I talk a big game about remaining “unspotted from the world” by cutting oneself off from popular culture. And I stand by that… at least in theory. But the other day, my wife and I watched Logan (2017), the last installment of the Wolverine trilogy. I grew up reading Marvel comics, and I’ll always love them. (But I promise, you won’t catch me calling for a “Catholic X-Men” or any of that childish grift.)
Anyway, Logan was pretty bad. And it was bad for the same reason that most films today are bad. I wholeheartedly agree with Steven Greydanus’s review at the National Catholic Register: “whenever the filmmakers have a choice between cruelly slaughtering characters and letting them live, they almost always choose the cruel path.”
By the end of Logan, every last X-Man is dead. Most died offscreen, before the film began. The last three heroes—Professor X, Wolverine, and Caliban—die over the course of the movie. And, as the credits rolled, I kept asking myself: Why?
Seriously, what’s the point of a film like Logan?
If you asked the director, James Manigold, he’d probably say something about “realism.” And, to my surprise, the great Ross Douthat seems to relish this aspect of the film. In his newsletter, he called Logan “an imperfect movie in some ways but one that’s just terrific in the way it takes superhero embodiment seriously, by asking a simple question: What happens to the super-soldier when he starts to get old and go downhill?”
Mr. Douthat is whip-smart, so I’m sure he knows that the answer is, “Super-soldiers don’t exist.” It might seem like an interesting puzzle but, really, it’s like asking who would win in a fight between a unicorn and a minotaur. It’s irrelevant. It’s worse than irrelevant, actually. Tis kind of pseudo-realism actually undermines the myth—the myth of the unicorn, the minotaur, the Wolverine.
But movies about superhumans are inherently escapist, and our culture has an inherent dislike of escapism. We have an obsession with this kind of cruel, gritty realism. I think it’s because we’ve insulated ourselves from real pain, real suffering. Our reality is itself escapist, and so we get all of our “realism” from fiction.
Because films like Logan deals only with fictional characters played by professional actors, we can have interesting, abstract conversations about what happens (for instance) when the adamantium grafted to Logan’s skeleton begins to poison his system and retard his healing powers. Yet I’d wager that, for every 10,000 viewers who applaud a “realist” masterpiece like Logan, only one will watch an exposé on PTSD among veterans of the U.S. military. We’re not as interested in what happens when an infantryman comes home from Afghanistan, poisons his system with alcohol and opiates, and then blows his brains out with a Glock 43.
Even with films about superhumans, our emphasis is still on the “super,” not the “human.” Even our our realism is escapist. It gives us the illusion that we’ve confronted the reality of suffering and guilt and death when, in reality, we’ve done no such thing.
Real escapism is only valued by societies that have some bitter reality to escape. The character Superman premiered in Action Comics #1 in 1938, a year before the outbreak of World War II. The target audience for Action Comics were the sons of veterans of the First World War, perhaps the most psychologically damaged generation since the Golden Horde raped and pillaged its way across Europe. They didn’t need “realism” in their entertainment—certainly not their children’s entertainment.
Think about it. The two most celebrated children’s authors in history are probably J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). Both were veterans of World War I. For their public, both World Wars were a fresh and living memory. They didn’t need to be reminded that war is Hell. They knew it firsthand.
No: their audience needed to know that such horrors—such unspeakable pain and suffering—were not in vain. They needed to know that good men and women have a duty to confront evil, no matter the cost to themselves. That’s how we get that moving conversation between Frodo and Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring:
Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”
Frodo and Tolkien both survive their wars, but many of their friends do not. World War I claimed the lives of many heroes, like Joyce Kilmer and Charles Péguy. The Ring came to them, and they played their part. They didn’t live to see Mordor fall, but it couldn’t have fallen without their sacrifice.
Now, compare that valiant “escapism” to the heartless “realism” of Logan. This is why I don’t dip into pop culture anymore. It’s a worthless trifle. It tells us nothing about either life or death. It obscures both fiction and reality. Above all, it ignores grace.
You find this kind of cynicism everywhere in our culture today. Another of my guilty pleasures is an Instagram page called “Middle Class Fancy”. I don’t have social media, but my wife does. She loves the page, too, because it reminds her of my family. And, believe me, we laugh at every last meme. I’m not a total killjoy.
But the stuff they mock on MCF isn’t evil or corrupt or decadent. It’s just… nice. They’re teasing men who wear white New Balance sneakers, women who sport Pandora bracelets, and families who eat at chain restaurants like Olive Garden.
