Wolverine at sunset
This post is about the latest X-Men film, Logan, directed by James Mangold. This is not a movie review in the traditional sense, and more in the nature of a commentary, a long one, and an appreciative one at that. There are spoilers throughout.
The story begins along the U.S. – Mexican border in the vicinity of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, which is Spanish for “the pass.” The story ends at another pass on the U.S. – Canadian border. In between these two points the characters cut a red river that flows north through our broken world.
The plot is very simple. An older and unhealthy Logan, one of the few remaining mutants in an America of 2029, learns that he has a daughter of sorts, Laura. He attempts to take her and a seriously ill Professor Xavier to a place called Eden, which serves as a clandestine border crossing into Canada. Canada is apparently beyond the reach of the corporation that wishes to exploit Laura’s powers, which are the same as Logan’s.
As Logan journeys north, it seems as if James Mangold is taking the viewer back in time, asking if the Biblical Eden can be rediscovered. Or, alternatively, a northern journey may represent an ascent, from Hell to Heaven. For the place where the movie starts is surely hell. The border is a world of ugliness, blight, crime, illness, drunkenness, and death.
The country empties out but grows pretty with horses as we enter America’s plains, but is still gaudy and dangerous: casinos in Oklahoma City and menacing robotic semis on the highways. The people are fewer, but better: we meet a kind country doctor and a welcoming farming family.
The final act takes place along the pristine border between the U.S. and Canada. It is very scenic, and almost devoid of man and his creations. Logan is successful, and his daughter and her friends make it across the border into a primeval Eden. Logan dies there, one of many casualties on both “sides” of the fight.
The cultural references are overtly Western, and clips from the movie Shane are viewed by the characters. Laura quotes from Shane at the end, and we are apparently left to understand that Logan was Shane, Laura was Joey, etc. Logan was just too tainted by violence to enter the promised land, like Moses dying outside of Israel for his sins.
But when the credits roll, there is an unsettling turn. The viewer is treated to Johnny Cash singing the apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around,” with its references to the Alpha and Omega, the Kingdom Come and the Beasts of Revelation. What exactly was the message?
They rode out on the north road as would parties bound for El Paso but before they were even quite out of sight of the city they had turned their tragic mounts to the west and they rode infatuate and half fond toward the red demise of that day, toward the evening lands and the distant pandemonium of the sun.
From Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West. By Cormac McCarthy
I will propose an interpretation entirely different, provocative, but I think more in accord with what was actually shown. I would suggest that Mr. Mangold’s work is not to be taken at face value, and in a way, he gives his game away in a recent interview:
What I mean by “forced into cinema” is that I am a big believer that we have gotten way into dialogue as the delivery mechanism of meaning in movies. If anything, I tend to find that my results are much more pleasing – at least to myself – when I view dialogue as the delivery system of lies in a movie. What we see is the truth, and what we hear is misdirection.
Creativescreenwriting.com March, 3, 2017
There is a monster lurking behind Logan, under the Shane exterior, and it is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or The Evening Redness in the West. McCarthy’s brutal epic is a revisionist Western, and devoid of any nostalgia for America’s frontier. The novel was loosely based on the actions of the Glanton Gang, a group of mercenaries who were paid by the Mexican government to bring “order” to the frontier by terrorizing the Indian tribes along the U.S.-Mexican border in the 1850s. How? They scalped them. They eventually came to a bad end, killed at a border crossing by the same tribes that they had preyed on.
Mangold and his collaborators are too subtle (or careful) to overtly reference Blood Meridian, a movie that many have been trying to make for years, and has been deemed un-filmable. I think too strong a linkage would have invited criticism for the presumption of borrowing from what some critics consider to be one of the finest American novels of the 20th century. And in a superhero movie of all things too! It is ironic that some have compared Logan to a Cormac McCarthy book, when there was one seemingly hiding in plain sight all along.
It is particularly interesting that the only other well-known mutant used from the comics, aside from Wolverine and Xavier, is Caliban, an albino, hairless creature. Mangold also made an interesting casting choice by having Stephen Merchant, an unusually tall actor (at 6’7), to play the role. Caliban was of ordinary height through most of his tenure in the X-Men comic book series.
Caliban the cowboy, as portrayed by Stephen Merchant in Logan.
I would suggest Caliban is an allusion to the similarly tall (nearly 7 feet), hairless, albino character of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian, who critic Harold Bloom described in Shakespearean terms as an Iago-like villain. Caliban is not intended to be Holden, this visual is just a bread crumb Mangold has tossed out to the careful observer. Under this theory, Pierce and his mercenaries are the Glanton gang. Instead of bringing order to the border, they are delivering order to America by bringing mutants under control. Pierce and his Reavers, like the Glanton Gang, meet a bloody end at a border crossing at the hands of those they victimized.
This theory explains why so much of the action in Logan is set in Mexico or along its border with the U.S. And why there is almost no similarity between the film and its supposed inspiration, the 2008 Marvel comic series Old Man Logan. That comic involved a west to east journey across America, had no Mexican element, and was a typical superhero slugfest. In the end, Logan survives and plans to rebuild the X-Men and take on the villains who have conquered America. The only point in common is that both feature an older Wolverine.
