A Modern Tragedy: Logan and the Legacy of Idealized Masculinity

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Promotional image for Logan (2017)

*Warning: this article contains spoilers. 

Last week, Logan took the pop culture mega-plex by storm by becoming the first R-rated, seriously toned superhero blockbuster. But Logan is not just an R-rated, seriously toned superhero blockbuster—it’s a superhero tragedy. And it does what tragedies have always done: warn us what happens when even our strongest heroes cannot change. Cannot find balance. Cannot heal. 

Tragedy, along with the heroic epic, is one of the oldest genres in Western storytelling. From Euripides to Shakespeare to Arthur Miller, the tragedy has been with us for millennia, evolving to suit the heroes of each generation. And while it might seem odd to pair the gruff, motorcycle riding, cigar smoking, damaged bad boy of X-Men with a prestigious literary genre, it actually couldn’t be more apt. Our tragic protagonists have always been men and women of great power, prestige, and ability. They have always been singular individuals, sometimes even aligned with gods. They have always been heroes.

Although aspects of tragedies, and the heroes at their centers, have altered over time to match the eras in which they find themselves, the basic tenets of the form remain the same: the tragic hero finds themselves in a bleak situation full of human folly and impossible odds, but no matter how dire the situation is outside, the hero meets their demise because of a fundamental failing within themselves. The hero is ultimately responsible for their own demise. This personal failing is referred to as the hero’s tragic flaw. Classically that flaw was often hubris, but could be anything from a character who craves power, who cannot feel compassion, or who is hellbent on revenge. And while the trait itself may vary, but the core function of that trait is the same—it’s one that stops the hero from changing, from healing, from growing. It’s a trait that prevents the hero from meeting the dire enemies who face them in a way that will not destroy them, and possibly everyone around them, too.

Another way to understand the basic ethos of a tragedy is this: the only true foundation of any story is change. A story must grow to survive. It must take us on a journey. It must move, or it will die. A tragic hero is a character who cannot change, no matter how extreme the external pressures mounted against them are, and no matter how many opportunities to change are provided to them. Their tragic flaw is paramount. It’s unalterable. And it eventually leads to their demise. Like stories themselves, the hero who cannot change dies.

Spoiler alert: Wolverine dies, as all tragic heroes do. And his tragic flaw is the same as it has been for heroes and heroines alike for as long as tragedy has been a genre.  

Across the ages, the flaws of tragic heroes, from a lack of empathy to a lust for power, have been almost singularly associated with the failings of idealized masculinity. And what I mean when I say masculinity is not as it refers to real, living people, but to the traits, goals, and positions of power that are associated with idealized masculinity in Western culture—traits greatly unaltered over the last few thousand years. The men in tragedies are Warriors. They are Fathers. They are Generals. They are Kings. Female tragic heroes are the same. These women are often seen as gender deviant, eschewing idealized female roles in favor of idealized masculine ones—Clytemnestra, Cleopatra, and Lady Macbeth are queens, but they rule like kings. They lead armies, they are political schemers, they wield axes, they commit violence, and they have sex with whomever they wish. Men or women, tragic heroes almost always embody the idealized masculine in all its glory, beauty, and power. But also in all its failings, and in all its destruction.

Logan is no different.

But Logan is an allegory of tragic masculinity appropriated for modern times, one that warns us, as tragedies have for millennia, what happens when the idealized masculine is unchecked and unbalanced by the idealized feminine. The ability to change for the better is the savior of all broken heroes, and Logan shows us what happens when that change is not possible.   

Along with Batman and Odysseus, Wolverine is an epitome of idealized masculinity in the heroic genre, out of balance by the absence of idealized feminine traits—and, again, what I mean by this is not “gender” as is it is reflected in and experienced by real people, but as a set of gendered ideals around which we build meaning within stories and mythologize our understanding of the world. Over the decades, X-men itself has often turned our understanding of traditional roles for heroes, men and women alike, on its head—how do we view villains who are victims of the Holocaust, of persecution, of violent abuse? How do we view heroes who are ex-drug addicts, who have within them the power to destroy the world, or who hate what they have become? X-men has always been unique in its depiction of nuanced superheros and villains, characters who walk the line between victim, abuser, and savior.  

