Holy crap… holy crap… holy crap, you guys, holy crap.
Okay, sorry. I swear I’ll try to make this as objective and non-fanboy-gushy as possible, but… holy crap.
I’ve probably made my views on Spider-Man pretty clear in the past. Though, honestly, I’m kind of surprised at some of the things I said last time I wrote on this topic. For one, I can’t believe I ever said that Amazing Spider-Man 2 was better than the first one. For two, I can’t believe I ever said it was good at all.
I certainly enjoyed it when I saw it, but my opinion of it has not improved in time. There’s a lot of reasons for that. This video does a great job of explaining its flaws. It’s not that it doesn’t good have moments. It’s that it doesn’t have many of them… and they’re overshadowed by the barely competent storytelling.
Given this, I can honestly say I wasn’t actually that interested in seeing Homecoming at first. We’d had a great run, Spidey and me, but it’d been three straight lackluster films since our peak. I’d started to wonder if we could ever rekindle that old flame.
And then I saw this. And thank goodness I did. (Side note: is it weird that Holland lip syncing to a Rhianna song did more to sell me on this movie than all the ad campaigns in the world?)
But even with my lowered expectations, objectively this movie was probably only good, not great. Jon Watts has directed only two other films, neither a big, summer blockbuster. While I’m definitely excited to see what he does from here, there’s still a learning curve to directing. For every scene that I liked, there was probably one that I thought was mishandled; for each shot that honestly gave me chills, another took me out of the movie.
The best comparison (that definitely won’t win me any new friends) for me is probably last February’s Get Out. Another movie by a very promising director, and a movie that excites me not so much for what it is, but for what I hope it represents, and how I hope it can be influential.
I’d started losing interest in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe around 2015, when Age of Ultron ended up being dumb and pointless. But what really killed it for me was Captain America: Civil War, which was almost all civility and basically no war. So much hype and so many promises that this would be the film that changed the MCU forever amounted to a 20-minute fistfight. We did see the dissolution of the Avengers… but only if you ignore that Cap gives Tony a special cell phone and promises help whenever it’s needed.
Kind of like how S.H.I.E.L.D. was totally dismantled at the end of Winter Soldier. Even though the Avengers still operate exactly like they did before this. Hell, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is even still airing, three years later (I think they did make major changes to the show so it makes sense, but I don’t watch).
At this point, the entire MCU has devolved into a… really violent version of Full House. It might occasionally feel like something major happened in the episode you’re watching, but if the status quo hasn’t returned by the end, it will before the next one starts.
On top of that, like a ’90s sitcom stretching into too many seasons, everything just feels so… tired. Every plot has a factory-line deadness to it. The dialogue, especially the humor, which once had a level of charm has been reduced to nuts-and-bolts writing. Set up. Punchline. Pause for laughter.
After Civil War, I couldn’t take it any more. I was done. I swore, I would never pay another dime to see a film in the bloated and wasteful MCU.
But sometimes, when you feel you’ve lost all hope, you gotta go back to where it all started.
Despite its flaws, one of the undeniable strengths of Homecoming is how refreshingly organic it all feels. There’s a genuine interest in telling this story, not just setting up future sequels. Better still, there’s no detached “We’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense” irony.
In one scene, just before attempting an impossibly difficult stunt, Spidey takes a moment to catch his breath, collect himself, and express his fear of dying. It’s such a small moment. And yet, it’s hard to believe how big impact it can have on the film.
If a character is never concerned with his own mortality, how can I possibly be? And if I never worry that he might fail, how can there ever be any stakes? Small moments like this make or break movies, even if we don’t consciously notice them while watching.
But beyond all of this, the single greatest part of Spider-Man: Homecoming is the Vulture. Not because he’s compelling or Michael Keaton gives a great performance. He is, and he does, but there’s a much more important reason: He’s relatable. A far cry from an irredeemable monster like Ultron or the brainwashed Winter Soldier, he has a (mostly) unselfish, understandable motivation. In different circumstances (and, well, if we lived in a universe were magic aliens existed), I could easily see myself becoming someone like him.
And that’s important for a number of reasons.
A friend of mine recently wrote a really thoughtful post skewering the thinking endemic to our society that encourages us to label people as “good” and “bad.” If you’re not on my side, the thinking goes, then you’re just an evil person. Therefore, I don’t need to understand how people can disagree with me. Why should I bother, when punching is better than talking?
On top of this, a culture is always, always entwined with the stories it tells. Our stories impact our culture. Our culture influences our stories. If all the notable stories we tell promote the idea that people we may see as enemies are soulless, interchangeable robots, what kind of culture does that create?
How can a country survive as it tears itself apart at the seams?
There have always been dumb action movies. There’s always been movies with overly simple views of the world. That hasn’t changed, and probably never will. What has changed is that now we’re told to take those movies seriously. Movies like this were once considered two hours of mindless escapism. Now they’re a lifestyle. We spend years anticipating the next big Marvel crossover. In the meantime, we gotta keep up with all the movies in-between (and don’t forget about their TV shows!). You don’t want to miss all the in-jokes and subtle references! Staying current with Marvel’s universe has become a full-time job.
In Spider-Man: Homecoming, I think, we finally have something worthy of our time and attention. It won’t change the world, or even the movie universe, on its own. But I hope it can be a start.
Because, seriously, I am done with the rest of the MCU.
Well, except for Blank Panther, obviously. That movie looks awesome. And I might as well go see Avengers: Infinity War. I mean, I’ve already invested this much time.
I’ve mentioned before that I teach at an online high school. Each year, my school has a number of graduation ceremonies (that number being 3), with a different speaker for each. This year I was very honored to be asked to deliver the commencement address at one of them. I felt that my speech is one of the best things I’ve written, so I decided it was worth sharing here, as well.
Also I’m kind of lazy and don’t like writing more than one thing per month.
Also also, if you want to watch me deliver the speech, you can do so here (start at around the 10-minute mark): https://livestream.com/dordtcollegewebcast/AlphaOmegaGraduation2017/videos/157039578. So far several people have told me I did a great job and one person told me I should take a speech course. Who’s right? You decide!
I’d like to start by saying congratulations to everyone in the class of 2017! Your accomplishment, which we celebrate today, is by no means a small one, either personally or as a cultural milestone. I hope you all get the chance today to enjoy this moment.
When our principal, Mr. Bakker, asked me to speak to the graduates at this ceremony, I was initially both honored and intimidated, and I wasn’t really sure what I had to say. I took some time to think it over, and I looked at some other graduation speeches. And I noticed a pattern: they usually began with a quote from a famous book or story, and ended with a charge to the graduates. And I think I found a way to work that to my own ends. But buckle up because we’re going to start in a bit of an odd place.
First the quote:
“Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute—I was all of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, precise as a chemist’s scales, as penetrating as a scalpel. And—think of it!—I only eighteen.”
While this may sound like something I found in one of my journal entries from my high school graduation, this actually comes from the short story “Love is a Fallacy” by Max Shulman. My guess is this may strike most people as an odd choice. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that, unless you read this story in your Short Story project your freshman year, or attended the online class I’ve taught on logical fallacies, you probably have never heard of the story or its author. If you did one or both of those, you may already be sick of both the story and its author. To anyone this describes, I apologize, but just a little.
Shulman’s story relates the plight of his narrator, who, as you can tell from the previous quote, fancies himself one of the great minds of his generation. At the start of the story, he’s determined that the only thing he needs in order to guarantee himself a successful future as a lawyer is the perfect wife. Someone who can be, as he says, “a proper hostess for [his] many mansions, [and] a suitable mother for [his] well-heeled children.”
As luck would have it, such a woman attends the narrator’s exact college, and just happens to be dating his roommate, Petey. Petey agrees to stop seeing Polly, the girl in question, in exchange for the narrator’s giving him a raccoon coat. The story takes place in the 1950s, and our characters inform us that raccoon coats had again become a massive fad. “Fads,” the narrator tells us, “are the very negation of reason.” I would submit that this is doubly true when the fad involves raccoons, but I suppose that’s personal preference.
With Petey out of the way, the narrator and Polly go on several casual dates. He gives her a course in logic, feeling he needs to make her more intelligent before she’ll be “worthy” of him. By the last scene, he’s deemed his task complete and asks Polly if she will “go steady” with him. But she refuses.
She had already agreed to go steady with Petey. He, at least, has a raccoon coat.
Again, it’s an odd story. Not particularly well-known, by an author who’s not particularly well-remembered. And yet, I chose it because it’s had a profound impact on my thinking. I still distinctly recall the day my older brother brought it home from school and read it to my family around the dinner table, and obviously it’s stuck with me through all these years. In part because it is quite useful for introducing the concept of logical fallacies—the narrator’s explanations to Polly on their dates are as humorous as they are helpful. But there’s another reason, I think, that the story has held such a significant place in my mind; a reason I sometimes wonder if Shulman even meant to incorporate.
“Love is a Fallacy.” That’s the title, and it’s obviously meant as a joke, in substance no different from the hundreds of other jokes hack comedians have told about love and marriage over the years. A character in a TV show I saw once said, “No creature would ever willingly make a fool of himself,” to which the other character replied “Obviously you’ve never been in love!” It’s tempting to view the title as merely a briefer form of this dialogue.
And yet, there’s something fundamentally true about that title, isn’t there? After all, love is a fallacy.
A fallacy, as we’re told in the story, is something that runs contrary to logic. And this certainly would be true of love. Logic says “I need to keep my eye out for what’s best for me.” Love says “I need to look out for what’s best for you.” Logic suggests we ask “What can I do to advance my own ends?” Love demands we ask “How can I serve you?”
