Friday, March 10, 2017

A spoilery, lengthy look at "Logan" (2017)

The latest movie about Wolverine, “Logan,” is causing a lot of buzz in geek culture. Some are calling it the best X-Man movie ever made; others have gone so far as to call it the best superhero movie ever made. (This claim is a bit of a cliché amongst geeks, who tend to love the latest, shiny object thrown at them. A list of films called “the best superhero movie ever made” would include Deadpool, Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers, X-Men First Class, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Batman Begins, The Incredibles, Spiderman 2, etc. The list goes on and on.

Personally, I have had a real struggle coming to terms with what I think about the movie. On the whole I think it squeaks by with a 3-star rating, just barely getting into the good category. There is a lot to like about the story, but also a lot to groan at.

First the down-sides.

This is a bleak, bleak story. Many think of the R rating as an excuse to throw a lot of language, violence, and sex at the screen. But the filmmakers insist that for them the appeal was to avoid following the obligations of kiddy-fare. They wanted to tell their story, not a market researched formula. So, they saw the “adult content” as a means to an artistic end. That could be good. I do not have problems in principle with stories that require an R rating. But I balk at the story when its main intent feels like a nihilistic, pessimistic vision of the future. This “superhero story” wants to embrace a world where those heroes failed, killed off their own kind, and bring death to everyone they encounter. The X-Men myth is about overcoming hate and fear in our culture. This version puts a firm stamp on that vision that reads, “failed.”

It may not be the story’s fault, but the audience it is aimed at is clearly not mature enough to handle it. Harsh language and violence is commonplace in films of a certain ilk. In “Logan” screenings, every cuss word induced sophomoric laughter. Every bloody kill blow was met with fist pumping celebration.

As to the violence, a strong theme of the film was a rejection of that violence. Logan warns the “gifted” individuals of the next generation to not become the weapons they were created to be. Yet the most disturbing and blood-thirsty death of the movie comes when the children all gather around the main antagonist at the climax and slowly kill him with a relish that is chilling. The audience by this point has been primed and prepared to join the children in relishing this kill. I can’t decide if that is a case of the film holding an accusatory mirror up to our culture, or merely a miscalculation that mars the message.

Then there is all the good.

This is ostensibly more a western than a superhero film. That is good. It is also a near-future story, set in a realistic 2029. That is even better.

Much of the story can be described as an attempt by refugees from Mexico trying to find a better future away from a slavery to evil corporations in a land of freedom. In the past that would have been the USA, but here it has to be Canada. It feels timely.

It is a slow, thoughtful story; not your typical action. There are real characters. There are real conversations. There is strong emotion. I was surprised that my audience didn’t see the end coming, but it moved them when it came. All the sophomoric laughter had turned to audible sobs in the end. (That made me chuckle. I am nothing if not at times a terrible cynic.)

Finally, there is the fascinating.

People who like to think about philosophy—and more particularly about philosophy of religion—liken our culture to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In the same way that they had their pantheon of gods that were more metaphor than literal beings, we today have a growing secular religion built around mythological metaphors. It is not that people “believe” in superheroes, science fiction ideals, or the mythologies of comics; but they really do orient their lives and ethics around the ideals of these stories.

Some reviewers have highlighted the religious aspects of “Logan.” And it is not that this movie is somehow a hidden Christian story. It isn’t. But it is a highly religious story. It is a carefully constructed presentation of modern geek mythology as religious philosophy. A shot at the end of the film has a character uproot a cross grave-marker to turn it askew to form an X as in X-Men. And this is not simply a cute nod to Wolverine from an adoring fan. Nor is it just a maudlin moment of over emotionalism. (Although it is certainly that as well!) The religious mythology has been set up before this moment.

A big part of the plot in this story involves a group of young mutants trying to escape their evil creators to get to a mythological safe-haven known as Eden. They even have a set of coordinates to guide them. They know that there is a place at an exact location on the planet (located on the Canadian border in North Dakota) where they will find peace.

At the midpoint of the film, when Logan is helping one of these kids get to Eden, he discovers that the coordinates came from a made-up comic book story about the X-Men. He has already established that these comics are not retellings of the real adventures that he and the X-Men lived through. They are simply fiction inspired by the heroes. Logan realizes that their journey is in vain. Eden doesn’t exist. Yet when they get to the coordinates, there is a building. The rest of the kids have gathered. They are preparing to cross into Canada where they have been assured of safety.

It is a case of a reality being created from inspiration in the mythology. Not a religion based in pre-existing truth that has been revealed, but rather a religious system reverse-engineered. And that is what we have in our culture today as well. People making gods in their own image and fulfilling their own desires.

And, according to Logan, what does this new mythology offer? A bleak, bleak world where good might overcome evil for a time, but all we have is hope in uncertainty. Why would anyone reject real revelation with real hope for something like that?

And THAT is the melancholy that “Logan” inspires.

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