Metropolis Maria

Thursday, August 29, 2013

[Theology Thursday] Hope and the Superman Myth

Note: this post will contain major spoilers from THE MAN OF STEEL film. If you haven't seen it yet, feel free to watch it and come back. I'll wait.

In the film, Kal-El (not yet called Superman) calls attention to the fact the symbol that looks like a big red "S" to American earthlings is actually the symbol for his family on Krypton, and that it also stands for hope there as well.

Throughout the film it seems as if writer David Foyer and director Zack Snyder are going to reinforce this theme: several times in the course of the film (presumably due to the upbringing of his adoptive earth parent's the Kents) he is seen finding a way to save lives.  Indeed, this has been a major refrain of most reviewers that I've heard that it is this stubborn refusal to end a life that marks Superman as an iconic comic book hero.
So what happened in the third act? Why was Superman not able to save both the family in the Metropolis train station and General Zod?1 Why do we get an odd snapping sound effect followed by an anguished cry of despair?

Some have postulated that The Man of Steel is the first of a trilogy that explores the development of Clark Kent/Kal-El into Superman.  This is plausible in that they do not call him Superman in this film. Perhaps he has to earn it. It may be that he has to learn the awful consequences of taking a life for himself.
If this is not the case, if the creative team of Goyer, Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan were not looking ahead when they sketched the film out2, then they painted themselves into a corner that they couldn't figure out how to extricate themselves from and keep the theme of hope intact.  The film is shot in very bright tones, quite opposite of the brooding and dark tones of Nolan's Batman films, but the visual tones do not sync up in the third act climax, and one is left with a disconnect between what has just happened and how it is presented to us.

I would not be surprised to see a third option at work here. Much has been made over the years of the comparisons that can be made between Superman and Jesus: they both came to earth as a baby and grew up to be truly good men, sacrificially giving of themselves for the greater good of mankind. This similarity was even shown in the film itself, between many of the lines of Superman's Kryptonian father Jor-El and John Kent (his adoptive earth father)3, as well as several visual elements Snyder chose to put on screen. In addition, the studios even courted pastors to incorporate clips from the movie in sermons, including someone to put together a resource pack for pastors full of Bible studies and sermon outlines that highlighted the similarities.

But at the end of the day, I have to wonder if the third act climax that caused so much discussion among Superman and comic book fans is due to the fact that Goyer, and Snyder4 just can't bring themselves to believe in an all-good, all-powerful hero. It is theodicy writ in four colors and projected on a screen. In this film, it appears that the producers believe that their hero must be able to fully enter into our human condition in order to truly be one of us.  This flies in the face of the Christian understanding that sin us not natural to humanity, that mankind was created in the image of God, and that by willfully turning away and rejecting that image within them, evil, pain and death entered the world. A messiah who is like us in this way cannot save us.

This is where the "Superman as a picture of Christ" metaphor breaks down. Jesus, in the words of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews "...understands every weakness of ours, because he was tempted in every way that we are. But he did not sin!" (4:15 CEV).  On other words, Jesus fully entered into the human experience. The earliest Christian credal statements affirm the truth that Jesus was in every way God, and yet in every way man, including experiencing first hand what you and I take for granted.5  The Apostle Peter, one of the ones who would have been an eyewitness to Jesus, writes in his second letter quotes from a passage in Isaiah to describe Jesus, saying that He never sinned nor did He lie. (1 Peter 2:22).

Superman may ultimately be able to save the world from the plots of supervillains and aliens bent on destroying the world, but he cannot save the world from what plagues us the most - our own sin and  inhumanity. Only Jesus can do that. So hope will only by found in Him, even if He doesn't have a big red "S" on His chest to say so.

