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.
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain