The discourse surrounding Logan has emphasised its quality in contrast to not only the films of the X-Men franchise, but comic book movies in general, for the reason that Hugh Jackman has imbued his character with a heretofore unseen ‘depth’. I agree that there’s a far more substantial emotional pay-off from the film than one might expect but I do think this critical line requires nuancing. Logan has been one of the few well-characterised mutants in the X-Men series, and this has generally been accomplished by laying out his slow, reluctant departure from a strong-silent-Gary-Cooper-type demeanour in favour of a more pliable, loving attitude, usually in the direction of a younger, and mostly female, character. This is the case, not only in relation to his clone-daughter Laura (X-23) in Logan (2017) but also to Rogue in X-Men (2000), and in X2 (2003): the final scene has Wolverine walking away with that kid in his arms who has the power of having a blue tongue that makes noises. This is all to say that the melting away of a gruff exterior is a well-trodden path insofar as Wolverine’s characterisation goes.
This post will argue instead that there is something qualitatively different about Logan’s character in Logan and what it signifies, in presenting a thesis about familial relations in a milieu of economic and ecological precarity.
The strength of the film’s setting is the uniqueness of its dystopic vision; it functions as a slight modification of the present, in the direction of more overt corporatism. There are references to clean water being difficult to come by, there is a scene on a highway which indicates that trucking is now a job carried out via automation (implying, incidentally, that circa ten million people in this vision of a future America have become unemployed), Professor Xavier requires medication that is too expensive to acquire by legal means and most of the countryside seems to be owned by a food-producing conglomerate along the lines of Monsanto, which produces a ubiquitous food ingredient seemingly analogous to high-fructose corn syrup which functions also as an anti-depressant. Finally, it seems as though the only mode of employment is either as a medical worker, a hired enforcer for a corporation, or a casino worker.
A lot of these outcomes are a reality for many people within the United States today, as a result of decisions made by administrations over the past three decades, but by having so much of the plot predicated on the crossing of borders, and an antagonist named Donald, much of this could be seen as a reflection on Trump’s America, the outcome of the sort of policies (shutting down the EPA, repealing the ACA, deregulation of corporate America, etc.) that we can expect from the Trump regime.
The strength of this approach, I think, in comparison to a film such as The Road, is that it displays the failure of doomsday scenarios to bring about an end to capitalism. The market economy is far from incompatible with ‘the apocalypse’; many of the worst disasters of the past twenty years, be they natural or man-made, have proved extremely profitable for moneyed interests and I have confidence that as the anthropocene continues to unfold, that this will continue to be the case.
The X-Men franchise has always been unfortunately strong in its tendencies towards biological determinism — i.e. its emphasis on a reductive, ‘survival of the fittest’ mode of progress. Throughout Logan, that which is insufficiently ‘fit’ to survive, is dispatched, and each death informs us of the film’s stated intention regarding the ‘proper’ mode of familial existence in the anthropocene age. (See Benjamin Kunkel’s very good piece on the term ‘anthropocene’ in the London Review of Books here).
Having Xavier state directly that lionesses are superior to male lions because of the way they use the claws on their feet is as good as having the film state its thesis directly, i.e. the supersession of a defunct, inflexible mode of being, Logan’s, by a superior one, embodied by Laura. Logan’s death seems determined from the film’s outset; it is not novel that his claws or prowess in combat have functioned as phallic signifiers, and as one of them fails to protrude fully, and as he displays an inability to dispatch enemies as effectively as he used to, there is reason to believe that he is insufficiently resilient for whatever struggles will come next. To my mind there is of course nothing wrong with any form of masculinity, as long as it isn’t the toxic kind, but it’s clear that the text regards Logan’s passivity, the ‘bickering couple’ dynamic that exists between him, Charles and Caliban is negative. If we were feeling generous and were to give the film an out, we would say the text here uses conservative examples to further the radicalism of its larger point, which is that the conceptual notion of ‘the family’ will not survive late capitalism.
The claws on Laura’s feet, and her more pliable fighting style makes her more suited for success in 21st century America riven by the effects of climate change and the state as a guarantor of corporate survival. Indeed, x-23 does seem to be a better fighter than Logan is, and towards the end of the film, his choreography becomes more attuned to hers; rather than swinging in a maladroit way with his claws, he begins to put in more high kicks, jumps, etc. Further, despite Logan claiming earlier that he doesn’t ‘like guns,’ he uses one to dispatch Zander Rice. This anthropocene order will require the purging of previously held moral beliefs, or at least their suspension. Though Laura’s graveside oration may problematise this.
The X-Men are referenced briefly, in such a way that suggests that they were all killed by one of Xavier’s telekinetic seizures. What unites the demise of family units in the film is that they are all linked to a single location. The radio report in which we learn of the X-Men’s demise mentions Westchester County and it is obvious that even if the Munsons were not dispatched by the Logan clone, it would have been only a matter of time before they were wiped out by the farming conglomerate’s mercenaries. Their blackness should not be neglected in this discussion, and is emblematic of the ways in which the consequences of capitalism’s entrenchment will fall disproportionately upon communities of colour.
Shortly before he is killed, Xavier delivers a speech to Logan in which he informs him that he still ‘has time’ to create a family. This is the belief that the film is working most strenuously against; Xavier’s belief is naive and, in this current milieu, doomed to failure. What characterised the X-Men’s within the Marvel Universe, was, in Xavier’s mind, their nature as a surrogate family for outcasts, united by their being objects of hatred and fear for the outside world, a misfit family surveyed by a gruff father embodied by Xavier, and a shifting cast of mothers (Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Betsy Braddock, Hope Summers). Their attempt to replicate this conservative and Freudian model which was static, and rooted to one location, when a more flexible, unique one would have been more adaptable or responsive made them vulnerable. Therefore, their model of a family, as providing an in-built horizon of collectivity was insufficient; what form must the family take in these times?
Once Laura’s nurse Gabriella, is murdered, the film is about Logan failing to take on the role of a single parent. Laura chooses the clothes she wants to wear on the basis of two mannequins she sees holding hands in a shop window display and later mimics this behaviour at Xavier’s graveside. Logan only comes to do so in his dying moments, in a battle not against the film’s primary antagonists, but an older incarnation of himself, embodying this insufficient masculinity, a prior self, dispatched with the bullet that Wolverine intended to commit suicide with; his suicide is exteriorised by the act being projected onto an earlier version. We don’t even need to emphasise that it’s a big pointy yoke that kills Logan in the end, so we won’t.
The value system, or the family life that is validated, is that which takes place between the young mutants engineered by Transigen (NB semantic significance), one that is constantly on the move: mobile, nomadic, sustained by imaginative constructs such as the Eden they once saw in an X-Men comic book, or, in Laura’s case, a cowboy monologue in Shane (1957). It is the ethical values that Laura and the Transigen children embody that we should look to, in sustaining ourselves in the construction of a truly progressive society, one that is nomadic, precarious, sustained by the most far-flung imaginative possibilities and almost certainly doomed to failure.