We see the principle of illogical love at work in our everyday lives, as well. For example, there’s nothing logical about the way we see parents love their children every day. In many cases, the logical thing for parents to do would be to leave their children behind or to let them fend for themselves. And, indeed, we do see this at times across the animal kingdom. Groups of giraffes, for example, have been known to abandon their young if they can’t learn to walk fast enough. They have to. They have predators chasing them. It’s the logical thing to do.
Now, that’s not all animals, but it’s certainly more common in the animal kingdom than among humans, where you can find story after story of fathers, and especially mothers, ignoring all logic, risking their health, even their lives, for the sake of their children.
And then, of course, we have the Gospels, and the ultimate example of love that defies all human logic in the person of Jesus Christ. The logical thing for Him to do, from a human perspective, would have been to stand idly by, let us all condemn ourselves to Hell, not forsake His throne in Heaven, not subject himself to the pains, sufferings, and humiliations we read about, and, of course, not submit to death on the cross.
I imagine, in such a world, if we even had a Bible, John 3:16 would read a bit differently. Perhaps “For God so logically regarded the world that He gave not one iota of caring, that whosoever was born into it would have a miserable life and then enter into everlasting death.”
But thank God, literally, we know that “God is love,” and we know the verse reads quite differently.
Now to my promised charge.
When we started here today, I told you that high school graduation is a huge accomplishment, and it is. In many ways, it’s your first major milestone on the road to adulthood.
Many of you will soon be moving away from home, perhaps for the first time. Some going off to college, others out to the work force. And what you absolutely need to understand is that you are entering a world that is desperate and needy for this kind of love. Love that is self-denying, that is compassionate and unconditional. Love that is, in every way, a fallacy.
You’re entering a world where school shootings are no longer a surprise. Where we have averaged almost 15 per year, more than one every month, over the past ten years, just here in the United States.
A world where more people have taken anti-depressants than have not taken them, and where cries for help go answered less often, the more people there are around to hear.
You’re entering a world where torture and beheadings are recorded and played over and over again. Where executions and assassinations are admired and celebrated.
A world where reasoned discourse at times seems impossible to find, no matter the issue. Where people, of all ages, from all demographics, in all political parties, see those who dare disagree with them not as fellow humans, made in the image of God, but merely as enemies to be destroyed and ridiculed.
Where people gleefully join online hate mobs; where they make it their mission to hound and harass and abuse people they will never meet. Where they gloat at the downfall of these strangers, taking a sick pleasure in having played a role in dismantling a life.
This world, as the Apostle Paul tells us, is in “bondage to decay,” it “has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth,” needing the kind of self-sacrificing love shown to us by Christ. And, as you can see, this thirst, this insatiable need for that love is evident not just in the big events, or the places far away from the safety of home. It’s something we can see in every person, every day of our lives, no matter where we go.
This is the world you are now inheriting, and this is the world we all have created; and each of us has played a role in shaping it. But the good news is that each of us can also play a role in reshaping it.
When you encounter hatred, it’s natural to want to meet it in kind. In fact, I’d even say it’s logical to try to outdo the other person in aggression. “They deserved it!” is the refrain we hear so often from children excusing themselves for taking revenge on a person who wronged them.
But there’s a curious verse that’s particularly relevant in this regard. In Genesis 6, the Earth has become so corrupt that God has decided to start over again. He floods the Earth, with the only remnants of the human race being Noah and his family. And when the flood waters clear in chapter 8, and Noah has offered a sacrifice to the Lord, God says to him, “Never again will I curse that ground because of humans, for every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.”
If Shulman’s narrator had read that, I’m sure he’d inform Moses, the human author of this verse, that he was guilty of the fallacy “non-sequitur,” which literally means “it doesn’t follow.” Because the human heart is evil, God promises not to destroy us? There’s obviously something odd about the logic at work here. Our wickedness deserves destruction. Yet God, in His wisdom, knows if He delivered what we deserve, if we faced ultimate justice, it’d be the end of His creation. And because of that God promises not to give us what we deserve.
Once again, the wisdom and goodness, the love of God defy even the greatest human logic.
Brothers and sisters, it may be logical to seek to meet hatred with hatred. But let us never forget, we are called to live in a way that’s better than what is logical. And what’s more, we have the only thing that has ever reshaped this world for the better: Fallacious, self-sacrificing love. We have it demonstrated for us in Jesus the Christ, and, as John tells us in his letter, because of His love, we can show it to others.
Let’s look again at the quote from Shulman’s narrator. He uses some very specific terms to describe himself—“cool… calculating… perspicacious,” he describes himself in almost clinical terms. In fact, look at what he compares himself to: a dynamo, chemist’s scales, a scalpel—none of these qualities or comparisons are inherently bad. But there’s a distinct lack of humanity there.
And we see this in his pursuit of Polly, too. He loves her, or at least he insists that he does, but every action we see from him is so, well, so cool, and calculating. So logical. There’s no openness from him on their dates, no vulnerability or sacrifice in his attempts to woo her. She changes for him. He offers no such consideration.
