Today on Fiction Unbound, we bring you a cross-genre speculation featuring two recent works that would seem unlikely traveling companions under any circumstances: Logan, the final X-Men movie to feature Hugh Jackman in his signature role as Logan/Wolverine, and Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir about growing up in an impoverished Ohio steel town. Logan broke box-office records as the highest grossing Wolverine movie and the 4th highest R-rated opening in North America. Hillbilly Elegy, released in June 2016, was hailed as “essential reading” by David Brooks of the New York Times, and has remained on the NYT bestseller list for almost 60 weeks as of the time of this writing. Aside from striking a chord with their respective audiences, what do these stories have in common? So glad you asked.
Logan is a superhero fantasy with a noir twist. In a gritty near-future America where it has been 25 years since the last mutants were born, an aging, hard-drinking Logan works as an Uber limousine driver, anonymous in a world that seems to have moved on from its time of superheroes. When he isn’t chauffeuring bachelorette parties and drunken bros, he cares for the elderly Professor Xavier, who has been stricken with a degenerative brain disease. The rest of the X-men are dead. It seems Logan and Xavier are among the last of their kind, soon to be gone. Then they meet Laura, a young girl with mutant powers identical to Logan’s, and Logan is once more thrust into the role of reluctant hero.
Hillbilly Elegy is Vance’s moving personal story of his family’s struggles with poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse in a working-class Appalachian culture beset by both economic insecurity and its own contradictions.
On the surface, superhero fantasy and memoir belong in different sections of the library catalog. Yet if we accept the premise that speculative fiction is a lens through which we view contemporary anxieties, then the illusion of separation disappears and the two stories converge, with Logan depicting a fictionalized framing of the anxieties that the real people portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy are living every day.
Unbound writers CS Peterson, Amanda Boldenow, and Mark Springer sat down to discuss these two works that seem to have manifested the zeitgeist of this present American moment.
Fair warning: Our discussion necessarily contains a wealth of spoilers. If you haven’t already done so, go read the book and watch the movie, then pour yourself a bourbon and come join the speculation.
CS Peterson: I have a confession: I’ve seen Logan almost two dozen times since it came out, and I'm a little puzzled by my obsession with it. It’s audience is 68% male, with 84% of those male viewers between the ages of 18-44—not my demographic.
Amanda Boldenow: I wonder if you feel a connection to the sense of loss that Logan feels towards the erasure of mutants and that Vance feels towards the decline of an economically stable hillbilly community because of your connection to the Ringling Bros. Circus. You’ve mentioned in conversation and on social media your memories of working as a professional clown and your sadness over the circus’s closing, the disbanding of the performers who coexist in a type of family, and the end of an icon in American entertainment: the big-tent traveling circus. It’s also notable that now you’re a teacher at a school for gifted children, much like the school Xavier leads in the X-Men canon. Vance didn’t attend a special school, but it’s clear he was a kid with all of the potential he didn’t fully explore until later in life because of his difficult circumstances, and I wonder if that loss of talent and suppression of talent resonates with the teacher-side of you.
CSP: I hadn’t made that circus-loss connection, but now that you mention it, that does ring true. And the founder of our school announced her retirement last spring, so that may have struck a chord, too.
What stands out most for me, though, is the bewilderment that Logan experiences as he tries to make sense of what his world has become. When the film opens he is driving for Uber—a far cry from what we have come to expect of the most lethal of the X-men. In these early scenes he looks and acts like a man who woke up in someone else’s life and can’t figure out how to get back to his own. This sense of bewilderment is what connects the film to Hillbilly Elegy in my mind. There are moments in the book where Vance looks at the poverty consuming his community and is perplexed by his family’s inability to break the cycle and claim the promised American dream.
Once I started thinking about the two stories as linked by this shared pathos, I saw more similarities between them: heavy drinking and substance abuse, broken dreams, deep emotional trauma, violence.
Mark Springer: The stories are also linked in another way: each stems from a betrayal. In Hillbilly Elegy, it is the betrayal of a working-class way of life by impersonal economic forces and a national culture indifferent to the plight of the people harmed by those forces. The people suffering this betrayal, blue-collar breadwinners and their families, were once considered an indispensable part of America’s post-World War II greatness. Now they are in crisis. The promise that a man could provide for his family if he was willing to work hard has been broken. There are fewer jobs, fewer opportunities. Whole towns and regions are dying, communities collapsing.
In Logan, the betrayal is more intimate: Xavier, who founded the X-Men and strove to make mutants a force for good in the world, has been betrayed by his own mind. He suffers debilitating seizures that cause him to lose control of his powers, with terrible consequences. (We eventually learn that it was the telepathic blast unleashed by Xavier’s first seizure that killed the rest of the X-Men.) Everything Xavier worked for, everything he built, the people he gathered around a common purpose and educated and cared for—it was all destroyed in an instant, leaving Logan to pick up the pieces.
Neither betrayal is intentional. The economic, social, and cultural forces Vance chronicles in Hillbilly Elegy are beyond the control of any one person, just as Xavier has no control over his seizures or their consequences. But if betrayals like these aren’t a good reason for people to be bewildered, I don’t know what is.