But what ultimately happens to a hero like Wolverine, the character who, among all the X-men, is the most stubborn in his role as the virile male hero? This is the basic question the writers of Logan asked themselves. What is the end of the man who has been subjected to torture and violence, who is in turn a man who commits violence, who is incapable of vulnerability, who feels victimized by what care and love has has felt in his life? Can he find peace? Can he find healing? Is there a future for him?

Can he change?

Essentially, no.

Without the ability to heal from his traumatized past, without the ability to care for and nurture the next generation, or the ability to find a way to exist in the world without re-creating the violence that created him, Wolverine’s only option is self-destruction. It’s an end that’s clear to viewers from the beginning as an aging, coughing, dying Wolverine struggles to care for an aging, seizuring, dying Professor X. We know this is a story that can only end in its own destruction. The writers merely have to take us there.

However, they give us the most positive self-destruction available to a character like Wolverine, one that allows him to die protecting the next generation of mutants, embodied in his spit-fire daughter, Laura. As a character whose life skills amount to little more than perpetrating the violence that forged him, protecting is really the only constructive avenue left for Wolverine. Instead, like the innocent women of tragedies past, Ophelia, Electra (the matricidal Greek daughter, not the super-heroine), and Cordelia, it’s Laura that’s meant to be the hope in this tragedy: the hope for possible change, for a possible future. The question is if Logan’s daughter really is the hopeful answer to his tragedy, or if she promises a continued future of destruction—like Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Cordelia do.  

To form an answer to this question, it’s crucial to understand the magnitude of the mess Laura is tasked with correcting. First, it’s Laura, not Wolverine, who kills Wolverine’s literal shadow-self, the hyper-violent X-24, a biologically created super-weapon modeled after Wolverine in his prime. X-24 is the ultimate embodiment of all that is imbalanced in the titular hero, divorced of any of the humanity remaining in the true Wolverine. X-24 kills without mercy, without thinking. He’s an animal, virile violence personified. He kills Professor X. He kills Wolverine. He almost kills Laura and what hope for the next generation she represents, too. But Wolverine doesn’t shoulder the responsibility of destroying his own shadow as one might expect. That burden falls on his young daughter.

It’s not just up to Laura to slay her father’s violent aspect, though. She’s meant to break a whole intergenerational legacy of violence, and the film doesn’t parse words about that. All these characters, Wolverine, Laura, and X-24, were created by a villainous line of fathers and sons who have been perpetrating violence against mutants for decades. To underscore this theme of lineage, Wolverine also refers to Professor X as his father. And so the line of violent abusers creates a line of traumatized heroes. Dysfunction begets dysfunction. But tragedies, from Oedipus to Hamlet, have always occurred in imagined worlds with violent patriarchies—worlds often bereft strong characters and mature leaders, either male or female, who embody the best of idealized feminine traits, or a balance between the two gendered halves.

For a long time, in the X-Men universe, Professor Xavier has been that figure, his compassion, strength, and leadership a beacon of order in an often cruel and chaotic world. But his degradation and inevitable demise in Logan launches Wolverine into the realm of uncertainty that all tragic heroes must face. And it’s a realm we already know he cannot survive. So like Ophelia, Cordelia, and Electra before her, it lands on the young Laura to be the link that breaks the chain of masculine violence. As the inevitable tragedy barrels to its conclusion, her father pleads to her, “Don’t be what they made you.” Traumatized as she is, Laura is his last hope for salvation, as she’s the last hope for all their kind. And her gender is no coincidence. In Logan’s world of men, Laura’s femininity is the one special element that is meant to bring balance and healing to the intergenerational cycle of male violence and victimhood that she has arisen from.

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But Laura is not the answer the narrative suggests, and by doing so, it removes the impact and agency from Wolverine’s tragic flailing.