Now compare that to the person of Jesus Christ, whose love goes so far beyond our understanding. Christ, who humbled himself so much, sacrificed so much, endured so much… And isn’t it fitting that, for all his planning and logic, the narrator lost his perfect woman. And Jesus Christ, by degrading and debasing himself, won not just a crown, not just the highest honors of heaven. But He won the Church, His perfect bride, and redeemed her with His very blood.
God made us logical creatures. He gave us a mind to use and logic to guide us. But before that and beyond that, He made us to show Christ’s love to the world.
May God grant us His all-sufficient grace to live out this love every day of our lives.
Graduates, let me again extend my sincere congratulations to you today on what you have achieved. And I’d again encourage each one of you to take some time today to celebrate this milestone. Because tomorrow, we have to get back to work. We’ve got an entire world to reshape, and plenty of work for each one of us to do.
I’d like to close now with the words of a praise song that has been particularly close to me for much of my life, and one I try to remind myself of frequently when I’m confronted with the world’s burdens.
I won’t sing it for you, because the last time I tried that there were no survivors. But the words are:
“We will work with each other, we will work side by side…
And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride,”
“And they’ll know we are Christians,” not by our voting record or political affiliation, not by our Twitter handle, the memes we post, or which email chains we forward to ten friends, but…
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
So, I’ve been finding it really hard to blog lately, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, exactly, that might be.
There’s a lot of little reasons, of course, but I think the one it comes down to is the way I write. I really have a hard time writing about something until I’ve thought it over a lot. I’m the only person I know who drafts the comments I write on other people’s Facebook posts. It’s actually one reason I hate reading my own writing; it always feels so labored and forced. I read other people’s blogs, and I’m sure they put, if anything, more work than I put into mine, but the end result just feels more natural, refreshing even. I wish I could write differently, but this is the way I know how, and the end result of all this is I have a very hard time just picking a topic and writing about it. Most topics I’ve written about are the ones that got stuck in my mind and I worked them over and thought about them until I felt confident enough to put something out there.
And, as of late, all of those topics are political. And this presents something of a problem for me.
It’s not that I think politics is not a topic worth writing about (obviously), and this isn’t even a promise that I won’t write about politics in the future. But my biggest problem, I think, comes from the unstated goal of this blog.
My very first post (so long ago now) was prompted by, and largely in response to, a comment thread on my Facebook wall in which two people argued back and forth about the merits of downfalls of Noah, a film that neither of them had seen.
And I decided then that I wanted to use this blog, such as it is, to oppose that sort of closed-mindedness. I didn’t have delusions of grandeur. I wasn’t out to change the world or reshape our cultural conversation. But even if I only got two readers, I’d hoped to use my posts, even in a small way, to promote thoughtfulness, reasoned (and reasonable) discourse. Dialogue.
And right now, when it comes to politics, I’ve just got so much anger. I’m starting to worry that I’m becoming what I’ve always hated. But even if that’s not true, even if every part of my anger is completely justified, what does that leave? If all I’ve got to contribute to this field is rage, I’ll keep it to myself. There’s already more than enough of that going around.
And so I’ve been thinking a lot about what (or if) to write, because every other topic felt so small, so insignificant right now.
But as I was thinking about how all these other topics, movies and TV and art and sports, “don’t matter” anymore, from nowhere a very powerful memory came back to me.
It was July, during my bachelor party weekend in Minneapolis, and we’d gone to the Jazz and Funk Fest to see Sly and the Family Stone. It was very warm, and I was quite drunk, and I’m shockingly ignorant about music history so all of the songs they played were more or less new to me. And then they paused to talk to the crowd before kicking off their set closer.
“I’ve been around forever,” the speaker said. “And this is the craziest election I’ve ever seen. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But one thing I do know…
“And so are you!”
And as they kept singing and repeated the chorus, everyone in the crowd began to sing along. Even I caught on eventually. And there was just this weird, unspoken bond in the crowd. It didn’t matter if you were Republican or Democrat, Making America Great Again© or With Her™, or throwing your vote away on a third party.
I’d never felt that connected with strangers. And never, before or since, had felt more assured that things would work out okay.
I don’t know why that memory came back to me or what prompted it, but it was like a cold splash of water to the face. It helped me remember something I’d always known. That these topics aren’t inherently frivolous. That anything that can connect us is worth celebrating and promoting.
And that is the main reason I, for one, herald the return of the NFL Draft tonight, with the start of the season soon to follow.
There’s so many divisions in the country right now. Don’t get me wrong, the issues are important, I would never say otherwise. Discussion and debate are necessary.
And at the same time, at the end of the day, we are just “everyday people.” “Sometimes [we] can be right and [we] can be wrong,” but “we got to live together.”
And anything that can make us feel united, even for a brief moment, is a good thing.
