In the year 2029, James “Logan” Howlett is a tired and broken down man. He lives day to day, working for peanuts as a limo driver, clinging to the hope that he will one day manage to save enough money to buy a sailboat and retire to the sea with the only other surviving member of the X-Men: Charles Xavier. Xavier, once the most powerful mind on the planet, now suffers from a degenerative brain disease. He lives under Logan’s care and off the grid in Mexico, where he is forced to stay in hiding lest the authorities (who have, in the wake of a mysterious and long-past “Westchester Incident,” classified him as a weapon of mass destruction) should capture and kill him. Into their dire straits, comes Laura—the genetically-engineered mutant daughter of Logan, who is on the run from the men who made her. Against his will, Logan is drawn into a desperate race against time and enemies, as he and Xavier try to save the mutant race one last time.
Logan is a worthy film in many respects, but it is perhaps most interesting in the way it deploys economy in its storytelling—using the roughest sketches to create a vivid narrative landscape that is both highly imaginative and frighteningly familiar. The world has become a bleak and desperate place in the near-future of the film. The reason behind this is never really specified. It’s not a catastrophe, per se, although past catastrophes are hinted it, but it is a significant, and lasting, social change. Mutants, with a few exceptions, are gone, and humans are generally happy with that state of affairs. The wealthy live blissfully, the white without much thought or consequence. Everyone else gets by, or not, as they can (or can’t). Whatever happened has left the world bereft but soldiering on, and that’s all we really know. But while the film remains vague on the what, when, and where, it is very clear on the who and the why.
We don’t know what happened to the world, but we know it happened because of white men. Because of their entitlement and their brutality in service of the status quo that privileges them. White men made the world of Logan, and only white men (or those who can pass for them) really benefit from its structures. Everyone else is under the gun. The disabled tracker Caliban who provides physical and emotional support to Logan and Xavier, the family of black farmers that Logan, Xavier, and Laura encounter on their cross-country flight to safety, the Mexican nurses who try to help enslaved mutant children where no one else can or will. They are all under the gun, and they all come to bad ends. And none of that is by narrative accident.
White male privilege presents its face most explicitly in the characters of Zandar Rice and Donald Pierce. Rice—erudite, educated, and a eugenicist—represents power of the highest level. He runs Transigen, an anti-mutant research organization, whose authority is absolute, and whether his power stems from political or corporate sovereignty is unclear, another economical narrative choice with obviously implications. Rice believes himself to be one of the good guys; he believes himself to be creating a better world on behalf of those who cannot or will not create it for themselves. Pierce—by contrast—is almost a nothing character. He commands the Reavers, Transigen’s personal squad of mercenaries, and operates without oversight over an unlimited jurisdiction. But there is nothing special about him. He’s not particularly qualified for his job, and he brings no discernible skill set to the position. He’s personally repellent but largely unintimidating, and one senses that he’d be nothing without the hierarchical apparatus that supports him—that he likely got his job by doing nothing more than kissing the right ass on the way up the corporate ladder. Again, this is not an accident.
These men, along with Xavier and Logan, function as well-known stereotypes: paternalistic puppet master, mediocre beneficiary of entrenched social hierarchies, self-identified ally, bystander. Zander Rice pulls the strings that maintain the world to his bigoted specifications; Donald Pierce attains an undeserved position of authority through nothing more than genetic good luck; Charles Xavier does more harm than good for all his vaunted intentions; Logan sees the ugliness of world and, exhausted by it, turns a blind eye. These are the men who built, and who maintain, the world. They—and their world—resonate because they—and it—are all-too-recognizable. Rich, powerful, old, white men who think they know the best course for their younger, non-white, non-male, non-straight compatriots are a dime-a-dozen on the daily cable news circuit, and we all know that one guy who has nothing going for him but his one-of-the-boys charm and a society willing to give him a pass on his every other failing. Equally well do we know the male ally who never stops talking about how much (and how well) he supports your cause long enough to hear what you actually need or want.
We know these character archetypes and we know their real-world analogues, and in Logan we see the world that they make—a world in which unimaginative, simple-minded hate-mongers drain life of its beauty and purpose—but we also see the world we make through our silence and fear. As strongly as the film positions men like Zander Rice and Donald Pierce as perpetrators of an ugly world order, it also frames well-meaning and indifferent men (Xavier and Logan) as complicit in that world order. Through them, and through knowledge of their real-world analogues, the audience is enabled to reflect on their own role in society. For just as we know the patriarch, the average guy, and the fair-weather friend, we know the person in hiding, the person afraid to rock the boat, the person who just wants their own slice of peace and quiet. Indeed, some of us are that person. And Logan shows us the kind of world that is likely to grow from our cowardice.
Of course, this metaphor—while powerful—is fundamentally flawed. To the extent that this film functions allegorically to explore predominantly white power structures, it effectively sets aside both Xavier’s and Logan’s mutation. They are framed as complicit in the system in a manner that largely fails to take the reality of social attitudes to so-called aberration (in both the fictional world of the X-Men and the real world of 2017) into account. It’s a dangerous move to make with marginalized characters—even, and perhaps especially, with those who can pass for the non-marginalized—but one that inevitably arises when you portray such characters as cis-straight white men in a movie that, if not specifically about marginalization and privilege, at the very least deliberately contrasts them. If I have a major thematic criticism to make it is that the film presents its marginalized characters as complicit without really interrogating the reasons why some find it necessary, for their mental and/or physical safety, to leave the status quo unchallenged. Logan’s anguish is subsumed into more culturally comfortable tropes of manpain and white man’s burden rather than presented as an exploration of the harrowing compromises that many at-risk minorities must make to survive—an oversight that cannot help but weaken the film’s otherwise powerful impact and thought-provoking message.
Speculative fiction trappings aside, it’s easy to read Logan as a cautionary tale. With just twelve years between us and the near-future setting of the film—with political polarization at an all-time high—it’s a simple matter to sketch a trajectory that leads straight from Trump’s America to Logan’s tomorrow. Through its unflinching depiction of a world run into the ground by the unchecked privilege, bigotry, and greed of the ruling class, Logan offers lessons—about how we might meet such a fate ourselves and about how we could avert it.