CSP: Technology plays a part, too. It’s an unstoppable force of change, rushing forward at a head-spinning pace. In the movie, as in the real world, robotics and automation are employed in the service of an economy that has no regard for the human consequences. Self-driving cars will eventually take Logan’s Uber job. Mr. Munson, the kindly farmer who offers Logan and his companions aid, will never be able to compete with the giant robots (“behemoths with tiny little brains”) that cultivate the sprawling corporate cornfields surrounding his small family farm.
And the service delivered by this technology is terrible! The self-driving trucks are rude. The patented GMO corn tastes awful, eliminates the benefits of natural selection, and is secretly being used by an evil mega-corporation to suppress accidental mutation in humans (this is the reason mutants with superpowers are no longer being born in the general population). Alkali-Transigen, the mega-corp, is on the way to commodifying all of nature, including human beings. It’s not just the end of blue-collar society, it’s the end of humanity.
AB: The automation in the film’s near-future setting is an extension of Vance’s personal and family experiences in a town previously dominated by a thriving steel mill. His grandparents moved to Ohio, along with scores of other Kentucky hillbilly transplants, for the better life and steady wages promised by jobs in the Armco mill. When those jobs were later automated or exported overseas in 1980s and ‘90s and nothing replaced them, it created an employment vacuum in the town, literally sucking away the livelihoods of the residents. Vance describes how this scenario went from bad to worse when unemployment (in part) begat poverty, alcoholism, opioid addiction, depression, and a host of other obstacles that can be insurmountable without help, a strong support network, and superhuman willpower. Willpower that’s difficult to muster when the deck seems stacked against you, economically and culturally.
CSP: We can’t talk about these stories without talking about violence. The characters in Logan and the people depicted in Hillbilly Elegy are subjected to—and participate in—a lot of violence. And I mean a lot. Vance’s childhood is defined by it. After high school he joins the Marines. And his Mamaw was, what, fourteen when she first held a gun to a man’s head?
MS: The graphic violence in Logan is shocking. This is not the blend of superhuman feats and stylized violence perfected by the hugely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which the physical and emotional consequences of people doing great bodily harm to one another are glossed over with careful editing and hoards of aliens/robots/anonymous soldiers who die bloodless deaths. This is visceral, bloody, severed-heads-and-limbs violence—exactly what you would expect from a character codenamed Wolverine, whose mutant power is a supercharged healing factor that allowed ethically challenged scientists at a secret weapons lab to endow him with retractable razor-sharp claws.
Logan has always been a close-quarters fighter; his violence is by nature intimate, even if it has rarely been depicted that way. In the Wolverine and X-Men comic books I read when I was younger, this intimacy was always elided by keeping the moment of violence out of frame, or by obscuring it with sound effects (e.g., “RRRRIP!” followed by screaming). Previous films featuring Wolverine elided it, too, no doubt to avoid a box-office-limiting Restricted rating.
Logan, however, was conceived from the start as an R-rated project, and Hugh Jackman reportedly accepted a pay cut to ensure the film would be green-lit and released without compromising that ambition. As difficult as the violence is to watch, its effect is undeniably powerful. For me it amplified the film’s emotional resonance—I was haunted by the brutality as much as Logan is himself.
CSP: Early in the film, Logan tells Pierce, the commander of the Reevers, a team of cyborg soldiers who run security for Alkali-Transigen, “I don’t like guns.” The Reevers are bionically enhanced, but unlike Logan they rely on firearms to do their killing. Guns can kill at a distance; they make the violence impersonal. The Reevers put their target in the crosshairs, and from a distance they can see that target not as a human being but as an impersonal thing, just another objective in their mission. Then all they have to do is pull the trigger to complete their objective. Too easy.
AB: I like that Laura gets to put distance between herself and her final kill by using a gun. Throughout the film we see her slash grown men to ribbons and then suffer the trauma of that violence in private. Being able to shoot the boss-level bad guy in an attempt to save Logan rather than herself is her first step away from intimate violence and the burden of responsibility of violence. Throughout the film, Logan and Laura engage in close-contact kills that force them to bear full responsibility for the deaths they inflict. There’s no sidestepping the guilt that is genetically coded into the human psyche. (“You’re going to have to learn to live with that,” Logan tells Laura. “They were bad people,” she says. Logan replies, “All the same.”)
In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance presents a similar situational culpability for those enmeshed in poverty in Rust Belt towns, frankly stating examples of friends who struggled to survive but held no work ethic or made deliberate choices that inevitably led to destruction. One thing Vance never criticizes, however, is the strength of hillbilly familial ties and loyalties. The film is also deeply rooted in the power (for better or worse) of family.
