Wonder Woman combines the best of the MCU & DCEU

While it’s not quite as genre-transcendent as The Dark Knight and not quite so emotionally resonant as Spider-man 2, Wonder Woman‘s a well above average superhero movie. The film manages to be thematically satisfying while also ticking all the usual superhero movie boxes. There’s a finely-tuned balance between humor and sobriety; action and character development. Oh, and there’s villain that actually works.

Wonder Woman is the DC Extended Universe’s first good movie. We’ve previously experienced the disappointing, sometimes laughable, sometimes lamentable Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. I guess fourth time’s the charm?

On the other side, we’ve got the Marvel Cinematic Universe sitting at 15 films (it’ll be 16 in July with the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming and 17 with Thor: Ragnarok in November). I like the Marvel movies less than your average person, but I’d say about 5 of them are pretty good. The rest are mostly competent if uninteresting to me personally.

What’s interesting is the different ways these studios (and I supposed comic book publishing houses before that) have approached their craft.

The Marvel film empire has found success from entirely competent films, but rarely good films. There’s not a lot of depth in your average Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Lots of times they function more as extended trailers for the next film in the franchise. But they get away with it over and over and over.

Marvel’s secret is likable characters. Not necessarily deep characters. Not challenging, complex characters, but really likable ones. I didn’t even realize how much I liked these characters at first, but they kept me coming back despite often being disappointed by the movies built around them.

DC, conversely, has done a notoriously bad job with its characters beginning with the absolute butchery of Superman in Man of Steel. And I think that’s the main and perhaps only real problem of DC’s films before Wonder Woman. Audiences forgive all kinds of ills if they are presented with likable characters to follow.

DC has been criticized widely for being dark, brooding, and generally lacking in fun. I would say last year’s Batman v. Superman was the height (or the low point) of this. It left me impressed by the visuals, but utterly cold otherwise. It presented a world not worth saving and superheroes who didn’t seem to believe in much of anything. None of them were likable (with the exception of Wonder Woman’s cameo – but she was hardly a developed character in that movie.)

While DC lacks in characters, there is a certain ambition on display in these films – a visionary flair. There’s a grandiose air about them. They skew closer to myth than Marvel’s utilitarian filmmaking.

DC movies desperately want to be About Something. This has lead to grander and more spectacular failure, of course, but you can’t deny the effort. There’s real vision and passion behind the messy final products.

Marvel’s lack of ideas and themes really bores me. Those movies don’t say much of anything about the world, human nature, history, politics, science, spirituality, or even about the heroes themselves. And on rare occasion that a Marvel movie does contain thematic elements (like the surveillance state in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or artificial intelligence in Avengers: Age of Ultron), they’re never developed, never fully formed thoughts.

Sure, sometimes it’s nice see a piece of escapist fiction that doesn’t remind you of real life. But I think it’s cowardly and disingenuous to keep making movies ostensibly about heroes doing good in the world if you’re never saying anything about the world.

Wonder Woman is comparatively a poignant statement about human nature while also being entertaining mythmaking. This film shows that likable characters and interwoven thematic content in a superhero movie works extremely well. I hope we see more like this.

Why I Don’t Want to Watch Any Star Wars Trailers

Today begins my quest to avoid trailers, promos, and other spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (I guess we sorta stopped counting episode numbers?) It will be difficult, I expect.

I will see this movie when I comes out.  They’ve already sold me a ticket. I don’t need to ride the hype train to release day.

I’m avoiding all of this for several reasons. Obviously, I don’t want anything to be spoiled. How many times have we all watched a trailer only to come away feeling like we’d already seen the movie?

Continue reading “Why I Don’t Want to Watch Any Star Wars Trailers”

The State of Sci-fi Movies

2013 was a bad year for sci-fi. There were a lot of sci-fi films with potential that just didn’t pay off. I saw a few of them in the theater and none were really satisfying.

I went to see Oblivion because a group of friends was going and I like my friends more than I dislike Tom Cruise. And while I admire Oblivion’s restraint in the action and pacing departments, the script was riddled with the screenwriting equivalent of explosions: dumb, pointless plot twists. None of it made any sense but they were hoping the audience wouldn’t notice in the moment.

oblivion1
I wish this had been an Elder Scrolls movie instead. Also, the actress on the left looks like Chell from Portal. A Poral movie would have also been preferable.

Most of the group thought it was okay. A few thought it was boring and a few liked it outright. But I’m guessing that all of them have virtually forgotten about it now. I haven’t because I found it so offensively vapid and boring that it kind of stuck with me. That’s what you call ironic.

