Transformative education deepens our capacity to discern truth, beauty, and goodness in the stories and texts around us—even those that seem like unlikely texts. Here, Brittany Deininger, who will graduate from The Seattle School with her MA in Theology & Culture this month, writes about her experience viewing the latest X-Men movie, Logan, and about the surprising ways Wolverine intersects with what Brittany has been learning about humanity, healing, and the Holy Spirit. Fair warning: Logan spoilers below.
The principle paradox within the X-Men series as a whole is that the superhuman teach us more about what it means to be human that what it means to be mutant. Director James Mangold’s Logan gives us the most violent of the X-Men films. With the aging body of Wolverine and Xavier, he also gives us the most human and vulnerable portrayal of the characters we have yet seen. Why then might Mangold present us with this particular image of a hero in this cultural moment? At the end of the hero’s journey, the difficult questions come: How do we come back from the violence and make home again? How do we rebuild life?
I remember leaving the theater with my glasses off still wiping tears from my face thinking, this is a film about healing and humanity. At the center is Wolverine, whose mutant power is to heal, to restore his physiology to its prior state, immediately. Mangold uses the broken body of Wolverine to show us that even he, the penultimate healer, must learn a different kind of healing: a healing of spirit, memory, and past. These healings are hard won and anything but immediate. His film asks us to consider the difference between curing and healing. Is there healing possible in places where there is no cure? By exploring the impact of violence and trauma on the penultimate healer, Mangold alters our superhero trope. He’s not just Wolverine, he’s Logan. Instead of giving us an image of invulnerability, Logan stands guard over our humanity reminding us of the central nature of our vulnerability and its role in helping us heal.
That connection between healing and the nature of our humanity is a strong theme within the portrayal of evil as well. Dr. Rice as the embodied presence of medical science gone wrong is manipulating the human body to make it invulnerable and instead makes specimens, he argues, that are not human. In other words, to remove the vulnerability is to remove the humanity as well. Though superhero films are always about the fight between good and evil, this film is a particularly poignant meditation on evil. The paradigm of evil follows the assumptions of oppression and genocide: to name something as “soulless” defaces its humanity and resolves the oppressor’s cognitive dissonance, thus justifying their dehumanizing behavior. In other words, evil is that which un-persons, or takes the soul out of the human. We see this with Dr. Rice saying that the children grown in the lab were owned objects and the weaponized super-Logan did not have a conscious or a soul. Mangold asks us to imagine that the other side of the coin in the fight against evil is the fight for humanity in all its vulnerable soulfulness. If evil un-persons, then goodness and belonging sustain the flourishing of personhood. The fighting is not for its own sake, but unto something, namely the protection of that which is worth living for, the heart and soul of life.
If evil un-persons, then goodness and belonging sustain the flourishing of personhood.
One of the most important scenes in the film occurs when an African-American family extend hospitality to Wolverine, Laura, and Xavier with a home cooked meal, companionship, conversation, and a warm bed. This gesture of table fellowship with strangers is free from fear and an icon of human relationship. For one night, these three get to try on normalcy, the very thing they fight to protect. It is in the context of home that Xavier delivers his last message to Wolverine, “This is what life looks like. People love each other. You should take a moment to feel it.” In this section of the film, Mangold also sheds light on the everyday forms of evil that we can become desensitized to: the violation of land and water rights; the manipulation and mechanizing of food, farmers, and land; racism and white supremacy. Juxtaposed so closely with this icon of the good, we come to see that these are the evils that are at our door, these are what deface the image and violate the memory of what makes life good.
This month, I will graduate from the Seattle School with a Master of Arts in Theology & Culture. I can’t help but read this film through both a creative and a theological lens. I can’t think about healing without thinking of the Spirit’s work in this world. You see, if the Spirit’s role as creator calls humanity into personhood, then the Spirit’s role as healer is directly concerned with the restoration of personhood for those who have been dehumanized or un-personed by trauma and oppression. As I watched the film, the words of theologian Elizabeth Johnson came to mind:
Wherever the gift of healing and liberation in however partial a manner reaches the winterized or damaged earth, or peoples crushed by war and injustice, or individual persons weary, harmed, sick, or lost on life’s journey, there the new creation in the Spirit is happening….Hers [Spirit] is the power of person making among those diminished by pain who do not know their own dignity…The creative power that knits us into life continuously mends the torn fabric of our lives, forming in the process fine new and possibly surprising patterns. (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is, 135-138).
By depicting Wolverine as among those damaged by war, weary, harmed, and lost on life’s journey, Mangold critiques the idea that we too could engage in things and think that we would be unaffected by them. We cannot immediately bounce back and close up wounds without regard to the invisible wounds. Violence takes its toll on the human spirit. Perhaps then, the work of the human spirit and the Holy Spirit both are concerned with person making, with world making. Perhaps what the work of the Holy Spirit and even this interpretation of Wolverine tells us is this: To belong to a people and a place is to be responsible to its freedom from oppression, its liberation from injustice, its healing from trauma, and its telling of stories after long periods of silencing. In this way, participation in the community as healer resembles the work of the Spirit as the one who wagers their fate with the beloved community and remains present unto the wholeness of all peoples and places.