Metropolis Maria

Monday, July 11, 2016

Skylab's Skyfall

On this date, in 1979, The United States' first space station, Skylab, tumbled out of its orbit and disintegrated in the earth's atmosphere near Perth, Australia.

Photo: NASA
I remember watching occasional news reports of the four Skylab missions between launch in 1973 and its final mission and subsequent abandonment in 1974, and the video images of the station in orbit over the earth were exhilarating. While in orbit, US astronauts set the space endurance records.
We had already demonstrated our space travel superiority over the Soviets by landing men on the moon and returning them safely to earth nearly eight times over a ten year period, and it seemed that there was nothing that could keep up us from setting up a permanent station in orbit around the earth, then one on the moon and from thence, beyond into the rest of the solar system. It was a heady time to be a NASA groupie, to be sure.

But then, after only six years in orbit and a cost of over $2 billion, on July 11, 1979, the once proud achievement became only so much space junk that was discarded and allowed to crash ignominiously back to earth.

When I saw that the anniversary of its fiery death was approaching, I began to reflect on the story of the Tower of Babel as told in Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV):
"Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth."
Now, let me be very clear: I am in no way suggesting that the destruction of Skylab and the Tower of Babel are the same in terms of epic impact on the human race.  After, all, less than twenty years later we launched the next attempt, the International Space Station, or ISS.

But I think its instructive for us to pause and consider that often we initiate these big, technological achievements and forget that it is only by the grace of God that anything succeeds at all. Often, we think it is all us. We are the masters of our destiny. We are as powerful as God Himself. Until something happens that we can't fix, that our ingenuity didn't account for or know to correct or avoid.
We would do well to remember that while our God has given us intellect, wisdom, and the ability to do some pretty awesome things, He still wants us to choose to love Him, to obey Him and to be dependent on Him. To do otherwise invites our own technological marvels to flame out. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

What I'm grooving on, Summer 2016 edition

Every once in a while, I get sucked into something I hadn't expected, and find myself enjoying a property is just so perfect in its conception.

I'm speaking, of course, about Fox's Houdini & Doyle 


The series is set not too long after author Arthur Conan Doyle has just published "The Final Problem," a short story in which the great Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarity have plunged over Reichenbach Falls to their deaths. It was a move to allow Doyle to move on to other pursuits.  
In the television series, Doyle (played by Stephen Mangan) teams up with showman and escape artist extraordinaire Erich Weiss, better known to the world as Harry Houdini (played by Michael Weston) in order to investigate crimes that at first blush have a supernatural origin. This is based at least partly on the real-life friendship between the two, and their respective worldviews: Houdini as the skeptic, Bradly debunking most paranormal claims because as a magician and illusionist himself, he knows ask the tricks, and Doyle, as the true believer (Doyle was once fooled by paper cutouts into believing that fairies had been photographed). To balance these two opposing philosophies, the pair is joined by Constable Adelaide Station (played by Rebecca Liddard, who reminds me of a young Rachel Weisz from there Mummy movies).

The show seems to be attempting an X-Files-but-set-in-the-Edwardian-era vibe, which I think they pull off rather well, despite a few glaring anachronisms.

What I really like about the show is that each of the main characters' views carries enormous personal stakes: Doyle desperately wants the supernatural to be real, as he is struggling with the impending death of a dearly loved member of the family, and Houdini is struggling with the guilt of leading a young widowed mother to kill herself, orphaning her children because she desperately wanted to believe that she would be reunited with her recently deceased husband. Houdini insists that people look to the near and now and not be so preoccupied with death that they forget to live
For Geekklesiastics, this tension holds a special appeal. As believers, we are totally on board with the supernatural. We get that when we die, we will be reunited with our Creator and Savior. But on the other hand, we are called to remain in this world as long as possible, being salt and light.  The Apostle Paul echoes this tension when he writes in his letter to the Philippians:

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Philippians 1:23‭-‬24 NIV)

But this tension is resolved in a very famous passage just two verses before:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21 NIV)

It is possible to live within both extremes. We can both believe in a world to come after this one, but we cannot allow ourselves to become "so heavenly mined that we are no earthly good." But Jesus promises us that although we do well to look forward to heaven as our eternal home, He will make our lives in this world completely worth living.

