Shadow Play: Logan’s Deep, Dark, Mythic Heart

Twentieth Century Fox

When it comes to superheroes, Marvel’s X-Men—mutants who struggle to be accepted by the human population—have long had a special resonance for outsiders. In the world of X-Men comics and films, mutants are durable stand-ins for misfits and marginalized populations; much of their appeal comes from the fact that the characteristics that make them targets for hate also make them powerful and admirable—superhuman. In Bryan Singer’s X2: X-Men United, one mutant tells another, “You are a god among insects. Never let anyone tell you different.” It’s a great moment and a quotable line, heartening for those who have felt like mutants themselves.

But it’s probably worth mentioning that the line belongs to the X-Men’s archnemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen), who can manipulate metal with his powers, and can’t seem to stop himself from attempting to destroy all humans. Coming from him, that line about being a god among insects carries a barely unspoken invitation to start crushing those insects. Magneto is one of many X-Men characters to embody the shadow, one of the most common archetypes encountered on the mythic hero’s journey. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler writes, “The archetype of the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something.” In the case of Magneto, he functions as a shadow self for the X-Men’s mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Magneto and Xavier are both charismatic leaders looking to protect and guide young mutants, but Magneto is wracked by a vengeful rage that the peaceable Xavier consistently resists.

The long-running X-Men film franchise has made much of Magneto and Xavier’s dynamic, and it has explored other shadow figures as well; in a number of the films, flame-haired psychic Jean Grey struggles against her destructive alternate personality, the Phoenix, and even-tempered Iceman squares off with his aggressive foil, Pyro. One of the most popular and iconic X-Men, the rapidly healing and sharp-clawed Logan (Hugh Jackman)—a.k.a. Wolverine, James Howlett, and Weapon X because backstories are complicated—has met more than his share of shadows. The series likes to pit Logan against evil doppelgangers: in the first film, when Logan is still ambivalent about taking the side of the X-Men, he fittingly battles one of Magneto’s allies, the shapeshifter Mystique, while she mimics his form. In that same film and in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Logan tangles with Sabretooth, a mutant with similar powers but crueler animal instincts, and in X2 he goes claw-to-claw with Lady Deathstrike, who also wields nearly the same powers as Logan but has been brainwashed into being a mindless killer. There are practical reasons for some of this: Logan is virtually unstoppable when faced with human opponents, but he can’t do much against ultra high-powered mutants like Magneto, so seeing him in whatever rough approximation of a fair match-up the filmmakers can invent makes the fight scenes more fun.

But Logan’s clashes with versions of himself have thematic resonance too. He’s a character with a mysterious past, the former subject of a military experiment that fused unbreakable metal to his skeleton, robbed him of his memories, and scrambled his sense of self. He wonders who he used to be and struggles with who he is. Given to vivid nightmares and violent fits of “berserker rage,” he can’t fully control his body or his mind. Logan is forever at war with himself in the figurative sense, and thus it’s hard to blame filmmakers for visualizing that battle in a literal way.

Over the years, Logan’s struggle with his damaged psyche and inherently violent powers has proven something of a struggle for various filmmakers and their studio, 20th Century Fox, who have sought to retain the character’s distinctive appeal while making him palatable and marketable to a mass audience. It’s one thing to slap Superman on a lunchbox, but a guy whose talents include eviscerating lots of people really quickly? One can understand why the first X-Men film held back on Logan’s berserker rage: in that movie, Logan’s greatest heroic gesture is a moving, deliberate act of self-sacrifice that has nothing to do with metal claws—he embraces the energy-sucking Rogue in order to lend her his healing powers and save her life, thus endangering his own. In other words, the climax of the original X-Men film features Wolverine doing some really heroic hugging. But fans hungry to see Logan seriously slice and dice onscreen would eventually get their wish, sometimes because such violent spectacle was integral to the film’s plot (for instance, during the raid on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in X2) and sometimes because the filmmakers just felt like it (arguably the case with the character’s savage cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse).

Director James Mangold helmed Logan’s two most recent solo adventures: 2013’s The Wolverine and 2017’s Logan, and these films grapple with—and showcase—the character’s violent nature with the greatest frankness. The Wolverine finds Logan in existential crisis, living a solitary life after swearing off violence in the wake of a particularly brutal battle as a member of the X-Men. The vow doesn’t last, and he ends up being summoned to Japan and cutting up hordes of ninjas and yakuza once he gets there—it is an action movie, after all—but it’s notable that in this film we meet a rattled and regretful Logan who is haunted less by his murky origins than by his ostensibly brave deeds in one of the X-Men’s patented world-saving battles. The R-rated Logan pushes things further. It takes place in a future where its eponymous character’s healing factor is failing and he must face his mortality—and his violent legacy.