Which is why, I swear, if I see one more person try to politicize sports, I’mma smack ‘em.
I’mma do it.
Some days you sit down intending to write about education, and what comes out instead is a ramble about how a legal drama needs to be more like professional wrestling.
So I discovered this show called Suits recently, and by “discovered” I mean I pulled a Christopher Columbus and found something millions of people already knew about.
As is my wont when I get really into a show, I started researching it, mostly how well it’s been received. I’m only a little over two seasons in at this point (the fifth season just started airing) but I was really shocked to see that pretty much everybody else in the world thought the second season was significantly better than the first.
Even though I disagree with that opinion, once I thought about it a bit I can’t really pretend I don’t understand why. The storytelling in the first is a bit… shit, really. Even though the show’s Wikipedia page says it had 12 episodes, thinking back on it I can only remember… two. There’s the first episode, explaining how the two main characters came to work together, and then there’s the one where they win their case because a random side character makes a casual statement that leads to an epiphany and they form a brilliant argument that legally probably makes very little sense.
It wasn’t exactly wildly original storytelling is what I’m saying. But it didn’t need to
be. What made the show work was not its plots, but the dynamic between the characters. The first episode sold us on the idea of a snappy, wisecracking legal super team: Harvey, the experienced, jaded lawyer who makes a living knowing what you’re going to do before you know, and Mike, the rookie who still wants to save the world and makes up for his lack of experience with the fact that he’s memorized every court case in history. Both the characters and actors played off of and balanced each other perfectly, and the fact that they never lost worked in the show’s favor because it made you want to be them. They were the legal system’s Superman…s. Supermans.
Moving into the second season, the show ditched the first’s episodic formula in favor of slow-developing, overarching story lines, which in theory was probably a wise move. However, as a result of this, the legal team that’d spent the first season as the smartest guys in the room spent basically the entire second season two steps behind the new antagonists.
In a lot of ways, it’s not hard to see the logic behind this decision. The idea of creating some drama by throwing our heroes a loss or two is not a bad one on its own. What was a bad idea was to keep those losses coming, consistently, for an entire season, because this really hurt the show in two unintended ways.
First, Harvey became absolutely insufferable. Harvey’s basically every cocky lawyer
character you’ve seen on every TV show ever. His brazenness works in season one because it’s absolutely well founded and he backs it up by being the best lawyer in town. But as soon as season two makes it clear there are better lawyers, his swagger immediately goes from charmingly abrasive to regular abrasive. He becomes that guy at every college party bragging about how awesome he was in high school.
Second, it showed us that these guys were not Supermen, they were losers. And this really hurts the drama at the end of the season. In one of the last episodes, Harvey gets a lawsuit he needs to win to protect the future of his firm. As soon as this storyline was brought up, I was fed up with it. The writers had just spent the better part of a year convincing me that Harvey couldn’t win a case to save his life. Now suddenly I was supposed to believe he could win one to save his firm?
And this is where the show needed to take a page from the best booked stories in professional wrestling.
I’ve mentioned my love of professional wrestling before and I’ve caught flak for it in the past. I will freely admit the claim that it’s little more than a soap opera is fairly accurate. But I love it because when it’s well done, it tells the most basic story of a hero overcoming incredible odds better than any other medium I’m familiar with.
Because it’s scripted, and more show than sport, wrestling often gets unfairly stigmatized for its storytelling. But even though the stories are basic, making them compelling is more difficult than it might initially seem. Push a face too often or too hard and fans get tired of him winning all the time. That’s been John Cena’s problem for years since he’s been WWE’s top (sometimes only) babyface for a decade.
However, fail to book a face to look appropriately dominating and fans lose interest quickly. In the run up to WrestleMania 31, the WWE had a laundry list of booking problems, but their biggest by far was that their heel champion, Brock Lesnar, had been getting pushed in exciting, high-octane matches in which he would beat people within an inch of their lives, while Roman Reigns, the babyface and (alleged) contender was booked in slow, plodding matches that saw him struggle to beat second-tier opponents. No one cared about his shot at Lesnar, because, in storyline, Lesnar should have kicked Reigns’ teeth in from bell to bell. The writers never gave the fans a reason to care.
I still really enjoyed season two of Suits. Mike’s development was still very well done, and I had enough positive positive feelings about the characters
from season one to stay invested. Even so, I still can’t get over how much better it could have been had they “booked” Harvey appropriately; had they just gotten their WWE on a bit more. If I’m going to care about a character’s big case, first I have to believe he can win it. And by the same token, someone with the swagger of the Rock can’t back it up with the winning percentage of Dolph Ziggler.
“Anything worth saying is unsayable. That’s why we tell stories. Because life is too complicated to be explained any other way.” —Professor Peter Stine
Back in November, I said I was beginning a loosely-connected series of posts, which I didn’t follow up on until March, and I’m finally (sort of) wrapping up now, a month and a half later.
