The “Whitelash” theory of Trump’s super-embarrassing slide into the presidency (well, we never claimed the U.S. wasn’t anti-intellectual, did we?) has the still-ascendant, but demographically shrinking and culturally stagnating white/cis-het/male contingent (helped substantially by their female counterparts) striking back at the diversity of Obama’s America by electing a crypto-white-supremacist in response to his racist and xenophobic dog whistles. Although not the only compelling narrative of the last year and a half, Trump’s Whitelash has enough truth to it to make it into at least a Ronald-Takaki-authored history book, if not a textbook from Texas.
Meanwhile, pop culture may be lashing in the opposite direction — and, in fact, contributing to the panic. Whereas the last Academy Awards shows of Obama’s presidency featured a field of winners that rivaled a wedding-dress-clad polar bear fainting on an iceberg for whiteness, it is President Trump’s first Oscars that saw the Academy — now led by a black woman — crowning its first African-American-made Best Picture. The last season of tv was the most diverse in history, and we don’t need numbers or stats to know this. And even the debate around diversity failures points to how far we’ve come, and how aware of the changing nature of American culture the mainstream has become.
So it’s not much of a stretch to see Logan, clearly the end of a franchise, as the gentle, mournful and mourning, Hollywood-sanctioned version of conservative white panic.
Logan, inspired by — but not much — the comic Wolverine: Old Man Logan, does away with the bad-guy-created future dystopia of the comic book and sets itself up in a 2029 that looks more or less exactly like the X-Men’s fictional present, except for the decline and death of pretty much all mutant-kind.
No mutant children, we’re told, have been born in 25 years — clear evidence that mutants are not the future of the human race, as they had thought and declared earlier in the franchise, but rather an evolutionary cul-de-sac. Whether inspired by this knowledge or by some other political movement, the film waves its hands and suggests that most of the mutants that didn’t die out naturally were swept up by some evil governmental initiative… except for the X-Men that Professor X himself accidentally killed.
Yeah, you heard that right. The intellect-and-mind-power-driven Charles Xavier, now in his nineties, is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease that causes seizures. And given his abilities, a Prof. X seizure literally seizes every person within a certain radius of Charles in its psychic grip and prevents them from moving — or even breathing — until it has passed, or until Logan, who is less affected than others, manages to inject Charles with a seizure-suppressing drug. Apparently, in the film’s recent past, Charles had had his first devastating seizure and killed seven mutants. We don’t know which, but it’s a pretty sure bet that franchise-favorites Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, and Beast were among them.
And the ironies don’t stop there. Logan, whose primary power is his healing factor, is not only healing more slowly on the outside, and aging for the first time in 200 years, but he’s also clearly carrying some sort of disease that is rotting him from the inside. He knows what it is: he’s being poisoned by his adamantium skeleton; thus, the source of his strength and indestructibility is weakening and destroying him.
Trying to keep his head down and earn enough money to get himself and Charles onto a boat and away from the double whammy of human malice and human susceptibility to Charles’ power, Logan at first refuses to help a woman trying to smuggle a young girl out of the country into Canada. But when the woman is murdered and the girl turns out to be a mutant — and not just any mutant, a mutant created from Logan’s own DNA; a clawed, superhealing, already adamantium-grafted beast just like Logan — Charles guilts Logan into taking her to what Logan is sure is a fantasy sanctuary.
(Brief pause: if you graft an adamantium skeleton onto a still-growing girl, does it keep her from growing or does she outgrow it or what?)
Anyhoo, a bit of business and some backstory ensue: the government took mutant DNA they had on file and made some new mutant children that they thought they could control. When they discovered that they couldn’t, they tried to kill ’em off, only to find out that training super kids to kill will bite you hard in the ass. Thus, Logan, Charles and Laura (Logan’s “daughter”) head off on a road trip to meet up with the other children from the experiment and cross over into “Eden.” The kids do actually meet up, and they do actually turn out to have a realistic plan, and Logan and Charles die to make that plan a reality — to ensure the kids escape and have a future. The End.
So yeah, there’s a super-obvious argument to be made that Logan is a meditation on mortality, and making the all-powerful mutants physically and mentally fallible is symbolic of the process of aging we all must go through and blah blah blech. The more sophisticated might even make the argument that Logan’s own personal arc is more one of mid-life crisis — of what-is-it-all-about — than of mortality, and that also has a surface relevance.
