07 Mar 2017

Logan: Violence and Swear Words

The promise Logan makes with us is that it’s more than just another stupid superhero movie ratcheted up to an R rating, that it’s a serious film — oh, there’s Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” (drawing a perhaps too-literal line to Logan’s supposed self-destructive character), there’s the word “fuck” and “fucking,” and right there in the first line of the first scene too, and there are Logan’s adamantium claws now delivering on the threat to do some real bodily damage. The A.V. Club have protested that “Logan isn’t like its peers, goddammit.” Except that it is. It’s the same juvenile stuff, but with an injection of violence and swear words as a flimsy and insulting disguise as seriousness.

In a perverse way, the added violence means Logan delivers exactly what a certain subset of fans have wanted to see all along. It happens in the first scene. The setup hits all the audience-identifiable markers: our protagonist warns the unsuspecting wrongdoers that they really don’t want to do this, the wrongdoers react with arrogance and aggression, and our protagonist is forced to counteract. The caveat is that unlike his adversaries, Logan has superhuman healing powers, an indestructible skeleton, and knives attached to his fists. The first display of this greater might is slicing off a person’s arm. Given the thick redemption theme, you’d be forgiven for thinking Logan’s preference for 0-to-100 violence is a purposeful character flaw — but no, dividing people into multiple parts is his sole method of problem-solving throughout the film.

Despite what I had read, there’s no depth of character here, no relationship driving the story, no redemption. The only evidence that Logan is as self-destructive as the film keeps telling us he is, is some heavy drinking. But his drinking never nudges the story one way or the other, or impairs his ability to slice people up. Professor Xavier rasps various platitudes to him, which constitutes their entire relationship. A surrogate daughter/plot device arrives, but the film is too pained at the prospect of drawing any relationship between her and Logan, so keeps her literally mute for the majority.

I was so bored in Logan I had time to reflect on just what was going wrong with adult action films. The best case for comparison I could think of was Terminator 2: Judgement Day — both films employ established characters in a preexisting world, both are about those characters facing their end of days, both play out against the American desert as a kind of prelude to a reckoning, and both feature a man with a metal skeleton protecting a child.

T2 is unmistakably a serious film, but its approach to violence is very different. While our good-guy Terminator rolls some people about, an intervention from John Connor prevents him from ever killing anyone. Sarah Connor too, who competes with the Terminator for coldness, when faced with the utilitarian trolley problem — avert Judgement Day by sacrificing one man’s life — can’t pull the trigger. This is a moment I remember thinking as a child, just shoot him, but as an adult it leaves a lump in my throat: it is difficult to remain moral, and difficult not to.

Instead, the violence in T2 is largely perpetrated by the T-1000. The moments the film dwells on its violence derive from the way in which this antagonist combines machine dispassion for killing people (and dogs) and AI inquisitiveness for how to kill to his best advantage. His advance is like a Google algorithm; the evil in both the machine and in the programmer of the machine.

However, in Logan, our protagonist perpetrates the overwhelming majority of on-screen violence. Which isn’t exactly bad, but the film’s problem isn’t that a superhero from our childhoods is severing limbs and stabbing people through the head. It’s that this ultra-violence is presented as cartoon/comedic fun, not dissimilar to the slow-motion bloodletting of Kick-Ass or Zombieland. Unlike with T2’s adult approach to violence, we’re not supposed to condemn Logan’s careless attitude toward human life, we’re supposed to revel in it — each graphic death is calibrated to make the man-children in the front row squeal with delight — and at the same time, we’re supposed to laud this as, finally, a story for grownups.