So I just saw James Mangold’s Logan. Phenomenal performance from Patrick Stewart, not nearly enough of Eric LaSalle and family, and some very impressive CGI for Logan on Logan action (yes I know exactly how that sounds, and I already have an alert set for that fic). But, I sort of feel like two different films got cut together, and neither got what it fully deserved. So this post comes in two halves…
Firstly, let’s deal with the film about emotional relationships between men.
People who know me off-line listen to me complain about the ‘cinema of epic man pain’ that has dominated western screens in recent years, in which otherwise privileged men moan about their self-inflicted wounds – Whiplash (2014), Foxcatcher (2014), Birdman (2014), Sideways (2004), Into the Wild (2007), pretty much anything starring Jake Gyllenhall. Individually, many of these films are excellent. However, tally them up, and all I think is ‘boo hoo hoo, so hard being cis, straight, white and male and having choices…’
James ‘Logan’ Howlett is super-powered manpain. Always has been. He isolates himself and moans about how bad he has it, until those who’ve got it worse – women, particularly women of colour, disabled men, or children – dig him out and demand he step up and use his privilege for good. I recently wrote a chapter about fascism in the X-Men films in which I noted this trend, suggesting that in repeatedly re-centering the most normative white man among the mutants, these films are making a pretty clear point about the use and abuse of power and privilege. The worst badguys and the central hero are always those with the most power, and that’s pretty realistic. Powerful allies are good and necessary allies.
Logan, however, opens in a world in which the badguys won; there are no more heroes. The white guys survived whatever devastation scattered the mutants: Logan’s ability to blend in as a middle aged man keeps them somewhat safer. But they’ve got survivors guilt by the bucket load, and no emotional language to deal with it. In fact, they keep on sacrificing those less able to blend in; and its no coincidence he’s called Caliban, or that the good Samaritans are black.
The relationship between Charles Xavier and his biggest disappointment, the untameable Wolverine, is an excellent story. Everything he’s ever wanted for Logan, and couldn’t get him to realise, is so bittersweet. As is Logan’s utter inability to deal with everything the old man means to him. They constantly fail to make a connection, until death. And in that moment, they both know what they should have said to the other, and it’s all too late. But, it’s also all too beautiful. It should be as harsh as the violence that young Logan meted out in his dog tags. It should have been more raw, more bloody, more despairing. This is the death of the strong silent type. The death of a particular type of hero, the hero who fails. Logan failed to save the other mutants, to save his father figure. He fails to be a father to the girl who shares his DNA; as he says, ‘I’m no good at this.’ This being emotional connection, the development of open and emotionally satisfying relationships.
In this last Wolverine movie, Logan literally can’t heal. What a metaphor. What the military did to him is poisoning him. Though this is literalised as adamantium slowly killing his regenerative properties, the metaphor is pretty neat. Charles Xavier, similarly, can no longer control his memories, and his emotions: sending out shock waves into his surrounding area. Again, what an image of a once powerful old man – no longer able to be a controlling patriarch, he cries, he connects to the wrong people, he seeks trust and comfort. Charles is much wiser than Logan, he longs for all these good things, and is willing to risk much to gain them, but he also recognises that perhaps he does not deserve them. When he does get what he wants, the events of the film suggest, people die. Logan suggests the same, that the people he cares about die, and he isolates himself to keep them safe. This is reinforced by the references to Shane (1953) scattered throughout this film by Mangold. Though this is an effective short-hand for expressing much about how the director wants to position Logan and X-23, who don’t get a real chance to actually express anything for themselves (more on which in a later post), it tries to ignore the context of George Steven’s much older film.
Charles Xavier is a nonagenerian in the timeline of Logan. His memories of seeing Alan Ladd’s performance as a child is supposed to be a moment of bonding between him and Laura/X-23, but his experience as a boy in the mid-twentieth century has nothing to do with her experience as a girl in the 21st. Shane’s model of masculinity, set sometime in the 19th century, and near deified in American post-war cinema, is contextually specific also. And how fitting for the Wolverine – born in the nineteenth century, made a hero in the mid-twentieth in the comic books he despises, and now out of time, unable to be the kind of man that he thinks he ought to. Laura’s relationship to Logan should not echo Joey Starrett’s idolisation of Shane. Not because they are both killers, and small children deserve better role models, but because these men are both products of toxic patriarchal culture that made them isolated, damaged, and emotionally locked-down loners. Shane is certainly a film for Charles and Logan, and perhaps they should have bonded over it themselves.
Another strand of film stitched into Mangold’s rather beautiful monster is about family. Charles and Logan pose as family while travelling, and it allows them to finally act what they truly feel, to express what needs saying, all while pretending it’s for the benefit of others. This is also about the toxic model of masculinity that they were both raised with, and are unable to shake off. This is the real manpain – the inability to acknowledge their own emotions, and those of others. The inability to connect until its too late. This is what I object to being romanticised, prettified by the softening of their deaths. They both seem to reach some sort of loving closure. Bullshit. Don’t tell me that damaged men only find release in death. There are men too damaged to heal, and talking often comes too late, as the suicide rates for men tell us. Don’t make that a beautiful tragedy.
I wanted them raging against the dying of the light. I wanted Logan and Charles to acknowledge, to each other, that they had much left unsaid, and undone, and not accept that as inevitable. I wanted an acknowledgement that manpain isn’t inevitable, its culturally constructed. I certainly didn’t want Logan checking out on his damaged, barely functional daughter just when she needed him most… but that’s the second half of this post…