This article contains major spoilers for Logan, Forbidden Planet and, er, The Tempest!
Logan sees the second appearance in the last 12 months of the mutant Caliban in cinemas, having been played in X-Men: Apocalypse by Tómas Lemarquis and now appearing in the (excellent and very effective) form of Stephen Merchant in Logan. There is a reason that, whatever continuity snafus might ensue, Caliban is an important inclusion in a film with very few mutant characters. The influence of Westerns (particularly, of course, Shane) on the film is obvious, but equally important are echoes of two other productions: classic 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet and the Shakespeare play that it’s loosely based on, The Tempest.
The Tempest is the story of the magician Prospero. He causes a storm to shipwreck his brother, who has usurped Prospero’s rightful place as Duke of Milan, along with his brother’s ally Alonso and Alonso’s son Ferdinand, on the island where Prospero has been stranded with his daughter Miranda for 12 years. Over the course of the play, Prospero defeats his enemies, engineers the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand, and then breaks his magic staff, laying aside his magic ‘art’ forever. This is believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone.
Forbidden Planet takes the isolation of the characters Prospero and Miranda – here, Dr Edward Morbius and his daughter Altaira – and tells a much darker story, in which a monster created from Morbius’ own subconsious, the Monster from the Id, murders the colonists who originally came with them to the planet and several of the crew of the spaceship who come looking for them twenty years later. In this version, Morbius is at first against his daughter’s growing relationship with the Captain, Adams (a very handsome Leslie Nielsen) but, in the end, sacrifices his own life to kill the monster that is a part of him, allowing Altaira and the others to escape. It is not just his scientific ‘art’ that Morbius lays down, but his very life.
The parallels between Logan and both stories are clear. Logan lives in isolation, not with his daughter but with his father-figure, Professor X, following a disaster caused by Xavier’s inability to choose to lay down his power as it becomes destructive. Although Logan resists the arrival of his daughter at first and tries to abandon her, ultimately, like Prospero, he is driven to change his circumstances in an attempt to give her a better life.
However, threatening that goal is Logan’s own Monster from the Id – a clone without a conscience that represents himself at his darkest time. It kills his only other remaining family member (Xavier), and in the end the only way he can save his daughter is to embrace that aspect of himself one last time. He knows that this is the final time; he knows that this will kill him. In that way, he is both Prospero, embracing his ‘art’ (in Logan’s case, berserker killing) one last time in order to lay it down forever afterwards, and Morbius, facing the Monster from his own Id and sacrificing his life to defeat it.
Caliban’s presence, the only other adult mutant in the story, is the early marker that tells us what this story is about – namely, that it is about an ending (of course, we knew that already from all the publicity surrounding the film – but within the world of the film itself, this is our major clue). Caliban is named after a character from The Tempest, the deformed son of a (late) evil witch who is forced to work for Prospero but hates him and turns to work with his enemies against him. Knowledge of this literary forebear works very effectively in the film’s favour, since it is unclear to what extent Caliban is willingly helping Logan and Charles, and it introduces some doubt when he is captured – will he want to help their enemies track them down? This makes his ultimate loyalty to them and his own final sacrifice all the more touching and satisfying.
But beyond the issue of plotting, the presence of Caliban is what lets us know that we are watching The Tempest and, along with it, Forbidden Planet. (They could have gone for the so-far-unfilmed mutant Ariel, named after a spirit in The Tempest who works for and helps Prospero, but that would probably bring with it an unwanted and distracting Little Mermaid reference!).
Many scholars over the years have suggested that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s own farewell to play-writing, that Prospero represents the writer making one last big show with his ‘art’ before choosing to retire and pass it on to the next generation. This film is Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s farewell to the X-Men movies, a movie designed to kill off both their characters and provide a sense of an ending – and while we will surely see Wolverine and Professor X again, we will not see the versions of them played by Jackman and Stewart (who, incidentally, played Prospero in a 2006 RSC production of The Tempest).
Jackman and Stewart, like Prospero/Shakespeare, are retiring from these roles and their characters are chasing that dream of retirement on their Sunseeker boat – but Logan and Xavier are too dark and their histories too bloody for quiet retirement. Like Morbius, the Monsters from their respective Ids demand the ultimate sacrifice. By isolating them with only Caliban for company, the film gives us a big heads-up right from the start – this is the end, and however these characters try to find peace, it will require sacrifice.