Comments on… Avengers and Age of Ultron

Continuing my MCU commentary…

The first two Avengers movies offer an interesting dichotomy in success and, well, not failure, but perhaps lackluster achievement.

Both are penned and directed by nerd-culture aristocrat Joss Whedon. Whedon has great skill as a writer, able to craft great characters and deploy them in fireworks of dialogue. He’s created some of my favorite media in Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-blog. However, he’s also devoted to a set of principles and values which are, by-and-large, anathema to me – atheism, moral relativism, gender flattening.

This dichotomy is on wide display in his MCU outings. The first has a razor-focus on the story, dealing with simple yet deep themes of working together and self-sacrifice. The second is a thematic mess, watchable only by dent of Whedon’s craft and the dynamite performances of the cast.

The Avengers — Unity Forged in Sacrifice

While I can’t say Avengers reaches transcendent heights like Winter Soldier, it does what it does with consummate perfection. The first two sequences, The Other outlining the invasion plan and Loki’s assault on SHIELD, sets up the challenge perfectly. From there it’s a series of scenes bringing together the team, Loki offering a near catastrophic obstacle, and the final coming together moment to defeat the bad guy.

The whole movie is about this team of misfits learning to work together. Each has their own obstacle from Rogers’ unfamiliarity with this new world, Banner’s fear of his own power, Thor’s disdain of mere mortals, Fury and Romanov’s “don’t trust anyone” flippancy, and Stark’s all consuming selfishness and pride. They are a microcosm of Loki’s whole plan, of proving to humanity they are worthless and leaving them in their own individual pits of despair. The 2nd act attack on the Helicarrier succeeds in aggravating the team’s dysfunction and physically separating many of the members.

Let’s be sure to recognize what ultimately brings the team together and forges them into the defenders of the planet – the recognition of the Common Good and sacrifice for it.

The death of Agent Phil Coulson is the catalyst. The scene between Stark and Rogers after his death is incredibly poignant. Rogers recognizes a soldier’s sacrifice, the offering of one’s life for the sake of the Common Good. Stark is terrified of doing so, even belittling the man’s act and declaring “we aren’t soldiers.” For all his words, though, the act shakes Stark to his core, and as soon as he’s uncovered Loki’s plan, he’s prepared to follow in Agent Coulson’s footsteps, even to the point of death. It inspires the whole team.

I’m oversimplifying, but it’s the simplicity of Whedon’s film that’s it’s genius. He’s not exploring a lot of deep or controversial themes. The real meat of the movie is the way sacrifice can bind people together, even, perhaps especially, heroes. Everything is about this and the streamlining makes the movie absolutely perfect.

Age of Ultron — Palatable Nihilism

Let me state: I like Age of Ultron. James Spader, even with a questionable script, is always fun. The action set pieces are great. I like the redemptive arc of the Maximoff twins. I adore Banner and Romanov’s troubled and frustrated romance. The sequence in Clint “Hawkeye” Barton’s hidden farm home is all sorts of humanizing awesomeness. There’s so many great pieces, that I watch it fondly every time. Those who consider it a complete mess and a wreck are only half-right.

The thing is, all these pieces never contribute to some higher theme. There’s no symphony of character and action towards which all the parts are leading. It’s just a bunch of really awesome characters doing astounding things that end up stopping a megalomaniacal robot from destroying the world.

While a number of contributing factors could have brought this about — corporate meddling and an overly large cast being the most obvious examples — I think a lot of the blame can be laid at Whedon’s feet. There’s clear signs he was grasping for a high concept to unite everything together, but if that concept is nothing but smoke, it fails.

And palatable nihilism is nothing but smoke.

The relation of two characters really highlight this. The megalomaniacal Ultron is an agent of repulsive nietzscheanism, one who has found humanity to be lacking in meaning and purpose and thus will become, in his own pridefully violent fashion, the agent of meaning and purpose. They will either survive and evolve his extinction level event, or not.

