the unbearable weight of emptiness

Warning: This post contains spoilers, but you should probably read it anyway.

I’m sorry. I know I should like the new Wolverine movie. 92% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes loved it. The critics’ consensus says, “Hugh Jackman makes the most of his final outing as Wolverine with a gritty, nuanced performance in a violent but surprisingly thoughtful superhero action film that defies genre conventions.” Ok. There are several things that are true here. Hugh Jackman was great. But, then again, he’s always great. He was indeed “gritty.” The movie takes an almost perverse delight in making Logan looked as ravaged as possible. I’m not so sure about “nuanced.” Wolverine isn’t exactly famous for his nuance. There’s not very much that’s nuanced about an animal grunt followed by a set of adamantium claws through a skull. The critics’ consensus also gets the violence part right, but that’s sort of like recognizing that the Pope is Catholic. The movie is outrageously, unapologetically, and unnecessarily violent. (The movie features a pre-pubescent girl so violent and incapable of feeling that ISIS would even blush.) Add this to the gratuitous vulgarity in virtually every scene and this is a movie that certainly didn’t fall into its R rating. This movie was more like Deadpool (which I happily haven’t seen) than the other Marvel movies. (The movie was appropriately introduced by Deadpool.) So I guess on that low bar it did “defy genre conventions.” If this is the new direction for hero movies, well, Tarantino fans will like it, but I’m not sure about the rest of us. I do not recommend this movie.

There are a lot of reasons why I didn’t like the movie. But the biggest reason has to do with the line in the critics’ consensus about a “surprisingly thoughtful superhero action film.” The thing is, the movie is thoughtful. And a super hero movie that is entertaining and thoughtful is a good thing. That’s one of the reasons that the new Batman movies are so much better than their 1990s counterparts. But just being thoughtful is not a virtue. It is the content of those thoughts that has to be carefully weighed. And the thoughts of Logan are, in the end, nihilistic, or what J.P. Moreland calls “thin.” A thin worldview provides little to no objective value, purpose, or meaning for existence.

Logan illustrates powerfully the crushing weight of emptiness. The theme of emptiness is relentless in the movie. The year is 2029, and the future is sadly soulless. Trucks drive themselves. Fields harvest themselves. Humanity seems unnecessary and lost. The henchmen in the movie are part machine, and the part of them that is still fleshy has the soul of a machine. The creepy scientist guy artificially engineers a soulless mutant because the mutant children that he creates have a bothersome conscience (although to watch them fight you wouldn’t know it). The mutants must be cured of their humanity in order to be useful. The endless violence in the movie only adds accent to its thinness. If you’ve seen movies like this, you are used to meeting a steady stream of disposable henchmen. But what was troubling was the unceremonious way that even the only truly decent characters in the movie are gutted and killed. Even the children in this movie are not mere innocents. They are instruments of shocking violence, virtually incapable of empathy or the brokenness that should accompany such violence (especially, you would assume, in children). This is a world where life is thinned and devalued.

This emptiness is highlighted even by the Wolverine’s post-X-men employment. I kept wondering what in the world would lead Wolverine to become a limo driver. This would seem to be one of the very last jobs for a guy like Wolverine – driving people around at the very peak of their emotional experiences – as in the drunken exuberance of a bachelorette party or the grief of a funeral procession. But this small plot device was rather ingenious after all. The revelry and emotion of the passengers in Logan’s car only accentuate his emptiness. It’s also impossible not to see their own pathetic emptiness in the shadow of the one driving them to their next appointment with artificial pleasure. Logan’s body is steadily degenerating throughout the movie, but you get the sense that the entire world is following in the same degenerative path. It’s not so much that Logan is becoming more human. It’s that the world is becoming more Wolverine.

