*******************BEWARE OF SPOILERS***********************
******************READ ON AT YOUR PERIL*********************
Last Tuesday, the Castro Theater in San Francisco showed a double-feature of Logan: Noir and Mad Max: Black and Chrome.
I’d already seen both in the theater, in their original color manifestations. Mad Max had left its audience stunned, overwhelmed by its symphony of carnage. Perfectly crafted and paced, I can think of no valid argument against Mad Mad: Fury Road being named the greatest action film ever committed to screen.
As I left Logan the first time, at least one audience member was openly weeping. That wasn’t the last time I would encounter that response to the movie. It’s a gut punch to fans who grew up knowing no other Wolverine.
Both films are the latest, and most likely the last, in their respective series’. Both stand well above the films that came before them. And both are thoroughly modern films, commenting on the current state of culture, as well as the craft of film storytelling. Neither would have been made even a decade ago.
Yet as I sat down to the black and white experience, what struck me more than anything was how timeless these movies felt. My unrelenting nerd brain couldn’t help but summon up a fifties and sixties audience to watch Logan with me. I wondered what fans of original noir, spaghetti westerns, the Wild Bunch, or even Shane, would have thought of it. Stripping the story of color reminded me how old anti-heroes really are, how timeless their pain. Black and white also softened the violence of Logan. When blood is colorless, it loses impact. I was left with a sense that the character’s suffering was mostly existential.
The unkillable man was dying. From the inside, that which made him indestructible was poisoning him. As he watched everything that mattered to him fade away, any possibility of a better future disappear in the rear view mirror, he no longer had the strength to put himself back together and shamble on.
Black and white film has a way of pushing the meaning of a story to the forefront. There’s no mistaking what you’re watching for the real world. The real world doesn’t look like this. This is better. It’s the silver screen, where tales are told, tales that reflect not life’s appearance, but its meaning.
In our modern age, black and white movies might as well be ancient myth. Even newly made ones like The Man Who Wasn’t There or The Artist are presented as fables from a time long past. So watching this final entry in the history of Hugh Jackman’s beloved Wolverine, presented in the style of an old classic film, placed the character solidly in the realm of legend. Wolverine was never real. Even in the context of the film, most of his legend was made up to sell comic books. All that’s left is a weakening man struggling to live up to an impossible legend. I believe the movie itself is meant to mythologize the struggle of fallible man unable to meet impossible expectations.
Which brings me to the sobbing young woman in the theater I passed as I left. And Comic Book Girl 19.
Comic Book Girl 19 knows more about comics than I ever will. She has her own Youtube channel, where she talks about comics, comic films, and all things nerdy. And like many, many women I’ve encountered in the comics scene, she romanticizes Wolverine as a lovable wounded-animal/father figure. And she HATED Logan. The movie broke her heart.
In her extensive, heart-wrenching video review, CBG19 explains in detail how the character Wolverine had taken a place in her heart left empty by her own distant father. And as she watched the broken, dying Logan struggle and ultimately fail to be a father to the child that came into his life in his last days, her own disappointments came back to her. She wanted so badly for Wolverine to succeed where real life failed, for him to overcome his own suffering and be there for Lara, the little girl who needed him. Isn’t that what superheroes do? Succeed where people in the real world fail? Provide us with a shadow reality where good conquers evil, and decent people live happily ever after? For Comic Book Girl, the hope of Logan becoming a nurturing father was the impossible dream she desperately wanted to see realized, if only in the movies. Even the movies let her down. And like the girl in the theater, she wept. For Logan, For Lara, and for herself. And I wept with her.
Wolverine has always existed as a romantic manifestation of toxic masculinity. He cares deeply, but he’s too wild and emotionally broken to truly be there for anyone. He loves intensely, yet his darkness haunts him, damaging everyone around him, because his soul is too wounded to ever really heal. So his story can only end one way. He’s the ultimate anti-hero, as timeless as any lonely gunslinger, as mythological as Achilles, and just as doomed.
Logan: Noir serves to mythologize the anti-hero. But it also mythologizes the truth that anti-heroes can never give us what we need from them. We believe the hard shell of adamantium around Logan’s heart makes him invincible. But it’s a nothing but scar tissue. The unkillable man is a myth. We hope that he’ll use his strength to save us, to protect us. But what we think makes him strong is poisoning him.
And though set in the future, the black and white serves to remind us that all futures become the past. This story happened long ago. And will happen again. It’s permanent. Like all myths.
Where my nerd brain took me back to the fifties with Logan: Noir, Mad Max: Black and Chrome took me further, to the time of expressionist masterpieces like The Golem, Doctor Caligari, and Metropolis. Unlike Logan, Fury Road could never be mistaken for realistic. Its surreal landscapes, searing orange and teal palette, accentuated with glistening reds, always felt like a fever dream of the apocalypse. But even more assertively, the colorless palette of the Black and Chrome edition served to remind me that the apocalypse is nothing new. It’s embedded deep in humanity’s collective psyche. It was clearly on F.W. Murnau’s mind when he directed Nosferatu, depicting the vampire as a bringer of world-ending plague. It was most likely on Fritz Lang’s mind when he imagined a post-human world in Metropolis. Fury Road takes everything they did further, painting an expressionist apocalypse as biblical as Revelations itself.
