Logan and the Desire to Die


In the movies, death is a just thing.

This isn’t true in real life. Death is perhaps the least just of all human endeavors. It doesn’t care if you have a good reason to stay alive or things to do or anyone depending on you. It strikes on its own time and leaves not so much as a note behind.

Perhaps that’s why death usually sticks to its rules in movies. The good guys win and get to live. The bad guys lose and must die. People make mistakes and that’s why they’re killed, those who do everything right can survive. And if there’s an unjust death, it’s because they’d been around long enough that it was time, or because we know the actor had hit a snafu in their contract negotiations.

In other words, film teaches us that death is a punishment. As such, we root for the hero to live. Any other outcome must disappointing. It’s normal to go along with that, the majority of film and certainly the majority of studio action pictures are a fight for survival, the stakes being your life and the payoff being that our hero lives another day.

So what if they don’t want another day?

Director James Mangold’s Logan brings us the final tale of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, though he’s long since abandoned any pretense or heroics of that title. Logan is a man with bone-deep exhaustion. The healing factor that made him functionally immortal has faded and each blow and bullet and cut is agony. Everyone and everything he’s loved has long since died or left him and all that’s left is a scratched out existence and an attempt to take care of a mentor on the verge of the end himself.

Logan carries around an adamantium bullet, the only thing capable of piercing his skull and permanently and quickly ending it all. A violent end for a man who carries the weight of decades of murder, something that the R-rated Logan can finally show in its fullness. Logan gives us a strong idea of the ghosts that rattle around in this man’s head by showing the grisliness of the weapon he was created to be. His fundamental decency makes that all the harder to live with.

One of this film’s most gutwrenching scenes is one of its smallest. A conversation in a safe place as Logan wrestles with nightmares. Laura, his clone daughter (it’s still based on a comic book, guys), says she has nightmares too, nightmares about people hurting her. Logan responds that in his, he hurts people.

That’s the surprise villain here. X-24, a clone of Logan himself, but younger and more vicious. A replication of that time that still haunts his dreams when he was an unthinking murderer. While literalizing it as one man with claws fighting his clone, Logan is about that man’s desire to lay his past to rest and finally end all that torment.

In other words, Logan’s ultimate motivating desire in this film is not to live but to die. It is a hero who will succeed by laying his body to rest, by achieving his frankly suicidal desire.

How do we reconcile this with what cinema has taught us about death? Death as the reward for the hero, as the final release that our hero needs? After all, he gets it. The final moments of the film are his death and burial, a moment of poignancy precisely because he’s achieved what he wants. He’s laid down his arms and “…there aren’t any more guns in the valley.”

For starters, it isn’t as though Logan completely eschews the idea of cinematic reward. The bad guys all still die and one of our heroes still lives, even if all the others die along the way to get her there. People pay for mistakes and the unjust deaths still move everything along.

But I can’t stop resting on that final image, a triumphant image of our hero in his grave, the music softly swelling beneath, the X marking the legacy he leaves behind.

Perhaps that’s what it is. In Logan, his pain comes from the idea that all he’s done is hurt people, hurt the world, been an aberration that was corrected. The pain he feels is the pain of guilt, that he has done no good in such a long life and that he’s tired of feeling that pain.

In that final moment though, he realizes that he’s created something that will live on, that will forge forward a new path forward. In other words, in that final moment, Logan realizes that he has made the world a better place. That his reward is to rest and to know what he’s done has perhaps all been for good.

It’s the idea that death is not the end, no matter what you believe in. I mean, it is, it is the end of everything, that’s what he seeks, a rest that he’s spent 8 films earning. But it is not the end because the good that we do lives on, is passed down to the next generation. That death need not be a punishment and need not be so frightening for those who are in such pain. And that good does not become negated by death.

In final words, Logan knows that death does not necessarily have to follow those rules that we’ve adhered to it to make it less scary. It’s a film that understands those shades and knows that somehow, things might be okay. That Logan ultimately deserves the end to the guilt and that what he has done for good will matter.

It’s the cinematic reward not of death, but of peace.