Vision, created from parts of Ultron and parts of Stark’s helpful AI-butler Jarvis, stands in a kind of opposed agreement to Ultron. His own creation leaves him without any substantive answers to life’s questions and he seems to embrace this. In the final dialogue with Ultron, he says humans are weird for looking for order, and perhaps they absurdly short existence, but that’s the beauty of them. It’s a privilege to be among them, he says.

“You are hopelessly naive,” responds Ultron. I can’t say I disagree.

These themes are just kind of floating there. Ultron is spouting them left and right, peppering them with biblically apocalyptic language, but everyone seems to just ignore him and focus on the problem at hand — defeating the murder-bot. The only one who actually engages him agrees with him, but gives it a nice, comforting veneer.

Unifying themes are all about meaning. You can’t have nihilism, the denial of meaning, be that unifying theme. At least not in a film you want to be fulfilling. Those works which try to deny meaning do so by either embracing absurdity or refusing to reach a fulfilling ending – Watchmen doesn’t end well and the story knows it and smiles at your discomfort. Whedon doesn’t want to leave you uncomfortable, though, so he can’t push it more than he does. But that leaves the other parts of the film without a core to forge themselves around.

But like I said, the film’s not a complete failure. The other parts are great and I always enjoy watching the movie, but this lack of unity ultimately keeps it from being more than a simplistic, if enjoyable, action film.

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Comments on… The genius that is Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I’m reviewing the old MCU films in preparations for Infinity War. The Star Wars fiasco of this past Christmas has me very concerned for my favorite franchise’s future (you’ve killed Star Wars for me Disney, don’t do in the MCU for me!). But even if the worst happens, it can’t take away the genius of what’s come before. I’ve watched a few and have some thoughts to come, but this afternoon’s viewing demanded this reflection.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is where the superhero film transcends itself. Prior to the Russo Brother’s entrance to the MCU, we had seen the hopes of the genre proved. Let’s list them off quickly:

  • Iron Man proved that a superhero movie outside Spider-Man and X-Men could actually be successful.
  • Incredible Hulk proved failed potential franchises could be righted.
  • Thor proved, falteringly, that the crazy side of the genre could work.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger proved the spirit of the Golden Age was still very much alive.
  • Avengers proved the team-up film could not only function, but do so wildly well.

Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, it must be admitted, made one wonder if we’d reached the pinnacle and were just milking the leftovers of the prior films.

Then we got Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s a superhero film full of ostentatious action and over-the-top set pieces fused with a spy thriller questioning the extent of government reach and trust of authority. But it’s even more. It embraces the opposing extremes of Golden Age Black-and-White morality funny books with post-Iron Age Shades-of-Gray relativism while, wonder of wonders, confidently denouncing nihilism. It gives a slam-bang, explosion filled, beat-up-the-bad-guy tale animated with the beating heart of redeeming a broken human soul.

God, I love this movie.

I want to talk about two of the above three. Recognizing Winter Soldier to be a spy film is old hat by now, and I think it hides the real aspects which help the film move into transcendent heights.

It starts with the way it embraces the tension of morality. Comic books have, historically, a chequered moral past. In the Golden Age, when the funny books first came out, they were extensions of penny dreadfuls — overly simplistic morality tales with bright colored pictures depicting the action. I’m of a piece with Chesterton in my opinions of such stories — Better that a young boy be questionably fired with fantasies of righting wrongs, than be emasculated by moral relativity for the sake of so-called “peace”.

However, in the attempts to “grow up” in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, much of the morality tale beginnings were chucked and overturned. It began innocently enough, with desires for greater social awareness forcing superheroes to see the “challenges” of their line of thinking. Guys like Alan Moore, perhaps unintentionally, tore apart the optimism of earlier ages in works like Watchmen, and by the time of the 90s, anti-heroes were the order of the day.

Winter Soldier, in Steve “‘Captain America” Rogers’ confrontation with the contemporary world, grabs both ends of this moral scale and crashes them together. Rogers is the embodiment of the Golden Age, an optimism about doing the right thing and always believing “to the end of the line” in the goodness of the human soul. Some might cite the man’s use of force as a strike against this, but that’s part of Rogers’ whole package. He can fight and even kill because he recognizes a higher good. This isn’t some “greater good” Orwellian nonsense, but the solid, down-to-earth Common Good of a people. Every time he throws his shield he knows it’s in defense of real, flesh-and-blood folk.

