Wolverine, Masculinity & Violence
The white man can be both an oppressor and a savior, but the tools for salvation are very much defined by the oppressor.
(CN: discussion of violence, masculinity, racism and oppression)
The darkness of super-hero movies in the last few years has served to complicate representations of physical violence and gender. We can objectively argue that violence is bad, but can we do so when violence is enacted in defense against dark forces, in response to injustice, unfairness and oppression? This is the question I found myself asking while watching the film Logan, the latest installment of the Wolverine story. This is also a question that has been asked over and over across the internet since (literal, actual) Nazi Richard Spencer was punched in the face and — perhaps most importantly, in the age of memes — it was caught on camera and edited hundreds of times for the entertainment of those who stand against his violent ideology (and I include myself in this group).
It is no secret that violence is heavily associated with men and masculinity; however way we slice the data, most violence in the world is enacted by men. Wolverine himself is pained by his own violence, by the people he has killed with an easy swing of his powerful claws. In Logan, he attempts to shed his Wolverine identity, at first trying to quietly drink himself to death while caring precariously for Professor Xavier, who has his own set of health problems. However, he is soon forced to indulge in violence to save a mutant little girl, Laura, who turns out to be his daughter.
As Ana Mardoll pointed out on Twitter, Logan has social justice themes that are similar to Mad Max: Fury Road. Logan’s daughter, Laura, was raised in a lab with other mutant children, in an experiment to raise a mutant army. The location of the lab in Mexico is due to the illegalities of such experiments in the USA and Canada. Previous to their escape, they had never gone outside and quite obviously suffered for it. The women who gave birth to the children are implied to be dead and once the lab is able to produce a soul-less, heartless version of Logan himself, the lab runners attempt to purge all the children since their existence is no longer necessary.
Logan, like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, is an unwilling hero with unique skills who sees no choice in the violence he enacts to save the day. This is, perhaps, what makes the violence in these two movies palatable to the audience watching. Logan is clearly disturbed and seems to be near death for it; he has night terrors, speaks of remorse for killing people and refuses any emotional exchange that goes past stiff conversation. His masculine violence is not one of willingness. In contrast to his remorse, the fight scenes are brutal, with decapitations, cutting off limbs and stabbings in horrific places of the body. As Logan fights to protect Laura, it’s widely understood that he is good, but he is driven to violence by the circumstances around him.
It’s interesting to observe, as women and girls are becoming more and more recognized as fans of comic books and super-hero fiction, how inclusion manifests in movies like this. The commodification of violence is not new, but Laura’s righteous rage and resulting brutality when fighting off her enemies gives pause for reflection. If violence is seen as masculine, and non-violence is seen as feminine where do these gender characteristics fall when Laura drops a decapitated head at the feet of her tormentors to emphasize what she is capable of?
Logan’s remorse exists alongside his emotional unavailability: when Professor Xavier dies and Laura extends a supportive hand to Logan, he angrily refuses it. On the other hand, Laura’s lack of remorse for killing the bad guys exists alongside her search of fatherly love from Logan.
In a reflexive moment of the film, Logan discovers Laura has been reading X-Men comics, and he sharply attempts to shatter her dreams about heroic action. The moment is extremely meta for those in the movie theater who have just witnessed Wolverine slaying dozens of men.
“In the real world, people die!” Logan yells.
Yes, in the real world people die. In the real world, in fact, people are dying. During a scene where the mutant children are running for the border, desperately attempting to escape the brutal police force that wants to capture them and presumably destroy them, the heart become tight as the audience watches grown men be so brutal to tiny children, and it’s impossible to reconcile this as fiction when children in Central America flee violence to the United States, only to be met with violent and inhumane immigration laws and a population that does not want them. In Syria, the most heart-wrenching images have been of children crying in desperation and fear, often without their families. It’s strange to me to be making such a point in such a blatantly violent film: is the point here that violence is allowed if the underdog is in peril? And is Logan really an underdog?
Later on, Logan tells Laura she will have to live with the fact that she killed so many people. Laura responds, perhaps with the naivety of a child, that the people she killed were bad, with the implication that this should be allowed or that it should cause no remorse. Logan responds: “All the same.” Of course, Logan is right: bad people are still people.
However, good people were also killed in the process of taking Laura to her safe mutant haven: a family of African Americans was killed by soul-less Logan, and here, they are dismissed as simple collateral damage to Logan and Laura’s journey. This part of the film is a little enraging, because of Professor Xavier’s insistence on engaging with this family despite the knowledge that they are being chased by very dangerous, cruel people. In the midst of the family’s warm comfort, moments before everyone is slayed , Xavier tells Logan: “This is what love feels like, there’s still time.” I can’t help but think that the happiness and love of this black family was being objectified by Xavier and Logan’s white gaze: Xavier’s sole purpose for engaging with this family was seemed to be showing Logan what love feels like, while simultaneously putting the family in danger of being killed. [As a side note, I’m pretty sure Logan knows what love and loss feels like, he once had a wife who was killed by the same mutant-hating people who were chasing them in this movie, so this all seemed a little exploitative to me.] Perhaps a more morbid point to make here is that love is not enough to save us, that oppression will take what we hold dearest to us even when we are attempting to fight back.
Both Laura and Logan are white, and I believe their race is important in the allowance of violence. Fiction is fiction and the binary of good vs evil is extremely comforting. I am not arguing that people who watch Logan will commit acts of violence; but there is an underlying narrative, in films like this one, that violence is necessary for a larger cause and in response to unfairness and oppression. I do not dispute the usefulness of violence in civil rights movements (it’s historically obvious that violence works, particularly because oppression itself is extremely violent), but this narrative of white male saviourism, remorse and violence can be dangerous because of its flexibility.
It doesn’t take much to convince a person that they are the underdog and that they need to do something drastic about their own dis-empowerment — even if, as we have seen in the case of white Trump voters, this is not true at all. Within this narrative of savior, most arguments are applicable: perhaps in the case of Richard Spencer, if he has convinced himself and his fans that he is a dis-empowered white man, his verbal incitement of violence against people of color is justifiable by his own perceived lack of power. The underlying themes of social justice in Logan are important to note, but the narrative of white male saviourism is extremely recyclable, not to mention absolutely embedded in our society — is the fact that Laura, the damsel in distress, is capable of defending herself violently, supposed to redeem the story?
Logan’s emotions are always contained, repressed, and he only feels love as he dies and Laura calls him “Daddy.” If we look at Logan as a representation of masculinity, it’s a bleak portrait: persecuted his whole life, forced to use violence to protect himself and others, only to realize vulnerability and love were possible for him during his last moments. If we consider that two adverts for the British army were shown before this movie, this representation of masculinity becomes even bleaker: are we, as a society, encouraging young men to be emotionally unavailable saviors?
Shifting concepts of masculinity and femininity are shown throughout this film. We already know all people, regardless of gender, are capable of violence. Yet, both Laura’s attacker and protectors are men, who commit violence against each other. The white man can be both an oppressor and a savior, but the tools for salvation are very much defined by the oppressor: violence and the reasons for it can be manipulated into the most horrific things and the self-righteousness of doing the right thing might obfuscate the material consequences of the lost lives of the most vulnerable.
I am a self-funded researcher and journalist based in the UK. Most of the writing I do is unpaid. If you learned something from my writing, please feel free to tip me some dollars at paypal.me/NicoleFroio