Logan is the final film in the Wolverine series (part of the marginally larger X-Men franchise), in which Hugh Jackman plays the title character. Having been in that role for 17 years, diehard fans have hoped Jackman would continue to play the crotchety immortal until the end of time. But even the most popular of characters have to be laid to rest at some point, either literally or metaphorically. Logan tells the story of the Wolverine’s final days, but do not expect him to go gentle into that good night. The film packs a punch worthy of its R rating, although what is noteworthy as a comic book movie is its scenes of humanity spliced between scenes of gut-twisting violence. It is from this angle that the film makes its most interesting philosophical contributions: can you find meaning in an unending, painful life? And if so, how?
Jackman’s character stands as an interesting parallel to Bernard Williams’s Elina Makropulos in "The Makropulos case: reflections on the tedium of immortality." Elina could live forever with the help of a magical life-extending elixir, but after living as a 40-something for 300 years, she finds herself cold and uninterested in the world. She stops taking the elixir and dies. It is her death, Williams argues, that gives meaning to her life; a never-ending life would be meaningless and undesirable. After so long, one would have seen everything there is to see, met all the kinds of people one could possibly meet, and have had all possible human experiences (maybe a hundred times over!). Death, in Elina’s case, is the only cure for boredom.
Despite this, Williams argues that death might still be considered a bad thing, but it simply does not follow that never dying is therefore good. Mortality gives meaning to life such that when we die, although it is a tragedy, our life stood for something. To live forever would seem to undo that hard work. But with so much to experience and a seemingly infinite number of people to meet, it seems unlikely that an immortal like Elina or Logan could get “bored” as Williams argues. However, Williams doesn’t see boredom as the exhaustion of stuff to do but more like a state of being; it is the impoverishment of the relation between oneself and one's environment. When you cannot meaningfully relate to the activities or situations in which you surround yourself, you become alienated.
While Elina appears “cold” and “withdrawn,” to use Williams’s words, Logan is a far more active participant in his world, with goals he progressively tries to achieve. With this in mind, is Williams right to argue that immortality would be undesirable for all humanity? Some of us, it would seem, could continue to have a meaningful sense of life. Williams seems to argue that this would not be the case, due to the nature of life and desire. As you would become inundated with hundreds upon thousands of experiences more than a mortal being, as an immortal being you would ascribe meaning to so many more of these. For the mortal the number is finite and limited, but as you continue to live longer and longer the number of experiences and commitments integral to your sense of self become diluted. Think of it this way: if you belong to twenty sports teams, while the average person is only committed to two or three, it is questionable how much of a committed and wholehearted member you are of these teams. You certainly wouldn’t have the time to play in all of them. It is in this way that the immortal being would become detached. Desire and interest, for Williams, must be finite for his argument to stand. Having more commitments just stretches it too far, like too little butter on too much toast.
Despite being almost indestructible, Logan has the option of death in the film as he is in possession of an adamantium bullet; likewise, Elina can choose death by refusing to take the life-extending elixir. Given that immortals can become bored over an extended time, what makes a particular time the right time to die? For Williams, it's not after you're bored, as getting to this state undermines the value and meaning of what a person does up until that point. But dying while we still have too many commitments would equally feel inopportune as it wouldn’t give us enough time to get the “most” out of our lives. He discusses two types of desire that may help us determine the ideal lifespan of a person: categorical desire and conditional desire. While conditional desires are dependent on some factor, e.g., that you be alive to satisfy said desire (such as become a master chef or learning to play piano), categorical desires are such that you want the satisfaction of this desire whether alive or not. An example might be the creation of world peace; I would quite like it if there were no war or conflict regardless of whether I'm alive to witness it. However, Williams’s point is that a conditional desire would disappear as soon as we died or satisfied the desire; we cannot continue to wish to be a great cook if we are not alive to wish it. therefore, conditional desires cannot give us reasons to continue living, while categorical desires can. They provide reasons for living on because the desire extends beyond our lives. In this way, categorical desires are very much connected to our sense of self; they give us a feeling of purpose and trajectory.
To relate this back to Elina and Logan, we might see that Elina has become distanced from the kinds of categorical desires that once gave her life meaning and propelled her forward. Logan, on the other hand, has a life rife with meaning; the care for his daughter and other mutants carries him through the latter part of his life to the bitter end. The safety and protection of loved ones is not only a full-time job but a desire that cannot simply be satisfied or completed like learning a new skill, and it helps to shape Logan’s character. So, despite the suffering our violent antihero endures, his death seems to come at the right time—not undermining what has gone before but acting as a full stop in its grammatically correct place, signalling the end of a coherent sentence.
Jodie Russell is a graduate of Exeter University, where she ran the cinema society, and will be beginning a master's degree in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh in the autumn of 2017. She has written for several blogs and websites, including The Unemployed Philosophers Guild and The Reviews Hub. She has a particular interest in the philosophy of film.
Image of Hugh Jackman as Logan by Kevin Munroe.