Logan, Human Dignity, and the Integrity of the Body
by Armond Boudreaux
[Some spoilers for Logan follow.]
Who would have imagined that a movie full of brutal violence would turn out to make a persuasive plea for human dignity and the integrity of the body?
Logan might have more graphic violence and death in it than most other superhero movies combined. Set in a dark near-future in which mutants have been nearly wiped out by genocide, the movie depicts a Wolverine who has been reduced from superhero to chauffeur and struggles to keep an elderly Charles Xavier hidden from the U.S. government, which has classified Xavier as a weapon of mass destruction. It’s a world of ugliness, debauchery, greed, and hatred—a world that has carried the fear of mutants to its seemingly logical conclusion: they’re all but eradicated.
From the opening scene, Logan shows us a world in which the human body and person have little dignity or meaning. A gang of thieves forces Logan, who just wants to live in peace and leave his violent past behind him, to bare his claws. They shoot him in the chest with a shotgun without a second’s hesitation and laugh about it as they go back to stealing the rims from his car. But Logan responds in kind: claws pierce skulls, sever limbs, and send blood spraying.
Things only get worse from there. At every turn the film shows us new ways in which this world violates personal dignity and bodily integrity. For example, we learn that the genetics company Transigen has been continuing the work of the Weapon X program, engineering mutant children who will grow up to be soldiers. Most disturbingly, they have even subjected a young girl, Laura, to the same bodily mutilation and torture that turned Logan into a rage-fueled animal. Zander and his security force refer to the children as “its” and insist that they have no rights or humanity because they were created in a lab. Civilized cultures treat human beings as ends in themselves and never as means to an end, but Transigen reduces the value of the children to their utility and monetary worth. They’re patented property, nothing more.
Throughout the film, the audience is subjected to various other assaults on the integrity of the human body and the dignity of the person. Even though Logan has been trying to live in quiet obscurity, Transigen’s invasion of his private existence forces him to become the monstrous Wolverine that we haven’t quite seen on screen before now. His kill count is enormous, and he mutilates or maims countless more minions of Transigen. And it isn’t only bad people who suffer violence as a result of their choices. For example, the Munsons (a kind Christian family who shelter Logan, Xavier, and Laura for a night) come to a terrible end for their generosity.
The idea of bodily integrity is also highlighted by the fact that all of the principal characters have either suffered from gross violations of their bodies or are afflicted with some ailment that injures their personal dignity. For example, even though Logan and Laura have the ability to heal their bodies spontaneously, that blessing comes at a cost: their claws tear open their skin every time they snikt, and both have been the subjects of experiments that coated their bones with adamantium. As X-Men Origins: Wolverine makes clear, the adamantium infusion causes excruciating pain and attacks the integrity of the body in a horrifying way. And as becomes clear in Logan, the adamantium on Logan’s bones ultimately has devastating long-term consequences.
And even though neither has been the victim of the Weapon X program, both Caliban and Charles Xavier also suffer from debilitating dysfunctions of the body: Caliban’s skin can’t handle sunlight, and the paraplegic Xavier suffers from a neurodegenerative disease. In the case of Xavier, his disease is both personally humiliating and also dangerous to the people around him. Without regular medicine, he falls victim to recurring seizures that cause him to lose control of his telepathy and hurt people in his immediate vicinity.
The dignity of each character suffers in some way because of some violation or breakdown in the integrity of the body. Logan and Laura both want to live peaceful lives, and yet at every turn they’re forced to use their powers for violence and killing. Donald Pierce physically tortures Caliban in order to make him use his power against his friends, and Caliban’s only escape turns out to be blowing himself up with a pair of hand grenades. And not only can’t Xavier function without medicine, but he also can’t use the bathroom without Logan’s help. (This is highlighted in one of the film’s most heart-breaking scenes.)
So it’s surprising to find that a movie so full of humiliation, violence, and death makes a profound argument for the dignity of the person and the integrity of the body. In fact, Logan speaks to human dignity and integrity in two important ways, one of them overt and the other more subtle.
In the more overt sense, the sheer violence of the movie makes a desperate plea for human dignity. It’s hard to imagine anyone watching a film like Logan and not being horrified by the severed body parts, the spraying blood, and the sight of adamantium claws puncturing skulls. In many ways, such on-screen violence can be completely dehumanizing both to the characters and to those of us who watch it. But when handled well, the kind of carnage we see in Logan is an appeal for humanity. The gut-wrenching feeling that we ought to experience watching a movie like Logan is a powerful reminder of a truth that we often forget: that the human body possesses an innate dignity and worth.
In its use of violence to make this profoundly humane point, Logan is like the work of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose fiction is often violent. In discussing the violence of her stories, O’Connor wrote that “to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Writing in the mid-twentieth century, O’Connor’s point was that the world had strayed so far from truth that in order to say something meaningful, the fiction writer often had to resort to depicting the grotesque and the violent. Logan speaks to the dignity of the person precisely because it forces us to confront a world in which the bodies of people become means instead of ends.
But Logan also points toward the dignity of the person and the body in the movie’s more subtle moments, as well. This is especially true in the character of Xavier, who throughout the movie suffers humiliation after humiliation because of his paralysis and the degeneration of his brain. Even though he must endure the indignity of being helped onto a public toilet and other such embarrassments, and even though he occasionally grows cantankerous and impatient with Logan, Xavier never wavers from his love for other people (both friends and strangers) or from his determination to help them when he can.
Moreover, unlike Logan, Xavier has the humility to accept help from others. When the Munson family offers Logan, Xavier, and Laura a meal and a place to stay for the night, Xavier cheerfully insists that they accept their hospitality in spite of Logan’s reluctance. His willingness to accept such help speaks to the quiet kind of dignity that he maintains even in his debilitation. Our interdependence is part of what it means to be human, after all, and perhaps denying that interdependence (even for admirable reasons) denies not only one’s own humanity, but also the dignity and humanity of others.
Finally, one of the more powerful statements that Logan makes about human dignity and bodily integrity comes in its two funeral scenes. Because of the casual destruction, perversion, and corruption of human bodies throughout the movie, the two burial scenes come almost as a shock—indeed, in a movie full of loud, frenetic action, the quietness of the two funerals resounds like a thunderclap. Throughout the movie, bodies are treated like so much material to be used or waste to be left rotting on the side of the road. So when we see people burying their beloved dead with dignity, the point is clear: the human body, dead or alive, possesses an innate and inviolable worth. Our bodies are ends, not means to an end.
That’s a lesson that philosophy, religion, and ethics have taught for thousands of years, but it bears repeating in every age—at some times more urgently than at others.
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of That He May Raise, Animus: Little Gods, and the forthcoming Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.