Three posts in six months. Slow and steady wins the race, right?
When I started, I acknowledged that I was beginning in a bit of an odd place, and, though I didn’t acknowledge it, I think I probably continued to an odd place, as well. In the English classes I teach, one of the concepts my fellow teachers and I try to drive home to our students is the “So what?” principle. If someone were to reader your thesis and their first question is “So what?” you probably need to choose a new thesis. So, if the thesis for my first two pieces was “These are two things I saw that didn’t tell very good stories,” I would agree that “so what?” would be an understandable response. So two stories were told poorly, why should anybody care?
Because, quite simply, the stories we tell (and the way we tell them) are very important.
And that’s a truth that’s been undermined in American society.
That sounds extreme, but I don’t mean it in the same way that, say, a Fox News anchor would say Obama is undermining our freedoms. I don’t think anyone is actively trying to make people believe that story doesn’t matter. But as a culture, we’ve largely forgotten the idea that it does, and are resistant to considering this idea.
Consider a few statistics. 90 million US citizens, 30% of the population, currently are functionally illiterate. That makes up almost one in every three people that you meet.
Similarly, in order to be considered an “avid reader,” a person only needs to read two books in a year. On average that comes down to roughly 30 minutes a week. Is there any other hobby that this would be true of? No gym is designed for someone who might log 26 hours in it over the course of a year. TV shows don’t need to fight over viewers who can only make time for one of them every other week.
But that’s the market that any writer is forced to target.
This is especially important, because the written medium can be especially influential. Reading a story, unlike nearly any other activity, causes you to enter into the mind of another person, to see the world from his or her perspective. However, stories can influence us through a number of media. Even though reading is influential by its very nature, other media, such as film, can be influential through the use of powerful images or music, and compelling characters and conflicts.
And as a counter example to all that, take this year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that is blatantly, aggressively uninterested in telling a story.
To put it succinctly, the central conflict of Age of Ultron is caused by Tony Stark messing with powers he’s too arrogant to realize are beyond him. He creates the main villain by putting a super A.I. in a robot body. And then he defeats the main villain by… putting a super A.I. in a robot body.
What, exactly, is meant to be accomplish in that? From a storytelling perspective? A character perspective? A thematic perspective? As someone much quippier than I has already quipped, what has Stark learned except to push the “NOT a genocidal monster” button this time around? For that matter, does any character in this film have anything approaching an arc? What does this film have to offer to our cultural conversation beyond robots and punching?
Not a damn thing. And God help us if we don’t love it for that. We love it so much that it’s the highest-grossing movie in the country this year, and one of the best reviewed to boot. It’s a bit uncommon to see critics and audiences agree. It’s a bit unsettling to see them agree on this.
By buying this schlock again and again, as a culture we’re telling our story tellers that this is all we want. That we don’t need to see characters struggle or learn anything. We don’t need growth. All we need are explosions and one-liners.
This matters. This isn’t me trying to be smarter than a comic book movie. I love silly comic book movies. But we need stories, even the silly ones, to take risks. To challenge their characters, and consequently their audience. To pose bold questions that don’t have pat answers. To push us to consider a viewpoint other than our own.
Humans need stories. If we didn’t, why would they be such an important part of every culture in written history? And stories impact people. If that weren’t the case, why did Uncle Tom’s Cabin inspire the Civil War? The proof is all throughout history. Cultures are always reflected in and defined by the stories they tell.
But the truth of this should be even more obvious when approached from a Christian perspective. Any number of examples could be used here, but quite possibly the most noteworthy comes from the story of David and Bathsheba. After David has impregnated Bathsheba, had her husband murdered, and taken her as his wife, he receives a visit from the prophet Nathan, who’s been sent to convict David of his sin. Reading the chapter, the natural expectation is for Nathan to lay the holy judgment of God on David’s head, which he does… but in an unexpected way. Instead of a sermon a la Jonathan Edwards, what we get is a story about sheep.
And yet, that story drives Nathan’s point home far more effectively than any argument, threat, or curse ever could. Just as Stowe did with her story, or Harper Lee and Mark Twain in theirs. Or even contemporary writers like Collins and Green, whose impact on culture has been undeniable in the short term.
This may seem far removed from where I started, with video game nerds in high school and, well, video game nerds in virtual reality. But I finished watching those series shortly after hearing Gary Schmidt deliver an explanation of the importance of story, and the three topics became intertwined in my mind. As he showed, stories need to be told, and they deserve to be told well.
And if there’s any doubt left as to the importance of story, I think one of Schmidt’s anecdotes can lay it to rest. He recently was asked to lead a writing workshop for teens in Michigan, and was warned before beginning that one of the kids had recently lost his father, who had taken his own life. During the workshop, Schmidt noticed this kid writing with more fire and passion than anyone in the room.
He was writing a story about a boy, who was lost and alone. He was looking for his father, but his father had disappeared. Everywhere he went, the boy was surrounded by monsters, “the Uglies,” and he didn’t know what to do or where to go.
