Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post by Joshua Plencner considers the recent Logan film through the lens of an Ultimate X-Men story from 2004, and is only the third post on The Middle Spaces about film. We hope to have more in the future. Have an idea? Pitch us something!
There’s a lot to admire in Logan, Hugh Jackman’s curtain call performance as the inveterately grizzled X-Men mainstay Wolverine. Aesthetically and emotionally, it tops out the X-Film franchise. Under director James Mangold, Logan fills its tightly-contained, hyper-bordered world with a contemplative, almost reverential tone—which yields a sharp break from the bloated movies of the X-kin and their cousins in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—while at the same time weaving the film with a rich set of allusions that gesture far beyond the hard-lit and dusty future inhabited by an R-rated, liquor chugging, and profanity spewing Weapon X.
Logan’s reliance on allusion comes across as a strength, never feeling like it veers into dependence or crass fan-service. The call-outs are creative and generative, adding satisfying texture to the project. For instance, and most obviously, much critical hay has already been made with Logan’s heavy allusive use of Shane, the classic 1953 Alan Ladd western film that structures much of Logan’s second and third acts. Indeed, while it teeters on procedural at times, so intense is the mirroring, borrowing, and straight up quoting of Shane in Logan that Adam Harvilla at The Ringer calls Shane “basically Logan without the claws.” And with deep (if modified) reference to the Old Man Logan stories from the comic books, among other comic source material credits, we might approach Logan from a variety of productive analytic perspectives.
But one allusion struck me as especially poignant given the situation of Logan within the larger multi-media history of the X-Men, which has staked its method on mining some of the largest and flashiest comics stories while the potential of the quieter corners of the back-issue bin are left to molder. Although subtle compared to the more obvious bang-bang call-outs, I really appreciated a reference to (and on-screen revision of) one of the small handful of single comic book issues that totally frames my understanding of any superhero character: 2004’s Ultimate X-Men #41.
As a single episode of a year-long run on Ultimate X-Men written by Brian Michael Bendis—a run that, for a variety of reasons, never truly coheres, but lingers on as a string of exercises that offer up a sense of what could have been great had he the same chance to shape another corner of the Ultimate Universe beyond Ultimate Spider-Man—it’s an easily glossed-over moment. Yet issue #41 stands out for its acutely affecting, and distressing, depiction of Wolverine.
In Ultimate X-Men #41, Wolverine is shown using his healing factor in ways that allow him to engage serious threats that other mutants simply can’t. The stand-alone story tracks the emergence of a new mutant—an unnamed teenage boy whose body secretes toxins and poisons so potent that his physical presence vaporizes all organic matter around him. Which seems both an extraordinary threat and really shit luck as far as growing into one’s mutant powers goes.
After realizing he’s killed his friends and family, and completely terrified of himself, the boy runs away to hide in a cave where, with the help of Professor X, Wolverine finds him and—as much as he’s able—consoles him. In typical Bendis style, the issue is talky. Wolverine smooths the barbs of blunt conversation with booze, passing the boy a can of beer while chatting him up. For a supposedly surly Canadian, Logan always plays well in his quick turns as an adamantium-clawed uncle.
In the last panel of the comic, however, Wolverine steps out of the cave alone, suggesting that his healing power (or to be technical, the Ultimate Universe version of Wolverine’s healing power, which is more like a survival trait) allowed him to get close enough to the boy to kill him, eliminating the extraordinary threat his life posed.
This is, for me, a hard-kernel, fundamental characterization—one that’s stuck around in shaping how I read Wolverine across different media. I think it’s normal to see Wolverine as a kind of badass, gives-no-shits character who does what he wants (and runs his mouth while doing it). To be sure, time and again, since his creation in 1974, comics readers can see echoes of that famous line, that Wolverine is “the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice,” to help underscore the violent potential of his presence. But Ultimate X-Men #41 goes so much further than that famous tagline by skewing it pitch-black: “what he does,” indeed what he’s “best at” in this issue, is kill a child. Ultimate X-Men #41 characterizes him as the hero who will use his mutant healing powers to protect others by any means necessary—including the most awful things imaginable.
It’s a loaded characterization, certainly, and one that seems compelling to storytellers, as well. For instance, this specific tactical use of healing power is a beat that gets picked up in the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, where in the climax battle scene viewers watch the bizarre dis/re-integration of Wolverine’s body as he inches closer and closer to the Dark Phoenix, that fan-favorite elemental force of destructive passion embodied by founding X-Men member Jean Grey, ultimately getting close enough to kill her in order to “save her” (and, you know, the world).