Laura is painted as fierce, capable, and strong, but as a child, she cannot be expected to carry the emotional weight of generations of abuse. Burdening her with the responsibility of both carrying and healing her father’s trauma within her own life reveals the true tragedy of this story, and it’s that Logan is so broken that he cannot care ether for himself or his own daughter. He cannot guide her on a path of healing from the exact same trauma that broke him. When Wolverine tells her that he can’t take care of her because everyone he cares about ends up hurt, and she replies “Then I’ll be okay,” and walks away, we are meant to lament Wolverine’s limitations, but we are also meant to believe that Laura really will be alright without him. 

In essence, in Logan, an adult man is so incapable of embodying any idealized feminine traits (like nurturing, compassion, communication, or “care” as the film itself phrases it) that a female child is expected by the narrative to do it for him.

What is most interesting, though, is that the narrative itself waffles in this assertion. Laura survives. She kills her father’s shadow self with an adamantium bullet, freeing Wolverine from the responsibility of doing it himself, and then tearfully buries the father who only just found out he might be able to love her. But by the end of the story, it’s unclear if Laura really will be able to heal. It’s unclear if she really will be able to shoulder the emotional burdens that her father and his abusers left her with. As she walks off into the woods, we don’t actually know if she will be alright. But we do know that, whatever happens to her, her father will not be there to guide, protect, and love her. 

In that sense, Logan is a true tragedy in the vein of Hamlet and King Lear, in which Ophelia kills herself and Cordelia is hung. All the potential of the the daughter is worthless if the father—the epitome of the idealized masculine—cannot find balance within himself. A tragedy is a tragedy because the tragic hero cannot heal, cannot change, and no girl, no matter how promising, innocent, or brave, can save him. The healing and salvation of generations cannot fall on her shoulders alone, just as it could not fall on Cordelia and Ophelia’s. Only Logan could have saved himself. And only in saving himself could he have assured Laura’s salvation—and the salvation of all his kind as well. 

A girl needs her father intact, just as a society needs its men whole.

And therein lies the warning for our times. It’s the same warning that tragedies have given us for generations: that idealized masculine values, unchecked and unbalanced by idealized feminine values, leads to great power, but also to great destruction. The goal of a any tragedy is to explore the ultimate manifestation of some of these core values—not as true re-creations of individuals and society, but as amplified reflections of them. And Logan warns us, as tragedies always do, what happens when our heroic ideals are taken to their logical extreme. In the end, it’s only when our heroes can change and find balance within themselves that healing can truly be done—and tragedy truly avoided.

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Consensual Violence in Assassin’s Creed (of all places)

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Maria in Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I walked into Assassin’s Creed expecting to, at some point, watch a lady in a hooded cloak kick some ass. Other than that my expectations were pretty low. The warnings by all the early reviews delivered in full: an ambitious but lackluster plot drags down the action and Fassbender’s (weirdly) serious acting. This is a script that is trying to do at least three different things at once and unfortunately failing at all of them. But I didn’t go there to be stunned by the screenwriting. I went there to enjoy action-style violence and maybe have some fun to boot.

And, surprisingly, I did.

There are many different ways a story can approach the tone of its violence. Violence can be anything from cartoonish to horrifying, sexy to squeamish, stylized to brutal. For a film based on a video game, one might expect the violence to fall somewhere in the sexy and stylized camp–enjoyable and exciting, with a sense of danger but no real ethical quandaries to explore.

What happens, though, when women are included in that type of violence?

As we become more conscious of gender in our media, this question has become more and more of a head-scratcher for creators, critics, and fans alike. Last year’s Deadpool (2016) phrased it for us all: “This is so confusing. Is it sexist to hit you? Is it more sexist to not hit you? I mean the line gets really blurry.” And perhaps nowhere does this line get more blurry than in titles like Deadpool or Assassin’s Creed, films where violence is not meant to be taken seriously, where it would usually be off-tone to explore the realistic impact of on-screen abuse, assault, and trauma. 

In many ways, these films are meant to be safe spaces for adults to enjoy violence. But how are we meant to include women, both as characters and as viewers, as equal participants in violence that is overall meant to be fun, sexy, stylized, and, ultimately, safe?

The keywords is safe.

The link between sex and violence, especially in film and video games, has already been well documented and discussed. And this conversation is perhaps most challenging in depictions of violence between men and women. One of the strongest reactions to M/F violence in media is its frequent similarity to depictions of assault, both physical and sexual —a link that can be disturbing for anyone to watch unfold on screen, especially when the tone or time constraints of a film are not designed to handle the implications of that type of content.

