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Logan shows an important truth: you can be a carer and still punch people with your metal claws

The latest X-Men film shows care is a part of life, a huge part, and it shouldn’t reduce your status or wither down your identity to a single label.

Did you ever think you’d live to see a superhero film in which the protagonist helps an elderly man go to the loo? I have to say I didn’t, which is part of the reason that Logan, the latest film in the X-Men franchise, packs such an emotional punch. Yet perhaps I should have done, because comics have always aspired to social and political commentary.

But, first – let’s get this out of the way. Of course, comics are “not just for kids”, as the clichéd phrase defending them has it, but that’s a pretty low bar. It’s better to say, as Grant Morrison and other authors have, that they are the closest thing our culture has to a shared, non-religious mythology. Their vast, complicated universes function in the same way as the pantheon of Greek gods, albeit with rather less polymorphous perversity (because they spring from the puritan culture of mid-20th century America). They are a way of exploring big philosophical questions, while also allowing their heroes to punch people through the skull with a metal claw.

There is even a blood-soaked rivalry, between Marvel (whose back catalogue has been bought by Disney) and DC. At the cinema, Marvel has done better, through the Avengers, the adult-themed Deadpool and the X-Men series. DC has Batman and Superman, but has also got hung up on being a 13-year-old’s idea of “gritty”, that is, granite-jawed men looking sad in the rain.

My favourite comic universe has always been the one containing the X-Men, for the simple reason that those are the cartoons I watched as a kid. The lynchpin of the series is Professor Charles Xavier, an English genius whose mutation is . . . well, he has a massively powerful brain, which can read and influence other people’s minds. He also uses a wheelchair, because superhero stories have always been alert to the idea of balance, and how gifts come at a cost. Xavier can go anywhere in the world using his brain, but his body cannot keep up.

Xavier first appeared as a character in 1963, in the middle of America’s civil rights struggle, and it’s no coincidence that his single most important character trait is his optimism in the future of the human race. Within the X-Men universe, his role is to argue consistently that mutants can integrate into human society, and do not need to be treated with suspicion and fear. His consistent nemesis in the film series is Magneto, who first learns of his magnetic abilities in Auschwitz, bending the gates of the death camp with the force of his anger as his mother is dragged away. At first, Magneto and Xavier are friends; but the former refugee cannot accept the professor’s blithe pacificism. He has seen what one group can do with its hate and fear of another.

That particular history means that the core X-Men stories can only happen within a strict time frame, dictated by the 20th century’s defining moments. Logan pushes these to their limits: it’s 2029, and Professor Xavier is now in his nineties. That all-powerful brain is devastated by dementia, turning it into a “weapon of mass destruction”. The film is rich in allusions. Logan has ended up as a glorified Uber driver, and his journeys take him across a Mexican border fortified by concrete slabs. Driverless lorries fill the road, and the simmering racial tensions of America still exist, with a kind-hearted black family threatened at one point by a gang of white vigilantes in a pick-up truck.

It’s fitting, then, that the special effect used most effectively here is the one everyone gets for free – time. Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine is rheumy of eye, hobbling slightly, with one of his adamantium claws arthritically failing to deploy properly in an early battle. Patrick Stewart’s Xavier looks even more decrepit, with wispy tufts of white hair and a quavering tone to his formerly crisp elocution. It helps that Jackman and Stewart have played these characters for 17 years. They reek of history.

Wolverine was always the antihero, the cynical, mercenary grump who stopped the X-Men team becoming all cheesy grins and cheerful self-sacrifice. Now he’s something else: essentially, he is Professor Xavier’s carer, as well as a surrogate father for Laura, a young mutant escaping the test laboratory of a cruel corporation. One of Magneto’s constant warnings was that Mengele-style figures would never stop coming for mutants: they were too precious, too dangerous for men not to want to pull their wings off for their sport. Still, it comes as a shock to see an X-Men film make the case that Magneto was right: he might have been defeated time and time again by our good guys in matching costumes, but his vision of humanity was correct.

Nothing that this film does is strictly unique: we’ve had old superheroes before (in Watchmen, and in the print series that loosely inspired the film). We’ve had middle-aged men bonding with daughter substitutes, too, in everything from Léon to the rash of “dad games” a few years ago. But I can’t remember a superhero film that showed its protagonist doing the simple things that elderly care requires: the medication, the hygiene, the reassurance. (Yes, I don’t think we’d get a film where a female superhero does this, but as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single trip to the loo. Actually, that’s literally true as well.)

In one simple scene, Logan carries Xavier up the stairs and settles him down to bed. It’s as emotionally effective as anything in those Oscar-bait movies about dementia, preciously because ten minutes later he’s disembowelling a soldier in the front garden. Care is a part of life, a huge part, and it shouldn’t reduce your status or wither down your identity to a single label. Without preaching or thundering, Logan makes the case that carers are people, too. Even if the rest of us, sadly, can’t punch people through the skull with our adamantium claws.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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