Logan is the ninth film to feature Hugh Jackman in the role that made him famous, and as a result it has a lived-in weariness that any single film would be hard-pressed to earn. To put things in perspective: there were 17-year-olds buying tickets to Logan’s opening night who were born the first year Jackman donned his Wolverine claws. Many kids nearing adulthood can’t remember a time when Logan wasn’t on their screens, sustaining psychic wounds that linger and physical wounds that quickly disappear. Mangold’s Logan sidesteps the notoriously messy continuity of the X-Men films by only vaguely referencing past stories, but the director knows that most of his audience is coming to Logan with baggage from a lot of other movies. They’ve seen this character survive bullets to the head, a sword to the heart, and much worse, so there’s a real ache in seeing him limp into battle here, drawing gaspy, painful-sounding breaths.

Visually, Logan counters the sleek chrome surfaces of Singer’s early X-Men films with a desperate, dusty future. No longer a well-groomed, self-possessed genius, this film’s Professor Charles Xavier is a gaunt old man suffering dementia, surrounded not by the swirling lights of his mutant-tracking machine Cerebro, but by pinpricks of sunshine that make their way into the rusted, overturned water tower where Logan has been keeping him after the powerful psychic suffered a seizure that unintentionally injured hundreds of people and killed several X-men. And while the violence of previous, PG-13 X-Men films was largely bloodless, Logan is uncompromisingly graphic. The film opens with a scene where Logan—reduced to sleeping in the limousine that he drives in order to support Xavier and himself—tries to reason with some criminals who are attempting to steal his tires. Things escalate and Logan’s claws come out—but kind of slowly, without the impressive glint and “Snikt!” that fans expect. There’s no swell of heroic music, just the sounds of brutality stripped bare as Logan buries his claws in a few hoods. As a character, Logan can be a vehicle for violent wish fulfillment, dauntlessly launching himself at opponents and taking them down. But this film shows him at the end of his rope, covered with scars and no longer capable of easily bouncing back from physical damage. He still rages, still kills, but his time is running short, and his conscience is bothering him. This story is about an old warrior facing himself.

It’s fitting, then, that the film finds Logan confronted by yet another shadow archetype in the form of X-24, an unfeeling clone who shares the abilities that have made Logan ferocious, but not the conscience or compassion that (sometimes) temper his anger and spur him to heroism. X-24’s viciousness is perhaps most shocking in the scene where he kills the nonagenarian Charles Xavier while the latter lies resting in bed. The film casts Logan in the unexpected role of caregiver to the elderly Xavier, and while his frustrations with the role are obvious, his love for Xavier is never in doubt. “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me,” Logan frantically tells the dying Xavier, desperate to let his mentor know that he isn’t an animal, that he hasn’t betrayed a man who—from the start—believed in the better angels of Logan’s nature.

In The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Carl Jung writes, “The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly—for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.” According to Vogler, “Shadows can be all the things we don’t like about ourselves, all the dark secrets we can’t admit, even to ourselves. The qualities we have renounced and tried to root out still lurk within, operating in the Shadow world of the unconscious.” With his severe appearance—close-cropped hair, empty eyes, and a wardrobe heavy on dark colors—X-24 is a conspicuous shadow figure, built of the qualities that Logan has often struggled with or sought to “root out.” Speaking with The Empire Film Podcast, Mangold called X-24, “the reincarnation of [Logan’s] most sinful self,” and that bears out in the film. Aside from some trouble following orders (specifically orders to stop committing mayhem), X-24 is exactly the super soldier that Logan was supposed to become as a result of the Weapon X experiment, and perhaps everything that he fears he became anyway.

A particularly rich aspect of the X-24 character is that he looks like a far less haggard Logan, meaning that when he faces X-24, Logan appears to be fighting his younger self. That means he’s overmatched, of course; X-24 is at once an emblem of a fraught past and a reminder of Logan’s present vulnerabilities. What’s more, something that makes the film Logan especially powerful for longstanding X-Men fans is the fact that it marks Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine, and while the actor has mentioned in several interviews that he wanted to end his tenure on a creative high, he’s alluded to a more practical issue as well: Wolverine is an ageless mutant and Jackman—no matter how gracefully he grows older—is not. Mangold uses the mute, emotionless X-24 sparingly, with the character’s appearances pretty much limited to two action sequences, but the ruthless clone’s presence highlights what this story is about: aging, weighing one’s past, and facing one’s end. He provides a visual key to Logan’s struggle with who he has been and what he will leave behind.