This is (was) a joint US - British production and as of this writing, there is no word on whether or not it will be renewed for a second season. However, the ratings for the putative first season were not promising. There is an official Facebook group dedicated to the series, but there has been no announcement one way or the other. Which is a shame, as I would love to see them explore this tension even further.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Captain Hydra?

Update: There have since been some further "big reveals" from issue 1 to issue 2 that have clarified my position somewhat. Read on, then see below.

So the first issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America, I think the heat from the firestorm raging on the Internet is contributing to the global warming crisis.

While I have not read the comic, there is a pretty big reveal at the end: Steve Rogers has been a Hydra sleeper agent almost his entire life.

I'll let that sink in a little.

Steve Rogers, the sickly. scrawny young man who volunteered for the top-secret Super Soldier program of the US Army, the kid who hates bullies and just wanted to help the war effort, and as Captain America, the only successful recipient of the Super Soldier Serum, he punches out Hitler a full year before the United States enters the war, was actually aiding and abetting the enemy the whole time.

There are plenty of blog Twitter and Facebook posts on this with most on the side of this being a heretical turn and others asking what's the big deal?

One pretty compelling post  I saw put the scandal in the historical context of comics in general and Captain America specifically. The discussion pointed out that this reveal invalidates who Steve Rogers is, and treats the Holocaust as nothing more than an attention grabber, "clickbait," to use the author's expression. Again, as I have not read the first issue (and am not certain that I want to), this could well be hyperbole.

But what if it isn't?

And what if the writers and editors were doing something that they may not realize themselves?

In an interview with Entrainment Weekly, writer Nick Spencer says "Captain America is not just one of the most recognizable faces in the Marvel Universe. He’s an inspiring figure, somebody who brings people together. Everybody here obviously gets that. What you hope is that this story, in its own very different way, highlights those things and only continues to elevate the character in importance, and only serves to illustrate how powerful that symbol is."

Mostly, I believe that Captain America is and has been a symbol of what America should be.  But what if this darker turn illustrates more what America really is.

Don't get me wrong: I am an American Exceptionalist. I believe in the promise of America, that when its right, there is nothing else like it and it should be a shining beacon of hope to the rest of the world. That is the essence of Captain America's power as a symbol.

But by portraying Cap as a secret Hydra agent, I believe that there may well be a message that Cap is really revealing the hidden parts of the American Dream, the parts we don't show to company, lest they get the "wrong ideas" about us.


But what if, instead of a symbol for the potential of America, this new interpretation of Steve Rogers is as a symbol for how America truly is: Outwardly displaying virtue, loyalty, perseverance, and moral righteousness, but inwardly corrupt, divisive and fearful.

Currently, we are embroiled in one of the most divisive, bitter presidential campaigns in my memory.  For the first time, the leading candidates for each party carry an unfavorable rating in the most trusted polls. In other words, neither candidate is looked upon favorably by the voters.  On the one hand, we have a corporate-natured tax-evading, misogynistic xenophobe, playing to the deepest most visceral fears humans of all stripes experience. On the other hand, we have the ambitious wife of a former president who routinely plays fast and loose with the rules, is under scrutiny for her use of an unsecured private email server for government business and who is consistently viewed as untrustworthy by a large number of the electorate.

The American Exceptionalism I adhere to will proclaim that America is the best possible place, and then use that as a promise, not a boast, to the rest of the world. We make this promise, and then use it to critically examine ourselves and judge how we measure up, not against any other nation but our own ideals, and founding documents. Where we fail it is not because of our ideals, but because we have failed to hold ourselves accountable to those ideals.

This version of Captain America exposes the ugly side of America. I hope he goes away soon, and the Cap that I and millions of others look up to comes back.  Not because I want to hide our failings, but because I, and I presume others as well want a symbol that will inspire us to be and do our best.

