When we first see Hugh Jackman in the new film Logan, his character is hung over and hobbling: a shambolic shadow of his former self, the slashing super-hero Jackman has played in seven films over seventeen years. The Wolverine we have come to know is vigorous and invincible. Now he is worn out and wracked with chronic pain, which he self-medicates with booze. His claws are malfunctioning, his healing powers are fading, and the toxicity of his metal-laced skeleton is slowly killing him.
Old man Logan has retired from the hero business. Instead, he is working as a limo driver, shuttling frat bros and basic party girls to and fro, trying to scrounge up enough money to buy meds for his ailing mentor Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart.
Xavier is also a fallen figure. He was once “Professor X,” the charismatic founder of the X-men. Though long a paraplegic, he was once the moral leader of the mutant rights movement and a world-class genius with god-like mental powers. Now he is a frail, senile nonagenarian afflicted with a degenerative brain disease that causes lethal seizures: lethal, that is, to anyone else within a ten-mile radius.
The year is 2029, and the world is beyond saving. The bigots have won, mutants have all but died out, and Logan’s only ambition is to buy a boat so he and his adopted father figure can drift out to sea and both die in peace.
Warning: Spoilers below.
Logan no longer wants to be a hero, but he has heroism thrust upon him when an 12-year-old girl in mortal peril named Laura enters his life. After she exhibits Wolverine-like powers, Logan learns that she is his daughter. The girl longs for a father, and Xavier implores him to experience the warmth of family while he still can. Yet Logan adamantly refuses to let her into his heart. “Bad things happen to people I care about,” he insists.
Logan is incapable of reintegrating into civilian life, like many war veterans suffering from PTSD. And Logan is a veteran of many wars: every major US conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam, in fact; a full century of following orders and killing for the State as a weaponized man.
Then a government black ops program sought to more fully weaponize him by transforming him into “Weapon X.” (See X-men Origins: Wolverine.) This was when his skeleton and his bone claws were infused with adamantium, a process only he could survive thanks to his regenerative powers. They then prepared to wipe his mind, stripping away his humanity to make him the perfect living weapon: an obedient mutant attack dog, devoid of conscience. This was especially necessary, because Logan had previously balked at taking innocent lives when serving in “Team X,” a covert mutant strike force.
Trying to mold human beings into unhesitant killers is not just the stuff of super-hero cinema. After World War II, Army researcher S.L.A. Marshall demonstrated that most soldiers failed to fire their weapons out of reluctance to kill their fellow man. As Wikipedia tells us, “Based on Marshall’s studies the military instituted training measures to break down this resistance and successfully raised soldiers’ firing rates to over 90 percent during the Vietnam War.” These topics have recently been explored in the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Societyby Dave Grossman.
Logan managed to escape before being brainwashed. However, the manufacturers of human weapons would not give up. Weapon X stood for “Weapon 10,” and they would create a Weapon XI, Weapon XII, etc.
In fact, Laura herself was the product of a weapons program called X-23, run by the biotech corporation Transigen. While Logan was transformed into a weapon, Laura was bred and raised to be one. Transigen inseminated captive women using DNA samples from several mutants to breed mutant children. The mothers were then euthanized and the children kept isolated from the world and abusively experimented on, trained, and psychologically conditioned to become remorseless killers.
While not nearly as severe, modern schools have some essential features in common with the X-23 program. Compulsory schools also cloister children from the real world (although not so completely) in order to control and condition them. And the first universal mandatory schooling policy was adopted largely for the sake of cultivating good future soldiers, willing to kill and be killed for the nation. As John Taylor Gatto wrote in his Underground History of American Education:
“The particular utopia American believers chose to bring to the schoolhouse was Prussian. The seed that became American schooling, twentieth-century style, was planted in 1806 when Napoleon’s amateur soldiers bested the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. (…)
The most important immediate reaction to Jena was an immortal speech, the “Address to the German Nation” by the philosopher [Johann] Fichte — one of the influential documents of modern history leading directly to the first workable compulsion schools in the West. Other times, other lands talked about schooling, but all failed to deliver. Simple forced training for brief intervals and for narrow purposes was the best that had ever been managed. This time would be different.
