The trope of the hoary old warrior and the child is an old one in cinema, and central to James Mangold’s Logan, as the promotional images attest. It relies upon a set of tired binaries that fail to cohere into a coherent whole, much like this film.
In this trope, the older man experiences an emotional connection he’s been avoiding, and develops hope for the future – if not his own, then that of wider society. The example referenced within the Hugh Jackman vehicle is the Western Shane (1953), but more recent versions from the action and sci-fi canon can be seen in the Mad Max films The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Pitch Black (2000). However, in Logan, the child is female, and overtly identifies as such from the outset, echoing films such as Léon (1994). In referencing a much older film, Mangold perhaps inadvertently highlights the gap between different generations and gendered perception in ways he did not expect. In an earlier post, I explored how appropriate I feel the comparison between Shane and Logan himself is, and suggest that Mangold missed a trick in not having Charles and Logan bond over the Western. I have said that this film feels like two movies stitched together; an uncomfortable Frankenstein creation. The first film is about men, about white men specifically, and their relationships to each other and to themselves in their roles as heroes and failed allies. The second is – or, rather, should be – about a Mexican child, and her group of friends who are ethnically diverse mutants, and their attempt to escape systemic brutality and forge caring community. In this post, I want to explore why I felt disappointed by Laura’s use of Shane to memorialise her biological father given her part in the history of ass-kicking little girls in modern screen media.
Laura/X-23 (Dafne Keen) is the child of an unnamed Mexican woman, hired by a research facility to carry a child with the DNA of the Wolverine, to be bred into a super-soldier. She is not the only child to be created in this manner, and the skills of the other children suggest certain other X-men heroes and villains have become unwitting donors – including Iceman and Arclight, from memory. The fact that their mothers have been ‘disappeared’ is of only a momentary concern within the narrative, an accepted evil that simply shades in the villainy of the perpetrators. This is a fundamental flaw in the film – the perpetrators are all white men, violently suppressing women and children of colour, yet the central emotional development within the film is between white men. This is such a deeply inappropriate backdrop that to me it undermined much of the real emotional resonance that should have been at the heart of Logan and Charles’s story. Why give Laura a backstory of traumatic racism and marginalisation if you aren’t willing to explore it properly?
Joey in Shane has a loving family to return to, his relationship to the older gunslinger might be a formative character influence, but he has a life to return to outside of this filmic diegesis. Mathilda in Léon and Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass (2010) have the choice for a mostly normative life and schooling – if they return to the role of assassin, it might be an informed choice on their part. These films are determined to separate the normative world from that of the hitman or violent hero; the world of violence is secretive, masked. This is never Logan’s experience; his names are interchangable, the Wolverine almost an honorific rather than a pseudonym, his identity is never in doubt. This will also never be true for Laura, whose marginalised mutant nature is inseparable from her marginalisation as a woman of colour. Thus Laura already embodies a duality that in action films is often expressed as opposition; the world of the mercenary, and the safe and normative world, cannot meet without death and destruction as the result. This is central to the action films focused on Riddick; another lone anti-hero whose name is his own but also, almost, a title – given that he has ‘Chronicles’. The seeming impossibility of a balanced identity is demonstrated in the character of Kyra/Jack, through her experiences in The Chronicles of Riddick (2004). In attempting to become as dangerous, independent and ‘cool’ as her hero, Kyra suffers a lot of physical and emotional abuse, but never achieves her aim: a true friendship with Riddick. Kyra’s goal was always impossible, the films suggest; Riddick is emotionally locked down, it’s his survival technique, it is clear in each film that he has no intention of changing.
This should not have been the model for Logan. After all, there is no safe world for mutants, there is no ‘normal’ for Laura who has absolutely nothing, though Mangold’s film acknowledges this all to briefly; her mother’s death is a mere gloss, the murder of her loving guardian (which she might well have witnessed) is simply exposition. The ending, in which a group of immigrant children with no guardians attempt to find sanctuary in Canada, should have enormous emotional resonance given US political realities, yet the start of their journey is used simply as a bookend for that of Logan himself. The last shot of the film, lingering on the grave of a once great white male hero, doesn’t even shift to focus on the next generation as they leave. The survival of these children should be Logan’s greatest achievement, perhaps some sort of legacy, that merges a model of safety with one of resistance. Instead, it seems more like the film is focused on the failure of his physical form, his failure to endure, which was once his hallmark. Lingering on the cairn, built lovingly by the daughter he never knew, and never showed any interest in knowing, I was left feeling angry about Logan’s failures, not hope for Laura’s continued endurance, the trait so like her father’s.
