Ice Cream For Bedwetters #1
A good X-Men movie, what a novel concept.
Remember when we were sure Logan was going to suck because it was going to be an adaptation of Mark Millar’s godawful Old Man Logan epic? (Although: credit where it’s due, the fact that I still remember so many particulars about it speaks to some degree of memorability, if not necessarily quality.) No family resemblance remains in the current film, besides the general desire to make “Unforgiven, but X-Men.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Unforgiven is a pretty durable template. So’s Shane, obviously. It’s a great movie — no caveats, no qualifications. I was genuinely surprised. Even given the positive buzz I figured I’d walk out of the theater doing that thing I do where I stick my chin out and muse silently, “that was a good movie — for an X-Men movie.” Tut-tutting all the way. But I genuinely liked it. I would recommend this movie. I never recommend comic book movies because by and large even the good ones are usually only so-so as movies qua movies. This one is better than that, much to my surprise.
I walked out of the movie with something I hadn’t had in quite some time — generally pleasant feelings towards superheroes. One superhero, at least. And not one I was ever particularly that fond of — no more than any of the other X-Men, at least. I tend to like the X-Men en masse and with only a couple exceptions think they make poor solo characters, Wolverine sadly not being one of those exceptions. I don’t think they ever got over the problem of Logan becoming a progressively less interesting character the more that was known about him. This was an inevitable result of having to spin off the series’ most popular character. One of the reasons he was popular is that he was mysterious. That was a long time ago.
It’s not even that Origin (2001–02) killed him. He was dead a long time ago, because the fact that he had a mysterious past meant that for a decade and a half almost every story became about Wolverine’s past. And those stories were so boring. Revealing a tiny slice of his past used to be good for goosing sales, such that by the early 90s on any given month both his solo title and at least one of the other X-Men books could be found exploring Wolverine’s mysterious origins. Now, don’t get me wrong — we got Barry Windsor Smith’s Weapon X (1991) out of the deal, and that’s the best Wolverine solo story ever. But Weapon X was designed to rest on its own. Wolverine’s origins don’t sell many comics anymore. No one cares now that we know he was a punk kid who grew up in turn-of-the-century Canada. Over the years they showed us too many slices of his past, and now there’s nothing left that hasn’t been sliced.
The best way to make Wolverine work again would be to make him doubt everything he knows about himself, again. Go all the way back to House of M (2005) and wipe the slate of everything we got in Origin and Origins (2006–2010). Give us back that guy we used to at least tolerate, until they flogged him so hard we were happy recently to see him die.
One of the major appeals of the X-Men is that, whereas many other heroes are about childhood wish-fulfillment, the X-Men are about adolescent wish fulfillment. This is why so many X-Men can get away with having boring, abstract, or inconsequential powers (I’m looking at you, Bishop). The franchise isn’t about how awesome it would be to fly, it’s about how awesome it would be to be grown up. It’s about discovering who you are from the perspective of a kid growing up and facing puberty.
The X-Men are removed from a lot of standard superhero trappings. They usually don’t mess with secret identities. They don’t have to struggle with day jobs. They don’t really have money woes, even though most of the members of the team have no visible means of support. They go to a boarding school where the only subjects are fighting, fucking, and moping. (Being grown up without actually growing up.) Who do you want to be? At the Xavier School there are no rules against becoming the most interesting version of yourself. The upright leader who people secretly loathe but also respect? The tortured loner with a mysterious past and excellent luck with women? Or maybe the kindly but stern father figure? Gruff but loveable nerd? Etc., etc. . . .
The good news about the X-Men is that there are so many fantasy role models, a character to want to be and a character to want to smooch for almost every reader of every background. The bad news is that at least for me the wish-fulfillment nature of these archetypes never held much interest after I left my teen years. The X-Men I loved best was the overheated soap-opera with never-ending (engrossing!) plotlines that ran for years, with a team that got their asses kicked all the time, and characters who were constantly on the verse of nervous breakdowns because life never got better. It’s the perfect fantasy for any horny and confused thirteen-year-old. It’s a good formula, but oddly not a formula to which Marvel has been particularly interested in bringing back for any length of time in the past couple decades.
The X-Men make the adult world seem extraordinarily exciting for a kid, while also keeping it within the familiar metaphor of a school. It is also a limited formula, and the reason why Logan excels is that it takes this formula to its obvious limit — that is, the limits of masculinity itself. Logan is about failure. That’s why it stings, because it takes the metaphor of an invincible super-soldier and shows us that invincibility is an illusion and age is the great leveler. That’s the Unforgiven formula: give us a strong man made weak by the ravages of time, but give him the strength to choose the circumstances of his own demise. A power fantasy not for teens but for someone closer to Social Security.
The best scene in the movie isn’t a fight, isn’t even a character interaction, it’s a brief sequence that rests almost entirely on Hugh Jackman. There’s a scene about 2/3 of the way through, with Logan in the middle of nowhere, looking at a beautiful nature scene — utter tranquility, a clear pond on the side of a lonely road — and trying to find a few meaningful and sincere words to say about something very bad that just happened. He chokes out a few words and then almost seems to be on the verge of crying, breaking down completely . . . but he doesn’t. He runs back to the pickup and starts wailing on his car with a shovel. No CGI, no stunts, just Jackman himself taking out the driver’s side mirror of an old truck with a shovel and then collapsing exhausted in the middle of the road. Completed beaten. Just a few seconds of real savagery, not the fictional struggle of a powerful mutant with strange abilities, but the rage of an older man who realizes that the considerable skills he was taught are inadequate to the most important tasks. All he knows is violence. He can’t look past it. It’s the only way he can express himself. And it doesn’t work very well.
Beating up a truck is hardly the most dangerous or thrilling fight sequence in the film, but it’s the most real, because I’ve been there. You’ve been there. It’s a place where people spend a lot of time, men and women both.
There’s a Barbara Kruger piece I love, an old photo of men teasing / fighting each other with the caption, “You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.” It looks violent at first but closer inspection reveals the men are smiling.
Violence is intimacy, but it’s inadequate intimacy, inadequate to cover up the gap left by masculine taboos against physical contact. Logan needs to be both warrior and protector. Left to himself he can’t square the fact that the two roles are fundamentally incompatible. It’s a familiar note from any number of decent Wolverine stories over the years, but means a bit more in the context of the swan song for a seventeen-year performance like Jackman’s. He sells the conflict as more than window-dressing to juvenile violence.
Wolverine is a two-dimensional character who was never designed to be a solo star. His best stories come from pushing up against the limits of those dimensions. Logan is no different. One of his last lines in the film, which he speaks to the girl who has become his daughter, is “Don’t be what they made you.” If you want a redeeming message from Logan the film and Wolverine the character? You don’t have to be what someone else tells you to be. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a dream. He’s stuck, but he also isn’t real.
You can choose to be better.
Choose to be better.
Let’s do something here for a while.
Join my Patreon to support this column. Subscribers also receive exclusive content, such as my new weekly podcast Tegan Reads Wookieepedia, along with exclusive semi-weekly political essays.
Read more of my writing on comics and pop culture at the Onion’s AV Club.