Does 'Logan' Have More of a Christian Message Than 'The Shack'?
The latest Wolverine story does what 'Christian' movies can't.
Two movies opened this weekend that deal heavily with God and death.
The first, The Shack, translates the mega-selling Christian novel from page to screen, with the help of Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (as God) and Sam Worthington, in which the former invites the latter to the cabin where his daughter was murdered by a serial killer for a weekend of spiritual healing.
At this point, nearly all of the Christian population has a strong opinion about the ideas presented in The Shack. Odds are, you’re either in the camp with country superstar Tim McGraw, who appears in the film and claims the story left him “flooded with tears.” Or, you’re with Albert Mohler, who claims the novel presents a “theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.”
I fall somewhere outside the two camps. Because here’s the most obvious thing about The Shack that most critics and readers alike ignored in the frenzy to analyze theology: This is just a bad story for a movie. Mohler pointed this out in his review, writing “at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues,” a criticism that’s echoed on the mainstream side of the media as well. The AV Club claims “the whole film is a crime against narrative, so bungled that it might actually be the victim of sabotage.”
The Shack sits at just 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Only the Kevin Spacey talking cat comedy Nine Lives, released last August, saves it from being the worst reviewed film in a year. Fortunately, a better portrait of redemption opened this weekend, too.
Logan: Finding Light in a Dark Place
Logan is unlike any other superhero project that’s ever been made. Rated R, for gore, constant profanity and a brief flash of nudity (completely unconnected to the plot), the movie doesn’t leave even a hint of a possibility that it’s going for the crossover appeal that’s spawned millions of dollars of merchandise for Marvel by turning characters into lifestyle brands.
It’s a project free from the exhausting task of setting up sequels, prequels and spin-offs and is free just to tell one very grim story. Which leaves ample room for asking big questions in life, specifically about mortality and God’s role in situations teetering on the edge of hopelessness.
There’s certainly social commentary here, as there is with most X-Men projects. The comic was originally a retelling of the Civil Right struggle, with Charles Xavior standing in for MLK and Magneto for Malcolm X.
The plot revolves around Wolverine, the self-healing mutant Hugh Jackman has portrayed in nine different movies over the last 17 years, smuggling a young mutant girl from Mexico to Canada, since the US is no longer safe for a mutant kind.
There’s also a large US-Mexico border wall. The movie takes not-so-subtle stabs at commentary around the current state of immigration and refugees in the political landscape.
But if Logan is an allegory of sorts, it’s much more personal than political.
Set 12 years into the future, the X-Men appear to be dead or scattered. Wolverine has dropped his nickname and is simply called “Logan” once again, appropriate since the self healing powers are fading. He drives a limo for businessmen and bachelorette parties back and forth across the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
After long shifts as a glorified Uber driver, Logan returns to Mexico, where he’s hiding Charles Xavier, the X-Men’s longtime mentor and father figure, now a 90something slipping in and out of dementia.
After one incident Logan muses to his friend, “We always thought [mutants] were part of God’s plan. Maybe we were God’s mistake.” Without his surrogate family and a purpose in life, Logan exists in a state of utter hopelessness.
His probable suicide is interrupted when Laura, an 11-year-old mutant with similar powers, shows up in need of rescue.
While on the run from the bad guys chasing Laura, the group stops to help a family of farmers who’s horses are out. Logan, who Jackman describes as being “terrified of love and intimacy being surrounded by family,” insists “someone else will come along.” In a moment that seems to be ripped directly from Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Xavier replies “someone has come along.”
The family, grateful for the assistance, bring the unlikely trio of strangers, including an illegal immigrant, home for a hot meal and night of rest. Although Jesus isn’t specifically mentioned, the parents credit “the Lord for providing” at the dinner table.
This small scene represents a more moving, and believable, depiction of Christlike behavior than I’ve ever seen in a film made specifically for an evangelical audience.
Not because Christian subculture films don’t deliver their message loudly, but because in-your-face preachiness takes the viewer out of the story.
A Clear Distinction Between Propaganda and Art
Logan separates itself from the gaggle of superhero movies not just for its courage to explore complex themes in a genre usually about nearly invincible beings punching each other. It also rejects the temptation to be everything to everyone in order to show just how dark the darkness can be.
From the opening scene, it’s clear that this is a story about death.
Because the badness is so real, the moments of redemption are so clear. If the darkness isn’t so bad, there’s no real need for saving.
As John Newton, who penned the timeless hymn “Amazing Grace” put it on his deathbed, “my memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
The biggest difference between The Shack and Logan is that the former wants to tell you what to do, and feels a compulsive need to explain itself. In book format, that can be categorized as self-help. But on the screen, it’s propaganda. And propaganda can’t stir like art can.
And Logan is certainly an art film, already generating 2018 Oscar season buzz. Jackman and writer/director James Mangold pulled from classic westerns Unforgiven and Shane as well as Mickey Rourke’s Oscar-nominated heartbreaking character in The Wrestler.
Perhaps this is partly due to Jackman’s portrayal of a character in desperate need of redemption being anchored in his real life faith in Christ.
“I’m a Christian,” he told Parade Magazine in 2015 . “This is going to sound weird to you. In Chariots of Fire the runner Eric Liddell says, ‘When I run, I feel His pleasure.’ And I feel that pleasure when I act.”
Logan set out to tell an unforgettable story, and and provides vivid allegory for putting others before yourself, and explores the themes of God and death. Oddly enough, Logan accomplishes what The Shack set out to do, but couldn’t stick.