Competing patriarchies do battle over ownership of a girl with claws. Mexicans star for two minutes as car thieves and mothers who didn’t even get screen time.
Enjoyment of film: 7/10
But when you think about it: -6/-10
I’m not a Wolverine fan, in the sense that I’m not a fan of the X-Men franchise, but I’ve seen most of the films and enjoyed them in their own way. Logan seemed different though. The trailer dumped any pretences about superheros saving the world from arch-villains, gone too were the stupid latex suits and men with laser-beam eyes and this was enough to get me interested. The film itself was hugely enjoyable. Set in the big open landscapes of the American south-west Logan was more of a road-trip through small America, eschewing the urban superhero apocalypses that have dominated the X-Men and, DC and Marvel cinematic universes. The dramatic themes that move the narrative forward – redemption, fatherhood and vulnerability were delivered with enough subtlety to be engaging, the action was grounded and visceral. The brutal, indifferent rage of a child was well-crafted and balanced against other human instincts (for guidance, security, to be loved). All in all, as a film within a franchise, it was an excellent farewell to the character.
It is a pity then that I’m going to ruin it by talking about gender, patriarchy, and the antagonism between enjoying a film and critiquing a film.
Competing Patriarchies, or, Why it is better when they all die
Logan is a story about a fallen hero struggling accept his place in the world. We first meet him when he wakes from drunken slumber in his car to find a group of racial stereotypes (Mexican thugs) attempting to steal his tyres. He tries to warn them off but they soon turn to violence. The Wolverine’s adamantium claws come out, limbs are severed. No longer the idolised subject of comic-book stories, Logan is now a bitter man who’s body is betraying him and circumstance has set him in place as the carer for his father-figure, and patriarch of the X-Men, Charlies Xavier. This all changes though when a young girl, Laura, enters his life. Laura is Logan’s genetic daughter, with similar abilities but trapped in the body of an eleven year old. Her intrusion begins Logan’s path to redemption. With her immediate need for sanctuary, and a hostile group of mercenaries after her (through him) he is forced by both circumstance and the urging of Xavier, to help her escape. Thus begins a trip from the Mexican border north through the American badlands, to the Canadian border.
It is clear by title and narrative that this is Logan’s story, not Laura’s. For Laura that border is sanctuary, for Logan it is redemption. That is, the path to the border is for Logan one that coincides with change. Laura’s story however, is largely untold, and irrelevant. It is waiting until that sanctuary is found. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it seems a missed opportunity. The film purposes moves away from the ensemble hero/villain squads of previous iteratios in the franchise and instead focuses on developing depth in two or three characters, which is a good thing, but the missed opportunity is that Laura is not one of those characters. Instead they focus on Logan, Xavier, Pierce and to a lesser extent Will Munsen, a farmer, Dr Rice. All men, all fathers.
Although the story is not Laura’s the character plays a critical part in setting up the framing of the entire film. She is in a way the MacGuffin that sets up conflict between the protagonist (Logan) and antagonist (Pierce). However, while she is arbitrary at one level, being a young girl, she frames the film as one specifically about fatherhood. More specifically, she frames the story as an encounter between two competing representations of fatherhood. These notions of fatherhood are represented as being opposed, with a clear ethical tick of approval to one over the other. On one hand there is the instinctively protective Logan, who, while capable of violence against those that threaten him (and his “family”) nonetheless is positioned as seeking to guide Laura through moral guidance (preventing her from stealing, injuring innocent people, constraining her powers). On the other hand there is Pierce, who seeks to control Laura who he sees as a weapon. Pierce is positioned as a stereotypically abusive father – his violence is full of rage, anger and hatred, a display of his impotence rather than of his ability to protect, but he also tries to manipulate with charm and kindness.
But the problem at a critical level is that the film plays these two representations of fatherhood (and indeed, unwed fatherhood) as the only games in town. Motherhood is erased entirely. The Mexican mothers of the mutant children are alluded to as absences in empty beds, Laura’s first “mother” figure is murdered off screen in the first half an hour, and her voice serves largely as a narrative device – filling in the gaps of the film’s story in a short “found footage” montage. The only actual mother, and woman with lines, Kathryn Munsen (Will’s wife) is also killed out of frame, while her husband heroically saves Logan. In the erasure of motherhood from the equation the narratives delivers us a choice between an abusive monster and “patriarchy with a human face“. Logan’s redemption is the sugar that helps us swallow the subtext – that family and father are synonymous. In other words, the narrative arc of the hero along side the empowered physicality of the Laura (which is thrilling, exciting and thoroughly enjoyable to watch), helps render invisible patriarchy (the rule of the father) by giving the audience a “patriarch” – Pierce – that they can have the moral satisfaction of discarding. While Logan’s death is still tragic, heroic and noble, it nonetheless fulfils the promise of patriarchy – let me rule and I will protect you.