The question of Logan’s legacy takes on urgency not just because he is ill—dying, in fact—but also because of the unexpected appearance of 11-year-old Laura (Dafne Keene), a girl who comes with claws and healing capabilities and demons of her own. She is, rather obviously, his daughter. Logan was subjected to military experimentation because of his abilities, but Laura was actually bred as an experiment: A company named Alkali-Transigen created her using Logan’s DNA and raised her (and other children with similarly engineered mutant abilities) to be a sentient weapon. It didn’t quite work: The children rebelled against their training as killers, the experiment was determined a failure, and Transigen began euthanizing the children. A fugitive from the Transigen employees who want her dead, Laura faces the same questions her father does: Is she a person? An animal? A weapon? Craig Kyle, who created Laura’s character (also known as X-23) for the animated series X-Men: Evolution, once called her a “samurai sword trying to become a real little girl,” and that description matches her fierce characterization in Mangold’s film. To wit: in the first sequence where she uses her powers, she decapitates a man and lobs his head at his cohorts. Thus, X-24 isn’t just Logan’s shadow, but Laura’s too; he’s the next phase of Transigen’s experiment, and everything her cold-blooded “designers” had hoped that she and the other children would grow up to be.

While Transigen’s men repeatedly refer to Laura as a “mistake” and a “thing,” she proves her capacity for goodness throughout the film. Laura’s sweetly protective relationship with Xavier offers the earliest indications that she’s anything more than a snarling, pint-sized killing machine. We see her hold Xavier’s hand and gently slide slippers on his feet, and in the scenes where Logan, Laura, and Xavier hide out in an Oklahoma City hotel room, we can recognize in Laura a young girl who loves horses, unicorns, and her newfound grandfather figure, Xavier. After Xavier’s death, Laura spills over with wordless rage and pain, and at Xavier’s makeshift funeral, she comfortingly reaches to steady a wounded, grieving Logan’s trembling hand. “She can learn to be better,” Xavier says of Laura shortly after her powers are revealed. “You mean better than me,” Logan replies, and Xavier agrees. Logan is near his end and reckoning with the way he lived, but Laura is at a much different threshold—granted a life outside of a laboratory, she must decide what shape that life will take.

Both Logan and Laura face their worst impulses and fears in a climactic confrontation with their monstrous shadow, X-24. Throughout much of the film, Logan is resistant to forming a relationship with Laura, convinced that such a relationship will only bring them both more pain. He’s also irritated to discover that Laura is a fan of X-Men comics: in contrast to the nightmare vision of X-24, the comics present an idealized Wolverine that the ailing, remorseful Logan can never live up to. It’s only in the film’s final act that Logan definitively chooses to be a father to Laura and the closest thing to a comic book superhero that he can muster. Injecting himself with a serum that will temporarily restore his full powers (but also probably kill him), Logan defends Laura and other mutant children from Transigen and X-24. This means that he more closely resembles his evil counterpart in the film’s final battle sequence—the serum makes him appear younger and stronger—but that seeming incongruity makes a kind of symbolic sense. In his essay “Ancient Myths and Modern Man,” Jungian psychologist Joseph L. Henderson writes, “For most people the dark or negative side of the personality remains unconscious. The hero, on the contrary, must realize that the shadow exists and draw strength from it. He must come to terms with its destructive powers if he is to become sufficiently terrible to overcome the dragon.” That’s just what Logan does here, embracing his own brutal berserker rage in order to overcome a figure that consists only of such brutality. In so doing, Logan is afforded a kind of reconciliation with himself. For audiences sensitive to the stark contrast between the broken Logan of this film and the near-unstoppable Wolverine of previous films, there’s an emotional wallop in seeing the character briefly restored to full power—he finally seems whole.

Yet it is of tremendous significance that it’s Laura, not Logan, that delivers the finishing blow to X-24, shooting him with the adamantium bullet that her father has long-contemplated using on himself. Prior to that definitive defeat, Mangold includes a notably long scene where Laura stabs X-24 again and again with her claws, symbolically rejecting the identity that he represents. Logan’s confrontation with X-24 is a confrontation with his past, but for Laura, the battle is about her future. Literally, she is battling for her life—to have a future at all—but figuratively, she is fighting for a future in which she can “learn to be better.” Logan’s final lines underscore what both he and Laura have gained as a result of defeating the shadow archetype. “Don’t be what they made you,” Logan tells Laura as he lies dying, exhorting her to forsake her origins and pursue a better self. His already oft-quoted last words, “So this is what it feels like,” seem, as Mangold has acknowledged, to refer both to death and Logan’s bond with his daughter, and they emphasize what our hero has gained in helping conquer his worst self: a measure, at long last, of peace.