It’s the same uncomfortable feeling one might get when watching a smiling Joker lean over a brainwashed Harley Quinn with torture implements in Suicide Squad (2016). Aren’t we all supposed to be having fun with the violence this type of movie? Is watching Harley Quinn get tortured by her abusive boyfriend or by a bulky prison guard fun? And if it’s not, does Suicide Squad really handle the implications of M/F violence with the nuance and empathy it deserves?

Assassin’s Creed handles this problem with surprising simplicity, and the linchpin of its success lies in consent. Without fail, almost all the women in the film give clear consent to the violence they are participating in—consent that helps relieve the blurred line between including female characters in action-movie style violence, and subjecting them to outright assault.  

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Sophie in Assassin’s Creed (2016)

The first scene that comes to mind is one where Cal grabs Sophia by the throat and pushes her against a wall. It’s a classic move that immediately suggests both assault and sexualization of the female character. However, as soon as Cal begins his attack, Sophia announces calmly and confidently to her personal guards that she is handling the situation and does not need assistance. Cal also doesn’t escalate the attack beyond what Sophia announces she can handle, nor does he appear to actually be hurting her. With a retinue of beefy armed men waiting at Sophia’s command, the two continue to talk until the situation de-escalates. It’s a moment that is tense, but surprisingly sexy. And consensual.

And I felt myself let out a breath of relief.

The key to this scene lies not only in Sophia’s agreement, but in her clear sense of control over the encounter. She is an equal to Cal, yet the scene still does what it’s meant to do: amp up the sexuality and tension in their relationship through power dynamics and violence. But it does so without sacrificing Sophie’s agency. 

Maria, Cal’s assassin ancestor’s partner-in-crime, also gets involved in violence, though the much more standard action-film variety. She is scaling walls, drop-kicking inquisitors, and slicing bad guys with knives. A female character actively participating in matched combat is how consent and violence is usually understood in this type of film, and usually that works just fine. However, Maria is not always an active agent in the violence she encounters, steering the film into blurry territory once again.  

But the filmmakers manage to maintain the drama when Maria is set to be burned at the stake, or held with a knife to her throat (you’ll notice the excess of ladies’ throats being the a center-point of the violence, and the sexuality of that should not be lost on you). However, Maria repeatedly, verbally, and without prompting affirms that she will willingly give her life in the name of the creed–and whatever confusing, amorphous subplot that creed seems to apply to. Before Maria is finally killed in a hostage standoff, she reminds Cal of her commitment to the creed once again, and even after she is presumed dead, she pokes to life one more time to command her partner-in-assassinating to get the hell out.

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Cal and Maria about to be burned at the stake in Assassin’s Creed (2016)

This throws the distressed damsel trope into, well, distress. The filmmakers have still given us a Dramatic Moment that gives the stoic hero Someone to Lose and Something to Feel, but Maria’s repeated consent preserves her agency in a way that prevents her from becoming a complete victim in the classic senses of the role.

A parallel can be seen in Cal’s mother, whose dead body in the prologue leaves her as little more than a refrigerated woman plot-point for most of the film– or a woman whose death provides the hero motivation or character development. But the eventual reveal that Cal’s mother ended her own life in the name of the Creed, twists the narrative of victim-hood a second time–much in the way that Maria’s characterization does.   

So Assassin’s Creed, of all things, a movie that makes a painful series of narrative blunders, surprisingly  finds a way to include women in violence without removing their agency. Subjecting women to violence is never going to be absent from action films whose main target audience continues to be men, despite the near equal proliferation of female action-movie viewers—the connection between violence and sex is too strong, and and the trope of women as the hero’s emotional core is too ingrained. Damsels in distress aren’t going anywhere soon.

What films can do is find ways to include female characters in ways that don’t sacrifice their agency and matches the tone of the rest of the violence in the film. By finding simple ways to incorporate consent, creators can take steps toward action films that cater to a broader range of fantasies for both male and female viewers. Assassin’s Creed certainly found a way to make it work for me.