Who is Judge Holden then? Its our friend Logan, the unkillable, immortal, killing machine. Like the Judge, everyone that comes into Logan’s orbit eventually seems to die. Logan was the last of the X-Men, like the Judge was the sole survivor of the Glanton Gang. In particular, Judge Holden appears as the younger cloned version of Logan, the X-24.
Hey, but Logan is a good guy! And he is. In a way he is “the Kid” of Blood Meridian, the least worst, most self-aware of the cutthroats, who has aged into a wiser form by the end of that book. But in his potential for death and destruction, and his method of violence, Logan is a god of war, like the Judge. And it is Logan’s clone, X-24, that kills Professor Xavier and many others in the film. Because Logan, and superheroes generally, are not the saviors we make them out to be. Mangold has Logan deliver the indictment himself, as he verbally shreds the mythologized exploits of the X-Men as portrayed in the films meta-version of the X-Men comic books.
Mangold was upfront in his interviews about wanting to de-mythologize the superhero genre, as has already been done for Western in movies like Unforgiven or his own version of 3:10 to Yuma. In more recent Western, cowboys are not Knights of the Plain. They are survivors, opportunists, and flawed all the way around. And because they rely on violence, often indiscriminate killers as a result.
And this is why the Shane references are a misdirection on Mangold’s part. Because unlike Shane, Logan brings death to those he means to help. This is demonstrated with the fate of the Munson family, who are a stand in for the Starret family of Shane. Laura is not Joey, Joey is the doomed son Nate Munson. Logan draws the Reavers to their home, and is powerless to stop his clone from killing this version of the Starrets. He even gets a bunch of local bullies killed, as he provoked them with an earlier display of violence, and they show up in time for the X-24 to off them too.
Many reviewers, while praising Logan, expressed discomfort with the level of violence. You are supposed to feel this way. The violence in Logan is the most extreme of all the X-Men movies, and nearly all superhero movies. It deliberately mimics the level of violence in Blood Meridian. You are not supposed to revel in it, and I have to say I am a bit disappointed in some who hold up the young Laura as some sort of female empowerment figure. If superheroes really existed, they would leave a trail of death and destruction in their wake that dwarfs anything done by ISIS.
Logan is not the first effort to de-mythologize the super-hero genre. Alan Moore did this with Watchmen, which was later adapted into a film. Moore’s caped crusaders are very human and fail to achieve anything. The ending offers only an illusion of hope, which is better described as “progress.”
Logan differs from Watchmen in that there is a real message of hope at the end. I am not the first to note the religious sensibilities of the film. As I watched, I found myself counting how many times Logan fell down or laid down and lost consciousness in the last act. Three, I believe. And the choice of death was quite interesting: impalement on a tree, with a final stab in the side from the X-24.
In his review, Mr. Vishnevestky notes that Logan is certainly no Christ figure. I agree, he is far more a Peter, futilely hacking away with his sword at an endless stream of enemies, or a good thief, worried about money and material things. But whether thief or Peter, in the end he embraces love and submits to death.
Atheists sometimes complain that Christians wind up seeing religious symbols where they do not exist. And its true to an extent, but also not true. If you want us to stop seeing them, then stop using them. Even Palpatine can’t stop himself when talking about his mentor in Revenge of the Sith, who used his powers to save those he loved from death: “He saved others, he could not save himself.” Actually that’s Matthew 27:42.
What Palpatine said was: He could save others from death, but not himself.” Big difference, right? Perhaps George Lucas is a closet Christian, and wanted to sneak in an allusion to Lazarus and Jesus. I do not know. And I don’t presume to know Mr. Mangold and his fellow screenwriters’ religious views, but as I discussed in a prior review, it would not be the first time non-Christian Hollywood directors explored Christianity in an indirect way.
So I go to these movies, and watch the hero sacrificing himself and/or dying and coming back to life, and having a happy ending. You cannot get away from it, whether its Harry Potter in the Deathly Hallows or Flynn Rider in Tangled. I could make a very long list. And our stories were not always this way. Before the Incarnation, the choice for Drama in the West was either Tragedy or Comedy, death or absurdity. And it was believed these forms were god given, from the muses Melpomene (tragedy) and Thalia (comedy).
But now things have changed. Just like the Roman roads were put to use to spread the Word, so are all mediums curved towards His purpose, whether you want it or not. So it’s not really Hollywood’s fault that they keep inviting an inconvenient guest into their movies. While we live on our surface, Jesus is living rent free in that space inside your heart. Like a good general, he is the master of your interior lines, and can meet you on whatever ground you choose: the workplace, films, books, etc. All your bases belong to Him.
And he is there to welcome us, but first you must become like a little child to receive him. So we are left with a message of hope, as Laura and her fellow children return to Eden, or Heaven. If the studios have any decency, we won’t see any sequels with a grown-up Laura dealing death and destruction. You aren’t supposed to return from the Undiscovered Country.
So, goodbye Laura, and don’t ever come back.