorite shattered records, grossing $784 million worldwide against a mere $58 million budget. That fact that "Logan" did not manage to eclipse that is by no means a disappointment and should never, ever be viewed as such. "Deadpool" was a wildly unique case.

The other thing to consider here is that "Logan" did so well critically that it ended up earning some very unexpected Oscar love in the form of a best adapted screenplay nomination. This was before "Black Panther" managed to get a full-blown superhero movie a Best Picture nomination so that screenplay nod was a big deal. This became a movie that is often listed right up there with "The Dark Knight" was one of the best examples of comic book movies being true blue cinema as opposed to just being popcorn entertainment for the masses. This was something more meaningful, and audiences felt that.

The lessons contained within

Come 2019, Disney had closed its deal to purchase Fox, which put the "X-Men" character rights back in the hands of Marvel Studios. The plan now is to fold these characters into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is indeed a logical thing to do. The MCU is a $25 billion behemoth — why wouldn't you boost the profile of that universe by folding some of the most recognizable superheroes in all of pop culture into it? Nobody is going to argue (and be taken seriously anyway) that Disney and Marvel Studios shouldn't do this.

That having been said, a gigantic part of what made "Logan" work so well is that it was allowed to be a movie on its own terms, unchained from the burden of meticulous and rigid continuity within a larger universe. Yes, the audience brought their baggage to it in knowing that this was the Wolverine of the "X-Men" universe that they had gone on this journey with, but there was not a whole lot of referencing the events of the past. The story was allowed to stand on its own two feet and was all the better for it. And, for the record, "Deadpool" was done a great service by not having to shackle itself to a bigger universe as well.

My one and only lesson here is to encourage any studio with a big stable of superheroes (or any other form of shared universe for that matter) to play with is to find ways for solo films to still be solo films when the occasion calls for it. For as much as movies like "Avengers: Endgame" or "Captain America: Civil War" make the continuity of the MCU feel so rewarding, it feels downright impossible to imagine anything even remotely like "Logan" existing in the universe. Marvel Studios would do extremely well to find a way to allow these types of movies to exist. Hell, even an animated series like "What If...?" on Disney+ became far more important to the overall continuity than any of us anticipated, given what is coming down the pipeline with "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."

To that end, we may well be revisiting Stewart's Professor X within the larger Marvel multiverse. That could be cool and it could well put meat in seats. But we can only hope that it doesn't take away from what was accomplished with the character in "Logan" all for the sake of a glorified cameo. If there is one thing the Marvel Studios could benefit from in a post-"Endgame" landscape it's personal, filmmaker-driven stories like "Logan." Maybe that's just wishful thinking but look at "Joker." Say what you will about the movie but it couldn't have existed chained to a bigger universe and the unique take on a popular character produced a $1 billion hit. Don't let these individual stories fall by the wayside for the sake of connecting to something bigger all of the time.