From meta to metaphysics.
The second thought I had after seeing James Mangold’s Logan – the first, of course, being holy shit – was that, with this latest installment, the X-Men film franchise has truly embraced the Uncanny – not the generic term, but the psychological concept.
And to think, it only took ten films.
But what is the Uncanny? Honestly, it can’t truly be pinned down, because that “un-pin-down-able-ness” is at the very core of the concept. But the definition posed by Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche, which provides the foundation upon which most later theorists would build, is centered around the concept of something which is also something else, particularly something which is also shades of its opposite. He illustrates the meaning of the concept through the definition of the term itself and its antonym – unheimlich and heimlich. In German, the term “uncanny” actually has an uncanny quality to it. Heimlich, an adjective that corresponds to “familiar, tame, intimate, comfortable, homely” and “friendly, intimate, homelike… arousing a sense of peaceful pleasure and security,” also, in different contexts, means “concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know about it, withheld from others.” Meanwhile, unheimlich – literally, the absence of heimlich – means “uneasy, eerie, bloodcurdling,” (as well as, of course, uncanny) and was defined by the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling as “the name for everything that ought to have remained… hidden and secret and has become visible.” As Freud comments, “thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.”
The Uncanny is the familiar at the heart of the strange, the strange at the heart of the familiar. It is the presence or likeness that demonstrates absence, the extremes of the beautiful and the grotesque which become indistinguishable from each other – thus, the Uncanny valley. In the line of the “know it when I see it” definition of pornography, the Uncanny is a case of knowing it when you feel it, and that feeling is, in one word, liminal – which in itself inspires a secondary malaise, an existential sort of dread.
If it’s not already clear by this point, if you look up five texts on the Uncanny, you will find five different definitions. All of them will cite Freud, and yet none of them will agree.
However, one element that is universally found in discussions of the Uncanny is the figure of the Double. The concept of a Double is by nature Uncanny – there’s a reason Creepy Twins is a trope, after all.
Movies are, by nature, steeped in the concept of the Double. Discussing the relationship between the representation and the represented is one of the pillars that forms the foundation of film theory. What does the camera capture? What does it not? Is the reproduction incapable of capturing the “aura” of the original, as argued by Walter Benjamin, or has it the potential to enhance the “moral character” of “things, beings, or souls,” as claimed by Jean Epstein?
Around the time film was first invented, a journalist commented, as quoted by Lucilla Albano in “Cinema and Psychoanalysis: Across the Dispositifs,” that, “as we have been able to capture and reproduce words, so we are able to capture and reproduce life itself.” But just as much as this captured image can be seen as a preservation, it can also be seen as a foreteller of death. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes speaks of the act of photography as something “which produces Death while trying to preserve life.” The potential immortality of the image highlights the inevitable mortality of the subject. Moving along to cinema, the concept remains just as true, if not more so. In the words of philosopher Jacques Derrida, “cinema is an art of the ghost.”
Though this fundamental aspect of photography, and subsequently film, has not changed, they are now so integrated into our daily life that we have lost our sense of their uncanniness – unless, perhaps, we are forced to stop and think about them: the concept of defamiliarization. Where the original uncanniness might have been described as the familiar at the heart of the strange – new technology reproducing familiar realities – the uncanny, as it relates to photography and film, is now more along the lines of the strange at the heart of the familiar. It is a less obvious breed of Uncanny, and has the potential to be all the more unsettling for that.
But thus far, everything I’ve said could be applied to any form of cinematic or photographic representation. So let’s talk specifically about Logan.
Logan is a film that is all about doubles. Logan himself has three, every single one of which is of crucial importance to the plot:
1) Laura/X-23, the biological double.
2) X-24, the mechanical double.
3) The comic books, or the remediated double. For this, I am using Jean Villot’s definition of remediation as “the repurposing of one media form into another through incorporation or mimesis.”
I realize both are clones of Logan (though the “genetics” in Logan hold about as much water as a cheese grater), but Laura is repeatedly referred or alluded to as a daughter while X-24 is a “perfected” clone without humanity – a fleshy killing machine – thus, biological and mechanical.
Comic book movies love to play with the idea of doubles —alter-egos, double identities, mistaken identities, the works – but to take the concept seriously, to deal with it on a more fundamental as opposed to surface level, is something else entirely. Doubles aren’t just handy-dandy plot devices; as films from Vertigo to Brazil to The Prestige have explored, they can easily turn films into metaphysical minefields. As Pilar Andrade writes in “Cinema’s Doubles, Their Meaning, and Literary Intertexts,”
With the presence or appearance of another self or “other,” some important doubts emerge questioning first the identity of this double (who are you?), but also and as a counterpart, the very self-identity of the original (who am I?) and of his/her perception of reality (is what I am seeing real? Is it imagination, hallucination?)
It’s a philosophical wonderland that comic book movies have repeatedly skipped past without so much as quick look inside. Logan, on the other hand, does not just stop to look, but makes itself very comfortable.
Laura and X-24 represent, respectively, an uncanny double in the original sense of the term and what has become the most prevalent sense of the term. If you look back at the root of the concept of the Uncanny, before Freud, before even Ernst Jentsch, upon whose concepts Freud’s work expanded, you have the Romantic author E. T. A. Hoffman, in particular his work “The Sandman,” which both Jentsch and Freud spent a good deal of time analyzing in their respective works on the Uncanny. There are multiple Uncanny figures in “The Sandman,” including Olympia, the mysterious woman of few words who is capable of inspiring both revulsion and attraction, and is ultimately revealed to be an automaton. Her uncanny qualities, which go entirely unexplained until this revelation, are identified as being the elements of her nature that are capable of uniquely drawing people in or repelling them. Laura’s uncanny relationship to Logan – as a double of himself but also someone else entirely, seems to only contribute to his reluctance to help her, though it ultimately also fosters the connection they form.