I had high hopes for the sequel to the 2009 semi-reboot of Star Trek. I cordially like the 2009 movie even though there’s not a lot going on under the surface, it still did a lot of things right.

I cannot say the same for Star Trek Into Darkness. I hated this one. I don’t mean to be a hater, but I can’t help it. Instead of a proper story (Star Trek-appropriate or otherwise) we got a set of action scenes, references to older, better Star Trek stuff, and Benedict Cumberbatch playing a character named Khan who wasn’t anything like Khan.

stid1
Borrowed pathos – this movie tries to invoke the feelings stirred by the best moments from old Star Trek and fails miserably

Into Darkness is bad on almost all non-technical levels. I have so many problems with this film that it’s not even worth going into. The screenwriters thought they were being clever by ripping off Star Trek II – the real Star Trek II. Sometimes reusing ideas works but here it just comes off as bad imitation. And it’s imitation without purpose or thought.

If I judge the movie on its own merits, it’s not very good. It’s shallow and empty and doesn’t do as much with the characters as Star Trek 2009 did. But if I judge it as part of the greater Star Trek canon (and the writers seem to be begging me to do this with their constant references and callbacks) then it’s a horrible, derivative mess. I left the theater offended and annoyed.

I had a passing interest in Elysium, the sophomore effort from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, but I lost the interest as soon as I saw the trailer. Reviews and word-of-mouth affirmed my lack of interest. Detractors cite its heavy-handed political commentary as a negative. I have no problem – theoretically – with movies that borrow current political issues for themes, but I have rarely seen it done well. Subtly is the name of the game. In Elysium it was not subtle unless I was very deceived by the trailer and other commentators.

My biggest sci-fi hope for the year was Gravity. I already talked about that in another post. If anything, my feelings about the movie have further cooled since I’ve seen it. I really don’t care if I ever see it again. It had no story. I didn’t really even have ideas. It also failed to connect with me emotionally. It was just a ride. If I want that sort of experience, I’ll go play a video game where I have some level of input into what’s happening.

There’s quite a few smaller sci-fi films I didn’t see but I indent to. I fully admit it’s possible there was a really good sci-fi this year that slipped under the radar. But the big names disappointed.

Fortunately, 2014 will bring us some more sci-fi movies with potential. Hopefully more of these will turn out well.

Christopher Nolan’s longtime director of photography, Wally Pfister, is taking the reigns of his first movie. Transcendence starring Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall is ostensibly about the technological singularity – a theoretical event where artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence. This has been a plot point in a lot of fiction before, but Transcendence will attempt to guess what this might look like in the not-too-distant future of our modern world. Check out the trailer below.

Again, I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I am highly skeptical of the film industry’s ability to handle technology – and particularly artificial intelligence – in an interesting or remotely realistic way. It doesn’t happen very much.

I have two major problems with this trailer. One: the movie purports to be about the singularity but the plot actually seems to be centered around a character uploading his consciousness into a computer. That’s really not an exploration of superintelligent AI then, is it?

My bigger problem is that the whole thing seems to devolve into stupid action tropes by the end. There are lots of other ways an advanced AI would change the world besides causing lots of violence. We’ve seen computers go rogue before. The computer being evil twist has been done in countless other films. I was really hoping for something new and different.

I don’t have a problem with action movies – I really don’t. I have a problem with action films passing themselves off as something more intelligent when there’s really nothing to them. Why do so many sci-fis also have to be action movies? Why can’t they just be about ideas and characters and choices? Why can’t they be subtle and take their time anymore?

I really hope the trailer is just showing all the action to get people into the theater and that the movie itself is actually a lot more thoughtful than it appears here.

But I doubt it.

A bit more promising is the new X-men film: Days of Future Past. I’m cheating a little with this one. It’s probably more of a superhero film than a sci-fi, but since the plot revolves around time travel I’m going to say it’s close enough.

I really like this trailer a lot. Why? Because it’s about characters rather than action. I can sort of sense where the movie might be going, but I haven’t had the plot explained to me with clunky, pieced-together exposition. It makes me way more excited to see this movie than if it had just been a bunch of mutants fighting each other.

I always say X-men has the best central conflict of the big name superhero franchises. It’s great because our villain (Magneto) is right about human nature but his methods are morally wrong whereas our hero (Professor Xavier) is a bit overly optimistic – maybe a little naive – about humanity but his methods are morally admirable.

