“Logan” Gets Religion
This article contains spoilers for Logan.
“We always thought we were part of God’s plan. Turns out we were God’s mistake.”
James Mangold’s Logan, which draws heavily on Western stories about gunfighters in twilight, ends with the moving gesture of a makeshift cross being turned on its side to make an X. The film itself is a fluke of the superhero-franchise era; it’s both violent and terrifically subtle (aided by some of the best acting in the genre) and has more in common with great mid-period Clint Eastwood movies like A Perfect World and Unforgiven than with the X-Men series to which it serves as a revisionist epilogue. Let me draw your attention to just one side of a film that I think has a lot worth appreciating: its careful, pointed broaching of the subject of religious faith. Throughout Logan, one hears the religion of broken souls, classic frontier-town Westerns, and country songs, unique in a genre that is more likely to portray its heroes as Christ figures than as Christians. But religion is a deeply humanizing pursuit, and the overarching struggle of the mutant X-Men has always been for equal terms with humanity. God belongs with Mangold’s conception of the characters—old outlaws haunted by a past they remember only in murmurs, trying to help a killer child get to a promised land that probably doesn’t exist. When it comes to redemption, you have to take what you can get.
There’s a lot of religion in Logan, sometimes obvious (heck, the end credits roll to Johnny Cash’s Revelation-inspired “The Man Comes Around”), sometimes sublimated into the deceptively simple but richly conceived narrative. I may be in minority in thinking of the long middle section in which Logan, his aging mentor Charles Xavier, and the young Laura come to the farmhouse of the Munsons, a family they met on a roadside, as the high point of the film. For a Hollywood movie, this is a very risky sequence, an apparent interlude that ends up resolving or clarifying something like half of the plot. The first scene is at the dinner table, with a mealtime prayer; the Munsons are a family of three, and while our heroes are only pretending to be one, this brief communion of grace, shared food, and shared jokes brings them within spitting distance of the real thing. Considering the bleak conclusion of the farmhouse episode (and the fate of the Munsons themselves), the scene retroactively becomes the saddest in the film, though in the moment, it appears to be the warmest. I’ll point out a small detail: there is a cross behind Logan throughout the scene, a small cross sitting just out of the light on the Munsons’ mantel.
Of course it belongs there, too, because if an observant rural family like the Munsons didn’t have a cross on the mantel, it would seem like an oversight on the part of the set dressers. But all crosses are, by definition, symbolic. I like that it sits in the shadow at the one moment when Logan seems happiest, surrounded by keepsakes of a happiness he will never have: family life. Mangold’s restrained directing inspires admiration because it’s so easy to visualize a dozen different ways any scene could be bungled. And despite Logan’s eventual self-sacrifice and his scars and puss-filled wounds (which could easily be framed like stigmata), there is no way in hell that Mangold is going to let this troubled, word-weary killer come across as a suffering superhero messiah. Logan is almost biologically immortal and Xavier is (or was) a nearly omnipotent telepath, and there is something poignant about the fact that the film assigns a search for meaning and a need to make up for the sins of the past to a couple of mutants whose superpowers might be often considered god-like.
They are even worshipped, in a way, through X-Men comic books. In a nifty meta-fictional twist, these are presented as extremely exaggerated chronicles of the real X-Men’s adventures in years past. It make me think of the underlying irony of La La Land, which is in many respects a sad film. It asks what the characters of a musical would yearn for, and finds that the answer is an even more idealized and romantic anti-reality. It is logical for Xavier and Logan to think of God in ways that characters in comics-based movies never really have. They need to look to a higher power, because otherwise they can look only to themselves—and these are men with blood on their hands, living out their last years in a near-future with no future of its own. In Logan, there’s an interplay between how much Mangold asks the viewer to infer about the characters and the parallels he draws to George Stevens’ Shane, comics and Westerns as forms of popular myth, and The Tempest, with the former mutant leader Xavier as a senile Prospero in Mexican exile, tended to by a former foe named Caliban, an obscure X-Men comics character used to great effect.
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