But everything was going to be all right. Because his father had left him a magic sword. All he had to do was find it, and he could make all the monsters go away.
And I’m just going to let that thought hang there. Because I have no way to follow that up.
Imagine a world where people who play massive, multiplayer online games don’t just sit at their computer eating Cheetos and guzzling Mountain Dew Code Red, but enter into the mind of their character, guiding his every action because technology is magic. Also, because watching a bunch of nerds play World of Warcraft for hours isn’t particularly compelling, they’re unable to logout until they beat the last boss in this game and (because technology is magic) if they die in the game, they die in real life.
Welcome to the first 20 or so minutes of the Japanese anime Sword Art Online, and to this point in the series I was very intrigued. Our hero had a Herculean task to perform, our villain, the man who trapped all the players in the MMO, had some unique motivations to explain, and the adventure had the potential to raise some interesting questions about life, reality, and most of all relationships.
So, if you’re the creator of this show, what do you do next?
If you thought the obvious answer was “skip around, not really telling most of this story and keeping the focus solidly on the everyday routines of the characters while barely showing any clips of the actual adventure and halfway through, just screw it all and move the characters to a new world in which death has no consequences and there are no stakes. Ooh ooh! And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of the established, interesting villain, having him fade away into nothing with no explanation as to who he was, why he would do this, or how he was able to do this, instead replacing him with the anime version of Snidely Whiplash” well… You must actually be the creator of this show.
The sudden shift in narrative, only halfway into the show’s first season, is one of the biggest letdowns I’ve experienced in terms of storytelling. This story had potential, and it felt clear after the first episode that the creators were onto something that could be very compelling. And then, for no clear reason, they just stopped telling that story and replaced it with a show where we watch nerds play World of Warcraft for hours. But while this didn’t manage to be compelling at all, it was enough fun that I could say it was not the worst decision the show’s creators made.
The worst decision the show’s creators made was making the main character a classic Gary Stu. He’s the best MMO player in the world and no one else is worthy to go on quests with him. He achieves a god-like status almost instantly, to the point that by the fourth episode he wins a fight by standing still while seven other players wail on him until they realize they aren’t doing any damage and just give up. By the time he does lose a fight, 10 episodes in, the only conclusion you can come to as a viewer is that his opponent cheated… which turns out to be true.
Oh, and there’s also the fact that every girl in the show falls in love with him. That’s not an exaggeration, even the girl who thinks of him as her big brother, and who he says reminds him of his sister (who’s actually his cousin) falls in love with him. Oh, and also his cousin falls in love with him. Okay, as a loyal and devoted friend, I’m obligated not to object to that. From a moral standpoint. But from a storytelling standpoint? Even in a world where people can get locked inside of a video game thanks to absurd pseudoscience, this strained my suspension of disbelief and, worse yet, makes for a very uninteresting story.
That said, it’s not as though this show is unlikable. More than anything else, the love story that develops between the two main characters is enough to make you keep watching, and this really became the core of the show. These two characters have never actually met, but, through risking their lives together again and again, come to mean a lot to each other. But at the same time they have to deal with the fact that if they even make it back to the real world, they already have established lives and relationships there. Trying to incorporate a new person into those lives… gets messy. And of course there’s the ever-present question if the experiences they are sharing actually mean anything, since none of them are technically “real.” It’s a surprisingly complex idea and completely belies the simplicity of other parts of the story. On top of that it’s very well paced and the main characters are very likable.
And, most importantly, unlike the show’s main arc, the creators actually told the love story they set out to tell in the beginning.
I come back to this because, well, every aspect of this show comes back to this simple disappointment for me. Anything else that can be said about this show, positive or negative, is all wrapped up in this one, big “What if?” What if the creators had not changed the setting of this show? What if they had stuck to their original plan? How much more interesting could the story have been? How much more compelling would it be if there were more tangible stakes?
My big complaint about VGHS was that it didn’t have a clear idea of what story it wanted to tell, but that’s not the case with SAO. It had a very clear idea of what its story would be, but, for whatever reason, decided to tell a less compelling version instead.
Maybe they thought could they could save money by adopting a simpler animation style. Maybe less ambitious stories are just inherently easier to tell. But whatever the reason, it took what should have been a fun, intriguing idea and made it thoroughly unsatisfying.
The creators had a clear idea of the story they wanted to tell. But if you want to tell a great story, that’s not enough. If you want to tell a great story, you have to actually tell it.
If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you’re going to do tomorrow, amirite?
I mean, it was almost three months ago now that I made my first post in what I planned to be a series that would be very important to me. A post which I immediately followed up with yet another piece on Nebraska football, and then not blogging for over two months.
And now that I’m making time for it… yeah, I’mma blog about a movie instead.
Don’t worry, nameless, loosely-intertwined series. I’ll come back to you one day. And I’m sure the 17 people who read your first post will love you just the same. But right now, I gotta strike while the iron is… already a week old.
