Directed by James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen
I admit it. I’m more than a bit done with superhero movies. The genre is fun and escapist, but tends to highlight, rather than alleviate, Hollywood’s current lack of creativity and risk taking. So when it came to Hugh Jackman portraying Wolverine for the ninth time in 18 years, my reaction was to wonder what Stan Lee has on Jackman rather than to squeal with excitement at the prospect. With Logan, however, director James Mangold gives us a film that, rather than allowing us to escape from ourselves, forces our gaze back to our own bleak reality and the demons that face us.
It didn’t help that the film seemed to start off poorly. The opening scene has Logan (Hugh Jackman) facing off with every negative Latino stereotype Hollywood has to offer. A group of “cholos” who have set out to steal the hubcaps (is that really still a thing?) from the limousine Logan is now driving for cash. A fight ensues and of course Wolverine is triumphant. Almost immediately, however, the film pivots to a montage of Logan ferrying various passengers around a dystopic El Paso where a border wall and jingoist sentiment are ever present. This is the image of America in 2029, Trump’s America, no doubt, though he is never mentioned. It is not immediately dissimilar from the present day, but darker, less tolerant, colder.
This coldness manifests in what we learn has become of our heroes, the X-Men. They are, in fact, no more. Only Logan and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) survive with the help of mutant tracker Caliban. Professor X is ill, suffering from brain seizures that lead him to lose control of his power to catastrophic effect. We learn later in the film that such a seizure killed several X-Men as well as non mutants some time before.
Likewise Logan himself is ill. His ability to regenerate from injury, even death, has waned and it seems the adamantium that was bonded to his bones in an effort to make him stronger is now poisoning him from within. Our heroes are ill and dying in a world that has rejected them.
The main body of the story revolves around the introduction of Laura (Dafne Keen) a girl of about 10 who is a mutant herself. While we are told that mutants are no longer born into society, the Transigen corporation engineered mutants from stolen DNA in order to raise them as weapons for the military. These children, of which Laura is one, escape. The main thrust of the plot involves Logan and Professor X helping Laura escape Transigen and flee to the relative safety of Canada.
Logan isn’t a film about heroes v. villains, however. Instead it’s a film about a hero at war with himself. While last summer we were treated to both Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman, neither movie does justice to the idea of internal conflict the way Logan does. If Batman v. Superman lacked sensible motivation for the conflict and Civil War was tone deaf in its typical Marvel camp, Logan understands what it means to be at war with one’s self.
We are told time and again that there is something wrong inside of Logan, poisoning him. And when we eventually learn that it is the adamantium, we begin to see the duality that tears him apart. The very thing that has helped to make Logan the hero that he is, is also the poison that is killing him. This is not a noble sacrifice on his part; it’s not a choice. Those familiar with the previous Wolverine films and backstory know that the adamantium was fused to his bones as part of experiments carried out to turn him into “Weapon X.”
He is not Batman, whose morose brooding brought on by the death of his parents drives him to a life of solitary vigilantism. Logan instead suffers from a kind of autoimmune disorder. The introduction of a substance meant to make him stronger has turned his body against itself. And this internal fight is metaphorically represented by the introduction of X-24, a feral Wolverine clone with whom Logan must battle. This means he is literally fighting with himself.
And not just physically, but mentally as well. When Logan explains his own troubled soul to Laura, the following exchange takes place:
Laura: I’ve hurt people.
Logan: Well, you’re going to have to learn to live with that.
Laura: They were all bad people.
Logan: Just the same.
Even Professor X isn’t immune from this kind of turning on one’s self. After a pleasant evening spent in the company of a family who takes our heroes in, Professor X says, “Tonight was the most wonderful night I’ve had in a long time, even though I know I don’t deserve it.” He has hurt people too, and the film makes it clear that he lives with it by not remembering it due to his worsening mental health.
Where last summer’s super hero civil wars failed, Logan succeeds. The true nature of the political struggle that is Civil War is a literal battle with one’s self in which the self is bound to lose, no matter the outcome. This sets civil war apart from revolutions or uprisings of one group against another. In a civil war, the very thing that some fight to preserve is what gives rise to forces seeking to tear it down.
Such is an important lesson for our current political situation. Those seeking to fight against the forces of Trump in order to preserve or return to some established political order would do well to know that Trump and his supporters are a product of the very political order they seek to overthrow. Trump supporters would be wise to know this too. As a battle with one’s self, civil wars, both literal and figurative, are always already losses.
Lincoln understood this. In his second inaugural address he explains, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago so it still must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.,””
Notice that Lincoln doesn’t single out the Confederacy for the wrath of God. The piles of wealth and drops of blood were accumulated on both sides of the border, and both sides are paying for the sins of slavery that made the country prosperous and powerful. But Lincoln’s implicit criticism masked by his piety is something not quite grasped in United States history. We cannot both expunge the sin and keep the profit, much like Logan cannot keep the strength of adamantium and remain healthy. In order to overcome the sickness, we must like go of the strength.
In practical terms, this means that standing up to Trump requires an even more rigorous self criticism that asks how the way in which live allows for Trump. We (especially those of us who are white, male, and financially secure) must ask how our privilege is based in the same casual racism and misogyny common to Trump and his supporters.
Logan is very subtle in its politics, but the inclusion of a secondary narrative of a conflict between a small family farm and the large scale agro-business growing genetically modified crops points us back in this direction. The very companies that allow for our standard of living are the same ones that destroy the environment, fund super PACs supporting pro business ideologies, and give rise to the very economy that creates the racialized resentment of the average Trump voter. Insofar as we live in such a way that fosters these corporations, then we too are working at crossed purposes with ourselves.
The kind of self confrontation necessary for success comes at great cost and requires personal courage, a courage failing in both Logan and Professor X when the film begins. The true heroism is the heroic journey to battle one’s self, because in such a battle, only by losing are we capable of success. Logan makes the case that for the sake of future generations such courage must be found, and as a lesson, it is far from the escapist nonsense of other superhero movies, because it shows us what heroism in the real world actually looks like.