Wolverine and Shakespearean Tragedy

Still from the movie Logan

Logan has been out for a while now, and all the reviews have been posted, so I’m very late to the party on this one. I actually saw the film opening weekend, but was too busy to get around to putting my thoughts down until now. While many reviewers enjoyed the story, the action and Hugh Jackman’s last hurrah as the titular character, I noted something a little different. Wolverine is actually a Shakespearean tragedy. Or, at least, very close.

Just as a quick warning to those who haven’t seen it: there are going to be spoilers.

The Shakespearean Tragedy

First, let’s go over the basic plot points of a Shakespearean tragedy. In essence (and I’m glossing over a lot, here), the Shakespearean tragedy involves a character of major social importance. In Shakespeare’s time, this would be a king or a prince. The character has a fall from grace, usually through a personal flaw. This character then undergoes a kind of tortured reformation or redemption that sets the wrong things right, but also kills the character in the end.

Logan fits this almost to a T. It’s established early on that Wolverine’s reputation has survived the death of mutantkind. Even one of the antagonists, Donald Pierce, turns to Logan with a smile and says “I’m a big fan!”. The filmmakers were, in fact, relying on Wolverine’s history not only in the films but in the comics as well. This was a film for fans of both worlds. The audience was expected to come in knowing something about the character.

The fall from grace is slightly more nuanced. In Logan the days of the legendary Wolverine are long gone. Logan has no pride or hope left and is reduced to driving people around while drinking his pain away and buying drugs in back alleys. Logan’s personal flaw, if one can even call it that, is that he’s exhausted. A lifetime of warfare and age in general has reduced his healing factor. The adamantium that made him invulnerable is now poisoning him. There hasn’t been a new mutant born in over twenty years and Professor Xavier, who is now suffering from a neuro-degenerative disorder and generates uncontrolled psychic bursts that need medication to stop. It’s strongly implied that Xavier inadvertently killed the X-Men during one such episode. Logan has lost hope, which means he’s no longer a fighter or a survior; he’s just trying to keep his head above water.

The rest of the film takes Logan on his tortured path to redemption, ultimately killing him as the plot recipe demands. The discovery of Laura (or X-23 to comic book fans) builds to a late-blooming realization that there is something worth fighting for. Broken, beaten and with nothing to lose, he sacrifices his life to set things right just one more time.

The only real deviation here is the ending. In Shakespeare’s works, the character that takes control of the kingdom in the end of the play is the one who truly restores order to the universe. There is no such character in Logan, although spiritually, Laura is his successor. Imbued with the same powers and adamantium skeleton, she is just a younger female version of Logan. Further, in the comics she dons a similar outfit and is declared the new Wolverine. If a sequel to the film were to follow this line, then Laura is destined, one way or another, bring order back to the world she lives in. As it is, she merely survives to become her own person rather than a living weapon.

Logan and King Lear

In addition to its general overall bleakness, one very notable aspect of King Lear is the use of the Fool. In King Lear, Lear’s arrogance and perhaps mental instability result in his daughters throwing him out of the castle. Destitute and driven to insanity, Lear’s only companion is the court jester.

The Fool is important in King Lear because without the Fool, the play would descend in self-indulgent misery. The Fool challenges Lear to pull himself out of his madness and become again the man he was. Professor Xavier is no different in this regard. In Logan he is the Fool both metaphorically and literally. Suffering from his disease, he has episodes that range from absurdity to intense danger. In his lucid moments, however, the old Xavier comes back. Like King Lear’s Fool, Professor Xavier is the truth-teller that Logan needs to drive him forward into a better state of being. He operates as Logan’s conscience, convincing him to help Laura in her desperate moments, but also as a guide, reminding Logan that there is still a path to peace and love if he would just take the time to recognize it. Unlike Lear’s Fool, however, Xavier does not surive to the end. His passing makes way for a darker force that Logan must face.

Logan and Hamlet

Hamlet demonstrated one of the critical tools in Shakespeare’s literary arsenal; the use of multiple characters all of whom mirror each other’s traits. This is most obvious in Hamlet. First, there is Hamlet himself. Hamlet’s father, the former King, was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, now the current king of Denmark. Second, there is Laertes, Hamlet’s friend. Laertes’ father was killed by Hamlet who, once he kills the newly crowned Claudius, will become the king of Denmark. Finally, there is Fortinbras, a prince of Norway. Fortinbras’ father, the king of Norway, was killed prior to the start of the play by King Hamlet, Hamlet’s father. All three swear revenge on those who murdered their kin.

The comparison goes beyond this, however. Their flaws can be compared against each other as well. Hamlet, throughout the play, would rather wax poetic than actually kill his uncle. Laertes, however, seems to act without thinking at all. The moment he’s told that Hamlet has killed his father he accepts the information without further inquiry. He also reveals he purchased poison while travelling abroad even though there is no reason given why he should want to do it or why the audience should think there would be a logical reason to have it. He just kind of does things. Finally there is Fortinbras. Fortinbras swears revenge on his father’s murderer (Hamlet’s father), raises an army, invades Poland at some point and from there moves into Denmark just after Hamlet has finally killed his father’s murderer. Fortinbras is established as a balance between Hamlet and Laertes. He both thinks and acts while the other two are extremes.

Logan fits this model quite well. Laura, Logan and X-24 (Logan’s weaponized clone) are all products of the Weapon X super soldier program. All three sport enhanced senses, a healing factor and an adamantium-laced skeleton complete with razor sharp claws. Just like in Hamlet, the three mutants can also be compared by their differences. Age is the obvious starting point. Laura is just a child. X-24 is a grown adult and Logan himself is centuries old. The differences continue, however. Logan talks throughout the film, mostly in an effort to drive people away. Laura speaks only when it is most important to do so. X-24 doesn’t speak at all. He just grunts, growls and roars. Laura has an active plan that she is seeking to implement while Logan seems to be running mostly off of improvisation and desperation. X-24 doesn’t appear to think or plan at all; he just does whatever he’s told to do. Finally, Laura represents a life almost untouched by the Weapon X program, while X-24 is completed controlled by it. Logan is the uncomfortable balance in between, having to deal with trauma of the program while at the same time having escaped it.

The End

As with Hamlet and Laertes, Logan and X-24 fight and as with Hamlet and Laertes, both die in the process, leaving Laura, who might go on to be the hero of the next generation. As mentioned above, the similarities between Logan and Shakespearean tragedy end here because Laura heads off towards a hopeful but uncertain future. Overall, however, I think adhering this form of storytelling really elevated the film above standard superhero fare. There wasn’t action for the sake of action and the emotional stakes resonated quite well. Not every superhero film can be like this, of course. The film was far too grim to be regular superhero fare, but its adherence to such a classic storytelling structure made it quite a refreshing change. It would be a good thing to see more films like this in the future.

About the author

Erik Hentell:

I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.