In no uncertain terms Fichte told Prussia the party was over. Children would have to be disciplined through a new form of universal conditioning. They could no longer be trusted to their parents. Look what Napoleon had done by banishing sentiment in the interests of nationalism. Through forced schooling, everyone would learn that ‘work makes free,’ and working for the State, even laying down one’s life to its commands, was the greatest freedom of all.”
For more on this topic, see my essay, “How Schooling Leads to War.”
A stark contrast to the X-23 program is the mutant academy that Professor X founded, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. At this private academy, mutants learned how to control their powers: self-control instead of obedience. Graduates, instead of becoming conscripted, amoral killers, voluntarily become heroes who strive to protect, and never take, innocent life.
In spite of Transigen having complete control of the X-23 children from birth, the children stubbornly developed consciences and rebellious spirits. So Transigen tries a different approach. They make a direct, virtually identical clone of Logan, with his powers and his disposition toward rage, but genetically modified to not have Logan’s conscience.
With this “X-24,” the military industrial complex finally possessed what it had been trying to create since Weapon X: the perfect soldier. Lethal, unstoppable, amoral, feral, and perfectly obedient. The unruly X-23 children were then considered obsolete, and were scheduled to be “put to sleep,” but sympathetic nurses help them escape. Transigen sent its paramilitary mercenaries called Reavers, and eventually X-24 itself, to recapture its escaped subjects.
Might even X-24 have a real world parallel someday? With rapid progress in genetic engineering, it’s not unimaginable. And with governments already willing to cage, torture, and bomb countless human beings, would you really put it past them to bio-engineer useful sociopaths?
In the X-films, a big motivation for such programs is fear of mutants. In all of the various X-programs, mutants were to be used to hunt other mutants. Both Team X and Weapon X were founded by a muta-phobe named William Stryker. Decades later, as head of the Department of Domestic Security and Defense, Stryker used his own son’s mutant mind-control powers to enslave mutants in order to hunt still other mutants. (See the film X2.)
Stryker began his career as a devoted and admiring special assistant to a scientist named Bolivar Trask, who experimented on mutants (torturing and killing many) in order to develop his Sentinels: giant robots built for governments to use to hunt mutants and counter their powers. (See X-men: Days of Future Past.) Trask was motivated by fear that, unless combatted, mutants would drive humans to extinction. He said:
“The mutant threat is the defining issue of our time. We can choose to stem the impending tide of extinction or we can stand by passively and allow it to wash away any remnants of our species.”
Demographic panic has played a huge and decisive role in political history from the ancient world to the present. Going back to the issue of public schools, one of the primary motivations for establishing compulsory public schooling in America was to forcibly assimilate the children of immigrants.
Demographic panic, and especially fear of biological race mixing, also motivated Jim Crow laws (in addition to marriage licenses, immigration restrictions, and laws regulating who may and may not work for money and under what conditions). Today we see the same sexual anxiety in the alt-right’s smearing of non-white races as being predisposed to rape and even in its fondness for the epithet “cuck” (cuckold).
One aspect of demographic panic is the scapegoating of whole populations for economic woes. Like the fictional mutants, real-life immigrants and foreign laborers are feared for their “special abilities”: their uncanny ability to outcompete domestic, native labor. Historically, this has been a primary motivation for such enacting policies as protectionism, the minimum wage, and occupational licensure.
And today, Trask’s demographic rhetoric finds echo in the alt-right’s obsessions with “demographic winter” and “race suicide.”
After Trask was assassinated by a mutant, Stryker carried on his mission. Stryker’s anti-mutant rhetoric skewed more in the direction of a security hawk than a racialist. But his policies had much the same upshot. He once opined:
“Mutants, I don’t hate them. I just know what they can do. You don’t realize this but we are at war. I took an oath: Protect this country. My name is William Stryker, and I am not a monster. I’m simply a patriot.”
