Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Logan: Post-Christian, Anti-Pelagian Film

Saw Logan the newest movie about the character known as the The Wolverine whose origin is found in comic books, and the last film with Hugh Jackman playing the titular role. It's going to leave me thinking for days, and I think people will be talking about this film for some time.
The movie, which was quite good, is a refutation of the basic worldview of the other superhero movies, which is essentially Pelagianism, an early Christian heresy that taught we could achieve salvation through our own efforts. But as it rejects Pelagianism, it simultaneously mourns, from the filmmakers' viewpoint, that there is no other source of hope—especially the metaphysical hope of Christianity—to replace it.
A short aside to the main points that I want to make. There is a scene early in the second act that cemented that this was not "another superhero movie." During the first act, our protagonist is drunk, the violence gory, lots of f-bombs are dropped, and we see a naked breast. But Deadpool already did that, and that only says "see, we can make 'adult' superhero movies." Boring. In the scene that grabbed me, our protagonists are making an escape by car, and Logan turns the car toward a fence and floors it. Yawn, I thought. We've seen this in almost every action movie. We get a shot of Logan concentrating and gripping the steering wheel creating false tension that they might not break through, then BAM, exaggerated sigh of relief, and they escape.
Only they don't. They seriously damage the fence, but they can't make it past; the strength of the fence is too much, and there's too much wire for them to make it through, so they have to back up. Entire action movie genre subverted all at once. I think we're going to see a lot of comparisons between Logan and the "death of superhero movies" to Unforgiven (to which Logan owes a lot) and the death of Westerns (in an extended comparison of movies, Deadpool=superhero parody::Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles=Western parody). Now to the more philosophical musings:
The movie takes place in a future a few decades beyond our own, at a time after the heroes have failed, and all are dead and gone, remembered only from the pages of a few remaining comic books. The only familiar faces left are Logan, "the Wolverine," and Charles Xavier, "Professor X". You don't have to have seen the other X-Men movies to understand the characters, but it does make Logan all the more elegiac if you've seen Patrick Stewart play, at some point, the idealist mutant who though physically disabled and wheel chair bound has at his control enormous telepathic abilities (and intellect), along with the team of other mutants he's assembled, the X-men, to help him pursue his dream of mutated humans and baseline humans living in peace. In Logan, however, though Charles retains his idealism, he has Alzheimer's and can no longer control his powers, often putting himself and those around him in danger. Without that control and intellect at his command, the dream is impotent.
It is telling that of all the mutant superheroes Logan, who has always been a character skeptical of Xavier's dream, is the only other of the X-men to survive, barely. Logan, too, is feeling the ravages of age. His rapid healing ability and retractable metal claws, which he can extend to use as weapons, have both slowed to a crawl.
The driving conceit of the film is that an amoral corporation, using DNA collected from the various mutants of yore, have bred in a laboratory their own army of mutants, and one of them was manufactured from Logan's DNA, a daughter of sorts. I think it's intentional that in the movie the purpose this manufactured army is never made clear. It doesn't matter—there is no evil villain in this movie, no secret plot for world domination—evil is not grand, it's petty. The "daughter" mutant has been smuggled away from the corporation, and placed in Logan and Xavier's hands to protect and transport to "Eden" a supposed safe haven for mutants.
The plot is standard superhero fare, but the movie rejects what would normally be the Pelagianistic response to the plot. In superhero movies, by having the right tools (powers), will, and dedication, evil will be defeated, though evil exists on fairly equal terms with the good guys (so we also get hints of Manicheanism). This is a fair reflection of the worldview held by the majority: with enough technological progress and good political systems/social engineering, we can defeat social evils and create paradise. By placing Logan in a future where superheroes have failed (and not coincidentally, science and social engineering are being used for evil), the film clearly states that superheroes, even at the height of their power, are not enough to overcome evil. Evil persisted and won. In Logan, Pelagius was dead wrong.