Laura’s future potential is silenced, literally, in a woodland glade where every sound of the children’s continued existence is masked by the surrounding noises of the forest. In an excellent piece for Slate, Emily Yoshida outlines the problems with Laura’s silence, her role as a mute witness to men’s decision making, with occasional bouts of fury or subtitled Spanish as her major modes of communication. Laura is barely a character at all, Yoshida notes, and I agree – her role in this film is that of the catalyst, much like Eleven from Netflix series Stranger Things (2016). And, to an extent, Mathilde.
Over and over again in recent years, we have marvelled at the violent impulses of a tiny girl, we cheer as she throws the head of her enemy at the feet of his leader, perhaps shed a tear as she braves certain death to protect her guardian. But who is she, and what, ultimately, does she want? A craving for Eggos is not a developed character, and stubbornness isn’t enough either. Laura has nothing, and thus Laura is nothing, despite a very strong performance from Dafne Keen that is full of pathos and charm. Without dialogue, without knowing what she finds compelling about the music she likes to listen too, what it is that she and Charles Xavier talk about, what emotions she has invested in Logan, all the audience can feel for her is pity. We are barely even allowed hope, we know so little about her potential future. I think the men who make these films are simply too scared to ask what it is that tough little girls want, and why they are so angry; to which, if Youtube videos are an indication, the answers are probably simply ‘equality’ and ‘sexism’. Instead, these half-pint heroes mute sacrifice must demonstrate their inequality, and their struggle, which is apparently too dangerous to be verbalised.
As Mangold’s film ends we know that there are still guns in the valley. We want X-23 to be the hero her father never really could be, using her powers for good, and perhaps finding the space for real emotional connection. And that mean’s being part of a team or a family. The other children she’s crossing the border with, we see them work together to resist the soldiers much more effectively than when they worked alone, each running scared, every man for himself. Laura and Logan together bring down the evil X-24, the creature Logan would be if he had his daughter’s backstory. Logan cannot survive this meeting with his worst self. At her father’s grave, Laura recites Shane’s speech, about violence being a brand that the gunslinger can’t escape, in which he suggests that Joey run home to his parents, to safety, to a valley free from guns. Why?
Are we really asked to believe that Laura believes that she and the other mutant children are now free to find a home? They have no parents, they will continue to be hunted; Logan himself told them as much. Or, does Laura feel the brand herself; one of the few verbal exchanges she has with Logan is about coming to terms with having killed other people, even bad ones. Just what did Mangold think would appeal to Laura about this speech, at this point in her narrative, as she says good bye to a man she barely knew, who gave her so little of what she didn’t unreasonably ask for – namely, protection and a basic standard of care. If she was going to use this line, I’d have expected it to be at the burial of Charles Xavier, after the deaths of the Morrison family, when she still has hope that she might bond with her father, that he might let her take his hand, and perhaps form a family unit: battling together, branded, but keeping the valley safe.
This is the problem for Logan: it wants to eulogise a hero it recognises as inherently flawed, whilst also leaving room for a future based on a critique of everything he did wrong: rejecting Xavier’s offer of family, not protecting other mutants, isolating himself physically and emotionally. Shane is the reference point because it seems to manage this trick neatly; blending two narrative thread about loners and families, about experience and innocence. But Shane does this by codifying a lot of binaries that no longer work – on one side home, domesticity, family, femininity, safety and innocence, and on the other hardened masculinity, violence, danger and guilt. Laura is flesh of Logan’s flesh, complicating this division just by her very existence. It’s a false division anyway, always has been, as Charles notes, it’s the female lions who protect the pack: violence is inherent in the idea of family and safety. Logan is a film built on contrasts, on opposition, but is also made by people too smart to fall for simplistic binaries, from source material that would deny them the opportunity even if they weren’t. As a result, it ends up with two emotional centres, interlocked like a Venn diagram of Wolverine’s divided self. It could have been really great if it had only been self-aware enough to realise this. That’s a fairly fitting legacy for Logan himself. But his daughter deserves the chance for more.