This is made all the more apparent when he’s confronted with those who’ve given in to a morally gray outlook. Nick Fury and Natasha “Black Widow” Romanov are compromised from the very beginning of the film. Natasha is “comfortable with everything” and so has become just a tool for a utopian ideology. Fury embodies that ideology, willing to put a gun to the world’s head to keep it safe, enslaved to fear so it can be “free”. Both are swiftly consumed by their own actions. Fury, for all his utopian ideology, is shown by the end of the film to have only been a pawn for those with a darker, though still parallel goal. Hydra recognizes Fury is demanding the world give up its freedom for the sake of “freedom” and just rips off the mask he’s tricked himself is a real face.

Fury and Natasha don’t come out of the film looking heroic, though they make amends for their faults. In the end, they’ve both lost their place in the world – both are now just spies without a flag. But let’s be honest, most of us sympathize with them. Most of us are moderns who believe in moral compromising for the sake of some perceived moral good. It’s the genius of the film in letting you have that sympathy while putting before you a model which shines with the luminosity of unalloyed truth. Steve may gently wag a finger at the two, but his real response to their own cynicism is just doing the good.

Which is where redemption is found. Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes is the face of Hydra’s goal. He’s been made a tool for the organization, not just by manipulation like Natasha, but by brainwashing. He’s a creature of perfect order, following every one of his superiors’ commands to their violent end. Really, lacking that freedom by which a man does good, he’s no longer fully human.

But he once was and Rogers knows he still can be. There’s a great flashback in the middle of the film. It’s the 1940s and Steve’s parents have just died. Bucky meets him on the way home and invites him to come live with him and his family. Steve says he fine and he can make it on his own. Bucky just responds “sure, but that’s the thing. You don’t have to. I’m with you ‘til the end of the line.” It’s a moment which humanizes the future Captain America, showing a moment where he could have turned in on himself but another helped him to keep from that solipsistic despair.

And that’s where the movie is driving towards. The climax of Winter Soldier isn’t the end of Hydra’s plans. That’s only the eye-candy. The real climax is Rogers offering Bucky the same exit out of solipsism, of breaking out of the despair Hydra’s forced him into.

Note, it’s not a completed act.

This is where Winter Soldier really transcends on a level of craft. It doesn’t go for the quick, Bucky “finds the light” ending, but the tougher and incomplete beginning, just cracking his shell. By the time of Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios knows it’s no longer making just a sequence of interchangeable films, the same characters going through the same adventure with different accents like the 007 movies. It’s actually serializing storytelling, so it allows plots to remain dangling, or better put, to only hint at the promises of future completion.

The Russo Brothers are the perfect pair to pull it off. Their prior work on TV, and I highlight especially Arrested Development in an odd fashion, revealed a penchant for setting up this kind of serialization. While often comedic, setting up a joke which will pay off in a few episodes, they’ve successfully transferred those skills to the drama of superheroes, and we see the redemption of Bucky Barnes given this opening into the future. It isn’t just tied up nicely with a bow, but is respected as the long work it’ll be.

Still, getting back to how the film is thematically transcendent, it all starts here with a moment of grace. Christian grace (or “Chris”-tian grace, if I may be a tad blasphemous…).

Steve Rogers is a model of all that was great about the Golden Age, but the Golden Age is over. We now live in a world in the ruins of that time, our morality compromised as we seek to overcome greater and greater dangers by any means we think is right. The worst of it has left us brainwashed and lost without meaning — everything Bucky is.

We can’t go back. We have to create something new from the ashes. Rogers knows that, so he doesn’t demand we just become little robotic models of him. Instead, he joins us in the ashes of our self-destruction — “I’m with you ‘till the end of the line” — and gives us a light forward. Bucky isn’t argued into his beginning arc of redemption, he isn’t shown the error of his ways. He instead is shown a friend who will even die at his very blows for the sake of saving his lost soul.

