Wild Wild Cyborg: Logan, Westworld, And The Robots Of The New Western
In the first season finale of Westworld, Anthony Hopkins’s character, Robert Ford, describes the impetus for creating the Western-themed android amusement park: “I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being.”
Historically, Westerns were created to fix an ailing America—at least, white America. As Aaron Brady wrote in The New Yorker, Westerns operated as a space for white reconciliation in the aftermath of the Civil War. In Westerns, the burden of slavery could be ignored as Yankees and Confederates overcame their differences in the pursuit of new land and a new enemy: Native Americans. Western resurgences have come and gone in American pop culture every few years, but as they swing back into popularity, there is a new type of Western on the horizon, and it’s one that finally tackles the politics of marginalized bodies and the gravitas of America’s dark history.
Two of the highest-grossing Westerns in film history are the Quentin Tarantino films Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, which is to be expected. Tarantino has a love for spaghetti Westerns, the Italian-produced films that sprang up in the ’60s after Sergio Leone’s iconic A Fistful of Dollars. Though Tarantino’s films have a unique take on the Westerns they’re inspired by, they are still mired in the machismo and performative masculinity associated with the traditional Western. The Hateful Eight uses homosexuality as a punch line. Then there’s Django, which purports to be a revenge fantasy in which a black man gets back at the white men who held him in bondage, but still follows in the footsteps of exploitation films like Boss N**ger and, as most slave stories ironically fall prey to, belies its argument with its climax. The central thesis of slave films, or slavery-influenced films like the recent Get Out, is that black men are more than their bodies, that they are capable of more than fighting for the amusement of their slave owners or supernaturally hosting white people in their bodies in order to allow them to experience the mythical athletic prowess that all black men possess. But in both of these films, in which the protagonists single-handedly fight their way to safety, the moral seems to be: OK, well, black bodies are that powerful, so maybe the white people were on to something.
In Logan, a different sort of mythical athletic prowess is explored. It means something that Wolverine dies. The X-Men have long been an allegory for queerness, from the Legacy Virus in the comics that could be construed as an AIDS metaphor to the literal “coming out (as a mutant)” scene depicted in X2. Wolverine, in all of his male virility, always seemed outside of this narrative. He was a killing machine with rippling biceps and chest hair, the alpha counterpart to Scott Summers in their love triangle with Jean Grey. But Logan is one of the first films to focus on Wolverine’s otherness. When he does battle with X-24, his clone who’s an actual soulless killing machine, the film shows Wolverine fighting the hypermasculine mutant that he’s been perceived to be since his debut in a 1974 issue of The Incredible Hulk. Wolverine’s compassion, his ability to love and experience tenderness, is his greatest strength in the film. It is also what causes his body to succumb to the dangers that exist on the frontier. And those dangers aren’t the racist caricatures of Comanches or Apaches created by white men—they are actual white men themselves. The white men who used the bodies of Latina women to birth mutants with stolen DNA, the white men in a laboratory who made Logan and Dafne Keen’s Laura (X-23) what they are—these are the villains of Logan. In the John Ford films that director James Mangold has surely seen, these men would have a “come to Jesus” moment with Logan and signify the coming across the aisle that white men can afford while those who don’t look like them die in the face of America’s manifest destiny.
In this way, Logan is similar to Jeffrey Wright’s Bernard in Westworld. Depicting a black man in the midst of a white man’s fantasy of frontier justice and transactions that allow the wealthy to destroy human-seeming androids at will, it’s hard not to view Bernard’s story line in the overall context of black bodies in the American West. But while a film like Django Unchained would have Bernard fight back with brute strength, in Westworld Bernard fights Ford’s cruel vision of the theme park with cunning and intelligence, a mind that oppressors never remember exists. Of course, Bernard learns that he, too, is an android and has never had control of his body, but it’s through his pain that we understand the cruelty of the old West and how it favors a white man in a wide-brimmed hat with pistols at his waist.
It’s taken the appearance of androids and mutants for American pop culture to reckon with the bloody, monolithic history of Westerns. Even Logan can’t truly exist without using the “child as killing machine” trope, just as Westworld can’t operate without its brothels and HBO-mandated nudity. So why do we keep coming back to the Western? Perhaps it’s because, as Joan Didion said of the West, it’s “a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” The Western has mostly been content with a perpetual running in place, poring over that same patch of continent that brushes against the Pacific Ocean. We might have run out of continent in the West, but it sure as hell hasn’t been fully explored.