Someday I’ll figure this “blogging” thing out.
Since the first Matrix made them superstars, the Wachowskis have been doomed to ever decreasing returns on their efforts. Cloud Atlas gave them by far their most critical success in six years, sitting at a mediocre 66% with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, and even that seems to be just a blip in the ever-descending spiral of their careers, careers that could be in jeopardy now. Their latest film, Jupiter Ascending, has been reviled by critics and audiences alike and finished a distant third at the box office on its opening, February weekend, behind American Sniper, which was in its fourth week in theatres. It seems entirely possible Jupiter has brought the siblings’ careers to a shuttering, pathetic end.
And the saddest part about all of this is that Jupiter Ascending is one of their best films to date.
In fact, watching it, I kept comparing it, favorably, to two other sci-fi epics from last year, which critics and fans fell all over themselves to heap praise on: Snowpiercer and Guardians of the Galaxy. I talked about both of these in an early post and I liked them both a lot. But they both had critical flaws that keep me from completely endorsing them. And these films’ flaws are areas where Jupiter was exceptional.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a ton of fun, Indiana Jones in space, and yet somehow sillier than that implies. But for all that, it failed to be truly compelling as a film, notably in comparison to the real Indiana Jones, because we know so little of substance of the film’s universe that we can never truly understand what’s at stake. We know little about the culture or society the heroes end up defending, and nothing about the society of the villain or his motivations. How do we know he’s evil, just because he’s a jerk? What makes the Nova Empire worth defending, and why does Ronan want to destroy it in the first place?
On top of that, there’s this weird, almost Dragon Ball Z-like idea of power at work in Guardians‘ universe. Take, for example, Drax (top) and Ronan (bottom). Based on their respective physiques, if these two ever got in a fight they should be on a roughly even playing field. If anything, Drax should actually be the stronger of the two, and yet when they fight in the movie Ronan no-sells several unblocked shots from Drax before casually tossing him aside. More notably, when each tries to wield the
ultimate Macguffin of ultimate power infinity stone, Ronan is able to do control its power with ease, while none of the Guardians can, and even their joint effort as a group is barely enough to hold the stone for a few seconds.
Is this because they’re different species? Is Ronan a demigod? Maybe Dave Bautista kept pulling his punches like it was WWE? We never get any sort of explanation. For all we know, it’s because Ronan picks his nose and eats it more often. When the rules of a universe are never established, how can anything that happens in that universe properly have any weight?
Jupiter Ascending serves as an excellent counterpoint to this, because it consistently makes the stakes clear. In part this is certainly due to the Wachowski’s decision to make Earth, rather than some other, made-up planet, the target of the film’s villain, but the truth is the annihilation of Earth never seems that threatening. It’s definitely part of the film, and a part that matters, but, as with all good journeys, the real focus is almost always our heroine’s (self-)discovery. Even though we don’t see much of it, we know a lot of the society the film introduces us to and, aside from a few scientific advances that feel more at home in the world of Harry Potter than serious sci-fi, it makes sense. It seems like something that humans could make, given the time and access to resources.
Probably most refreshing, though, is the lack of any unclear classification of “power.” There’s no need to break out a scouter or scream about power levels being over 9 (or 8) thousand! The beings who hold power in this universe do so through a combination of divine right and having a lot of money. You may recognize this as the same two ways most people throughout human history have both gotten and kept their power. This, to me, was the capstone to a very well-built universe, and what made the entire society feel very organic, especially compared to the poorly defined universe we visit in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Snowpiercer, too, serves as a great example of a film that establishes its universe very well, though I’m sure it helps if your universe is only as large as a train. Where it didn’t do so well was in its message. I’ve said this before, but this really felt like a movie that wanted to say something grand, but just kind of… didn’t. For all of its high concepts and trendy topics, it never seemed to be able to get past the blatantly obvious. “Class warfare is bad. Done.”
On the other hand, Jupiter Ascending was the opposite in nearly every important way. It was advertised as a decidedly nine o’clock movie, but actually ended up having some interesting themes and creative ways of expressing them. The ideas Jupiter Ascending has to share aren’t shockingly original, but they’re well done. And they feel surprisingly relevant. I’m hesitant to go into too much more detail to avoid revealing major plot points, but I will say in a lot of ways it reminded me of In Time, although In Time was another high concept movie that failed to develop its concept in any meaningful way. So it’s In Time: But Done Well This Time, with Channing Tatum replacing Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis filling in for Amanda Seyfried. Upgrades all around, as far as I’m concerned.
Simply put, Jupiter Ascending definitely had its share of flaws, but has enough strengths to rival even the best science fiction films of the past few years. It deserves better treatment than it’s gotten and is being unfairly dismissed by critics simply because it has a plot that demands more than half your brain and maybe another viewing or two.
I’m still trying to figure out why that’s a bad thing.