And Rogers is plunged into the water, recalling his own 60+ year sleep in frozen water. And, if I may say so, hinting at signs of baptism. Rogers is a Christ-figure, one coming from a better time to save us from our own. That he needs others to aid him, well, types are only shadows of the fulfilment they point to.

Upshot to all this: Captain America: Winter Soldier is genius. And if anyone says superheroes aren’t a properly Christian past time, you show them this move.

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Some Comments on… The Inherent Ambiguity of Narratives

When it comes to narratives, whether in movies, books, comics, or any media, my major questions when reflecting upon it concerns how this or that narrative manifests the true, good, and beautiful. More specifically, I’m concerned about how a narrative influences culture in this or that direction.

A few comments on some things I’ve watched and read in the past few months:

Stranger Things 2:

  • Depictions of the preternatural as malicious and violent
  • Recognizing the importance of friendship and place
  • Mocking, even degradation, of parental authority, governmental authority
  • Importance of masculine protection and guidance
  • Dangers of abused masculine power
  • Refusal of vengeance in favor of moral action

Moana:

  • Importance of history and traditions
  • Glorification of following one’s “heart” (Feelings? Conscience? Voice in the head?)
  • Embracing of exciting rootlessness over a boring sense of place
  • Pantheistic views of the divine
  • Recognition of one’s nature and living in conformity to it

Green Lantern: Rebirth (by Geoff Johns)

  • Affirming inherent goodness of heroes
  • Willpower as a source of heroism
  • Willingness to sacrifice for the good
  • Respect of one’s past, ideals instilled by one’s forefathers
  • The corrupting influence of constant skepticism

On the surface, these these comment imply these narratives are mixed bags. The thing is, I like all three of them. Moana is cute and endearing and fun (and has a singing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – I was sold from the get-go). Stranger Things is thrilling and full of great characters. Green Lantern: Rebirth is heroic, well drawn (the awesome Ethan van Sciver), and just bursting with love for the Green Lantern mythos. Still, the themes they embody aren’t all perfect.

This can be seen in some of my Comments on Thor: Ragnarok. I really enjoyed the movie, even with my distaste for its overabundance of comedy and bathos. It also includes a mixture of themes I consider good and wholesome (heroism as self-sacrifice, devotion to one’s father) along with themes I consider questionable or even pernicious (putting “the comedic” over “the noble”).

These themes are not difficult to find, but when crafted well they gain a sort of ambiguity. The themes are the themes. They are not given a moral quality separate from themselves. Thus the well-crafted story does not propose a theme and then affirm or denounce it.

This doesn’t, though, mean that it’s “left up to the reader” to determine the morality of the theme. Rather, the theme’s inherent ambiguity allows it to propose itself to a deeper and more personal locus in the individual imbibing it. One does not question the theme, but experiences it.

What truly defines the morality of the narrative, of the experience, is the depth of that experience. This is influenced, firstly, by our desires to see our “own” morality affirmed or denied. Secondly, it is influenced by the ways the narrative is embedded in given contexts.

Frozen’s “Let It Go” is a phenomenal example of this. A well crafted tune and pretty animated sequence, it pulls its listener and viewer into the experience of the character – the experience of hiding one’s feeling, of feeling chained into a predetermined role, and the feeling of release in finally “Letting go” and just “being yourself” and switching out one’s discomfort for sass.

The ambiguity of the song allows for a number of interpretations when we bring it up to the reflective level. As many know, it’s become something of an anthem for the LGBT community – no longer being bound by the dominant cultural mores and learning to accept and love one’s own desires and sense of self. It can also be a feminist cri de coeur, embracing womanhood in the face of patriarchal oppression. One also sees a few Christian pastors using it to talk about embracing wholeheartedly, radically, and publicly one’s love for Christ.

These ideas are crap. Yeah, I’ve got problems with “Let it Go”. Take it up with me later.

These interpretations are limited. Firstly, it’s limited by the readings of those who experience it – LGBT activists and feminists and hipster “Christians”. This turns the narrative into what many call “message fiction” and is a marker of wanting to deny the inherent ambiguity in good narrative.

