'Metal Gear' creator talks about the importance of building universes that never have to end, even when you kill off the hero
Hideo Kojima – the 53-year old creative force behind the always-cinematic Metal Gear series, and noted film-buff – is currently hard at work on his forthcoming Sony-funded PlayStation exclusive, Death Stranding. While he is reluctant to share many specifics about the new game universe he's creating – save for the broadest of updates on its progress on-stage at the Tribeca Game Festival in late April – he is eager to share what inspires him as an artist and creator.
We spoke with him at length last year in an interview that tackled his biggest influences and passions, and afterwards he asked us if we'd be open to him sharing his observations on movies and pop culture directly in a monthly series of short essays. Last month he shared his thoughts on the philosophy behind Ghost in the Shell. This month his attention turns to James Mangold's Logan, which after a successful theatrical run will be out on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital download later this month.
Read Kojima's essay below:
Remember when all a movie had to be was a single story, with a beginning and an end? These days, we have Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, the King Kong and Godzilla "MonsterVerse," and the Universal Monster Universe (which kicks off with the June 9 release of Alex Kurtzman's The Mummy with Tom Cruise) – all examples of how big-budget Hollywood is now aspiring for endless, persistent worlds. Even M. Night Shyamalan, who has repeatedly left us in awe with brilliant, sharp-edged endings to his stories, is getting in on the act. Recently, he announced sequels to both his 17-year-old superhero story Unbreakable and last year's psychological thriller Split that together will serve as the basis for a new Unbreakable Universe. 21st century movies now all seem to be built upon the principle of some kind of a "shared universe."
From the release of X-Men in 2000 (starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine), a total of nine movies have been made over the past 17 years, forming a unique universe (separate from Marvel's own Cinematic Universe) in which the ageless, immortal Wolverine serves as the embodiment this very concept.
Characters in these modern movie worlds are stuck in an endless loop, and the need to adhere to their persistence causes the orthodox story structure to completely break down. Each film is reduced to being little more than a building block for the larger universe, with the beginnings and endings serving only as points of connection for other movies in the series. A single movie now occupies a position similar to the serialized stories you see in the best-selling weekly manga publication Shonen Jump, or a single episode in a TV series like The Walking Dead. The story is a piece of a whole, and individual movies no longer have a clear beginning or end.
This is related to the drastic changes in the landscape of video as a whole. Video can be easily viewed at any time or place on mobile devices and tablets, so instead of being a full course dinner, movies are now consumed as if they were snacks, or dietary supplements, or even as hits of a drug. The only option for creators is to separate the story into pieces, and ensure it's always as stimulating as possible. In an online environment now overflowing with video, viewers are addicts.
What's unique about Logan is that, while it's a significant piece of a larger universe, it also succeeds in breaking away to become an independent story in its own right, finishing a story that would otherwise seem unfinishable. If this isn't special, I don't know what is. It's precisely because of this that Logan is a movie to remember.
By borrowing elements from Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's 2008 story Old Man Logan, director James Mangold strips Wolverine of his powers and replaces them with the burden of old age. The beginning of the movie shows how Logan has all but lost his reason to live. No longer able to heal, and being slowly poisoned by his adamantium skeleton, the mostly-powerless hero lives out his days near the Mexican border as a limo driver. An aging Professor X – now suffering from Alzheimer's and unable to control his telepathic skills – lives with him. In this world, mutants are on the verge of extinction and Logan has lost his place. The universe where superheroes thrived is a distant memory.
Back in 2008, I did something similar when I put an old Solid Snake into Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. In the intro, Snake says "War has changed." His codename was also changed to "Old Snake." The letters "I" and "S" were removed from the word SOLID: "is" – or in other words "being" – had been taken away from him; he was now Old Snake. In much the same way, both Snake and Logan had their place in the world taken away from them. What place is there in the world for those whose very being has been wrested from them? All that remains is the end of their story – a story of their departure. I attempted to pull the same trick you see in Logan – of simultaneously writing an "end" for MGS4 while trying not to actually end the whole saga.
Given that dying is the ultimate fate of all humans, how can you resist that fate and attempt to overcome it? In Metal Gear Solid 2, Solidus Snake, who has no ability to reproduce (none of the cloned Snakes can), tries to pass along knowledge of his existence to the next generation through cultural memes. Later, in Metal Gear Solid 3, I depicted overcoming death through the accession of The Boss to Big Boss. Logan tries to overcome fate in a similar way – just like in the MGS series, the main character overcomes his fate by passing the baton to the next generation.