“We are at war” is a common refrain of nationalists like top Trump advisorSteve Bannon, who preach an inevitable, climactic clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim East.
In the original X-men movie, a “Mutant Registration Act” is championed by a US Senator named Robert Kelly. Kelly insists that mutants must be identified and investigated, so any threat they pose can be countered.
All of this echoes the real-world right-wing predilection for pre-crime policies: the willingness to persecute those deemed dangerous, to abridge freedom for the sake of security, to paradoxically violate rights in the name of protecting rights from possible future violations.
We hear the arguments all the time:
“Islam has inherent violent and tyrannical tendencies. Therefore Muslims must be surveilled, restricted, even registered.”
“Certain races have innate violent tendencies, and so police brutality, racial profiling, and mass incarceration are justified.”
“Certain immigrants might have criminal tendencies, or even worse, might vote Democrat, and so we must keep/kick them out.”
“Drug addicts might commit robbery to get money for their next fix, and in general hurt public morals, so we need a War on Drugs.”
“Even a 1% chance that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could acquire weapons of mass destruction must be treated the same as a certainty, and therefore we must forestall the potential threat with a preventive war.” (The Cheney Doctrine and Bush Doctrine combined.)
The Collectivism of War
Anti-mutant policy also mirrors the real-world doctrine of collective punishment: the belief that various “wars” must be waged on whole populations in order to counter the threat posed by individuals within those populations.
The persecution inherent in such policies inevitably radicalizes some within the target population. “Blowback” is when these radicalized individuals retaliate. Such retaliation itself can involve collective punishment of innocent civilians.
In the real world, Western military interventions in Muslim countries kill and harm civilians. This incites terrorist attacks against Western countries, which also kill and harm civilians. That provokes the West to wage even more expansive wars in the Greater Middle East, which helps to proliferate terrorism further, etc.
This cycle of violence can be seen in the X-films too. The war on mutants waged by people like Trask and Stryker radicalized Magneto and his followers, who then declared war on the entire non-mutant human race.
The X-men, like real-world classical liberals, are caught in the middle, heroically striving to defuse the war by defending in word and deed the universal rights that inhere in every individual, irrespective of demography; by denouncing the policies of pre-crime and collective punishment; and by insisting on the possibility of social harmony.
The X-men have tragically lost this struggle in the world of Logan. It is the mutants who have been driven to extinction. Transigen’s “final solution” for the “mutant problem” was horrifyingly simple: it tainted the food supply with a drug that prevented mutants from being conceived. Mass round-ups probably finished the job. This is reminiscent of the mass forced sterilization of such eugenicist regimes as Nazi Germany, and Hitler’s inspiration, Progressive Era America.
Having already virtually exterminated mutant-kind, one might wonder why Transigen was bent on manufacturing more of them. Zander Rice, Transigen’s chief scientist, explained that mutant powers were fine, so long as they were under the control of authority. This is characteristic of the central planning mindset, which, as Ludwig von Mises wrote, aims at:
“…abolishing laissez-faire not only in the production of material goods, but no less in the production of men.”
Yet, the genocide was not completely accomplished. It is revealed that a mutant refuge exists in Canada. And Logan succeeds in helping Laura and the other refugee mutant children escape from Transigen, and from the American anti-mutant police state, and find asylum in the north.
But Logan’s greatest triumph is one last moment of defiance against those who sought to reduce him to a weapon, to an animal in service of the State. (His former commanding officer Stryker once taunted him, “People don’t change, Wolverine. You were an animal then and you’re an animal now. I just gave you claws.”)
Before the end, he takes Laura’s hand and finally lets her into his heart, saying “So this is what it feels like.” He asserts his humanity, his private life, and his freedom from the State that demanded his servitude. He is not an animal, not a weapon, not even a soldier. In the end, he is a man, a son, a father, a hero.