Like all thin worldviews, the world of Logan is haunted by longing – longing for something desperately needed yet elusive. He needs forgiveness, but knows he will find none. They spend the course of the movie pursuing a land of safety and peace called Eden. Logan knows it’s a false hope, and in the end, his suspicions are vindicated. At least in part. Eden is really nothing more than a temporary break from the inevitable. Salvation remains elusive “somewhere north of the border.” Sort of like Augustine, Logan feels the weight and the guilt of his sin but without the release of grace. He’s dying – physically, spiritually. He’s dying because what once made him strong is now eating away at him from the inside. In a not-so-subtle twist, it is actually Wolverine who overpowers and kills Logan in the end. But even in sacrificing himself, there is still no release. The movie tries really hard to get us there but by the time we get to the climactic scene, the thinness of it all is overwhelming. Forgiveness at this point just feels contrived. There is barely any emotional connection or warmness with the daughter. You can almost sense the makers of the movie forcing some emotion because that’s after all what movies are supposed to give us, but it doesn’t feel real. The movie finally gives in to its thinness as Logan is being eulogized by a group of children. There are no friends present. No community of X-Men. No moving words. There are few tears. There is no hope. The cross standing guard over his grave seems silly and out of place. It has been placed there out of custom, but it is a metaphor stripped of its meaning. And so it is only mildly surprising when the girl, his daughter (at least by DNA), lays the cross on its side to instead form an “X.” Logan will always be Wolverine, even in death. Not even the cross can cleanse him. The movie felt like one long funeral for the X-Men. In an homage back to the original X-Men, the mutant children remain as the movie closes, but they are left to fend on their own without adults or guidance. The is no academy or Professor X. The world is a sort of reverse Lord of the Flies. The adults have all managed to die leaving only the children behind to pursue who-knows-what future on their own.

If it is true that cultures create heroes who capture the values and the desires of that culture, the culture that created Logan is certainly a sick one. It’s not that there is nothing heroic about Wolverine/Logan. There is. It’s just that for his entire career, he was more painfully aware of the meaninglessness of it all than anyone else. He may have been the smartest of the X-Men. He was immune even to the unbridled optimism of Professor X. He was heroic in a nihilistic way – fighting against meaninglessness, but in the end unable to overcome it. What left me melancholy after the movie was the thought that this movie will make millions of dollars, but so few people will truly appreciate the fact that this wasn’t just a eulogy for a hero. It was really a eulogy for an entire culture straining under the weight of emptiness.

Update: My friend Jonathan Lyonhart made this very thoughtful comment on Facebook about the particular nihilism of a movie like Logan which I think is worth mentioning here as an alternative response to whether or not this was a worthwhile movie.


Update 2: Whenever you exegete culture, you also have to be prepared to entertain different readings. One of my former students and overall really smart guy, Seth Hart, sent me a message last night that really caused me to rethink my initial read of the movie. His argument was that the movie was ultimately and overwhelmingly redemptive in its message. He made two very thoughtful points about the imagery of the movie. First, as Logan is physically degrading throughout the movie, the setting and backdrop is moving in the opposite direction – moving from the dust and death of the desert to the life and vegetation of the final scenes of the movie. The movie becomes progressively greener throughout. I think he’s right. This imagery is not accidental. Secondly, he pointed out that Logan was killed by sacrificing himself upon a tree. He was literally pierced in order to save his daughter. In hindsight, this imagery is so obvious I can’t believe I missed it. It is fitting then that as soon as he is killed by Wolverine – Wolverine is then killed by the very bullet that he had reserved for himself. Is this a sign of ultimate redemption? Perhaps. That might help explain Logan’s cryptic last words, “So this is what it feels like.” It’s nice to be corrected by one of your students.

I still believe the movie is a picture of nihilism, but I’m reconsidering now whether it is a rebuke of emptiness or a concession to emptiness. It could be that my initial reading was biased by my distaste for the overall violence and vulgarity of the movie. Maybe you don’t care. It’s just a movie. I’m reading too much into it. And maybe that’s true. It’s in my nature to be overly analytical. But, in the spirit of “taking every thought captive” it seems that a Christian especially should go into the theater with her eyes wide open and her ears attentive to the messages being preached there.

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