Secondly, this interpretation is limited by seeing the song on its own. I’d make an argument that placed in the whole of the movie, the anthem of personal liberation in “Let It Go” is ultimately corrected, perhaps even rejected, when Elsa realizes she has to live up to her societal responsibilities and place – her personal liberation must occur within those systems she regarded originally as oppressive.

Is my own “interpretation” just doing what the original interpretation did? I’d contend it doesn’t, because it leaves intact the ambiguity. It doesn’t say “what it is”, but instead seeks out the deeper experience of the struggle in the film. One isn’t just limited to “Let it Go” as a model of the film, but rather “Let it Go” becomes only a part of the whole experience, an experience which, perhaps, demands one question if “Let it Go” is really the crux of the film.

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(Affective) Comments on… An ancient homily for Holy Saturday

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”

-From an ancient homily for Holy Saturday (Office of Readings for Holy Saturday from LOTH)

I like talking about morality and culture, but it’s the mysticism of the Church, the claims it makes about human dignity in the eyes of God, the straight up audacity of the Christian message which most captures me.

“I who am life itself am now one with you… now I make [the cherubim] worship you as God.”

Christ has done so much more than offer us ethical norms and comfort. The whole categories of are blown apart by Him. You see this in something like the High Priestly Prayer of John 17. He prays to His Father, saying:

“The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”

In this heady language, Christ is making clear that what he brings us isn’t just a model of morality or a comfy ride to heaven. It’s a sharing in divine life, oneness, unity, with divinity. We become who he is. In this is love.

This was such a profound truth for the Saints that many would give up all comfort to attain it — the madness of a St. Antony isn’t a hatred of the “evil” world, but a love for God which made the world and all it contained seem, well, banal. How could one be happy with a nine to five, with a house in suburbs, with frivolities and such, when the very plenitude of divinity says “I make you me.”

The Easter Triduum, if we don’t hide behind stripped down platitudes, demands you look this truth in the face.

In Maundy Thursday we celebrate the gift of the Eucharist. The very beginning of these holy days is Christ giving His Body and Blood. In Good Friday, the full ramification of this gift is made clear, as we stand in silence before a love that would have life itself die upon the gibbet. And in Easter Sunday we exult in the gift of Eternal Life, in resurrection. In He who has trampled death by death, the very promise of our own resurrection is ratified. “You shall be as I am,” he says to us.

I have a special love for Holy Saturday, though. Between the horror of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday, it is the day pregnant with the mystery. The tomb is still closed, the Lord is not yet resurrected. The Church abides like a mother awaiting the birth of a child, left only to contemplate the unknown that is growing within her.

Christ’s descent into a hell is a descent into our very soul, the soul of the Church. He became man to die, to be with us in our greatest and darkest hour and there, in the very substance of despair… And there he shakes the very foundations and shouts “Not even here do I leave you!” Death itself cannot hold Him and neither will He let it hold us! He brings hope – death is not only overcome, but made an accessory of salvation! Christ proudly bears the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory, and draws all men to Himself!

Hell is harrowed and so are we. He and we shall be reborn, arising from the tomb, arising from hell, that place of sin. He not only washes us, but as the deluge destroyed and renewed the world in Noah’s day, so he destroys the old soul and we too are reborn in the Church. We become Children of God.

“For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.” All so He could say: “I who am life itself am now one with you.”

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Some Comments on… Paul

I saw Paul, Apostle of Christ during Holy Week. I’m torn on commenting on the movie, mostly because I left a theater with so many talking about how inspiring it was. I left ready to put the movie on the Index and call for an auto-da-fé for it’s makers. There are two major concerns I have with the film – one theological, specifically in what the movie lacked, and the other on it’s craft, which is a fallout of eschewing symbolism. Let’s talk about craft first.

Christianity without Symbolism is not Christianity

While theatre has a long history of being didactic – an emphasis on the spoken word can do that – film has brought to the fore the power of symbolism in theatre. Now I’m not saying there is no symbolism in stage theatre, but the emphasis on the visual, on the sensual, makes film an especially powerful vehicle for symbolism. Symbolism is all about some sensual object revealing or manifesting meaning – being a signpost at its weakest, or a sacrament at its strongest.