1 Or for that matter, all of the folks in the Metropolis skyscrapers? I myself walked out of the theater thinking that the events portrayed would have absolutely bankrupted the insurance industry.
2 I am inclined to believe that they were
3 I have several thoughts percolating about how The Man of Steel promotes and celebrates fatherhood, but that is another post.
4 As I was writing this, the fine folks over at Strangers and Aliens pointed me to this story which indicates that Nolan was not at all on board with the plan for the third act climax.
5 See the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed

Friday, August 23, 2013

[Fandom Friday] Ben Affleck and Nerd Rage

"OMG Casting Ben Affleck as Batman just set us back another 10 years in our efforts to cure cancer, end poverty and bring peace to the Middle East. OH WAIT IT'S ONLY A MOVIE" - Berin Kinsman, from his Facebook Page (used with permission)

Why do we in the geek/nerd community get so bent out of shape abut things like the recent announcement that Ben Affleck has been cast as the new Batman in Zack Snyder's upcoming Batman/Superman film?  People have been bringing up disastrous Affleck films like Gigli, Daredevil and Armageddon. Others have defended the choice citing his recent directorial triumphs like last year's Argo, which won him an Oscar for Best Director.

Me? I'm willing to give Ben a chance, although I must admit he was not my first choice.

But the question remains: why the vitriol here, when other things are so terribly wrong with the world?

To begin, I'm not sure that individuals in the geek/nerd community were not outraged by the recent charges of Syrian gassing women and children, or any of the other ills we deal with. I have a feeling their voices were mingled with many others. It is only in announcements like this that we can tell who the geeks/nerds are.

But I think there may be a more subconscious idea at work here. Many people have a sense of powerlessness when facing the evils of the word around us. That often translates into silence and inaction.  However, in the geek/nerd community, we remember that a letter writing campaign by fans of the original Star Trek series managed to save it not once but twice, and got the first space shuttle prototype named Enterprise. Also, fan loyalty to the cancelled TV series Firefly led to the feature film Serenity. Finally, a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign raised enough money to greenlight a Veronica Mars movie.  So, there is a sense in the geek/nerd community that even though I may not be able to affect the rest of the world, I can affect the entertainment properties that appeal to me if I make enough noise.

But my friend Berin is right. What could happen if the amount of energy poured into railing against Ben Affleck as the new Batman were directed locally to issues of social justice, for example? If members of the geek/nerd community can save Star Trek, maybe they can make a dent in homelessness.

(Update: Apparently there is a now an online petition at calling on WB to recast the role, dropping Affleck.  What's really disturbing is that there are, as of this writing, over 13,000 signatures.)

(Update #2, 8/26/13: Some folks have been so upset by the news that they made death threats, though apparently not against Affleck himself)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

[Theology Thursday] The Nothing New Lament

In a recent article in USAToday, writers Scott Bowles and Andrea Fuller report on the idea that original stories seem to get eaten up by "sequel-itis" and "reboot raves".  To bolster their argument, they bring out an impressive assortment of statistics:

  • Original films accounted for just 39% of box office from 2003 to 2012, down from 65% in the 10 years before.
  • So far this summer, original stories account for just 30% of sales.
  • Original movies accounted for less than half (47%) of the top summer releases from 2003 to 2012, down from 70% the decade before.
  • Pacific Rim cost the studios $190 million while only earning $94 million as of the publication of the article.

They quoted University of Nebraska film professor Wheeler Winston Dixon, who is generally unhappy about the trend: "Films routinely cost $100 to $200 million, and with that kind of money at stake, who has time for originality? It's much safer to bank on a franchise."  On the other hand, Robert McKee who lectures on screenwriting is in the other camp, saying that sequels "have always been around. Homer's Odyssey is the sequel to The Iliad. Audiences love sequels because they get hooked on a character like Odysseus in the first story and want to enjoy him again and again."

I am inclined to agree with both individuals quoted above from the USAToday article. I do like to see and hear about new stories with familiar characters. However, I am also aware that by playing it safe with sequels and reboots, Hollywood runs the danger of becoming mired in needless ennui, or worse feeding us a steady diet of visual junk food.  I was very disappointed that Pacific Rim was not more successful, and it appears that Elysium will follow along in that category.  Having said that, it is helpful to remember that Blade Runner was also a box-office disappointment that has grown beyond cult status into its own legend in the subsequent years since its release.