From the early scenes of Max chased through tunnels at high speed by swarms of ghostly white figures, Mad Max: Black and Chrome evokes both the slapstick of Buster Keaton and the symbolist imagery of Lang. And as with Logan, I imagined fans of German expressionist film from the 1930s watching with me. I wondered what they thought of of the roaring vehicles, the relentless pace. If they could catch their breath long enough to take in the layered symbolism. I watch Fury Road and see a parable of women fighting for freedom in a toxic patriarchy that treats them like possessions. But beneath that, I see an obvious parable capitalism gone amok, a world where fossil fuels, war, and life-giving resources are used as a means to hoard and maintain power. And how hoarded power leaves the world poisoned and starved.
I wondered if my imaginary watchers from the 30s would see only the second parable and not the first, would be heavily moved by the socialist undertones, but not know what to make of the feminist perspective. Yet these two parables are inseparable. You can’t appreciate one without the acknowledging the other. In Max’s world, it’s not just the young, fertile women being treated as objects. It’s literally everyone. One tiny group benefits from the exploitation of all others. And resources that could benefit all are hoarded to no purpose other than to keep the hungry masses dependent. Meanwhile, the Immorten Joe and his inner circle, who benefit the most, are barely alive. They’re like vampires, sucking life from the living to feed the living dead. They’re just as enslaved to the system as anyone, because they can’t live without the excess they’ve become accustomed to. Joe can’t be seen to let his wives go. It would crack his armor, revealing the diseased, vulnerable body beneath. So this isn’t a story of men vs women. It’s the awakened vs the sleeping. Both are being exploited. But the women have developed a vocabulary to comprehend this and fight against it, while Joe’s half-life warboys happily go to their deaths to perpetuate the very system that exploits them, because they know no other way to give their lives meaning. The only language they know is war.
You couldn’t ask for a more timely allegory. And yet, in black and white, the film reminds me that, like Logan, this story isn’t entirely new. In many ways, it’s as old as civilization itself. When I traveled in India, I remember standing on the high, open courtyard of the Red Fortress in Agra, the seat of power for the Mughal Kings in the 1500s. I looked out across the heavily polluted river to the pointless confection of the Taj Mahal, built at immeasurable expense to house a single corpse, and surrounded by a blighted, impoverished landscape. At the time, I wondered how glorious that view might have looked when it was first built. But now I realize it was probably never a glorious monument in a glorious kingdom. It was always a monument to hoarded power, standing in stark contrast to a tortured landscape, a place where kings gathered vast fortunes they had no use for, crippling their people with poverty in order to glorify themselves. There they whiled away their days playing chess with live concubines as pieces, until their younger sons murdered them to usurp the crown.
Within the DNA of civilization is its end. And the cycle of growth, decay, apocalypse, and renewal goes around and around. But within that cycle is the one part worth celebrating, hope. If Fury Road is the apocalypse, then the Immorten Joe, the People Eater, and the Bullet Farmer must be the horsemen of Famine, Pestilence and War respectively. But then, who is Death? Is it Max, who wears the iron skull-like grill over his mouth? Who wanders the blighted landscape, leaving a trail of bodies and despair in his wake? If so, then he breaks the cycle, giving his universal donor blood to keep Furiosa alive. He answers the apocalypse with hope. He turns the flight into oblivion backward, sending the heroes homeward to heal the broken world. Maybe that’s what the story means.
But ultimately, trying to figure out how one pattern of symbolism might be analogous to another seems pointless. I prefer to espouse the Jungian philosophy that everyone has their own unique psychological structure, and all myths, their own unique architecture. Joseph Campbell made a wonderful career finding the common threads between myths. But I rebel at the idea of the mono-myth, at the theory that there are only seven stories, or that there is nothing new under the sun. The more I considered this films as timeless stories, touching on eternal truths, the more clear it became that regardless of their similarities to earlier classics, they could never have been made even ten years ago. They are indeed like old myths, but told in a new world, with new ideas. And they look to a future we have yet to see.
Logan: Noir puts the myth of the anti-hero to its rest. This life is our burden. We can’t expect an invincible father figure to bear it for us. Anti-heroes are broken men, exhausted from getting us this far. Ready or not, we have to grow up and be our own saviors.
Mad Max: Black and Chrome entreats us not to run away from the ugly world. We have to take responsibility and begin the healing, no matter how messed up it is, or who did the damage. Because there’s nowhere else to go.
Both movies feel all the more timeless when presented in the visual style of timelessness. But they couldn’t be more current. We’ve never seen anything quite like these movies before. They wake us up to the here and now. In a world desperately trying to hang onto the past in the face of an uncertain future, I think this is something we sorely need.