Christianity, prior to Protestantism, was all about symbolism. Judaism swam in it – gardens and cities, shepherds and lambs, mountains and temples – Christ’s teaching is resplendent with it, and Paul, John, and Peter preach it. From the early Church through the Middle Ages, symbolism was both a didactic tool and the primary method of Christian worship and life. One need only participate in a well celebrated Catholic Mass with eyes wide open to see it.

Protestantism (of the Low Church variety) changed all that with radical readings of “No graven images” leading to suspicion of anything we took in with our eyes.

And that seems to be the point of view of Paul. There’s not even a cross in the film.

There are two shots which could be considered packed with Christian symbolism – the baptism of Paul with water as death and refreshment; and a wall of light soon-to-be martyrs walk into – but these are the weakest form of symbols. They are simply signs or metaphors to realities “we can’t show”; symbol as crutch for the ineffable, rather than a bridge to the ineffable.

In fact, highly symbolic shots are mostly given to the pagans – images of billowing incense and bloody sacrifices offered to statues of gods or a graven face with light flowing from its eyes. These three or four shots are given without words. They make palpable the frustrated appeals to the seemingly divine, the sense of being alone in a world where the gods don’t care about you. They confront the uncaring transcendence of dying paganism and scream into that darkness. It’s haunting.

But among the Christians, meaning seems to be an unimportant affair. Their lives seem to be nothing more than following the teachings of this great man Jesus (often through gritted teeth). Life seems to lack any meaning save doing good things until you die, after which you live happily.

Symbolism, you see, is how meaning is made manifest in our life and how we actually participate in meaning. A birthday cake signifies another year lived and consuming it celebrates in that. Fireworks represent victory, and firing them and watching them makes it real. For Christians, all of creation is a symbol, brought into existence by the Father’s Word, redeemed by the Son’s sacrifice, and sanctified by the Spirit’s presence. Christ makes this clear in his very incarnation and life among us. We partake of this by looking, listening, bowing, standing, submerging, oiling, consuming… The sacramental life is Christ reclaiming the symbolism of all creation, reclaiming it to make it a bridge to His life.

Film, perhaps more than any other medium, is capable of making this truth about reality manifest to us. That a Christian moves seemingly eschews this is a travesty.

Christian, do you worship Christ?

I can’t remember a single point in the film where Jesus is declared God and Lord – though others say it happened once, maybe twice. The Christian community performs no act of worship (beyond holding hands and saying the Our Father “at the darkest hour”). The leaders of the Roman Christian community, Aquila and Priscilla, are remarkable for their charitable activity, but rarely, if ever, speak of Christ as anything more than a model of morality.

Perhaps most damning to me is the movie’s treatment of martyrdom. Read any account of the martyrs – Stephen, Lawrence, Polycarp, Ignatius, Perpetua and Felicitas, – and one will recognize that martyrdom is a form of worship, of uniting with the sufferings of Christ. This belief is so radical that the martyrs are often described as embracing their sufferings, even seeking and desiring them. It is not some “all will be well” heaven they seek, but to share in the life of Christ, even His pains. Polycarp’s hagiography and Ignatius’ letters even make an equivalent of their death’s with the Eucharistic offering. Polycarp, in the flames, takes on the appearance and scent of baking bread. Ignatius foresees his feeding to lions as being like wheat ground to make bread. Bread, of course, is the species which is consecrated into the Body and Blood of Christ – they sacrifice is an act of worship, of becoming the Eucharist.

The Paul of the Epistles even boasts in his sufferings (not only his weakness), for that is Christ alive in him.

In the film, martyrs are simply those persecuted for their faith. Any aspect of suffering is meant to be stoically ignored. Luke, when called upon to prepare the martyrs for death, minimizes the suffering they are about to endure and reminds them that they will soon be in the kingdom. What he says is not untrue (though the suffering of the Roman games wasn’t a short, quick thing), but it pales before the reality of what Christian martyrdom is. He seems to not recognize the importance of Christ’s suffering and death at the center of Christian life.