The problem with these grand and obvious themes, however, is that the melancholy of Logan is aimed not at the decay of two individuals, but at the fact that those two individuals are literally the last of their kind. Charles and Logan are facing the natural genocide of their species. It is both horrific, and not at all symbolic of anything your mainstream American audience member faces among their #firstworldproblems.
Because meditations on mortality always carry the sub-theme of examining one’s legacy, and Charles and Logan literally have no legacy: no mutant children have been born naturally since X-Men: The Last Stand (or the second timeline ending of Days of Future Past, if you like.) This means that no mutants have produced mutant children, either. There is no legacy to examine.
Sure, we can say that the test-tube mutant children are Logan and Charles’ legacy, and they are, in the sense that they will carry mutantness forward for a generation. But there’s no reason to suppose that they will be any more successful at producing children — or, in Laura’s case, combatting adamantium poisoning — and Logan and Charles and their X-Men cohort did not produce those children in any way, shape, or form. The children are not a product of mutant-kind except in the most oblique way.
And here’s where the real subconscious message of Logan starts to come out. Logan, Charles, and their albino helper Caliban, the last three naturally born mutants alive, are all white men — as are all the bad guys. In fact, all the important X-Men (X-Persons) in this entire franchise have been white (including Storm, because really, how important was she to any of the stories?) as have been all their villains and antagonists. The franchise revolves around Professor X and Magneto, with Mystique and Wolverine the twin stars that orbit their galaxies. Other standouts: Jean Grey, Cyclops, Deadpool, Rogue, Beast, Iceman, Quicksilver… white white white. In fact, name a single X-Person of color or villain of color who actually moved a plot forward even a step. Well… maybe…
The diverse characters in Logan are in two places: the nurses and orderlies at the lab where the children were created, and the children themselves, who are a mini-Benetton of colors and abilities. This is essential. Because the rainbow children are constructs: created by white men to serve white men. And the lab staff are servants: brought in by white men to serve white men. And instead of serving and obeying, the lab staff and the rainbow kids band together, escape the white men’s control, and take over the world!!!!!! Well… no, actually they only band together and escape the white men’s control, with much loss of life among the lab staff. But the over-the-world-taking is implied because these are powerful children and what do children do? Grow up and take over the world, natch.
So the melancholy of Logan is the melancholy of people whose natural order is on the brink of extermination, and who are trying to understand the morality of helping vs. hindering the unintentionally murderous generation who will replace them.
This is exactly what Trump-voting white men think people of color and immigrants and immigrant people of color are doing to them. They brought us here to serve them and allowed us to reproduce, and now we’re taking over the world and they are dying out!!!!!
Of course, it’s absurd. Even if whites do become the minority by 2044, there won’t be a different majority for a very long time, if ever. (Unless you count Latinxs as one race and even then…) And it’s not like white Americans are just going to disappear the moment they dip below 50%. Or ever. And race mixing, which is becoming increasingly prevalent, will complicate these questions more and more. In fact, you could say that the mutant children in Logan are in essence a metaphor for the mixed race children of white people: do we claim them as our legacy or don’t we?
But absurd or not, this is the feeling so eloquently, if inelegantly, expressed all over twitter and the white supremacist internet. White Genocide, it’s called. And you don’t have to be a Klansman, nor a conservative, to feel the melancholy of creeping irrelevance deep in your bones. If you’re a stupid white man, that is.
And let’s be honest, most film critics are. That’s why Logan scores 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. The 8% holdouts are overborne by the violence and heavy atmosphere, which doesn’t fit in with the rest of the franchise, and perhaps a sense that this supermutant set of stories hasn’t quite earned a French New Wave treatment, nor the status of metaphor for the human condition (provided the humans are white men.)
In other news, Logan is shockingly violent and profane, because those are the markers of an “adult” movie. Violence, profanity, and a driving concern with the relevance and legacy of cis-het white men. Yeah.
I’m not saying don’t see it. It’s actually a really apt valedictory to a franchise that’s straining in the era of a Muslim Ms. Marvel, a female Thor, a black/Latino Spider-Man, and an Asian American Hulk. Excellent riddance, I would say. Now, what’s next?