So, the big reveal is that when Kobik, the living embodiment of an infinity stone restored Steve Rogers and he once again assumed the mantle of Captain America, his reality was "reshaped" by Kobik, thereby making it possible for him to be a Hydra deep sleeper agent.  I still think that the wrtiers are playing a dangerous game by even considering this a possibility, but I do apologize if this post seemed reactionary.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Captain America: Civil War and the Book of Romans

Now that a few weeks have passed, and I have had the opportunity to see Captain America: Civil War twice, there are some thoughts that I believe are present.

A number of bloggers and other critics have noted that neither Steve Rogers/Captain America nor Tony Stark/Iron Man are 100% correct in their views. Neither individuals nor institutions can be trusted to provide competent, reliable oversight for people with power.

Personal responsibility:
I find it interesting that in discussing the Sokovia Accords, which would limit the Avengers to act only when they had clearance from a UN panel, Steve Rogers claims to accept that in order to act he must be willing to live with the consequences. In other words, he sys he is willing to take responsibility for the results, good and bad, of his actions.  

Speaking to Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, he says "This job... we try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn't mean everybody. But if we can't find a way to live with that, next time... maybe nobody gets saved."  Later, as the Avengers debate whether to sign the Accords, he has the following exchange with Tony Stark/Iron Man:

Steve Rogers: Tony, if someone dies on your watch, you don't give up. 
Tony Stark: Who said we're giving up? 
Steve Rogers: We are if we're not taking responsibility for our actions. This document just shifts the blame.

These statements are inspiring, and even convincing in their call to take responsibility.

But then, when he and his best friend Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier share a private moment, Steve's tune seems to change. Only Bucky appears to accept the implications of his actions:

Bucky Barnes: I don't know if I'm worth all this to you. 
Captain America: What you did all those years, it wasn't you. You didn't have a choice. 
Bucky Barnes: I know... but I did it.

"I did it." The simple, quiet way that Sebastian Stan (the actor playing Bucky) delivers the line is heartbreaking in its resignation. It does not matter the why he did those things. He openly acknowledges that it was by his hand that people died.   Too many people try to minimize or negate their responsibility. Many years ago comedian Flip Wilson had a catchphrase that to this day people still use: "The Devil made me do it." Bucky rejects that excuse, admitting that although his mind was not his own, he nonetheless owns up to the fact that he still bears the responsibility.

Another exchange, this time between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and the Vision also seems to resonate with Paul's message in his letter to the Romans:

Wanda Maximoff: [laugh] ... I used to think of myself one way. But after this... [swirling fingers with magic]...I am something else. And still me, I think. But that's not what everyone else sees. 
Vision: Do you know, I don't know what this is [point at mind gem on his forehead]. Not really. I know it's not of this world. But it powered Loki staff, gave you your abilities. But its true nature is a mystery. And yet, it is part of me. 
Wanda Maximoff: Are you afraid of it? 
Vision: I wish to understand it. The more I do the less it controls me. One day, who knows, I may even control it.

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  (15)  For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  (16)  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  (17)  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (18)  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  (19)  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.  (20)  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (21)  So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.  (22)  For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,  (23)  but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  (24)  Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:14-24 ESV)

Where Wanda and Vision differ, of course, is their desire to fully understand and eventually control the parts of themselves that make them different and potentially dangerous. Paul, on the other hand, realizes that not only can he not control his inward nature, he will never fully understand it. He laments this failure in that 24th verse: "who will rescue me?"

Bucky seems to realize this as well, and gets that he is not in control. His solution? To lock himself away from anyone who could exploit him and his abilities.

Steve Rogers: Are you sure about this? 
Bucky Barnes: [going into cryogenic stasis] I can't trust my own mind. 


T'Challa: Your friend and my father, they were both victims. If I can help one of them find peace...

