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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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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear