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Fear, Loathing, and Logan: The American Dream in Pop Culture

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Fear, Loathing, and <i>Logan</i>: The American Dream in Pop Culture

In Logan, it’s 2029, and the titular hero is broken. He’s no longer unkillable—the adamantium that made him supernatural is poisoning him—and Xavier, his mentor, is suffering in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Logan occupies a world that has read about him in comic books, but he’s on his way out, eager to dispel his own myth.

As Logan gradually probes the humanity beneath Wolverine’s superherodom—the reality beneath the imaginary—it similarly dissects America’s mythology. Over the course of Laura’s flight from a militant corporation, the film turns inside-out the conception of the nation as a political haven. America is not Laura’s destination, but the place she must put far behind her.

It should come as no surprise that mutants are barred from America’s promises of freedom and safety. The American Dream has always been inaccessible to most. That’s why Trump and his rhetoric haven’t altered America’s character—they’ve merely forgone pretense, promising to return America to the halcyon days in which the Dream’s exclusivity was overt rather than subtextual.

One of the most astute chroniclers of the American Dream was Hunter S. Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The semi-autobiographical novel was published in 1972 (after being serialized in Rolling Stone), and follows Raoul Duke, a reporter investigating the American Dream. Fear and Loathing is heavily invested in how Duke looks for the Dream, which he treats like a place or a concrete object. He’s constantly driving and searching, stopping only to get high enough to keep going. Logan evokes that same sense of urgent motion, and while there’s a liberating quality to the movement in both texts—Duke, Logan, and Laura are never freer than they are while on the road—the characters move only because they have to. Xavier dies when the group stays in one place for too long, after all. So Logan and Laura head for Canada, and Duke for some unknown part of Las Vegas, because liberty is as much a physical space as it is a condition—a place devoid of mutant-hunters and Nixon alike.

Logan’s road-trip format thus allows the movie to address myriad socio-political issues, including refugee crises and xenophobic immigration policies. But perhaps more significant than Laura’s migration is the antagonist necessitating it. The Transigen corporation, which bioengineered Laura from Logan’s DNA, is hunting her down—and has no qualms about spilling blood. When what appears to be a lynch mob shows up at the farm of the Munsons, a black family, both the mob and the Munsons are slaughtered by X-24, a clone of Logan that Transigen created. The sequence effectively captures the dangers of corporatism: corporations may be discriminatory today, but—given the chance—they’d oppress without discrimination. All would receive the same yoke.

Taken as a whole, Logan theorizes that unchecked corporatism has the potential to definitively terminate the ailing American Dream. That possibility is also a focus of Fallout 4 (2015), a game that transports players to Boston in 2287, more than 200 years after the civilization-erasing Great War. One of Fallout 4’s defining characteristics is its open world, and the ability of players to explore it at their leisure. In that sense, the game is as concerned with mobility as Logan and Fear and Loathing are. It’s a stitched-together cycle of moving from point A to point B, improving yourself along the way with objects acquired through barter and murder. But even in a sandbox that exists for the player’s pleasure, there are forces that limit your ability to—and this is the heart of Fallout 4—have things. In the words of the game, when you pick up one too many spoils, “You’re carrying too much and can’t run!”

To have things is not only the goal of the American Dream, but also, as Fallout 4 is well aware, the reason that corporations exist. In one instance, as the player raids the decrepit facility of ArcJet Systems, a pre-war aerospace contractor, Paladin Danse of the Brotherhood of Steel says, “It was corporations like this that put the last nail in the coffin for mankind. They exploited technology for their own gains, pocketing the cash and ignoring the damage they’d done.” Centuries after nuclear war, Danse lucidly relays the role that corporations play in the imperial project. It isn’t too difficult to imagine him standing beneath a torn painting of Bush or Obama or Trump, bemoaning Halliburton’s greed and the ruin that the Iraq War precipitated.

What’s more, ArcJet Systems follows a sci-fi tradition of oblivious escapism that further informs Fallout 4’s assessment of the American narrative. The company, prior to the Great War, was developing machinery for a manned trip to Mars, a project reminiscent of the Nazi obsession with space travel in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (published in 1962, and conveniently adapted for television by Amazon in 2015). In Dick’s novel—set in an alternate reality in which the Axis won World War II—a Japanese official explains the Nazi goals of reaching Mars and Venus by saying that “most high-placed Nazis are refusing to face facts vis-à-vis their economic plight. By doing so, they accelerate the tendency toward greater tour de force adventures, less predictability, less stability in general.” With the purported narrative of rampant economic growth not panning out, the Nazis of Dick’s tale turn to spectacle. They pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Empires are, at their cores, predicated on collective imagination. They are healthiest when, rather than being collages of oppressed populations, they are juggernauts on which the sun never sets, or lands of the free: when they operate in the language of dreams. Landing people on Mars and the moon, in turn, fuels ideas of exceptionalism. Never mind that the tragedy inherent in exploring the cosmos is the fact that humankind’s need to get the most out of its environment has exhausted the planet. Humanity proves its power and capability through destruction, through deforestation and extinct species and nuclear fallout.

Ultimately, it’s no coincidence that, as is often the case with dystopias, Fallout 4 and Logan have built-in temporal cushions. When prophesying socioeconomic upheaval, it can help to leave a buffer period between the present and the imagined. You still have 12 years, says Logan; it’s not too late. But that kind of optimism, repeated over and over again, is both unfounded and unhelpful. You spend hours witnessing the devastating results of unfettered American excess, only to leave the theater wondering what you can do to maintain the American Dream, a PR front fit for an empire.

Wolverine dies at the end of Logan, after having borne the burden of passing the torch to the next generation. But he’ll be back. Not in the form of Hugh Jackman, but some other muscular, charming, talented man will don the sideburns and the claws, and compel people to believe in him. And we’ll trust him again, doubtlessly, shuffling the image of his grave to the back of our minds, as though he never died and never will.

Niv M. Sultan writes about the socioeconomics of pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter.

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