In both cases, in the comic and the film, Wolverine’s healing power lets him get closer than he should to characters that ought (or actively want) to kill him. Although his body is itself a weapon—and was forcibly constructed as one—Wolverine weaponizes his healing factor to gain a kind of intimate, proximal advantage that he can exploit with violence. His body weathers enormous damage, in the process becoming increasingly intimate to his targets, in order so that he can harm them—and save others.
Logan draws on this weaponization of Wolverine’s healing factor by layering it within the borrowed narrative structure of Shane and, in so doing, updates the pathos of that earlier story for a new generation of moviegoers. By using the formal framework of a story-within-a-story, which I think works quite well in this case given its potential to come across as a didactic mess, viewers watch the emotional climax of Shane alongside the characters of Logan, with Professor X quietly reflecting that he had seen Shane as a young boy.
Later, viewers are revisited by the famous closing line Shane when at the emotional climax of Logan we watch as the young star of the film, Laura Kinney, played by Dafne Keen, recites the line:
“There’s no living with, with a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand, a brand that sticks. There’s no going back. Now you run on home to your mother and tell her, tell her everything’s alright, and there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”
In Shane as in Logan, the phrase “guns in the valley” works as a metonymic characterization of the gunslingers of the mythologized Old West whose time, amidst new settlement and the desire for a peaceful future, has passed. Here, metonymy functions as a kind of weaponization—a linguistic making of the gunslingers’ bodies into weapons themselves. Indeed, much like Wolverine in Ultimate X-Men #41, the “guns in the valley” use their bodies as tactical tools of violence in service of a higher purpose, gaining advantage over others through special skill and training to create—as far as possible—a safer future for the innocent lives threatened by senseless violence.
Interestingly, Logan revises this tactical use of healing power to tell a very different story. Instead of weaponizing his mutant healing power by using it to exploit physical proximity with violence, he uses his healing to gain physical proximity so that he can express care.
In Logan, Professor X has aged considerably, and his health has deteriorated. In particular, he suffers from degenerative seizures, which are shown as damaging to others, human and mutant alike, on a scale similar to the boy from Ultimate X-Men #41. Xavier tragically injures (and, it’s suggested rather hauntingly, has killed) those around him in fits he can’t control. During those seizures, only Wolverine remains physically mobile enough to get close to the Professor and dose him with a sedative that breaks the bonds of the seizure, thereby freeing everyone nearby from the Professor’s unchecked psychic powers. Revising the familiar story, to heal, in this case, is Wolverine’s capacity to be tender, to endure not only for the sake of some abstract world in need of saving, but for the very particular well-being of someone he, throughout the film, repeatedly describes to others as his father. To heal is to continually open himself to relationships with those he loves.
In that way, this shift—from the use of healing power as a means of committing violence to its use as a means of expressing physical care for an ill father-figure and mentor—is a technique of showing in micro one of the film’s larger themes: that the “gun in the valley” was always more than a gun, that Wolverine was never only the hardened killer willing to do what others wouldn’t because he alone could shoulder the burden. Although his healing powers gave him the ability to kill in ways others couldn’t, and in that way gave him a unique tactical method of providing for common safety, they also highlight his vulnerability to be emotionally broken down by the sickness and loss of others—which, for him, is always an iterated and ongoing process, one that accumulates like a poison, taking its quietly vicious toll over time.
Aging might necessarily usher in opportunities for change, loss and trauma and redemption being familiar signposts on that road. And maybe, just like the boy in the issue of Ultimate X-Men that’s stuck with me for so long, this movie is merely another chapter chronicling characters living out their own version of some real shit luck, draped in different textures. But as a sendoff, I thought Logan’s allusive effort to work through the raw tension of care and violence was fitting. By highlighting the vast, overlapping landscapes of the superhero and western genres, the story meditates on frontiers and borders—both mythic and real—closing some while puncturing others. At the end of an era, if we want to tell ourselves, like Shane and Laura, that “everything’s alright,” that time is moving forward stably, then maybe this beautiful and brutal good-bye is exactly what we need.
Joshua Plencner is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics at Drexel University. He completed his PhD in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oregon in December 2014. His research explores the intersection of American visual culture and the politics of race, with specializations in the study of racial formation in popular culture, affect theory, comics studies, and American Political Development. His written work has appeared in both popular and scholarly outlets, including Artists Against Police Brutality, Black Perspectives, and a forthcoming volume on religion and comics from the University of Press of Mississippi.