Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Logan
The shadow of history looms heavily over the X-Men. The comic book series, first published in the 1960s to the backdrop of the civil rights movement, has been a hugely popular creative platform for writers to explore contemporary social issues. Entire books have been written about the colourful ensemble of super-powered mutants acting as metaphors for racism, anti-Semitism, the LGBTQ rights movement, government overreach, religious conflict, and much more. As noted by Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont in 1981:
“The X-Men are hated, feared and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry and prejudice.”
Over the course of 17 years, the film series of the X-Men has leaped through decades, split timelines, and played out its ever-present battle between mutants. Wolverine, as played by Hugh Jackman, has remained a constant throughout, and while the films have their political moments, the rhetoric was often softened to make possible comparisons to our own world more abstract. The general message of “prejudice is bad” was always there, but the roots of the problem usually took a step backwards.
Logan, Jackman’s final outing as the titular mutant, has already attracted rave reviews, but its most unexpected element is its political subtext and the relevance it has to our current political climate. The cast addressed as a coincidence, with Patrick Stewart explaining that “there are echoes in the film that exist today – that is serendipity.” It is, of course, perfectly acceptable to watch Logan and not see those politics, or see them and prefer to focus on other elements, but given X-Men’s unique standing in the superhero genre as an effective populist tool to explore the issues of our time, there is an excellent case to be made that James Mangold’s film is the series at its most politically radical and relevant.
Logan opens with the eponymous hero at his lowest point: Drunk, irrelevant, and with his healing abilities slowly deteriorating, he finds himself working as a limo-driver on the Mexican side of the border with America, caring for an ailing Professor Xavier, who struggles with his own failing powers and an unnamed form of brain disease. In this future, no new mutants have been born in over 30 years, and the former public enemy of mankind has been reduced to a snide comment on talk radio – “It’s 2029: Why are we still talking about mutants?”
Logan lives amidst rampant poverty and violence, shuttling rich American passengers whose wealth and privilege shields them from the damage – one group of drunken frat boys pour out of the limo roof, chanting “USA! USA!” at those passing by. Ever present in this place is the heavily armed border, with its barbed-wired walls and surrounding dust. Soon, Logan and Charles are on the run, accompanied by Laura, a new mutant who shares healing abilities and adamantium claws with the former Wolverine, who they must save from the corporation who made her. This future is grimmer than any apocalyptic scenario the films had previously imagined, and that bleakness lies in how close it is to our own world.
It’s hard to ignore the issue of immigration running throughout Logan. Laura is a Mexican child, born and raised in a laboratory by an American corporation who deem her and her fellow mutants unworthy of love, humanity, or even names. While the children escape and find brief solace in the US, they know there is no comfort to be found here, a moment which is hammered home when Transigen official Dr Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) meets with government officials, who quietly agree that the children should not be viewed as anything but a threat. Indeed, the children know that America is not the safe-haven they need. It is merely a stepping stone to the real Eden – Canada.
It does not matter whether or not these children are dangerous, or even have humanity, because a higher authority has classified them as a problem to be disposed of. The current U.S. President opened his campaign with the infamous “Mexican rapists” comment, then garnered popularity by promising to build an unfeasible wall to keep out an entire nation. Watching the scene where a diverse group of mutant children, scared and screaming, scramble through a forest towards the border to escape armed soldiers hits a little too close to home.
Much of the X-Men movie-verse has used the inter-mutant battles as a metaphor for exploring opposing methods of protest: Professor Xavier representing non-violence and communication, whereas Magneto advocated for a more radical approach. The world of the humans played its part, but never before has it stood as the major force of bad as it does in Logan. Rice admits that mutantkind’s obliteration from the planet was the result of a virus created by Transigen in order to control the mutant population for its own means. The lives of potentially millions of people are wiped out so humanity can start over again in a controlled environment to suit their means – essentially, they’re subjected to modern day eugenics. Mutants are not only dehumanized: They’re wiped out by genocide, then created to be weaponized. They become that which the humans spent decades smearing them as.
Laura, also known as X-23, is a child born from Logan’s genes implanted in a nameless Mexican woman who was disposed of once her purpose was fulfilled. Like the other children bred by Transigen, who represent a diverse range of ethnicities, her life is controlled by white men who strip her of basic human rights and experiment on her for their own means. This is not the backstory of X-23 in the comics, and while James Mangold and the cast have said that they “did not set out to make a political movie“, the choice to represent Laura/X-23 as a Mexican child trying to cross two borders while chased by government officials cannot help but be a political one. Like the mutants before her in comics and film, like the children Professor Xavier shielded from the world and taught compassion to, Laura represents a hopeful new future struggling to remain un-corrupted by the sins of the past generations.
There is much to praise in Logan, which easily stands as the best X-Men film in years: Its viscerally violent action scenes, its melancholy meditation on the indignities of aging, a duo of powerhouse performances from Jackman and Stewart. As a superhero film, it follows in a proud storytelling tradition while trailblazing new routes for the ever-popular franchise movie market. Many will enjoy its numerous qualities without discussing its politics, but to do so would rob the experience of its mature approach and creative richness. Towards the end of the film, Transigen soldier Donald Pierce tells Logan “These are dangerous times”, as he and Rice try to justify the abhorrent abuse of power they wield against the mutant children. It’s an argument Logan and the children refuse to accept. Whether or not the film-makers intended it, Logan is a film of our time, and it offers an appropriate response to its injustices.