Lers of Spoi. You have been warned.
There’s always been a contingent of X-Men fans who insist on seeing Mutant as Allegory, a metaphor—albeit a heavy-handed one— for prejudice and disenfranchisement. Mutants routinely get invoked as a sort of Other Of The Week: stand-ins for unwanted immigrants, untrusted ethnicities, oppressed orientations. I’ve never been a big reader of the comics, but certainly the films have played into this. One memorable example occurs early in the first movie, when a bewildered parent asks her child: “Honey, have you tried just not being a mutant?” (An even more memorable example is young Magneto’s psionic awakening in a Nazi concentration camp.)
I’ve never bought into this interpretation, for the same reason I reject the claim that Oprah Winfrey was “disenfranchised” when some racist idiot in Zurich refused to show her a handbag because it was “too expensive” for a black woman to afford. When you can buy the whole damn store and the street it sits on with pocket change; when you can buy the home of the asshole who just disrespected you and have it bulldozed; when you can use your influence to get that person fired in the blink of an eye and turn her social media life into a living hell— the fact that you don’t do any of those things does not mean that you’ve been oppressed. It means you’ve been merciful to someone you could just as easily squash like a bug.
Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine. Sure, baselines fear and revile mutants; that’s a far cry from “disenfranchising” them. How long would gay-bashing be a thing, if gays could strike down their attackers with lightning bolts?
To my mind, X-Men are the Oprahs of the Marvel Universe. Immensely powerful. Inexplicably patient with the small-minded. And the fact that they’ve been consistently portrayed as victims has significantly compromised my suspension of disbelief— and hence, my enjoyment— of pretty much every X-Men movie I’ve taken in.
Right up to the best of the lot so far, the intimate, humane, sometimes brilliant Logan.
Logan is far and away the best X-Men movie I’ve ever seen (I’m tempted to say it’s the best X-Men movie ever made, but I haven’t seen Apocalypse so who knows). The characterizations are deeper, their relationships more nuanced. The acting is better: you wouldn’t expect less from Patrick Stewart, who somehow managed to maintain his dignity and gravitas throughout even the most idiotic ST:TNG episodes (looking at you, “Skin of Evil”), but the rest of the cast keeps up with him and makes it look effortless. The fight choreography is bone-crunchingly beautiful. This is the Unforgiven of Marvel movies, a story that focuses not on some absurdly high-stakes threat to Life As We Know It but on the more intimate costs to lives as we knew them. It’s a story about entropy and unhappy endings. It earns its 94% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Until the last act, when it throws it all away.
I’m not just nitpicking about the canonical dumbness inevitable in any movie based on a sixties-era comic franchise. (If I were, I might wonder how Logan’s 25-cm claws manage to retract into his arms without immobilizing his wrists like rebar through salami; the guy must have to extend his claws every time he wants to hold a spoonful of Cheerios. It’s a good thing they don’t sell milk in bags down there.) I’m complaining about something which, I think, largely betrays all that resonant, character-based story-telling that comprises the bulk of the movie. Or rather, I’m complaining about two things:
- When the bad guys know that their quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name would they try to take them down with conventional gun-toting infantry? They’ve got drones, for Chrissake: why not use robots to shoot the kids from above the treeline? Why not snipe them from a safe distance with tranquilizers, or gas the forest, or do any of a dozen other things that could take down their targets without exposing ill-equipped flesh-and-blood to mutant countermeasures?
- When said quarry can freeze flesh unto shattering with their breath, summon the very undergrowth to strangle and entangle pursuers, spit out bullets, and hurl everything from trees to troop transports with their minds, why in Christ’s name do they not do any of that until half of them have already been captured and Logan himself is half-dead? We’re not talking about do-goody pacifists here; these aren’t adults who’ve made a conscious decision to eschew violence for the greater good. These are ten-year-old kids— with all the emotional maturity that implies— who’ve been trained as supersoldiers almost from the moment of conception. Back in the first act Laura must have single-handedly killed twenty heavily-armed cyber-enhanced psycho killers with no weapons but what God and the bioengineers gave her. So why are these superkillers running like frightened animals in the first place? Why aren’t they laying traps, implementing countermeasures, fighting back? They know how to do it; hell, they don’t know how to do anything else.
The answer, I’m guessing, is because writer James Mangold bought into the same bullshit allegory that so many others have: no matter the canon, no matter their powers, these kids have to be victims, even though the script has already shown us that they definitively are not. They must be oppressed and disempowered by an intolerant world, because that’s what the whole X-Men allegory thing is all about.
And in buying into that narrative, Mangold renders Logan’s ultimate sacrifice pretty much meaningless. The children he died protecting were far more powerful than he was: numerically, psionically, even at simple hand-to-hand combat. If they hadn’t been shackled by allegorical fiat they could have won that battle before Logan ever showed up.
Which means that Logan died for nothing. And that’s not some nerdy quibble along the lines of the transporter doesn’t work like that; it’s a betrayal of nuanced characters we’ve come to care about, all for the sake of a mutants-as-victims narrative that never made any sense to begin with.
If the screenwriters had to indulge their victim mindset, they could have done so without sacrificing story logic or throwing away two hours of character development. Here’s a thought: Posit that mutant powers only manifest at puberty (something established way back at the start of the franchise, with Rogue’s first adolescent kiss). A few of these kids are verging on adulthood, but not most; they’re still vulnerable to men with guns. They’re being hunted not for what they can do now, but for what they’ll be able to do if allowed to live another year or two. Let the stress of being cornered, of seeing their fellows mowed down, the sheer adrenaline response of fight/flight be the trigger that activates just a few of the older ones, allows their powers to manifest: not in full-on crush-all-opposition mode, but just enough to hold on until Logan arrives to turn the tide. It would change very little in terms of pacing or screen time; it would change everything in terms of earned emotional impact.
But no. What we’re given is a third-act chase scene almost as dumb as the climax of Star Trek Beyond. Which is a shame, because Star Trek Beyond was a loud dumb movie from the start; one more dumb element was par for the course. Logan, by way of contrast, is a thoughtful, melancholy rumination on the whole superhero premise; it remains, for the most part, a thing of beauty.
Too bad about that big festering pustule on the forehead.