Also, small talk. MCF is pretty down on small talk—i.e., the pointless comments we exchange with our friends and family over and over, year after year, for no obvious reason. Yes, it’s tedious. Yes, the Daylight Savings Time jokes were never funny; they’re not funny now; they won’t be funny at any point in the future. But here’s the gruesome truth, fellas: none of us have anything more interesting to say.
We’ve all met folks who refuse to make the jokes about Daylight Savings Time. And we all know they’re not trying to engage their coworkers in some brilliant discourse on Plato’s Republic. They’re all socially inept Millennials who spend so much time staring at Instagram meme pages that they don’t know how to make conversation. They’re not smarter or more interesting than the rest of us. They’re not even “jaded.” They’re just unpleasant.
Again, this is escapism masked as realism. Small talk is as old as civilization itself. It’s principle means by which we signal our our interest in other human beings. You exchange jokes (even bad jokes) with your friends because you want to share a laugh (even a forced laugh). Refusing to take part in that ritual doesn’t make you cool. It makes you a jerk.
As a rule, folks who feel they’re too good for small talk are the least interesting people you’ll ever meet. They’re the folks who think that having pink hair is a personality, or that getting drunk at nightclubs is a hobby, or that tweeting is a form of political activism, or that “fur babies” are a substitute for children.
And, of course, they scorn chain restaurants like Olive Garden… in favor of other chain restaurants like Starbucks. You know what? At least the folks who pig out on unlimited bread sticks at the ‘Garden know they’re not avant-garde. It’s just a nice, basic, inoffensive thing they enjoy. They don’t pretend to be better than anyone else because of it.
It’s the same in our politics. Last month, my friend Rod Dreher posted on his blog about a new video meant to explain “gender identity” to children by comparing gender to… salad.
The old idea of a male/female dichotomy (the video says) is like eating “a rock-hard wedge of iceberg lettuce and a stinky old rind of tomato.” Meanwhile, the glorious new variety of gender identity is like “a romaine and kale salad with avocado, cucumbers, shishito peppers, and four kinds of cheese sprinkled in balsamic straight from Italy.”
You catch the drift, don’t you? The old male/female dichotomy is boring. It’s the Olive Garden of gender. But trans people are like avocadoes. They’re new! They’re hip! They make the salad sexy! I mean, the balsamic is straight from Italy! Why would you ever settle for that boring, creamy house dressing?
I love that video, because it proves the point made by conservatives and Christians better than we ever could. At bottom, progressives aren’t saying that their “spectrum of gender identities” is scientifically or morally correct. They’re arguing that it makes you more interesting. The novelty is the whole point. You’re a better person if you opt for the balsamic (straight from Italy!) over the bland dressing that comes out of a squeeze bottle.
It’s not about politics. It’s not even about gender. At bottom, it’s just consumerism pretending to be virtue. We in the West are surrounded by the most boring generation of human beings in history, who will literally cut off their own penises just to break up the tedium. Why do think that one in six Gen Z adults now identify as LGBT?
I mean, folks, it’s right there in the name: gender identity. We used to get our identities from useful, meaningful things. You might be a South Carolinian, an Army veteran, a farmer, a husband, a father, a Methodist, a Freemason, a hunter, a member of a bowling league—whatever. Today, those things are too nice. And, besides, they require way too much effort.
We’re at the point now where those good ol’ boys are considered boring because they eat at Chili’s. Meanwhile, the twenty-something who lives in a studio apartment with his cat, does HR for a tech startup, and spends his free time watching porn is considered interesting because he sometimes watch gay porn. So cool! So edgy! Wow! The balsamic is straight from Italy!
My friends, it’s all escapism. It’s escapism masquerading as realism. No, worse, it’s consumerism masquerading as escapism masquerading as realism. It’s soft, sheltered Millennials pretending they understand life because they saw a movie where the superhero dies once. It’s antisocial yuppies pretending they’re deep because they can’t make small talk and laugh at people who eat at Olive Garden. It’s boring losers who think they’re interesting because they post a rainbow flag on their Instagram feed or use the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter.
There’s no reason to feel anything towards these folks except pity. When they reach their deathbeds, they’re going to realize that they never really lived a day in their lives. When they were eight, they asked their moms to buy them a Hello Kitty backpack, because all the cool kids had Hello Kitty backpacks—and that’s basically how they’ve gone through the world ever since.
Teddy Roosevelt had them in mind when he referred to the man who lives as “a cucumber upon the earth’s surface.” It’s “those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
There’s nothing we can do to help them except to live meaningful lives—to enjoy and suffer as much as we can, to greedily embrace every victory and defeat. We can show our countrymen that a better way is possible, hoping against all hope that they’ll follow our lead.