Comics, like movies, are texts ripe for deconstruction. Animators and writers deliberately plot their stories for audience entertainment, while simultaneously commenting on the world around us. The power of the comic book is so strong that in 1954 a United States Senate Subcommittee convened to inquire as to whether (among other things) Batman and Robin’s relationship promoted an illicit homosexual lifestyle and contributed to the rise in juvenile delinquency. Watching James Mangold’s Logan, an X-Men movie wrapped up as an elegiac paean to the West, is a lesson in political activism masked by its comic book trappings. Its world that too often reminds us of our own presents the horrors of what could come if audiences aren’t more involved in the body politic. Logan’s adamantium claws rip open a story about how we can survive in Trump’s America.
As comics transitioned off the page and onto the screen, political connotations became more pronounced, nowhere more so than in X-Men. That comic’s creation in 1963 tied the characters in with the growing “flower power” movement, hippies at odds with their straitlaced parents. The idea of the superhero itself is to illustrate an “Other” for average people to fear and revere. Superman is an illegal alien who ultimately benefits from his American upbringing to show us that foreigners are helpful after all. The X-Men, whose powers cast them out from society, have stood in as representations of everything from homosexuals to the disabled.
The mutant world in Logan is one where everyone with powers has been wiped out, with no new mutants born in 25 years. Logan (Hugh Jackman), Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are the three remaining godfathers of the mutant race, old guards of a breed rejected by society at large. James Mangold, no stranger to the Western (he directed 3:10 to Yuma and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line), peppers Logan with callbacks to classic Westerns of the studio era to show both how far America has come and how the ideals of the American Dream no longer apply, and in fact may have contributed to a world that seeks to divide us.
Logan’s diversion spending a nice night with an average all-American family, the Munsons, turns ugly when their water is shut off by a villainous corporation. The company wants the Munsons’ land and has tried to take it via eminent domain. The concept that once allowed for a man to plant his flag anywhere is now presented as the controlling farce that it is, and the metaphor’s poignancy isn’t lost on those who recall the times our current President used eminent domain to get land of his own. Ungifted with powers, the Munsons are the American family under attack, a fact sharpened by their also being African-American. When Logan and the Munson patriarch go out to restore the water, they’re set upon by a group of drawling Texas good ol’ boys, with connotations both political and racial. A terrible event soon happens, involving Logan’s adversaries and the Munsons in a giant clash that speaks to the multilayered conflicts of our own country regarding the government, racism, and brutality on all sides.
The film takes place in the not-too-distant future of 2029, but there are far too many resemblances to 2017. Logan’s job as a limo driver sees him ferrying horny bachelorettes and, most presciently, a gang of frat boys screaming “U.S.A.!” out of the limo’s sunroof as they cross the border into Mexico. In fact, the majority of Logan involves an emphasis on borders, literal and figurative. The border between life and death is played throughout the film, with both Professor X and Logan dealing with struggles involving age and health. We also witness the generation gap of mutants with Logan and the young Laura (Dafne Keen).
It is on Laura that the movie’s depiction of borders is focused. The Spanish-speaking child is on a mission to cross the border into North Dakota, an Edenic paradise not too far removed from Mad Max’s “the Green Place.” The film’s third act becomes a showdown by the shadowy government organization trying to prevent Laura and Logan from illegally entering a country offering them freedom. Ultimately, Laura is told by Logan, “Don’t be what they made you.” She could become the myopic weapon whose only job is to kill and maim, playing right into the hands of a government that has perpetuated mutants as bloodthirsty murderers since the first film; or she could be her own person and show the world that mutants, while different, are humans too. It is our differences that should be praised and used to make the world a better place, and Laura’s eventual banding with a group of like-minded children leaves hope for a future where everyone, mutant and human, can live in peace.
In comparison to last year’s Hell or High Water, a film with a similar thematic connection to the West and an eye toward dismantling governmental structures (in that film’s case, the banks), Logan presents a message of unity. The government in this case is wide and varied — the medical lab creating weapons, the corn syrup company trying to take the Munsons’ land. Capitalism is presented as just one of many villains, but it is our division as a country that’s the biggest problem. The frat boys screaming “U.S.A.,” the crossing of the border, and the overall theme of mutants being an excluded and unwanted group show us in our current predicaments regarding walls and travel bans. It is the mutants — the excluded, cast-off, and shunned members of society — who are our only salvation, and we theirs. It is only by banding together, like Logan deciding his lone-wolf persona can’t save him, that the future generations will survive. “Don’t be what they made you” — a lesson we need now more than ever.
Kristen Lopez lives in Sacramento and keeps her mutant powers under wraps.