If we had read on into the very next sentence in Paul's letter to the Romans, which leads into Chapter 8, we read Paul's solution lies outside of himself and his ability to understand and mastery: only by being surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can one hope to escape. He does not have to submit to cryogenic stasis to be freed; freedom comes from the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of Jesus.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  (8:1)  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  (2)  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 7:25-8:2 ESV)

Unity:
The Avengers have never been the tightest-knit group. In fact, when they first meet (in the first Avengers film), Captain America and Iron Man take different approaches to apprehending Loki, and then when they all get together, the squabble so much that it is impossible that they could every work together, unless, of course, they get a little push in the right direction. This push comes from the death of a beloved agent, a good man, who gave his life to try to stop Loki.  In the second Avengers film, again Iron Man and Captain America have different approaches to protecting the world, and each is too stubborn to compromise until it is almost too late.

The villain, Helmut Zemo, recognizes this weakness and does all he can to exploit it.  His reasoning follows thusly:

Zemo: An empire toppled by its enemies can rise again, but one which crumbles from within? That's dead... forever.

This is an echo of what Jesus said  to people who claimed He was possessed by Satan:

Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. (Matthew 12:25 ESV)

This quote has appeared many times in our history, including speeches by Abraham Lincoln on his determination to preserve the Union during the American Civil War.  Even now, 150 years later, we are still dealing with the mistakes of this great national tragedy.  The phrase "United we stand, divided we fall" even forms one of the taglines for the film we are discussing.

I think its important to note here that unity in this case does not necessarily mean uniformity of presentation or thought; it means that we have a common purpose and we work together to accomplish a common vision.  Much like the Avengers, the Church is a collection of people who have gifts, talents and abilities to be used for a common purpose. None of us look alike, and we certainly all don't think alike, but when we put these gifts and talents to use, working together, amazing things happen.  Too often, though, the Church descends into petty squabbles based on our differences, and we end up with our own Civil War, in miniature. The problem, though is that our Civil War potentially has eternal consequences.


Vengeance & Justice:
Zemo is nursing an overwhelming loss. During the Battle of Sokovia (as presented in Avengers: Age of Ultron), his family was killed, and he blames the Avengers. In this bit of dialogue with T'Challa/Black Panther, he shares his pain with someone who he believes understands his thirst for vengeance:

T'Challa: Is this all you wanted? To see them rip each other apart? 
Zemo: My father lived outside the city, and I thought we would be safe there. My son was excited. He could see the Iron Man from the car window. I told my wife, "Don't worry. They're fighting in the city. We're miles from harm." And the dust cleared, and the screaming stopped. It took me two days until I found their bodies. My father still holding my wife and son in his arms... And the Avengers? They went home. I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other... I'm sorry about your father. He seemed a good man, with a dutiful son. 
T'Challa: Vengeance has consumed you. It's consuming them. I'm done letting it consume me. Justice will come soon enough. 
Zemo: Tell that to the dead. 
[points gun to head, T'Challa stops him] 
T'Challa: The living are not done with you yet.

Vengeance is a fire that consumes everything. In this case, it has consumed Zemo and his actions in search of retribution have led to many others dying and/or being hurt in the process. Those seeking to avenge themselves often are careless with regard to the collateral damage they cause. They only want to hurt the object of their vengeance, and if anyone else gets in the way, too bad.

The problem is that vengeance often breed more vengeance. You hurt me, I get back at you, which drives you to get back at me, and so on and so on, ad nauseum.   Again, Paul discusses this in his letter to the Romans:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  (20)  To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."  (21)  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21 ESV)

One might object that Paul was not thinking about the loss of family and the pain that would cause someone which then might lead them to seek vengeance. But I believe that Paul believed precisely this to be the case. He was writing to Christians in Rome, who were being persecuted for their faith. Family members and loved ones could well have been killed as part of this. Only T'Challa gets that vengeance is something that we do for ourselves, and rather than making us feel better, it only consumes us more. He rejects the notion of vengeance for something else: justice. Justice is the equitable assignment of responsibility and penalty for wrongdoing. T'Challa understands that Zemo, in his careless pursuit of vengeance must account to the survivors and those he has hurt. The living require an accounting of Zemo for the pain he has caused.

If vengeance is such a bad thing, then why does the Scripture teach that God will execute "vengeance?" Only God is unbiased and righteous enough to execute vengeance on our behalf without it consuming Him; this is true Justice.  Those who seek reckless vengeance must answer to those who are left in their wake.