MS: Logan is a poignant conclusion to the X-Men film series (though I doubt it will stand as the conclusion for long; in Hollywood, all it takes to resurrect/reboot a lucrative franchise is $100 million and one line of dialogue). The film works so well because it explicitly addresses the family dynamics at the heart of the original X-Men concept: Xavier begins as the father-figure for all the X-Men, and especially for Logan, who in the early X-Men mythology fills the role of the proverbial orphaned child lost in the wilderness. The film brings this dynamic to the fore, then reverses it. “You were an animal, but we took you in,” Xavier says. “I gave you a family.” But the X-Men are dead—“They’re gone,” Logan says bitterly—and now it is Logan who must protect Xavier and plan for their future in a cruel, indifferent world. The task only gets more complicated when Laura shows up with the Reevers and Alkali-Transigen in hot pursuit.
CSP: Now Logan is the parent to his father figure, Xavier, and to Laura, an unexpected child, where he used to be the troubled child in need of parental love and support. The skillset of the warrior is useless in his new role. He needs to give love, patience, and tenderness, and these are not his strong suit.
MS: Worse, Logan has given up hope and is basically waiting around to die. His long-term plan when the story begins is to buy a boat and take Xavier far out to sea where the old man can die of a seizure without harming anyone else. Then, once Xavier is gone, Logan plans to kill himself with an adamantium bullet. We’re definitely meant to have some serious doubts about whether Logan will be up to the challenge of becoming a father.
AB: I saw another parallel with Hillbilly Elegy here: Xavier is a teacher to Logan, just as J.D.’s mother and Mamaw were to him. Logan then becomes a caretaker to Charles just as J.D. evolves into for his mother as an adult. It’s the same type of role-reversal.
CSP: I can’t stop thinking about the childhood traumas that link the two stories—the trauma of children being left alone with monsters. In Logan, Laura grew up with monstrous men in charge of her world. Alkali-Transigen’s intent is to make her and her peers into monsters themselves—human weapons fueled by rage and stripped of conscience. Nurse Gabriella tries to shield Laura but is reprimanded for every human kindness she shows the children, because kindness and compassion interfere with the conditioning that is supposed to make them cold-blooded killers.
In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance’s mother struggles with addiction throughout his life. His Mamaw grew up in a violent world. As a young mother, she took her babies and escaped Papaw’s abuse several times. Every generation in the book suffers childhood trauma. Somehow, Vance makes it through without losing hope. That was powerful to me.
Similarly, some of the poignancy of the movie is that Xavier never loses hope. The last day of his life he is still teaching hope to monsters. He tells Laura she can be better. Logan echoes this later, taking on Xavier’s role in his own final moment. “You don’t have to fight anymore,” he tells Laura. “Don’t be what they made you.”
MS: Logan doesn’t come to this moment of hope easily. His own traumas have left him cynical and world-weary (I mean more so than when he brooded his way through the original X-Men film 17 years ago). Logan has no patience for Xavier’s idealism, or for idealism in general. This sets up a brilliant scene in which he disparages the X-Men comic books Laura has been reading. The film implies that the comic books are historical fiction rather than fantasy fiction—imaginative retellings, like movies “inspired by true events.” But in Logan’s eyes they are little better than lies. “You do know they’re all bullshit, right?” he says to Laura. “Maybe a quarter of it happened, and not like this. In the real world, people die. And no self-promoting asshole in a fucking leotard can stop it.” This is the painful reality of Logan’s life distilled to its essence. Logan’s subsequent journey from cynicism to hope—his reluctant hero’s journey—doesn’t so much as refute this reality as qualify it. The world is full of violence and suffering, and people die, and some people do horrible things to other people, and yet we’re not completely powerless; sometimes we can make a difference.
AB: The fictionalized comic-book presentation of the X-Men (both in the film and in our own reality) mirrors Vance’s idea of how America fictionalizes its impoverished populations. The poor are portrayed as either the deserving poor to be pitied, or the looting poor to be feared and jailed, in sync with our obsession with black-white, madonna-whore dichotomies. Vance expresses his anger at America’s treatment of its poor most readily when describing society’s misguided efforts to pity the poor and provide what it is assumed they need, without making any meaningful effort to understand what people actually need and how to effectively help them.
Logan takes a similar stance when he assumes that Eden is a fantasy inspired by Laura and Gabriella’s foolish belief in the idealized fictions of the X-Men comic books. He comes to realize, however, that Laura needs to believe in that fantasy to survive.
CSP: The idea of Eden gives Laura hope; it’s what keeps her going in the face of the grim reality that has brought Logan himself to the brink of despair. Without hope, Laura would be lost. Believing in the fictionalized X-Men stories makes it possible for her to believe in a better future.
Similarly, belief in a better future is what helped J.D. Vance to escape the cycle of poverty that continues to ensnare so many people in America. Vance was born with the deck stacked against him. He was lucky in the relationship with his Mamaw, who gave him hope where others saw only despair. Without her support and belief in him it is not clear that he would have made such positive changes in his life.
Laura, despite everything she experiences, is comparatively lucky as well. Of all the mutant children who escape Alkali-Transigen, she is the one who gets guidance from parental figures—nurse Gabriella, Professor Xavier, Logan. Despite their flaws and failings, each of these adults protects her and helps to prepare her for the challenges she will face as an outsider in a dangerous and indifferent world—and each makes the ultimate sacrifice so that she, and the other children, will have what we all want: a chance to live, a chance to hope, a chance to be better.