Film is never just about imaginary characters. It takes some remembering, especially in a film as good as this one is, that the characters are written by really-existing people. In this case, as in most others, those people are men. In the world the film depicts Laura is an object between two patriarchs, but as the frame of reference for the key themes of the film, she is also an object the writers use. The object here is not the abstract imaginary character but the concrete world of children, parents, and the cultural, ethical and economic norms that regulate social relations. That is to say, Laura is used as a proxy to represent ideals of fatherhood (in the real world). At this level, writers reflect their own reflexive sense of the world they inhabit. And that world is one which uses girls (and women’s) bodies to mediate between competing patriarchies.
It isn’t problematic to have films about fatherhood. Indeed, films that explore and disrupt social narratives around parenthood are excellent ways to bring questions of parental ethics, practice and affect into the cultural imagination. However, film (and indeed all art) is not a simple mirror that reflects cultural and political norms. It is a cultural product as much as it is a product of culture, it builds, prescribes and constructs the scope of the imaginable. So, a film not only tells us a message about who the film-makers (and that means everyone from the camera person to the studio executive) are and what they think about the subject, but also it is a contribution to the culture, sometimes reinforcing dominate narratives, sometimes deconstructing them.
In Logan we see the message reflected: the necessary condition of family is the patriarch. The film’s narrative is centred on Logan’s return to this position, and the necessity for him to do so both for himself and for Laura. Women are not subjective agents themselves, but function in relation to either the “good” patriarchy (represented by Logan) and the “bad” patriarchy (represented by Pierce). Motherhood serves one or the other, but is nonetheless in service.
We also see a failure to critique that message. Logan’s heroism is celebrated the more he re-inserts himself into normative patriarchal expectations. The more emotionally compelling scenes that form Logan’s character arc (and it is he along who has an arc) are those in which he begins to assume the role of father, for example, when he begins taking responsibility for Laura’s moral development, intervening in her impulsive use of violence, and preventing her from stealing. It is through instances of exerting authority over Laura that the film tells the audience he is emerging into this new space of fatherhood.
It isn’t just Logan!
The real, real, issue isn’t that some stupid comic-book film (which is entirely enjoyable) is the reinforcement and re-representation of the necessity of patriarchy in narratives, but that this is such a common narrative formula used throughout cinema (and culture more broadly) that it is difficult to avoid concluding that it isn’t intentional (though not necessarily malevolently so). Thinking of some other films that follow the general script of a father figure (or representation of a kind patriarchy) guiding a (usually younger) woman while doing battle with another, less appealing patriarchal figure, I’ve come up with the likes so:
Ghost in the Shell (2017), The Fifth Element, Children of Men, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Serenity, Leon: The Professional, Inglourious Basterds, Mad Max: Fury Road, Kick-Ass to name a few. All of these in one way or another see two differing representations of patriarchy, one legitimised and progressive, the other vengeful, violent and abusive and both nonetheless patriarchies. And to make matters worse, these are some of my favourite films of all time.
These “patriarchs with a human face” make us, as members of the audience (and especially as critical audience members) uncomfortable in what the represent. But it is just as much what they don’t represent that tells us more about the social world in which these films live, and is all the more uncomfortable-making. In these films the figure of the mother is in some manner erased, either entirely from the screenplay or erased in film as part of the narrative of the father. These films also represent the family only operating successfully with the patriarch present. These two points combined tell us a story about the world we live in, one which is reflected not only in artistic media like cinema, but in the media of political news, current affairs journalism and the medium of politics itself. The single mother is a villain. While Logan (and the myriad other fathers) are able to heroically guide their (often gifted) children along an ethical path to victory, the single mother is – in the media of the real world – morally irresponsible, likely responsible for the corruption of the youth, possibly responsible for all crime, a figure of pity and tragedy and irredeemable. Unlike Logan, there is no redemption or salvation for a single mother.
Thus the real issue with films like Logan, is that although it comes in the guise as being about the redemptive potential of fatherhood, it nonetheless gives us no option but to choose fatherhood as the legitimate mode of parenthood, and as the legitimate foundation of family. That is, the choice is about choosing the right kind of patriarch – the one that protects and provides moral direction. What this means is that by accepting this narrative trick, we are also accepting what isn’t present. What isn’t appropriate for representation, what is outside the cultural imagination. Indeed, what is supremely politically incorrect: the (single) mother.
Note to self. Posts to follow:
Ghost in the Shell: Putting the Her among the Patriarchs
Mothers without Children: Long Kiss Goodnight and Kill Bill