Many would scoff at superhero movies in general and Marvel superhero movies specifically as eye-candy and fluff. But to my eye, there is much in this film to ponder over and to consider in light of personal responsibility, unity, and vengeance and justice.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Supergirl v. (Batman v. Superman)

Now that season one of Supergirl is in the books, and the initial back and forth over the merits or crimes present in the film Batman v. Superman: the Dawn of Justice has died down, I have an observation I wish to share:

The best presentation of Superman on screen today is in Supergirl.


There.  I said it.


Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the near-mythical blur that pops up every so often to prove the Man of Steel exists in this universe, or exchanges text messages with his cousin is what many die-hard Superman fans have been clamoring for.


Nope.


The best Superman on screen is, in fact, Kara Zor-El, Supergirl herself.


Why do I say these things? Well, it's only slightly based on my own readings of comics from the seventies, a small but eclectic collection of DC and Marvel titles that my aunt had at her house for her grandkids to read when I was very young.  I've also done some reading on various histories of the comics and even one specifically on Superman. In part, it is based as well on the reaction of folks far more fluent in comic book than I when reacting to what they believe makes for a good Superman story.

Below is a small sample of the themes that should be present in a good Superman story, and ones I believe are found in Supergirl.  Oh, a word of warning: There WILL be spoilers for Season 1 of Supergirl.

Family
Many of the comics I remember from my youth told stories involving the young Clark Kent and his adoptive earth parents. The Kents instilled in him from infancy a moral compass that served him throughout his life. Even later stories deal with this relationship. He has a groundedness because of his family that Bruce Wayne doesn't, which also speaks to how they approach crime fighting.

In much the same way, Kara was adopted by loving and supportive parents, as well as a sister who looks out for her. This relationship helps her to see her powers as a gift she can use to help others in need. This was consistently the message given in every Superman movie before Snyder's.

In Episode 13, "For The Girl Who Has Everything," Her family bonds are put to the test. In a battle, Kara's Aunt Astra, the leader of the Kryptonian bad guys providing the impetus for the conflict in this first season, is about to kill Hank Henshaw, the leader of the DEO,  the team that Supergirl is a part of. Alex, Kara's adoptive sister and also a member of the team, drives a kryptonite sword through Astra's heart to save Hank. When Supergirl arrives, Hank immediately claims responsibility, because he doesn't want Kara and Alex to become estranged over this act.

In a CW show, this subterfuge would become a season-defining arc (*cough* I'm looking at you, Arrow...*cough, cough*).But here, the secret lasts all of two episodes before Alex confesses. Rather than tearing them apart, the familial bonds that have grown for most of Kara's life by this point, provide a bridge toward reconciliation.

VillainsThe writers and producers of Supergirl are not afraid to use the full range of Superman-type villains.  Maxwell Lord is a better version of Lex Luthor than what we saw in Batman v. Superman. He is subtle, cunning, charismatic. Shave his head and you have Lex.

One of the biggest complaints leveled at any attempt to bring Superman to the screen is the lack of imagination writers use when finding a villain to throw against him. They seem to be fixated only on Lex Luthor or General Zod.

As I noted above, Supergirl has her own version of Lex, and a version of Zod (Non, who is presented here as the husband of General Astra, Kara's evil aunt).  But this show is not afraid to dig into the Superman catalogue of villains, giving us a version of Brainiac.  Here, she refers to herself as Indigo, but make no mistake, the show calls her out as originally named Brainiac 8.  

We also get a look at Bizarro Supergirl, a nod to Bizarro. Bizarro Supergirl was created by Maxwell Lord in an attempt to discredit and stop Supergirl.

