I was watching the movie Logan on TV last night. Do you know it? It’s one of the X-Men flicks, starring Hugh Jackman as “the Wolverine,” though in this story he’s the more human-ish version of that character, called “Logan.”
I’ve actually watched this movie about ten times. A lot of writers would turn up their noses at this species of pulp-y fare, but I really love it … and I learn a lot because these are the kinds of stories that work.
The heroes work.
The villains work.
The stories work.
I was studying the character of Logan/Wolverine. It was crystal-clear that he was drawn in the tradition of dozens of other male/adventure leads—Bogart in Casablanca, Han Solo in Star Wars, Clint Eastwood in anything, not to mention the male leads in Seven Samurai, Shane, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Paper Moon, True Grit, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Book of Eli, every Bourne movie, etc.
Each of these protagonists is dealing with a split in his interior nature—a division that, as I see it, is common maybe not to real-life males in every culture but certainly to most in Western societies, particularly our own good ol’ U.S.A.
The split is between darkness and light, between wariness of and self-distancing from others and opening one’s heart to love.
If I had the Logan script in front of me, I could scroll down and pick out at least a dozen places where the character of Logan articulates some version of
Leave me alone, I can’t help you
It’s none of my business, get the hell outa here
or Bogey’s character of Rick Blaine in Casablanca declaring, “I stick my neck out for nobody” or “I’m the only cause I’m fighting for.” Etc., etc.
The male protagonists in virtually all the stories cited above and ten thousand others have all undergone painful, deeply disillusioning experiences of life. Maybe in childhood, maybe in love, maybe in war. They’ve all arrived at some form of solitary gunslinger persona.
Then there’s the other half of their character.
The “good” half.
In almost every such tale, a “B” story character, often female, but sometimes a child (as in Paper Moon or True Grit) or a helpless person or persons in need (the prostitutes of Big Whiskey, Wyoming in Unforgiven, the villagers in Seven Samurai) crosses paths with our detached, remote hero.
The question each story asks is, “Will our hero stand up only for himself? Or will he open his heart to another?”
Why do these stories all work?
Because in many ways this question is the dilemma we all face.
Is the world a Hobbesian, zero-sum nightmare, a war of all against all, in which the only realistic course is to look out for Number One?
Or is love and compassion for the Other the truly brave and noble choice in a world where the forces of darkness and self-interest seem to be everywhere ascendant?
In Logan, the “love interest” is a young mutant girl named Laura, who shares with Logan the Wolverine claws (not to mention his DNA).
The character of Logan goes from rejecting her and distancing himself from her predicament (she’s in life-and-death danger) to … well, I won’t ruin it for you.
The heroes in all the stories above take Choice #2.
I don’t think it’s just a pulp choice.
I think it’s the human choice, whether the protagonist is Jesus of Nazareth or the 300 Spartans or Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
The hero chooses love.
He chooses to sacrifice his own selfish needs for the good of the Other.