We talk often, in the storytelling world, about tropes and cliches and genre expectations. Audiences expect something, and if you don’t deliver in a reliable yet (slightly) surprising way, you can expect a letdown. We’ve all read those books or seen those movies that have a ridiculous twist, and you’re all, “but wait. The dad was the killer the whole time? That makes no sense at all!”
And this often happens because the writer tried to subvert the genre expectation to do something surprising. Most of the time, this is a difficult trick to pull off, and usually fails.
I want to talk about a movie that gets it right. And from here on out, MAJOR spoilers for the movie Logan. You’ve been warned.
Logan is a superhero movie, but it’s unlike any superhero movie I’ve ever seen.
It’s about a washed-up hero who has to go out one last time to save the day. That itself is a trope, but there’s not necessarily anything bad with tropes. It’s good to give an audience a certain expectation about what they’re going to see.
One of the main plots of the movie is that Logan has to deliver a young girl to Canada, where she’s going to find some safe space named “Eden.” A place where she can be free. In one of those trope-y revelatory scenes, Logan discovers that Eden comes from a comic book, and so it can’t be real. It was something the girl’s mother told her to comfort her against the harsh reality of life.
He argues with the girl that it’s not a real place; just a fairy tale. She argues back that it is real. You can probably already guess where this is going.
And so, here’s the trope the movie is setting us up for: they’re going to finally get to Canada, and in a magic moment, discover that Eden actually IS real.
That’s what you’d expect, right? Logan does something heroic, gets them to Canada, and he’s proven wrong about Eden and discovers he’s learned something along the way, too.
But here’s where the movie puts a brilliant twist on it:
They never actually finish their journey. Logan dies before they can cross the border. But, he gets the girl and her friends out of America by sacrificing himself in a valiant way, thus again becoming a superhero.
And the point is: it doesn’t matter if this safe place across the border exists or not. It doesn’t matter if the girl finds a perfectly safe space where they can live out their lives in peace. Because the movie is actually about how Logan learns how to be selfless again after wallowing in selfish self-pity for many years.
If Logan had walked them across the border and the reveal had been whether or not some magical sanctuary was actually real, it would have been a very different story. Not as satisfying. Because the emotion of seeing Logan transform is what makes the story work.
So, the lesson here is: subvert tropes when you can do it well, and give your audience something both surprising and satisfying.