Mourning the Death of God

Mark Thomas

Logan, 2017. Directed by James Mangold

What’s a review of a super-hero movie doing in a nice place like Humanum?  If you knew the founder of our journal, Stratford Caldecott, it might make a little more sense. It might make even more sense were I to justify reviewing the new Wolverine movie by making clever observations such as: “James Mangold’s Logan is a super-hero movie in which the villains are not mutants or robots or other beings of a super-nature, but real-life scourges like genetic engineering and corporate agriculture.” But the real reason that Logan is worthy of our consideration is that it’s a super-hero movie that’s really all about religion. To be precise, it’s about the death of God, and about how those of us who live in the desert of God’s absence nevertheless continue to search for him as our time on this earth runs out.

Speaking of human extinction, the desert is, in fact, where our story begins—specifically, in a pull-off along Route 54 in El Paso, Texas, where a drunk and decrepit Logan (Hugh Jackman), now a self-employed chauffer, wakes up in the front seat of his limo to discover that his means of livelihood is being jacked up by a group of young Mexicans looking to steal his hubcaps. Logan climbs out, finds his feet, and asks the cholos to cut him a break. They shoot him in the chest. Because of his adamantium skeleton and regenerative ability, Logan is able to get back on his feet and make a second appeal to reason—an appeal accompanied by the extension of his signature adamantium claws from between his knuckles. One of which claws fails to fully extend. Logan notes this—as do the hoodlums. They attack. For a moment their savagery overpowers him. But when their blows finally awaken the savagery of the Wolverine, we see that their bestial nature is a laughable shadow of his. But this is a massacre from which the butcher limps away. And even as Logan’s healing ability expels the slugs from his flesh, both the look on his face and the wounds that do not fully stop their bleeding tell us that this too-long-lived warrior is on his last legs.

Because of Logan’s moment of wrath, two people are able to track him down: Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse who begs Logan to take ten-year-old Laura (Dafne Keen) to a place of safety from those pursuing her, and Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a private mercenary serving as head of security for a research company called Transigen (think “transhumanism”); Pierce tells Logan he is looking for Gabriela because she has “taken something” for which Pierce is “responsible.” It is not long before Logan is struggling to keep Laura out of the clutches of the forces of darkness, forces captained by Pierce and directed by Transigen’s leading scientist Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant). Along for the ride with Logan and Laura is Logan’s former mentor, the telepath and psionic-powerhouse Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose advancing Alzheimer’s has made not only a mockery of his former genius but has made him a danger to anyone within a ten-mile radius of his periodic seizures. The rag-tag trio’s exodus, with the hounds of hell nipping at their heels, leaves devastation and tragedy in its wake—and in the end the only way for Logan to win Laura’s freedom, and his redemption, is to face his most formidable enemy: himself.

The R-rated, Comics-Code-unapproved version of Wolverine that we meet in Logan—foul-mouthed, brutal, bloody—is bracing, shocking, sometimes downright unnerving. But he is also weirdly refreshing, like when someone finally stops tip-toeing around the ugly truth—which, in Logan’s case, is that he is the product of a military-industrial laboratory. Before Logan was a hero, an X-Man, he was Weapon X. And the purpose for which Weapon X was engineered was a hellish one. So we should not be surprised that the “unfiltered” Logan is, in fact, horrifying—as horrifying as the inhumanity of the corporate machine that gave birth to him.

Neither should we be surprised that Logan is, in the final analysis, a horror movie. A movie in which many people die, well, horribly—innocent as well as guilty, heroes as well as mortals.

Logan is also a story in which children are artificially conceived in captivity, experimented on, then disposed of when they are no longer useful. And yet, there’s nothing that feels gratuitous here. It simply feels like the vale of tears. A world in which the sins of the father are visited upon generation after generation. A world that has forgotten God—and which itself seems forgotten by God. An empty desert in which we stand alone before the devil as he rides down upon us while painting the world red with the blood of the innocents. A super-hero horror-western. Take that, genre.

But by far the most stunning aspect of Logan’s realism is that it tells on a certain truth about the human heart: that we long for a place where there is no more death, no more weeping, no more pain. In a rare moment of peace and safety in the company of friends (a moment of joy that proves all too tenuous and fleeting), Xavier reminds Logan: “This is what life looks like.” And while Logan dismisses this sentiment as unaffordable, it seems to this viewer that Logan dares to propose that this longing in our hearts is intractable, that it has persisted despite our having put away the things of childhood—things like hope of safety, the providence of God, dreams of paradise. In a pivotal scene, Laura points excitedly to an image in an X-Men comic book as evidence of her safe haven—an image of an other-worldly palatial fortress called Eden. To which argument Logan, awash in pain and loss, replies: “This Eden does not exist! It’s a fantasy! See this [pointing to the comic book’s masthead]? These are the names of the people who made this whole thing up! It happened once and they just turned it into a big [expletive] lie!” And yet…their journey continues. The fiery, longing young heart prevails over the grey, miserable old head. And we are glad for it. And when the two pilgrims finally find the place of refuge where they may safely lay their heads, we are glad for that too. And even though their rest is short-lived, as the dream of safety finally proves to be just a dream, in the end for Laura there is friendship and hope, and for Logan there is redemption and peace. And for both of them, for a brief moment, there is love. It’s a consummation that falls somewhere short of the Second Coming, but it’s probably the most blessed ending that we the God-forsaken could ever ask for.

The most striking deal that Logan strikes with the non-existence of God takes place at the end of the film. Standing over a fresh grave, Laura speaks the nearest thing to a prayer she can call upon. Her words are taken from the final monologue of the 1953 film Shane – a film she and Xavier had watched together a few days earlier in a casino hotel room while Logan was looking for their next getaway car. During that viewing, Laura witnessed a scene in which mourning townspeople stand around a grave and recite the “Our Father.” Yet this is not the example Laura imitates. For Laura is post-Christian; to her, these ancient words do not signify. What signifies to her are Shane’s final words to Joey: “Now you run on home to your mother and tell her: Everything’s all right. There are no more guns in the valley.” Because even those among us who would never even think to ask for the coming of God’s kingdom still long for what that kingdom promises.That earth might be as heaven; that the lion might lie down with the lamb; that our pilgrimage through the dark valley might end in a place of light and peace, a land of milk and honey, somewhere that feels like home.

Logan has been called a game-changer. It is. Not because in Logan superheroes suffer and die, but because Logan is a monumental inauguration of authentic post-Christian cinema—cinema that notes the death of God, does not rejoice, but rather mourns, then carries on. For tears are the only response to the death of God, to the final impossibility and cosmic absurdity of our longing, that could be called authentically human.

 

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic.