Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok is certainly in my top-two Marvel movies of the past decade, and I’m pretty sure it has displaced Guardians of the Galaxy for the top spot. But why? Beware, spoilers abound . . .

  • This movie is hilarious, and I mean truly laugh out loud funny. Whether it was Thor trying to convince both Bruce Banner and the Hulk that he likes their individual personality better, or Loki celebrating Thor’s butt-whooping at the Hulk’s hands, or Korg – seriously, Taika Waititi is a genius, both as a director and as a comedian – being Korg, this movie has so many hilarious moments.
  • Yet, even in the midst of all the laughs, this movie takes major steps toward Avengers: Infinity War and addresses some serious issues.
    • Asgard’s true history is revealed as one of war-mongering and imperialism in which all the gold gilding the city is a spoil of war. Conquest was Asgard’s agenda, until Odin decided to turn over a new leaf, but even then, the Valkyrie are sacrificed without a second thought. Hela is revealed as the true heir to Odin’s throne, not just as his first-born but also as the one who most closely resembles her father’s desire for conquest and domination. This history was literally buried and forgotten, until Hela comes and tears down the falsified family portraits and rips open the crypt. She reveals the ugly truth at the heart of Asgard’s history, a truth that those in power have covered up and a history Odin has rewritten to recast his role as that of protector of the Nine Realms, rather than as their conqueror.
    • The differences between species and races are clear to the viewer, but it seems that the characters in the movie barely notice them. Korg may be a being composed of rocks, but Thor treats him like a friend from the moment they meet. There is no fear of the other as other here, and that stands in stark contrast to Hela (and previously Odin’s) desire to dominate and destroy all who are other.
    • These two issues resonate today, and they resonate powerfully. We are all living in a time in which we encouraged to fear those who are different from us, to mistrust those who are from a different country or whose skin is a different shade than our own. We live with war on the horizon – always – whether our country appears to be involved or not. There is no escaping it. These wars fuel the fire of nationalism and fear that keep us apart. But Thor: Ragnarok demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that neither of these need to be our reality. Wars can be ended and fear of the other can be turned into acceptance. Perhaps, if we saw ourselves as Terrans or Earthers rather than as Americans (or for those of us in the Church, if we saw ourselves as the linguistically, culturally, and physically diverse body of Christ before any other affiliations) we might be able to take some positive strides toward peace and reconciliation. And perhaps, we might even be equipped as Thor clearly was – or as Ender was in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead – to see non-human creatures (whether terrestrial or extra-terrestrial) as God’s children and as his good creations.
    • And if that weren’t enough, the movie’s ending sheds an uncomfortable light on the West’s unwillingness to welcome refugees. While none of those seeking asylum in the world today are virtually immortal aliens of tremendous power (would it actually make a difference if they were?), they are people who want a new home where they can put down roots and make a contribution. Perhaps some of them will change the world one day . . .
    • Any movie that can pull off addressing serious issues while making me laugh – which is just what Waititi’s previous movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, did with foster care – is a real winner. The way he deepens Asgard’s history, darkens it with a history of imperialism and conquest that can never truly be made right, is brilliant.
  • First Odin, and later Heimdall, assert that Asgard is not a place. It is wherever Asgard’s people are. I think we can and should say the same about the Church, but what is significant here is that even an ugly past need not define the future. If Asgard is its people, then Asgard is not its buildings or its technology or its history. Yes, it is shaped and influenced by all of those things, but it need not be defined by them. Growth and change are possible, and because of how Thor and Loki grow and change in this movie, they seem almost certain.
  • Idris Elba. Is he ever anything less than awesome?
  • And Cate Blanchett? Whether she’s Galadriel or Hela, she plays the powerful, awe-inspiring queen to perfection.

For these reasons, and others as well, I absolutely love this movie. It will be tough to knock this one out of my top spot.

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Stranger Things, Season 1

When a friend asked me to pitch Stranger Things a couple days ago, the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “It’s awesome,” but since I hadn’t sat down to think about the why behind that sentiment beforehand, I couldn’t offer anything more compelling. I will try to be a little more articulate now…

So, Stranger Things season 1 is awesome (and the first episode and a half of season two have basically followed suit). It reminds me of several very different pieces of entertainment/art without being exactly like anything else I’ve ever seen.

First, it reminds me of Community at its best. My favorite Community episodes are heavy on the sci-fi and fantasy allusions (or are explicitly riffing off stories and movies I love). It also works at a metafictional level that ST pulls off to wonderful effect. For example, there’s a moment when Will’s mom (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) suggests they go see a scary movie together, so long as it won’t give him nightmares. He says he doesn’t get scared like that anymore, and she asks him, “Not even of clowns?” Now, this seems like an explicit reference to Stephen King’s It, which only makes sense at a metafictional level because the first season of ST is set in 1983-4 and It wasn’t published until 1986. To take it a step further, ST’s Mike Wheeler is played by Finn Wolfhard who also plays a starring role in . . . you guessed it, the 2017 remake of It.

Speaking of It, one of the things the 2017 movie did exceptionally well was reinterpret King’s classic and transpose the kids’ scenes from the late 50’s to the late 80’s. The portrait of the 80’s offered in the film reminds me of ST’s delightful and nostalgic setting. The film’s focus on a group of outcast kids who love, support, encourage, fight with, and are willing to sacrifice for each other also hearkens back to King’s narrative, emphasizing the hardships of growing up and its simple pleasures.

This same focus on outcast kids who have taken on a dangerous task to save what they love also points back to the 1985 classic, The Goonies. The echoes seem to be intentional, with ST’s Barb bearing a more than passing resemblance to Stef and Sean Astin (who played Mikey) entering the ST cast for season 2.

The final film ST reminds me of is a little indie-film from 2009 called Ink. It’s not the plot or the setting that is reminiscent, it’s the upside-down. The visuals and cinematography in the upside-down, with their bluish tint, heavy darkness, and eerie contrasts are familiar and more than a little disturbing.

If all that wasn’t enough to make me love this show, this next point does the trick all on its own.

One of the unifying plot elements throughout season one (and it doesn’t let up in season 2) is the frame of Dungeons and Dragons that helps the kids make sense of what is going on around them. The first episode begins with their D&D game, the last episode ends with one – heck, one of the episode titles from season 2 references the Mind Flayer of AD&D fame! All this takes me back to the early 90’s when I encountered D&D and the related novels (without which I certainly would not have done a PhD!), which included the Dragonlance Chronicles – first published in 1984 and 85 (I might just do a little happy dance if season 2 refers to the first in this series). Had these kids been around at my schools growing up, there’s a good chance we would have hung out.

I could go on, but I won’t. If any of these film references grab your interest or if you remember D&D with fondness, then I wager you’ll love this show – in much the same way that those who grew up playing arcade games are likely to love Wreck-It Ralph. It is nostalgic, intriguing, and full of sci-fi goodness apart from the features I mentioned above, and I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

A Wizard of Earthsea

First, let me express my hearty thanks to Anton Rose (@antonjrose) for letting me raid his bookshelf so that I could finally read this masterwork of speculative fiction. Second, how did it take me so long to get around to this wonderful little book?

There are a lot of things I could write about when it comes to A Wizard of Earthsea, but I’m going to focus on just one here, and it comes from the end of the book so beware: SPOILERS AHEAD!

If you’re still with me, then let me proceed. For a large chunk of this book (and it’s less than 200 pages long, by the way), Ged is either fleeing from or pursuing a shadow, a denizen of the darkness who was allowed to enter into the real, physical world through Ged’s carelessness and arrogance. The turning point in the story is when Ged transitions from fleeing the shadow to seeking it out. In seeking out what has terrified and crippled him, that thing loses its terrible power over him. All that is well and good, but at the end of Le Guin’s tale, after Ged has finally confronted the shadow and named it with his own name (see, I told you there would be spoilers), his friend Vetch sees that

Ged had neither lost nor won but, naming the shadow of his death with his own name, had made himself whole: a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark.

This is a powerful narration of the spiritual formation process. We are so prone to emphasizing those facets of our character and personality that make us look good, that make others respect, admire, or appreciate us. But at best that is just a snapshot of who we really are – it’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, it’s an outright lie, a fabrication set up to mask and disguise reality.

But wholeness – at least as far as life within the world as we know it is concerned – necessitates acknowledging, embracing, and welcoming our shadow-selves (naming our darkness with our own name and knowing that Christ died for that aspect as well as our “more presentable” side; or as Thomas H. Green, S.J. might have encouraged, we need to learn to sit among our weeds, not just within our wheat). Wholeness rests in allowing Christ to shine his light into the darkness of our souls, welcoming the Spirit into more and more of our hidden places so that they too can be seen and known and redeemed.

Le Guin has not written an allegory of the spiritual life in her little book, but the insight she narrates sheds light on the world around us, on what is true both psychologically and spiritually. And because she has narrated this reality rather than simply telling us that this is the case, the insight is more striking and resonant. We experience it through another’s perspective and we might just see how we can experience it in our own. We might see ways in which we can name our shadow-selves with our own names, and in doing so experience the love of Christ even there, where we may feel darkest and least lovable.

#Pray4ISIS

In church yesterday we were reading from the book of Acts, focusing on the martyrdom of Stephen. It’s a tragic story; heart-breaking and painful, and we turned our attention to the persecuted church, to those who–like Stephen–are being murdered for their faith in Jesus today. We prayed for them, calling out to God to help them endure in the midst of something that we in the West will honestly probably never have to experience. As we were closing I was reminded by my lovely wife of a blog post that first started germinating back when the tragedies in France were fresh and aching, but that I hesitated to post. Here it is:

What would it look like if we were to actually take Jesus at his word? What if we did what he invited us to do? And more than that, what if we did what Jesus, and Stephen after him, actually did? Specifically, what if we loved our enemies and prayed for those who persecuted us? Or, since we may not experience major persecution where we live, what if we prayed for those who persecuted our brothers and sisters, who butchered and murdered our Christian family? What if we started to fervently pray, not against ISIS and the atrocities they commit, but for the people who compose it? For it is people who make up ISIS. It is not just some faceless and malevolent network reaching out to kill and destroy. It is people. People who need to know the love of Jesus and his power to redeem. What if we prayed that the he would do that? What if we prayed for the risen and resurrected Christ to reveal himself in majesty to the people within ISIS? What if, somewhere in their network, we have future brothers and sisters in Christ that we have not met and will likely never meet in this life, but who we will meet and celebrate with in the life to come?

I have an idea of what that might look like, and we only need to turn to the pages of Acts to see it. What happened when the risen Christ introduced himself to the early church’s most hateful and violent persecutor? What happened when that man came face to face with the Jesus he scorned and despised? What happened? The world changed forever. I don’t think I’m overstating the case to say that when Saul met Jesus and became Paul, the world became a different place. It was Paul who brought the faith to the Gentiles and began the work to fulfill God’s intention for his people to be from every tribe and tongue and nation the world over.

This generation’s Saul might be actively and vehemently persecuting the church as a member of ISIS, or an agent within North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran. He may be out there right now doing what he believes is right, ignorant of the calling God has in store. What if we prayed that God would turn Sauls into Pauls in each of the countries that are most dangerous for Christians? What if we prayed that God would change the hearts of those who hate and despise us? What if we prayed that God would have mercy on our enemies and show his love to those who persecute us?

Perhaps the world would change again. Perhaps.

There’s only one way to find out…

Westworld

After watching the first two episodes of HBO’s new series, Westworld, a whole host of questions have come up, but two have stood out:

  • What is real?
  • What if there were no consequences?

Let me explain. The show’s premise is that Westworld is an immersive theme park where those who are wealthy enough to pay the exorbitant price of admission can do whatever they want to the robotic (but ridiculously lifelike) inhabitants of the park. This, of course, means that for many they exercise all of their baser instincts because it is a “safe” place to do so free of the consequences those activities would bring in the world outside the park.

Shoot a man in Westworld? No worries, they think. The robot dies an agonizing and believable death, but is patched up good as new for the next day. Want to sleep around? No worries, they say. No robots are getting pregnant, there’s no real chance of STDs, and it can’t really be an affair if it’s done with a robot partner. Because the interactions are with lifelike robots rather than actual humans, people’s actions within the park seem unreal to them. If there are no consequences, then nothing has really happened, right?

Wrong.

Something very real has taken place and there are consequences. What I think the show is begging viewers to consider is that these desires they’re living out in the park are real desires, and they have really acted upon them. They have really shot and killed people. They have really had affairs. Just because the people they do these things with or to aren’t human beings doesn’t mean those actions were not real actions. The lack of consequences is an illusion. Real-world moral formation is happening every time people make choices within the park, whether those choices are for good or for ill. Whether they choose to rescue the hurting or inflict pain on others. Their choices are forming them into certain kinds of people. There are no consequence free actions for our souls.

The park-goers are committing these acts with their very bodies. It’s not imaginary, not virtual reality; it is reality, even if it is one degree removed. And any acts that our bodies engage in will impact our souls, for the two are deeply intertwined. What harms one, harms the other. What benefits one, benefits the other. There’s no getting around that.

At one point, one of the characters asserts that the park does not show you who you are; it shows you who you could be. I think that’s true, but we need to go further and recognize that each time someone chooses a path toward who they could be, they take real steps toward becoming that very person. Starting from the moment they choose their hat, they have chosen what kind of formative experience they want for their body and soul. While they think they’re simply choosing what kind of fun they wish to have, they’re really choosing what kind of person they want to be when they leave the park. Their choices will extend beyond the park, despite what they, and the park, want to believe.

As I hope the show allows us to see, “These violent delights have violent ends” both inside and outside the park.

Among Others

I’ve had this particular book of Jo Walton’s (along with several others) on my to-read shelf for a long time, and I mean a loooooooong time. I grew interested in Walton’s books after following along with her obsessively detailed rereading of Pat Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (the first book of which, The Name of the Wind, is perhaps my favorite book of all time, though I don’t know if it can really unseat The Lord of the Rings from that position). It was brilliant. I found her writing to be insightful, thought-provoking, humorous, and thoroughly enjoyable. I figured that anyone who loved Rothfuss’s books as much—or more—than I did was well worth reading in her own right, and yet I still didn’t make it a priority to start reading any of her books. But after finding a used copy of Among Others at Barter Books a couple months ago it finally moved up my list, and boy am I happy it did.

 

This book is a joy. As Pat Rothfuss said of it, “This book is gently magical.” I like that. Gently magical. It really is a perfect description. The magic doesn’t overwhelm the narrative and it is something that always remains just beyond the understanding of those humans who attempt it. It works, but its repercussions and real-life effects are not always fully understood.

 

It is saturated with books, most of them SFF from the late 1970s and earlier, and the most influential book within the text is . . . you guessed it, The Lord of the Rings. And considering the role LotR plays within the text it should come as no surprise that the book itself manages to accomplish all the primary aims Tolkien elucidated for the genre of Fairy Story, in which this delightful book squarely resides. You see, while it’s a story of a girl in her early teens living in late 1970s Wales and England and the SFF books she loves and wrestles with, it’s also about a girl who sees and speaks with fairies and is willing to sacrifice everything to perform the magic they ask her to do—and through this magic to save the world. And yet, the whole story is told through journal entries. So the tragic event that shapes the whole narrative, and precedes the first journal entry by several months, isn’t actually explained until very near the end. While this format might turn some off, I found it captivating. Experiencing the wonder of books and the slow unfolding of magic in this girl’s life (in conjunction with all the other things you would expect in the journal of a 15 year-old girl) was like a stroll through unfamiliar country that bears striking similarities to familiar paths and places. It was a joy, which is as it should be. For the genre of Fairy Story should contain within it hints of joy that break in from beyond the walls of the world. It should bring about recovery, escape, and consolation. And it does! It most certainly does!

 

So, do yourself a favor and go read this one. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for good reason.