X-24, meanwhile, is entirely repulsive. He is Uncanny in the most typical and obvious sense of the term. He shares Logan’s exact physical form, and therefore looks human, but lacks even the slightest scrap of humanity. He’s terrifying, soulless, and lethal – he kills the Munsons and Charles in the only scene in which he is ambiguously presented, leaving the audience to question what is going on as the sense of malaise builds, and ultimately, he kills Logan too.
When Logan returns to the Munsons and realizes what X-24 has done, one of the most important thing to him is making sure that Charles knows it wasn’t him; that Charles does not die thinking him the perpetrator of the actions of his double.
After Mr. Munson, bleeding to death, shoots X-24, he spends a long moment looking at Logan before attempting to shoot him. He evidently looks at Logan and sees the man who killed his family, but in what sense? Does he decide to pull the trigger because Logan, Charles, and Laura attracted the monster who killed his family, or because of Logan’s more fundamental connection to X-24?
Last but not least we have the comic books, the remediated double. This sort of referentiality is more or less par for the course nowadays. We live in an age of memetic meta-intertextuality – or, less obnoxiously, modern culture is defined by our tendency to chop up things (the memetic part; we have short attention spans) which are full of references to other things (intertextual) and not only know it, but know we know, and like to let us know they know we know (meta).
Some have seen the use of comic books in Logan as yet another case of that particularly virulent strain of metatextuality that’s been making the rounds in the mainstream for the past several years. Deadpool would be, of course, the premier example – it really might as well be called Meta: The Movie. But the use of fictional Uncanny X-Men comics in Logan isn’t meta so much as it is metaphysical. Yes, it’s a product of our current culture just as much as Deadpool is, but unlike the other R-rated X-Men bloodbath, Logan takes the time to stop and seriously consider what that means.
As many before me have noted, Logan is as serious as Deadpool is irreverent. The use of metatextuality in Deadpool could theoretically be viewed from a metaphysical angle, but absolutely nothing about the movie suggests the asking of such questions. It’s 101 Ways To Mess With The Fourth Wall – the only questions it asks are of the rhetorical, smart ass variety (which, for the record, I have absolutely no problem with). But Logan unequivocally does ask these questions, and importantly it does through Laura – a child, a member of the latest generation— as opposed to Charles or Logan, who are, respectively, Very Old and Even Older.
Logan’s grumbling over the Uncanny X-Men comics—“Maybe a quarter of it happened. And not like this.” – could have been played off with a wink and and a nudge. Even Logan’s anger at discovering Laura’s comic book inspired master plan (“Where we’re going, ‘Eden’ – it doesn’t exist. The nurse got it from a comic book. You understand? It’s not real”) and Charles’ stern insistence on following through anyway (“It is for Laura”) are not especially groundbreaking. “Pretend this fiction is real for the sake of the children” is the stuff both childhoods and trust issues are made of. What is a bit more unusual is how the situation unfolds to prove Logan both right and wrong: there was no pre-existing Eden at those coordinates. The nurse did get it from the comic books. It was not real—at least, until the kids made it so, in their way.
Once Laura and Logan make it to “Eden,” Laura and her friends trim Logan’s hair and beard while he sleeps to better resemble his comic book self. Despite Logan’s frequent admonitions and reminders of his “true nature,” the film is not about Laura coming to see the “true nature” of Logan, but about him coming to embody, more and more, her image of him. Sometimes through his own choices, and other times, like in the case of his haircut, he gets no say in the matter.
In the film, this interplay between what is consumed culturally and what the characters say and do goes beyond comic books.
Laura sees a mannequin display of a girl and a grown man and looks at it longingly. It’s clear that she wants the girl’s outfit – the film has already made it quite clear that Laura loves horses, and there’s a horse on the shirt – but she also wants the connection indicated by the pose of the mannequins, whose hands are touching. Multiple times she gets the gesture: Logan takes her hand to keep her from skewering a gas station attendant; later, Laura takes his hand after Charles dies; but neither of these occasions feature the connection she hoped for.
Laura gets not just the outfit, but also that moment – just before Logan dies. And the connection, as evidenced by his last words, “So, this is what it feels like,” takes him far more by surprise than it does Laura. After he dies, Laura buries him (another repeated image; a double of Charles’ burial) and quotes Shane’s monologue from Shane: “There’s no living with a killing…” She turns the cross that marks his grave on its side, making it an X, demonstrating that her exposure to the “real” Logan did not ultimately shake her faith in the comic book Wolverine.
When we are presented with doubles, there is usually one that takes precedence: a man and his reflection; a woman and her shadow. Even when dealing with twins, one is sometimes presented in the context of the other – X is Y’s twin (X is defined in relationship to Y, as opposed to X and Y are twins). Where the uncanniness of doubles can get truly terrifying, though, is when these relationships are blurred, confused, or switched. We traditionally think of the dominant double as being the one that comes first, but traditions can be broken.
While the fictional comic books shown in the film do not predate Hugh Jackman’s Logan Howlett, the original comic books certainly do – comic books which did not refer to him as Logan for the first three years of his existence, only Wolverine. And while Logan has been called “The Marvel Comic Book Movie For People Who Hate Marvel Comic Book Movies,” it’s also a film about a guy named Logan that acknowledges, via its use of fictional issues of Uncanny X-Men, that he is ultimately the remediated double of an X-Man called Wolverine. The comics were there first, and the ending of Logan suggests they might get the last laugh, too.