There are other similarities between the MGS series and Logan. Just like Logan, Snake doesn't ever use his real name, instead taking a title that can be inherited. This "other name" is what allowed us to have several different Snakes appear in the MGS series, and how each could pass the baton to the next generation. The name “Snake” gave them the ability to overcome their individual limitations, pass along their mission, and allow the extended universe to continue. It was always so much more than just a codename.
The "Wolverine" name for Logan serves the same purpose. Wolverine is a codename, but as fans of the series know, Logan isn’t his real name, either – he was actually born James Howlett. "Logan" is the name that he uses when he isn't being treated as a pawn on the battlefield. It’s his name when he is living an ordinary life. My take is that this film is called "Logan" rather than "Wolverine" because the baton that he is trying to pass to the next generation is that of his more human persona. This is similar to how Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 is at first treated as a pawn, and then awakens as a person: Jack.
On Marco Beltrami's soundtrack for 2013's The Wolverine, there's a track titled "Logan's Run." It shares the title with the 1976 science fiction movie based on the book of the same name by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. That movie's about a society that lives in a domed, utopian city, where the citizens have their lifespans regulated in order to manage population growth and resource consumption. At the age of 30, they go through a ritual that is said to transform them into an eternal being – although, really, they're just being killed. The lead character, played by Michael York, is known by the name Logan 5, and holds the prestigious position of "Sandman" – someone that serves as an executioner of those that attempt to escape the ritual. Over the course of the story, Logan 5 comes to doubt the world he inhabits, and tries to escape. In doing so, Logan learns that human lives are being sacrificed to maintain the utopian society, and he attempts to free the people and restore their connection with the outside world. Logan's "run" depicted in the movie Logan has similar weight in that it serves as an escape from the X-Men universe, and Logan/Wolverine truly earns a place in eternity because of it.
The entertainment medium of video games has already exceeded the storytelling capabilities of movies
But what does it mean to depict life within an endless universe? Is it to depict a life that is physically eternal? Not so. Not dying and continuing to live aren't the same thing. Dying doesn't necessarily mean ending. Leaving proof of your existence for the next generation, leaving a mark on the world – that is what surviving means. By ending an endless story, we can finally see the true meaning of life and death. Logan successfully depicts that. Its success is possible because of the way that Hugh Jackman played the role of Wolverine for 17 long years.
When director Bryan Singer released the original X-Men in 2000, excitement for the new millennium was ushered in by a movie about an exciting new race of beings. But the 9/11 terrorist attacks directly following the turn of the century ushered in an age of uncertainty and anxiety about the future, and the nature of American justice changed. This was reflected in our superheroes and how they responded to their plight. In 2002's Spider-Man, Peter Parker was troubled by his powers, and in 2008, The Dark Knight turned the hero archetype on its head. Against the backdrop of the never-ending war on terror, our heroes became quite different. These new cinematic universes were born from the introspective regression of these heroes.
Despite these emergent forces, Logan manages to tell a story that reflects on the past, while passing the baton to the future. The story structure is quite classic – and, in fact, it borrows heavily throughout from George Stevens' 1953 Western Shane. (Laura is even seen watching Shane during the movie.) Shane, the drifter who protects the farmers, is Logan, and Joey, the little boy who cries for Shane to "come back" as he walks away, is Laura. Shane (Logan) will never return, but the voice of Joey (Laura) will echo out for all time. Shane is within Joey's heart, and just as his presence foretold Joey's growth, so too will Logan be forever in Laura's heart.
That resonating call to "come back" is perhaps film entertainment's last stand. Why would film cry out to "come back"? Because the entertainment medium of video games has already exceeded the storytelling capabilities of movies. Games can give birth to as many stories as there are players. Games don't seek to create endless stories – they can already deliver stories that don't need to end. Games are also more addictive than movies. And let's face it, endless addictive entertainment is just what the market – and players – ask for.
Where is the entertainment medium of film headed? Will there be a replay (or comeback) or a rebirth? Is there room for movies in the endless and addictive market that games have carved out? All I can say is that, while Hugh Jackman's Logan has ended, the X-Men universe will surely continue. However, the claw marks left by Logan cut deep and will surely have a lasting impact on the series' universe. Perhaps they will even form the foundation of something completely new. The choice to end Logan's story is why its impact will be forever felt.