Tuesday, March 7, 2017

X-23, and the Case for the Damaged, Human Heroine

(Note: this piece contains spoilers for Logan, as well as a few other movies and shows. You’ve been warned.)

I saw Logan recently in theatres. Irrespective of its bleak tone and depressing ending, I enjoyed it, and it’s arguably the best X-Men film to ever be made. There’s a lot that I really loved, but one detail in particular was Laura, aka X-23. Despite being assigned to newcomer Dafne Keen, as well as being a tough character to portray effectively, I was pleased by how quickly she became the best part of the movie. It’s tough when a little girl is expected to make it as an action star, but Keen carries it with ease.

Honestly, despite not being a comic book reader, I’ve always had a soft-spot for relationship between Logan/Wolverine and Laura/X-23. I remember first seeing her in X-Men: Evolution being sent out on a mission to infiltrate the X-Mansion, which was thwarted by Wolverine and forced her to come to terms with the fact that, underneath her hard exterior, she was a scared kid put through testing she never had a say in. Like Wolverine, she was a soldier never given a proper life. And while Wolverine had bonded with other mutants in the past-Jean Grey, Cyclops, Professor X, Rogue, Kitty Pryde-this was the first time we saw him be a father figure to a gender-swapped clone. So seeing that on the big-screen for the first time was a dream come true.

That got me thinking about the recent demand for action heroines in film and TV, as well as how they’ve been portrayed. The two streams of thought have been to make them either competent clones of their male-counterparts (see Supergirl), or to have them as damaged characters who fight through trauma in order to feel more…human, I guess. Both make for efficient role-models for young girls or women to latch onto, but I’m fonder of the latter category because it makes for the more relatable protagonist. Violence has predominantly been “a man’s game”, so showing the negative consequences of violence through women has led to some interesting subversions and commentaries on its implications.

Take The Hunger Games franchise. Originally written to comment on the reality TV-like nature of modern violence, it quickly became a symbol of femininity embracing and uniting the chaos of senseless bloodshed. Katniss Everdeen initially doesn’t want to be a symbol of hope, she wants to make due in a dystopian world. She has excellent archery skills, but only because she’s been relegated to breadwinner and primary caregiver following the death of her father in a mining accident. She volunteers as tribute in the Hunger Games out of a desire for her sister’s safety, which shocks everyone because it’s never been done prior.

Katniss’s journey from every-girl to heroine is fraught with complications, most-notably her battle scars from both tournaments. The first go-around, she’s forced to kill a mix of blood-hungry and scared teenagers for entertainment and survival, leaving her a victim of PTSD. The second go-around, she’s forced to do the same, except this time it’s adult victors who are tired of fighting. She finds an out via a glitch, but at the expense of almost dying and losing some powerful allies. In the final movie, she’s given a choice between shooting President Snow (the perpetuator of the system) and President Coin (the perpetuator of something worse), whereupon she shoots Coin and lets the angry mob rip Snow apart. Her decision speaks to how corruption through violence is non-ending, and that the only answer is to opt out of the system altogether.

Next, we have Jessica Jones from Jessica Jones. Like Katniss, Jessica is a reluctant heroine who’s compartmentalized her own traumas. Like Katniss, Jessica has experienced loss, this time her entire family. And like Katniss, Jessica suffers from PTSD, having been a victim of an evil man hellbent on revenge for ruining his life. But where as Katniss chooses to be a heroine in order to save a loved one, Jessica becomes a heroine in order to save herself. She’s a cranky, loud-mouthed alcoholic with a terrible temper and a no-nonsense attitude, even throwing one of her clients through a window, yet because her past won’t leave her alone she takes up the mantle to alleviate the pain.

What also makes Jessica different from Katniss is her resorting to various options first. Katniss isn’t given agency until the final arrow, but Jessica keeps making choices in her fight against Kilgrave: should I appease him? Should I reform him? Should I torture him like he tortured me? Should I bargain with him? Should I forget all of that and simply kill him? None of these are easy choices, but the violence and chaos she’s been enabling adds colour and depth to her already messed-up mind.

We can take this concept even further with the Star Wars franchise. Often considered the grandfather of modern action, the Star Wars universe, the canonical one, really gained footing with relatable, female characters starting with Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Initially both a padawan to Anakin Skywalker and an audience-insert, Ahsoka quickly became fleshed-out by the trials and tribulations of The Clone Wars, until she went into exile at the end of Season 5 following an unjust trial. Ahsoka would return in Star Wars Rebels’s Season 1 finale as part of The Rebellion, although her optimism would quickly turn to fear once she discovered that her former master was now a Sith Lord. The Season 2 finale ended with a fight between her and Darth Vader, and it didn’t turn out well for her at all.

What makes Ahsoka unique is how she handles her stress and trauma. She too is a broken character by the end, having been hurt by distrust and death, but she keeps her trauma in-focus. Her ultimate goal is to confront it, but she never lets that get in the way of her composure. The two times she shows vulnerability are when she faints aboard The Ghost and screams while in the Jedi Temple of Lothal, and both are a result of her former master. Even during her fight with Darth Vader, Ahsoka remains collected and firm, yet she’s no-less broken than Katniss and Jessica.

Further still, both of the recent Star Wars films feature damaged heroines who heed the call of adventure by circumstance. In the case of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey is a scavenger on Jakku who longs to see her family again. In the case of Star Wars: Rogue One, Jyn Erso is a rogue insurgent who longs to see her father again. Both have buried traumas-the death of several Jedi pupils at the hands of Kylo Ren for Rey, or the death of her mother and abduction of her father by The Empire for Jyn-that they choose to ignore, and both are eventually taken to task once fate intervenes. Ultimately, Rey assumes the role of Jedi, defeats Kylo Ren and finds Luke, while Jyn becomes a rebel, steals The Death Star plans from Scariff Base and dies a symbol of hope. Both turn their pain into reasons to do good, and both are commendable role models because of it.

Which leads me back to Laura, or X-23. Like the aforementioned, she too harbours scars that shape her: she’s an experimental mutant gone awry. She longs for freedom in Eden, which is in a hideout in North Dakota. She’s insecure about her surroundings and incredibly paranoid, always attacking what scares her. And yet, she’s fiercely loyal to Logan and Professor Xavier, considering them to be surrogate father and grandfather figures. Also, she’s an incredibly agile fighter.

Surprisingly, we learn all of this through minimal-to-no dialogue; in fact, Laura doesn’t even say a word until two-thirds into the film, let-alone in English until they arrive at Eden. Her communication remains minimal, preferring grunts, yells and bodily actions. She’s incredibly primal, yet her relationship to Logan makes her human and learn independence. By the time Logan’s inevitable death occurs, Laura’s completely self-sufficient.

Ultimately, what makes these individuals heroic is their humanity. They’re not superficially powerful, nor are they 100% peachy. They might smile and laugh occasionally, but for the most part they’re troubled, broken individuals looking for gratification or redemption. It might not always be pleasant, but it’s always believable and satisfying. And I recognize that creating damaged characters isn’t always the correct storytelling choice, but it’s still a viable way of writing them for girls longing for relatable heroines.

As for Logan? Well, I stand by what I said at the beginning: it’s bleak and depressing, yet also incredibly satisfying. This is the perfect send-off for a character I’ve grown to care about for 17 years, and I couldn’t have asked for more. I also couldn’t have asked for a better break-out role from Dafne Keen. My only hope is that other comic book adaptations understand why this movie worked should imitators spring up, although I doubt that’ll happen.

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