The Spider’s War

There’s a good chance this will prove to the best book I read all year. It’s a truly satisfying conclusion to one of the best series I’ve yet read. Big claims, I know, so hopefully I can offer some support for them:

The characters are well-drawn and absolutely convincing. They act consistently and believably, and that means even the characters you’re rooting for aren’t always likable, and the bad guys aren’t all bad. Which leads me to Geder. He is the perfect example of this. His actions are understandable, but he never comes across sympathetically. You’re never rooting for his success even when you understand how damaged he is and how badly he longs to belong. He’s a horrible man, but his relationship with Aster is tender and sweet. It is all the things you’d hope it would be, but Geder’s tenderness and affection for his ward don’t stop him from ordering some true atrocities (all while blaming others for “forcing him to do it” of course). He’s a petty man, small minded and proud, but he isn’t Sauron . . . he isn’t a dark lord with strictly malicious purposes (not that I have any problem with heroes battling against truly epic evil mind you). He isn’t some malevolent force that has lost all that was originally good in him. No, he’s human, just like all tyrants throughout our history, and that means he is equally capable of compassion, mercy, and monstrosity. Murder, butchery, and intense rage contrast with his deep and abiding love of and respect for his father. I’m sure Hitler felt tenderly toward his nearest and dearest, but that didn’t stop him from genocide. It doesn’t stop Geder either. And so evil as represented by Geder is an Augustinian evil–it is an evil characterized not by some intense substantive force, but rather by lack. It is evil as privatio boni, the privation of the good. In this, he parallels Sauron, only on a much smaller scale. He is capable of human-level evil, rather than angelic-level evil (or dragon-level evil to put it in the terms of The Dagger and the Coin). In a world where humanity (in all its races–and we’ll talk more about that in a moment) has risen from the ashes of a dragon-apocalypse to stand on its own two feet, it’s exactly the right depiction of evil, and it’s made even more fitting in the context of war and suffering which is portrayed so dramatically. 

Moving on . . .

Every time Marcus and Yardem are on the page together, I smile. The way they speak to each other is great. Like the best of friends who have worked together, travelled together, and survived countless difficulties together they know each others’ minds so well they don’t even need to speak in full sentences. Their abrupt, punchy dialogue is both delightful and unique. Where others might be long winded, these two speak only the words that must be spoken. Why say, “Yes, it is” when “Is” communicates the same thing? Love it!

The place of medieval banking as a primary story element in this epic fantasy series is amazing! Who would have thought banking would be both fascinating and powerful? Apparently Daniel Abraham would. Of course there’s political intrigue and war, but money is the driving force in these novels and the advancements in banking are integral to the advancement of the plot and of course to the story’s conclusion. Brilliantly done!

The world-building behind this series is magnificent. The conception of the different races forged by dragons from one original stock of humanity is executed perfectly. The differences are shown in the final volumes to be intentional (both on Abraham’s part and on the dragons’) and integral to the plot. The locales are varied and exciting without being extravagant, but they match the races who populate them. It’s a fascinating thought experiment to wonder how humanity would respond if we were essentially divided into 12 very different races or breeds (think humans as we know them side-by-side with humans fashioned in the likeness of dragons, or dogs, or otters . . . they’re all human, even when they’re covered in thick furry pelts or dragon scales). Of course there’s racism and prejudice, but there’s also a shared humanity that even such physiological differences cannot change. And this element of a united (even if not always friendly or beneficent) humanity is in stark contrast to the role of humanity under the rule of the dragons . . .

And don’t even get me started on Inys . . . 

Finally, the main threads of the series are tied off as only a master storyteller can accomplish, but that doesn’t mean Abraham ties off all the threads. He has left himself room to tell other stories (or even another series) within this world that will build on what’s already happened while introducing us to new characters and locales. I really hope he does it because I’m not ready to leave this world behind. I want more of it, and that’s a testament to the work Abraham has put into making this world feel intriguing and real. But even if he doesn’t revisit this world (and he has said in the comments of a post on his blog that he currently has no intentions of doing so), he has given us a masterfully crafted tale in five parts, each one better than the one before. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.