It’s easy to see how Xavier might have become jaded and hopeless after being betrayed by Magneto and crippled in X-men: First Class. It seems like it’s up to Patrick Stewart’s Professor X to redeem James McAvoy’s Professor X and restore sanity to the future. Or something like that.

The X-men film timeline is a bit of a mess right now. I’m not sure if they’re intending to fix that with a time travel story, but I like the idea of getting all these great actors in one movie.

And finally we have a sci-fi film from Christopher Nolan called Interstellar. Inception was arguably a sci-fi movie, but functionally it was more of a dressed-up heist film than anything else. This time around it looks like we’re going full science fiction – in space!

Interstellar is about… we’re not really sure yet. It’s a Christopher Nolan film and it’s a year away so details are scant. The teaser trailer provides very little information; in fact it’s mostly stock footage. Sadly, there is no space.

I’m up for a movie about interstellar travel and wormholes. Nolan’s films have been generally pretty grounded so it’ll be interesting to see how things go and what it’s all about.

Here’s hoping that 2014’s science fiction is more thoughtful than 2013’s!

Read this: “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor”

A friend of mine shared a great post the other day. It’s an op-ed by Russell Moore entitled “Why Christians Need Flannery O’Connor.” Read it. Go on. Read it.

I don’t know much about Flannery O’Connor beyond what the article mentions. Nevertheless, two things immediately stuck me as I read this and I think they’re worth noting.

One came as I read this:

“Some of our worship services are so clean and antiseptic, led by grinning preachers and praise bands, talking about how happy Jesus makes us, that we forget that the Spirit prompts us to “groan” at our sin and the suffering all around us… Some Christians, then, can wonder if something’s wrong with them when they feel as though God seems distant, or when, despite all the smiles at church, they still feel guilty for the way their hearts don’t seem to match up with their hymns.”

A hearty “amen” to that! I wish I could say I don’t relate, but I do. And right now it’s where I live.

On the one hand, I understand we need to strive for excellence. We shouldn’t get bogged down in our own sinfulness or the suffering of the world. But there’s got to be a better balance for our culture.

Sometimes we fail to compassionately meet people in their struggles. Isn’t it easier (and ostensibly correct) to just tell people to find their happiness and joy in Jesus? But what if our hearts are having difficulty being gladdened by that truth day to day?

Second point: I found this article really refreshing. Why? Because it’s one Christian praising the work of another Christian even though they don’t line up theologically on major issues.

O’Connor was Roman Catholic while Moore is a Southern Baptist. Those positions are pretty far apart yet Moore recognized something in O’Connor’s work that he saw as helpful to those in his tradition.

This shouldn’t be surprising or refreshing, but it is.

How often do we read about petty infighting instead of this kind of praise? In our noble quest for pure doctrine we’ve lost sight of our common ground. We’ve forgotten that as individuals we all have bents and we all overemphasize and underemphasize certain things. So do our churches and denominations.

Truth is truth, but Christ has many followers with many different perspectives. More often than not we have things to learn from other genuine believers – even those with whom we disagree theologically.

Unity

“We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord
and we pray that our unity may one day be restored
and they’ll know we are Christians by our love”

I’ve been part of a few theological discussions in my time. Some of these have been very worthwhile exercises helping me to figure out my beliefs. Other times they were lessons in pride – mine and others’ as we struggled to be right for the sake of being right.

I am now weary of such discussion particularly between people who don’t have personal relationships with one another. The internet is great a fostering such conversations. While I don’t want to dismiss the possible value in these discussions for everyone, I’ve often found them to be discouraging and disheartening.

Theology is important. It is practical and it is affecting – at least it should be. I do not want to downplay its importance nor do I want to parrot the cry “doctrine divides” although that is true in a practical sense. Division is not all bad, of course. We are called to be separate from the world. We are called to forsake false teaching. But at what point do we call something false teaching?

In the Christian life you encounter a series of seemingly paradoxical truths. We are saved by grace, not by works, but works demonstrate true saving faith. We believe God doesn’t need us to accomplish His purposes yet He wants us to be involved in His work on the Earth. We are given righteousness when we are saved but the work of making us perfect is not complete until heaven. God is three persons and yet one God. Things like that are not easy to reconcile in our imperfect minds. Anyone who says it is easy – I’m really not sure that they’re taking the Bible or their brethren seriously.

Some strive after the best understanding of the Word they can have; others only see what they want to see in the pages of Scripture or ignore it altogether. It’s about the heart of the reader ultimately. Those of us who approach the Bible with right attitudes frequently come up with differing conclusions about all kinds of matters.