But in the movie, this defeat of goodness is mourned. In other movies in which the world is dystopian and amoral (eg. Mad Max), the "heroes" are equally amoral and fighting not so much for good or virtue but neutral values such as liberty or survival. The lack of virtue in the protagonists of these movies is neither celebrated nor criticized. Logan, on the other hand, has given up on virtue, but this is clearly mourned in the film. Charles Xavier pronounces Logan a failure because he lives only for survival and is no longer moved by Xavier's dream for peace; and we're meant to sympathize with Xavier. Logan is also poisoned from within by the very tools he used to fight evil with but cannot die due to his healing ability. He's not looking for a solution, however, unless you count the "silver" adamantium bullet he carries around that he believes is the only thing that can truly kill him. Logan has given in to despair, and the film and audience pities him for it.
What makes the film truly bold and interesting is that after rejecting the Pelagianism, Logan holds forth Christianity and asks if it can possibly still offer hope to the world in place of a Manichean war against evil fought by Pelagius's army. The answer, surprisingly, is not an indifferent, stark, nor sarcastic "no" but a wailing keen.
Hereafter lie spoilers ... so be forewarned.
There are two and a half peaceful moments in this film which is otherwise bloody, violent, and unrelenting. One is when Logan, Xavier, and the "daughter," Laura, are resting in a hotel. Xavier and Laura are lying on the hotel bed watching the movie Shane. Four scenes from Shane are shown to us: the villain shooting down an innocent, a funeral at which the "Our Father" is prayed, Shane defeating the villain, and Shane's farewell. The second peaceful moment is with a family of farmers who offer a night's rest to the trio as they flee the company that manufactured Laura. There they share a meal together (which the family prays over), reminisce about the X-men, and have a night of genuine rest, that our idealist Xavier tries to get Logan to appreciate for the sake of itself, and later calls it "the most perfect night he's had in quite some time." The last half-moment of rest comes when Logan and Laura come at last to Eden, a blatant Christian allusion, but find that it is a not a final safe haven, but another way-station before Laura, reunited with the other manufactured mutant children, will make their way to political asylum in Canada.
Each of these moments of rest offers Christianity as a possibility of hope, and each is denied in turn.
Super spoilers ahead.
Logan dies at the end of the movie, and the children bury him under a cairn where Laura speaks at the foot of the grave. She quotes Shane here, but instead of praying the Our Father as she saw at an actual funeral scene, she quotes the farewell scene:
"A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can't break the mould. I tried it and it didn't work for me. Joey, there's no living with a killing. There's no going back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand. A brand sticks. There's no going back. Now you run on home to your mother, and tell her everything's all right. And there aren't any more guns in the valley."
No redemption, no salvation, and no hope in God. And while there "aren't any more guns in the valley" at the end of the movie, both Shane and Laura know there are still guns beyond the valley, and always will be, and they will likely return with time.
At the family dinner, as I mentioned, the family prays over the meal, but our protagonists trio doesn't answer "Amen" with the family, but just smiles tolerantly, even the idealist Xavier. Xavier's hope is not in God but in his own dream. The family, who is Christian, has hope and joy in their family bonds and this is presented as both genuine and good. Xavier recognizes this, explicitly pointing it out to Logan. However, both the family and Xavier are brutally slaughtered at break of dawn, just as Xavier has called it his "most perfect night."
Returning to Logan's funeral and the final shot of the film. One of the children, likely not from any faith but tradition, placed a cross at the head of Logan's grave. As the children leave the grave, Laura, the daughter, takes the t-shaped cross and turns it so that makes instead an "X". While, the more superficial reading of this is nothing beyond either "Logan was truly an X-man" or acknowledging his origins as "Weapon X", I think it's also meant to be a final rejection of Christianity in the film: the saving Cross is transformed into an X, null—there will be no Resurrection. But again, this rejection of Christianity in the film is not just blithely assumed, ignored, or celebrated. This happens, after all, at a funeral. The film sees our world as post-Christian, mourns it as such and even eulogizes its death, but doesn't propose a return to Christianity as the solution either.
The film lingers for a few seconds beyond this rejection of the cross to watch the children still walking toward Canada. They have not made it; we don't get to see success, but only the slow march on. The only hope is to keep moving, there's no assurance of making it to something better than the journey of life we're living.

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