Hope
Larry Tye, in his 2012 history of Superman called him "...a freshly minted Man of Tomorrow for a world not sure it had one." (p. 34) One of the key elements of Superman's character is that he never loses hope. The film Man of Steel tried to make this connection by referring to the S on his chest as a Kryptonian symbol for hope, but I don't think it really ever explored that theme, and the newest film fails to explore it as well. But the Supergirl series seems to be preoccupied with the idea that she gives people hope and in one

Tye also compares the Man of Steel with a couple of his inspirations: "Superman was a creature of light, and it was that very optimism that America loved most. And although (Doc)Savage and (Hugo) Danner were human and Superman wasn't, his pairing with Clark Kent gave him a groundedness and humanity Doc and Hugo couldn't match." (pp 33-34)

The season 1 episode  (#7) "Human for a Day" shows Supergirl losing her powers, but then putting her life on the line in order to talk a desperate man out of committing an armed robbery at a convenience store.  Another episode that makes this point even more directly is the season finale, "Better Angels." Briefly, Supergirl has to go on TV to make an appeal to everyone who has been brainwashed by Kryptonian supervillains. She has to offer people hope and inspire them to snap out of it and reject the false messages placed in their brains.  A snippet of dialogue also reveals one of the key tenets that makes a good Superman story: Maxwell Lord tells Supergirl "If you go out there and fight, you might win. But chances are this is a suicide mission." She responds, "You know I'll never stop trying." (emphasis mine). These words could just as easily come out Superman's mouth. 

Supergirl epitomizes what Christopher Reeve said:
"What sets Superman apart is that he has the wisdom to use his powers for good. He has all these powers, but he's got the mind of maturity - or he's got the innocence, really - to look at the world very, very simply. And that makes him so different.

When he says, 'I'm here to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way,' everyone goes: *snicker* *cough* *ahem*.

But he's not kidding." 

Inspirational
By giving us a hero who looks at the world very simply and tries to live by his moral code instilled in him by his adoptive parents, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster also managed to make him very inspirational.

Gary Weldon in his excellent Superman: An Unauthorized Biography, captures this idea perfectly:
"...unlike Spider-Man and Batman, he is not the hero with whom we identify; he is the hero in whom we believe. He is the first, the purest, the ideal. As long as character traits such as selflessness and perseverance manage to retain any cultural currency whatsoever, we will need a Superman to show us what they look like." (p. 4)

He also notes the following critical themes for any good story involving Superman:
"Superman changes as our culture changes. The only thing about him, in fact, that has remained untouched, inviolate since Action Comics #1 hit the stands in April 1938 is his motivation. That motivation is at once the simplest of them all and the hardest to unpack: he is a hero. Specifically:
     1.  He puts the needs of others over those of himself
     2.  He never gives up.
These are his two most essential attributes, the elements that make a Superman story a Superman story. As we will see, even when all of the other, more recognizable pieces of super-iconography are in place - the costume, the spit-curl, and so on - if one or both of these two bedrock elements are missing, our mind rebels; we instinctively reject it. It's just not Superman." (p. 3)


I realize that some will argue that Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman have these themes as well, but I just really feel that action set pieces have been privileged over those themes to the point that the themes are underdeveloped, and the story feels like it's missing something important. In my mind, Zach Snyder really wants to tell these stories, but I'm not sure he's skilled enough to do so.

To conclude, in much the same way that CW's Arrow is a disguised version of Batman for TV, Supergirl is doing the same for Superman.  I find it even more interesting that due to lower than hoped for ratings, CBS declined to renew the series on its own network, but allowed it to be picked up by the CW, where it is a more natural fit alongside other series like Arrow, The Flash, and DC's Legends of Tomorrow. I can only hope that we see more crossovers now, as the one featuring the Flash was a lot of fun, even if it wasn't the best story. 



Notes:
Reeve, Christopher: Secret Origins: The Story of DC Comics (video), 2010

Tye, Larry. Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. 2012 Random House

Weldon, Glen. Superman: The Unauthorized Biography. 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ


Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice - A Layman's View

I have mentioned here and elsewhere that I am not fully a comic book geek.  My younger self was entertained by the small reading collection maintained at my aunt's house for her grandchildren (who were themselves closer to my own age than my cousins), but I never really maintained anything other than small collections of limited run series (like Ambush Bug and Car Warriors).  Even today, I have more comic books than I have ever in my life owned, but will most likely be culling that down to a very small, non-negotiable pile of less than twenty or so in the next few months.  I have read my fair share of Superman, Batman and Justice League comics, and I faithfully watched the Superfriends cartoons on Saturday Mornings (I preferred the Wonder Twins to Wendy and her idiot brother). So it should come as no surprise that I consider myself "conversant, not fluent."

