(For those of you who care about such things, spoilers ahead.)
Superhero movies tend to encode anxieties about American power. Sometimes they do this intelligently: The Dark Knight (2008) asks some serious(ish) questions about how a liberal society should respond to nihilistic terrorism. Sometimes, not so much: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) gestures towards debates about “freedom” versus “security” but ultimately endorses the idea of an unaccountable global police squad made up of unkillable gods (which was America’s old idea of itself, back when it was a superpower).
Logan (20th Century Fox, directed by James Mangold) is the intelligent kind of superhero movie. This staggeringly bleak film is impossible to understand as anything other than an elegy for American power. The movie is set in 2029. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is old and sick. His adamantium claws no longer extend all the way without causing him pain. He works as a limo driver, toting around airhead debutantes who flash him their boobs. His beat is the Mexican border, which has now become a high-security zone, demarcated by an enormous concrete wall. Early in the film, Logan drives a bunch of American frat boys past the wall while they chant “USA! USA! USA!” But the USA these (young, white) men are endorsing is a devastated place, full of vagrants, deadzone motels, and urban detritus. It is a country whose middle reaches have been transformed, by corporations, into a vast monoculture agribusiness, farmed by enormous machines, for the production of corn syrup (which we later learn has been doctored for nefarious purposes).
Logan himself lives in Mexico, in the ruins of a factory in the desert. (This is a film that takes place in the ruins of traditional industry – among the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation“). Logan keeps Professor Charles Xavier locked in a fallen water tower. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is now in his 90s. He suffers from a degenerative brain disease (we don’t learn which one, exactly) that leaves him ranting like Lear on the heath. Xavier suffers from regular “seizures” that result in everyone around him becoming paralysed for minutes at a time – his mutant powers are no longer under his control. Logan does his best to manage these seizures using pilfered medication and the insulating metal of the fallen water tower. Together, Logan and Xavier dream of escaping Mexico and buying a boat. Of course they never do. (This is a movie in which all such dreams of escape are ultimately revealed as pathetic.)
Xavier’s condition is one of the movie’s clearest statements about American power. The authority of tolerant liberalism – which Xavier has represented throughout the X-Men movies – has now become weak, unpredictable, and dangerous. It can no longer be relied upon. At one point, Logan has to help Xavier use the bathroom. This is perhaps the strangest scene ever to feature in a superhero movie. Watching it tells you that the old dream of a world made simple by good men with superpowers is now dead beyond recall.
In a cemetery (of course, for this is a death-haunted movie), Logan is approached by a Mexican woman who needs his help. It transpires that this woman, Gabriella, is a nurse who used to work for a genetics corporation. This corporation has used mutant DNA to breed a group of mutant children. Gabriella has rescued one such child, Laura – a girl who was created using Logan’s DNA. (She has adamantium claws, like Wolverine.) Pursued by agents of the corporation, Logan and Xavier go on the road with Laura, in search of a place north of the Canadian border called Eden, allegedly a safe refuge for mutants.
Logan deliberately mashes up bits and pieces of 20th century American popular culture. For much of its length, it is a classic American road movie. As they drive, Laura wears heart-shaped sunglasses, like Sue Lyons in Lolita (1962). Logan also borrows from The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – at one point Logan mentions “Okies.” Most significantly, it nods to Shane (1953). Holed up in a Las Vegas hotel room, Xavier and Laura watch as Alan Ladd – the mysterious stranger who rides into town – defeats the evil cattle baron and his henchmen and rescues a family of poor ranchers.
The middle section of Logan proceeds to re-enact the plot of Shane. Logan, Xavier and Laura, involved in an accident on the highway, help an African-American family round up their escaped horses (horses being the Western’s great image of wildness and freedom). They are invited to spend the night at the family’s house. It transpires that a corporation has bought up the land surrounding the family’s farm – those evil cattle barons – and are waging a campaign of intimidation to get the family to leave. (Naturally, the corporation’s employees are all white – there has never been a mainstream movie that trusted white America less.)
We expect Logan to do what Shane would do – we expect him to ride in, like Alan Ladd, and see off the evil barons. But he doesn’t. Instead, the African-American family are all killed. Xavier is murdered by a clone of Wolverine. Logan and Laura barely escape with their lives. In the America of Logan, it is no longer possible for heroes to save the day. Instead, heroes – spent, exhausted, sick, and impotent – merely make things worse. “There are no more guns in the valley,” says Shane in his final speech, having conquered the bad men and restored peace. In Logan, there are only guns in the valley.
Logan, of course, is our contemporary Shane. He is American masculinity at the end of its tether. He spends the whole film dying. At the end, he dies. Over his grave, Laura recites Shane’s final speech – now transformed into an elegy for American heroism. Logan’s grave is marked by a wooden crucifix. In the film’s last moments, she sets this at an angle, so that it forms an X. The film’s final shot is of the grave of the X-Men – the grave of all superheroes, the grave of American masculinity, the grave of liberal American power. The point of Logan is that we can’t tell stories like Shane any more: the world that such stories took place in, and helped to shape, no longer exists.
The journey that Logan and Laura take in Logan subverts the classic American narrative of westward expansion. Huckleberry Finn, at the end of the novel that bears his name, lights out for the territory: he goes west, as generations of American heroes have done, in search of freedom, possibility, and power (like, for instance, the “Okies” in The Grapes of Wrath). Logan and Laura do not go west. They go north – from Mexico to Canada. America, in this movie, is a slalom-course of dangers – somewhere to be gotten through, on your way to somewhere else. There is no more frontier. The old dream of American freedom has turned to poison and ashes.
There are only two Caucasian heroes in Logan. One is Logan himself; the other is Charles Xavier. They are both old, sick, and powerless. All the other white men in the movie are violent, dynamic, evil, exploitative, and cruel. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Logan is that the mutant children – created in a corporation lab, and frequently beaten, abused, and shot – are all typed as minorities. Laura herself – Wolverine’s daughter – is Mexican. The other mutant children are Asian, African-American, or Hispanic. The America of Logan is an America in which powerful, amoral white men torture and kill people of other races. Towards the end, we learn that the villain – a geneticist played by Richard E. Grant – has used genetically manipulated corn syrup to wipe out naturally occurring mutant genes altogether. And the chief corporation thug who pursues Logan and Laura across America is a psychopathically violent white man who thinks all the mutant/minority children should be rounded up and killed.
His name is Donald.