This is made even more a mockery when the only people to be martyred are random extras. Aquila, Priscilla, and Luke are saved from death. Among the main cast, only Paul is killed in the end, and he really does experience “only a moment” of pain before he’s in the comfort of heaven. Christ is not found in suffering, the movie seems to say.

I never get a sense that the Paul, Luke, and other Christians of the movie worship Christ. I get a sense they worship niceness and comfort and see Christ as the, sometimes paradoxical, means to that worship.

So Tomas, you grumpy heresy-hunter, is it really that bad?

Let’s say you’re not as over-educated as me, that you aren’t looking for all these problems. Let’s say you liked the film, that you feel it was inspiring to your faith. Is there anything wrong with it?

Perhaps not. Perhaps it is a fine preambula fidei, a way in which someone may be inspired to take their faith more seriously. Perhaps we are so cocooned in the comfort of the 21st century that being confronted with even the glimmer of real persecution will wake us up. That’s a good end. I don’t belittle that.

However, if this movie is taken as a manifestation of real Christianity, that it actually purports to reveal its depths, that’s a problem. It seems to fail in making real the value of Christ’s incarnation (in it’s eschewing of Christian symbolism) and dilutes the faith to a doctrine of kindness and pacifism.

If you liked the film, I’m not condemning you. Though, at the risk of sounding prideful, I would recommend you to seek more and better nourishment. Spend some more time with the scriptures, with the lives of the early Church, with the symbolism of 2000 years of Christian art, music, and literature. Watch or rewatch Gibson’s Passion and compare it to Paul.

Paul, given the most charitable of readings, is only a child’s scribbled ideas of Christianity. Those scribbled ideas are true, to an extent, and may fill one with giddy joy at how comforting they are. But they are not the nourishment one needs to be prepared for Eternal Life.

And yes, art in all forms can contribute to that nourishment. We’ll talk about that one later.

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Comments on Black Panther

I’m off Facebook, Twitter, and Social Media for Lent, and the foreseeable future. They continue to exist, mostly as a place to share these occasional writings. Comments would best be left here or sent to me directly.

I’ve rarely been struck by a superhero film like this. At multiple points watching Black Panther, I found my emotions stirring and could feel my eyes tearing up. Moments in the Captain America films came close, but they still lacked what this movie had in spades.

I don’t want to minimize the racial importance of the film, but as someone who has no personal experience the struggles of American and worldwide Black culture, most of those concerns do not strike me so profoundly. Killmonger does a good job of embodying the righteous anger, tragically devolving into hateful wrath, of a widely oppressed people, but it will only have its greatest effect on those who are personally feeling the struggle. A weakness of the film is in just giving Killmonger this motivation and not seeing him develop into it, and so those like me who do not have the experiential material to easily fill that in are not able to feel it as profoundly.

Devotion to Wakanda, to the Nation

Instead, what really struck me, was the emphasis on self-sacrifice for the community, of recognizing it as a greater good than oneself, and laying down one’s life in service to it. Okoye’s call of “Wakanda Forever!” rings with a truth and honesty that is rarely experienced today. To cry “For the the Republic!” or “For America!” always has a taste of either selfish propaganda or irony.

Now, Wakanda is an idealized setting in the film. We see no inner corruption or struggle (though it would have made the third act all that much stronger). It is assumed that it’s people live in society where technology, infrastructure, bureaucracy, economics, politics and spirituality are carefully structured so as to bring about peace. There is even a strong martial culture which fosters devotion to the throne in its defense of Wakanda’s welfare.

But this isn’t a movie about the corruption of a nation, of dealing with the inner rot. Wakanda is. Period. No qualifier needed. This may make it boring to some, but it allows the nation to be just that. It is the greater-than-I which drives the heroes to their acts. It is a movie about patriotic-piety.