A couple of years ago, I saw Man of Steel and didn't hate it. It didn't cause me anger when a young, unsure of himself Superman snapped the neck of his equally-super enemy in order to save an innocent family. Many people reacted badly to this sequence as canonically Superman has always refused to kill, instead insisting on finding "another way."  While I see this argument, I did not object as I took the events as presented to me, even Superman's anguished scream afterwards, indicating that he wished that he could have found a better alternative. This told me that Superman did not spring onto the scene with his values fully-formed and inviolable, but someone who was still trying to find his place in a world that was not prepared to receive him.

This theme stood out to me throughout the film: Superman as a man doing the best that he can, looking to be accepted and trying to do the right thing. And while I know that director Zak Snyder can have difficulties with telling a strong story, his ability to show us "pretty pictures," that is, exceptional visual sequences is unparalleled in the superhero film genres.

Now we get to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Zak Snyder has never been a target of harsh criticism from me, as everything I've seen from is very well done, from a visual perspective, and that is typically what I notice far more than anything else.  But this movie disappointed me.

I probably should mention that there may well be spoilers in my critique, so turn back now if you haven't seen the movie yet.

As a way to become more effective in this mission of providing content for this blog that is worthwhile to Christian Geeks, I felt that I needed to improve my awareness of comic book characters, their histories and their motivations. As a result, a number of well-done histories of both general comic book characters and Superman in particular, have landed on my shelves.  What I learned is that historically, Superman has often been portrayed as more at ease, smiling, even laughing on occasion. He is serious when he has to be, but is far less the brooding anti-hero that is Bruce Wayne/Batman. In fact, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum in this regard. So for Superman to still be portrayed in this way, as he seems to be in this movie, makes me wonder about character development. In Man of Steel, Superman killed General Zod. How did that action impact his worldview? Has he struggled with that decision? We really don't get any insight from Clark Kent/Superman in this movie. Yes, it has been something like eighteen months to two years later, but I would want to see some development here, even if it were in an offhand comment to Lois Lane.  There really appears to be very little, if not zero, character development between Man of Steel to this film.  And for someone who usually doesn't notice to point that out, that's saying something. But that is not the end of my issues with this film.

Let me start with the other characters. Most of them, including Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane were fine.  I really don't have anything but minor quibbles (such as I would prefer Lois to be a brunette than a redhead) with them. But Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor has me rolling my eyes. His twitchy, Asperger-like delivery grew tiresome for me very quickly. I'm not sure I have ever seen him in a film that I've cared for his character at all, so that may be more a personal preference for me than anything of substance. Really, the only character I found interesting and wanted to know more about was Wonder Woman, and she was not a featured character.

Another area that really glared out to me was something that I barely remember from the comics I read at my aunt's house as a young boy, namely, that Gotham and Metropolis were not that far apart geographically.  In this film, they are "across the harbor" from each other.  So here's my question: for the last 18 months to two years, Batman has been operating in Gotham (the movie seems to indicate he's been active for nearly twenty years), and Superman is only now being bothered by his activity? If crime and corruption was such an issue in Gotham, why hasn't more of it spilled over to Metropolis, and if it hasn't, why didn't Superman just jump across the harbor and deal with all the ills, introducing him earlier to Batman? Why has it taken nearly two whole years for this encounter to take place?

When we do get to the big fight at the end, it's only because Luthor has kidnapped Ma Kent and threatened her life unless he kills Batman. It is made clear through dialogue with Lois that he flies to Gotham to enlist the aid of Batman to help, and when he first sees Batman, Superman tries to explain what is happening but is caught in a Bat-ambush, and then all thought of parlay is immediately forgotten. Why was this a surprise to Superman? They've already had preliminary bouts in the first half of the movie. For someone as smart as Superman he should have seen that coming and held back. But no, we get the full fighting match on. Batman "cheats" and uses Kryptonite gas to weaken Superman, and just as he is ready to deliver the coup de'grace, Superman blurts out the name of his mother, Martha, and this freezes Batman, as it was the name of his mother who was murdered many years before.  Now, I'm not saying that they should have known each others' mothers' names, but why did it take Superman so long to remember why he was there in the first place, and why did Lois have to decode the message for Batman to understand what was going on? From that point on, they put aside their philosophical differences and become best buds.