I recently observed a theological debate online. The topic is not important to this discussion. Suffice it to say that it was not a salvation issue. One party in the discussion considered the opposing party’s view contrary to the Bible while the other party considered both views as being “within the pale of orthodoxy.” Further, the first person on insisted that Christians ought to be in 100% agreement over theological issues based on 1 Corinthians 1:10:

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

I had never heard such a thing before. The context of this verse was the quarreling in the Corinthian church. Paul informs us that different factions were claiming to follow different authorities: Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Christ. It strikes me that seeing this verse as meaning that all Christians should be in 100% agreement on all matters of theology is a stretch though I could be very wrong.

This person went on to say that while he didn’t question the other person’s salvation and would still pray for them, he would not fellowship with them in any other way due to their difference in interpretation. This struck me a really kind of harsh. Again, both parties agreed this was not a salvation issue; so breaking fellowship over such a thing struck me as extreme and unnecessary. That’s what really bothered me.

Whenever people fervently and seriously study the Word of God, they’re going to come to different conclusions about difficult truths. But our God is a God of absolutes. There is one right theology just as there is only one way to the Father. We can’t all be right with our various contradictory views and interpretations. Perhaps none of us have got it quite right (I suspect this might be true for a lot more than we’d like to think). I certainly don’t think anyone has got it all right. When we get to Heaven we’re all going to find out that at least part of our individual and collective pictures of God were wrong.

I’ve had a fair number of discussions with friends where we lamented the segmented Christian church. Why are there so many denominations? Why must we break fellowship so frequently? Why don’t people see things our way? Why can’t we all get along?

In a recent interview with newly-retired John Piper, the former pastor pointed out that the church’s effectiveness has never been dependent on its unity. The church is effective when it seeks and obeys God earnestly.

He’s right. As much as we may loathe our divisions and disagreements, God has chosen imperfect vessels to bring about His perfect will.

Nevertheless the Bible does call us to some sort of unity. Paul wrote this in Ephesians 4:1 – 6:

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

I am convinced of two things. One is that we should not neglect seeking a good understanding of the Scriptures nor should we compromise our theology for the sake of pleasing others. Second, we should not insist that our understanding could be without fault and we should never let a disagreement cause us to be unloving toward one another. We cannot neglect the “bond of peace” for the sake of being right.

How does “be united in the same mind” and “they will know you are my disciples by your love for one another” balance out? How do we fiercely contend for a pure understanding of scripture and yet love and accept our brothers and sisters who come to different conclusions? Where is the line between disagreement and heresy? These are not easy nor simple questions and I don’t pretend to be able to answer or even address any of them.

As for myself I need to pray. I need to pray that God grants me understanding. I need to pray for those with whom I disagree that they would come a right understanding or that if they are right and I am wrong, I would realize it. I should try my best with the realization that I may come up with wrong conclusions. And this realization should keep me from arrogance and unloving attitudes.

One glorious day we will all realize what we’ve gotten wrong; we will feel and know theology for real because we will finally be face to face with the person it’s all about. The unity of the Spirit will no longer be obscured by our ignorance, or pride. That, at least, is a comforting thought.

an aimless discussion of romance

parks cover

“Romance is a word that if I tried to define concretely wouldn’t mean as much.”

… that’s according to the protagonist of “Parks,” the short film I did for my capstone project last Spring semester. I’m not sure that I agree with him.

As today is Valentine’s Day (or Singles Awareness Day or National Hate Day depending on who you talk to) I thought I’d use the occasion and my film to ramble aimlessly about the subject of romance. I find it a fascinating subject for many reasons.

The whole point of the film was to discuss romance – what it is and how people view it. It’s the story of a guy and girl who fall for each other whilst discussing the topic.

He’s got all sorts of preconceived notions about romance. Who knows where he got them. Movies, music, books, family. Whatever. In his view certain things are just intrinsically romantic. As indicated by the quote above, he’s not particularly interested in defining romance but he does think he can construct a romantic ideal from components he’s deemed “romantic.”

She’s not so sure that romance is definable at all. She finds his romantic notions and fascination with them amusing. This amusement leads to a growing curiosity. Eventually, she comes to buy his sincerity and even his romantic notions and they end up together.

The thing is this relationship is based on almost nothing real. There’s no realistic evidence given in the film that the relationship will last. That’s the impression that I wanted to leave people with but I couldn’t figure out a way to pull it off in time so I left it out altogether. Against my personality and my life circumstances when I made this film, I left it with an optimistic ending. Maybe that’s exactly why – I wanted to believe in something like it. I didn’t want the short film equipment of a sad song. I have enough of those.