The cry "there is nothing new!" is, itself, not new. In Ecclesiastes 1:9 Solomon writes"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." (NIV)  It almost seems as if he was seeing prophetically into Hollywood in the second decade of the 2Ks.  Even then, the man who had been supernaturally gifted with intelligence and wisdom was frustrated with what he saw as an endless cycle of the "same old thing."  With all of his insight, wealth and power, Solomon could not enact the creative change necessary to break free.

However, there is Someone who is able to end the seemingly endless cycle of history repeating itself.  It is none other than the One quoted in Revelation 21:5: "He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'" (NIV) Jesus possesses divine creative power, and an immense creative mind, such that the universe in all of its complexity and beauty was created by Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16).  Christians should be leading the charge for creativity as we seek to lift Jesus higher in all that we do. Not in a didactic or sermonizing way, but in an incarnational way, where His truth, beauty and grace are displayed for all to appreciate.

Larry Wall, the creator of the Perl computer programming language, indicated his faith in Jesus in a great interview on Slashdot. In it he shows how much he understands the creativity and infinite variety of the Divine Mind when he acknowledges that the answer to the question "What Would Jesus Do?" is actually "something unexpected."  This is what we see in His life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection. Jesus was constantly doing something unexpected, and he calls us to follow.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

[PODCAST] Sex, Lust and Video Games - Theology Gaming

Just over five years ago, there were very few podcasts and blogs devoted to exploring geek culture through the lens of faith. In the time since, there has been a virtual explosion in the number and quality of entries. I am very excited by the possibility that the church is slowly embracing those who are traditionally within an often ostracized community.

This past week,  I discovered a great new podcast: Theology Gaming. 

Recently, they had a Theme Week where the various hosts posted individual blog posts relating to the theme of sex, love and lust in video games. They then came together in a round table format to discuss the issue.

I liked their final takeaway that it just seems that our culture is so hypersexualized that it seems as if we expect every relationship to somehow culminate in a physical relationship, that there doesn't seem to be a place for the simple, chaste phileo friendship, but that it must develop into a relationship marked by eros.

This will most likely join my list of recommended podcasts.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Comics and Me

I tell people that when it comes to comics, "I am conversant, but not fluent." What I mean by that is that I am familiar with most of the mainstream superheros (and a few lower tier ones), but I don't regularly follow them on a monthly basis.

I remember as a child visiting my aunt and her family. In their home were dozens of comics, featuring characters from both DC and Marvel, and I read them all for years.  I discovered Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Avengers, and many others for the first time this way. From this humble introduction, I watched the Super Friends as a Saturday morning cartoon and the Incredible Hulk and Wonder Woman as live action network TV shows.

As I grew older, I supplemented my awareness of comic book heroes by buying certain books (Spider-Man was always a favorite), or picking up used copies of others.  As a science fiction fan, I enjoyed Marvel's serialization of the original Star Wars film, even though they lost me in the following stories by introducing a giant bipedal rabbit, a character called (no kiddding!) Don-Ki-Ho-Tay and retelling the plot of The Seven Samurai. When I was in high school, I became a fan of Ambush Bug's limited run and early stories of Groo the Wanderer.  Once I discovered role playing games (rpgs), I became fascinated by the world of the Warlord and the limited run of the Car Wars game tie-in comic, Car Warriors.  Also, when I was in college, I discovered a hardback graphic novel of the original Dark Knight, The Shadow (which now has a treasured place in my library).

My late college years and early married life saw me leave the world of four-color heroes for a while, although they always had a special place in my heart.

With the success in recent years of superhero films, however, I find myself being slowly drawn back in.  I doubt that I will ever be a collector of major superheroes, but I might have a few issues of the Shadow laying around, and I will always keep informed of many of the storylines featured in the books due to my on-line relationships with people who are collectors or are otherwise far more fluent than I will ever be.

Future entries related to comics will include reviews of some digital comics that I have acquired, as well as books I have in my library that seek to analyze the genre through a lens of faith.