Finally, we get to the final third of the movie, part 2, where since the writers have to somehow introduce Wonder Woman and the Dawn of Justice to a sequel to Man of Steel where Batman is the billed first in a fight with Superman, they decide to riff on another comic story. If the first two-thirds of the film is riffing on Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, then the last part riffs on the Death of Superman arc where we are introduced to Doomsday and Superman has to die in order to kill Doomsday and save the world.  This causes me concern that the writers just really don;t know how to tell a Superman story. We have to throw in other characters and plots from other books to get us to the story we really want to tell. And I also find it telling that the upcoming Justice League movie will most likely not have Superman in it as a result of what happened here.

Finally, I'm going to pick on themes.  Snyder and the writers seem to want to say something important about power corrupting, and there's even a throwaway shot where there is graffiti with the Latin phrase quis custodiet custodes? - Who watches the watchmen? This is a reference to a major theme here as well as a shoutout to Snyder's other film on this theme Watchmen.  Another theme that gets espoused by Luthor is what is known in theology as theodicy, or the problem of evil. In other words, how can a good and all-powerful God allow evil in the world? We recognize that evil exists, therefore God must be either all-powerful and not good, or else He is all good, but not all-powerful.  But these themes are not really explored or get lost in the comic-book imagery of the fight scenes which Snyder is very, very good at.

In short, I have to confess that as spectacle, Batman v. Superman is a fun and enjoyable movie, if you really don't think too hard. However, I had problems with it and was very frustrated as a result.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Giant Has Passed From This Earth

I usually write about topics that are geeky in nature, often connecting them to my faith. But today is a little different.  Later this morning, we will be celebrating the life of my father-in-law, who passed away a week ago today.

The first part of Genesis 6:4 says "There were giants in the earth in those days...."  This verse has been rolling around in my thoughts for the past several days. My wife's father was never really very tall. I think at his best he was 5'8". But there is so much more to being a great man than stature.

He was a giant in his integrity. Early on in his service as a Salvation Army officer, he was recognized as a leader and began a series of appointments in the administration that ultimately led to his final appointment at the International Headquarters in London. He inherited this send of responsibility and integrity in all he did from his parents and he passed it on to his three beautiful daughters (I happen to be partial to one in particular). People respected him because he was the same in all his dealings with people, regardless of who they were or where they came from.

He was a giant in his love and care for his children. Birthdays and holidays were always special. There were certain days he always made it a point to be home in order to celebrate with family. He was gentle and firm, taking time to teach when the opportunity presented itself. For each of his three sons-in-law,  he became a second father, welcoming us into the family, integrating us into the traditions and trusting us with his previous daughters. Even on the day he passed, he was working hard to make sure that his family would be well cared-for when his time on earth was concluded.

He was a giant in his care and concern for others. There are more stories than I can count from others who have shared with us about his compassionate interactions with people. He was constantly seeking to being people that he knew home to their long-abandoned faith. Or time he would assist those who were less fortunate, even buying shoes for children who were waiting with their mothers in line to receive Christmas toys from The Salvation Army.

Finally, he was a giant in his faith in his God. As the family gathered to discuss his funeral program that he had been thoughtfully planning for many years, long before it was even discovered that he had a debilitating illness, his overriding concern was not that it would honor him or being comfort to his family, but that it would somehow encourage others to examine their relationship with Jesus, and possibly  allow Him to transform their lives.  He not only preached his faith, he lived it.

In the parlance of The Salvation Army, he has "laid down his sword" and received his "promotion to glory." He has also left a legacy for those of us still here on this earth to follow. We may not be the giants he was, but he has left us some pretty big footsteps to follow in.