Now that the turbulence of my life has settled, I’m looking at things more realistically again… or so I think. I donno. You be the judge of that.

Many, many people have noted the massive gulf between the way romance is portrayed in our media and popular culture and how it plays out in real life.

You know what? I don’t think actually think that’s the case. Romance often comes off as authentic in fiction. I’m not talking about the stories where the couple gets together barely knowing each others names – I’m talking about the ones that take more time; that actually build their relationship on some kind of foundation more than sex appeal.

No, I think the disconnect is how easy the romantic genre makes things look and the expectations it gives people consciously or (more generally) unconsciously.

Our romantic media, including all the stuff sold to us for Valentine’s Day, is a representation of something we very much want even if it is seemingly unachievable in the “real world.”

Perhaps I am merely being pessimistic, but from my vantage point it seems most couples exist in a state of unhappiness for pretty much of the time. Maybe they’re mad at each other, maybe they’re just unsatisfied in the relationship. One thing they aren’t is madly in love.

It is remarkable how many couples go from longing to loathing over the course of years. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt. People stop trying to be their best for one another and the romance dies.

In contrast are the few exemplary couples who seem to actually have a romance-movie relationship. Their lives aren’t perfect or conflict-free, but they appear to be, more often than not, better and happier with each other. They make marriage look palatable despite the many mundane and negative examples which are the vast majority.

So what’s the difference? Did the happy couples find their soulmate while everyone else settled for less?

No. The concept of a soulmate as your perfect match is like the Fountain of Youth. It’s a lie we invented because we want it so badly. While some people are more “compatible” with one another naturally, the fact remains that all people are fallen. None of us sinners should expect to have an easy time living with one another.

I find it incredibly sad when I see hollow marriages and dying relationships around me. That’s because I’m a single still in the “longing” stage of life (or “pre-longing,” I suppose, since I’m not longing after anyone in particular.) But I’ve been in relationships enough to see the decaying trajectory of a neglected relationship.

Like my short film character I’m not really interested in nailing down a definition of romance. But I will say this: it’s important. Many well-intentioned people have tried to downplay romance as being shallow or unnecessary.

Certainly there are many other aspects to a relationship that are just as important but to neglect romance is unhealthy. Romance is about feelings and feelings are significant because God created them as part of the human experience. Unquestionably they are part of human relationships.

The critical mistake made by the protagonist of “Parks” was coming up with a list romantic things apart from someone else. Love letters are not love and wedding rings are not marriage. While we might have things we each individually consider “romantic,” true romance is only created in concert with another person.

Romance looks different (on the surface) from couple to couple; culture to culture. But there are universals. The things that are romantic to all times, places, and peoples are acts of selflessness. Is this not the core of romance, of friendship, of love?

 

Strangely on this Valentine’s Day I am not bitter as I once suspected I might be. I am content where I am and with the potential before me. Whether you are single like me, married, or dating I hope you are similarly contented in the blessings of God.

And if you’re part of a couple then for goodness sake be romantic today, alright?

Thoughts for the New Year

It occurs to me that God did not give us a quota of souls to affect in our lives. He didn’t say “you must preach the gospel to this many people” or “you must disciple that many people.” As Christians we’re supposed to be doing that work but I often think that, given my previous failings in that area, I must now turn things around and make a huge impact. That line of reasoning is flawed, selfish, and just pain wrong.

For one thing, it places far too much emphasis on me. It insists that because I have done a poor job of submitting to the Lordship of Christ that I must now make up for it. But he already died for my failings. He died to set me free from theology of the Pharisees which binds salvation to a quantifiable set of rules and achievements instead of a changed heart.

If we are failing, it is not because we have failed to bring about the next Great Awakening; it is because we are failing to do the simple work of Christ in our everyday lives. Notice that the only servant who was rebuked in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) was the one who wasted what he was given. He buried it in the ground. He didn’t even try to make something of the opportunity he was given.

It is a lie to think that our success must be “great” (by human standards) if it is to be worthwhile. And this is the lie that I have allowed myself to believe without even realizing it. I have believed it about all kinds of areas in life, not just spiritually.

I have gotten off to a slower start this year than I had intended. It is my intention to be more consistent with my pursuits both professional and personal. By God’s grace, this will be a year of real growth – maybe not growth in the way I’d predict or plan, but growth nonetheless.

Happy (late) New Year to everyone!