The Virtue of Patriotic-Piety

Patriotism, in traditional virtue ethics, is a species of piety. It is devotion to and respect for one’s fatherland. Our glimpses of Wakandan spirituality are tied up in the ritual around the kingship of Wakanda – ritual combat is constitutive of inheriting the throne, the powers of the Wakandan king (the Black Panther) are granted him by the gift of a goddess, taking the throne entails a mystical experience with one’s ancestors. And the king, of course, is devoted wholeheartedly to Wakanda, to the nation. He is the tangible servant and even icon of the nation.

Wakanda is, again and again, made the greater-than-I which the heroes must serve, an almost divine thing. Thus they practice true piety in sacrificing for it.

Wakanda’s (Wo)Men for All Seasons

Two women, beyond T’Challa himself, come to mind. His sister Shuri and Okoye.

Shuri is the comedic center of the film. It thankfully sidesteps the bathos the other films have leaned on, but she still offers a comedy which humanizes the stoic T’Challa. Little sisters are the same the world over.

However, when the demands of patriotic-piety come to her, she stands up to take them on. She gives herself to prayer, to the struggle for her nation’s heart, and even arms up and puts herself in danger for it. Her comedic personality, which will good-naturedly cut down and humanize T’Challa, bows before the seriousness of this matter. She’s no Rocket Raccoon (of Guardians of the Galaxy) or Korg (of Thor: Ragnarok) that finds the joke by uncutting the moment.

But this living out of piety truly finds its greatest model in Okoye, of “Wakanda Forever!” fame. When confronted with the choice of devotion to a dead king or devotion to Wakanda, now under the leadership of a villain, she elects, painfully, to stay devoted to Wakanda. She is not an ideologue or one who demands to serve only the pure, but is one who serves the community, the nation. It is a Man for All Seasons moment, and only the tropes of superhero movies keeps her from that same end.

Realities, not Ideas

It is important to realize that this greater-than-I is something real and tangible for the heroes. It is Wakanda, this people, this nation. It is these ancestors, these who came before us. It is not some idea – there is no abstract freedom or justice that guides them. The movie even helps this by having a few shots of T’Challa and his entourage among the people of Wakanda. This is what they serve. It is what T’Challa has, in a matter, already died to – becoming Black Panther involves a very real burial and travel to the spirit world.

The importance is made all the more visceral in Killmonger’s tragedy. He has been broken by the horror of the world – of watching his fellows of African descent oppressed throughout the other nations. This has made him a devotee of liberation and of justice, but only as ideas. He speaks of a Wakandan Empire, but he cares not for Wakanda. He subjugates Wakanda and it’s might to an idea. Justice and freedom are goods, but separate their incarnation in a time and place, in a people, they become tyrants. So Killmonger plans to become a tyrant for the sake of justice and freedom.

Wakanda and the World

Perhaps there is a wrinkle in my emphasis. Perhaps I’m ignoring the final developments of T’Challa – the rejection of the errors of his ancestors and the opening of Wakanda to the world.

The rejection of his ancestor’s error, especially that of his father, is by no means a rejection of the ancestors or of Wakanda. If anything, it is a recognition that the ancestors, in their errors, have failed Wakanda. He recognizes that he must serve Wakanda, not some abstract idea of separation-from-the-world.

The world has moved on – the strict protectionism of the past is no longer an option for Wakanda. The choice before them is whether to subjugate the other powers of the world – the path outlined by W’Kabi – or to use the might and power of Wakanda to aid and uplift the world – the path outlined by Nakia. In Killmonger, we see where W’Kabi’s path will end up. In T’Challa’s ultimate decision, we see the fruition of Nakia’s.

But it is still devotion to Wakanda – Wakanda as subjugator on the one hand, or Wakanda as peace-maker on the other. Anyone can guess which wins out.

Some Caveats on the Film

It’s not perfect. The real pathos it could have achieved is cut-down by the business model of needing characters to survive. Seeing a real sacrifice-to-the-death would have strengthened the film immensely – Okoye being a prime candidate as Thomas More to Killmonger’s Henry VIII.

Further, Wakanda could have been made stronger if we saw more development of it’s own people. Getting to know some of the other tribal leaders beyond their visuals would have been nice. Further, by the end of the film, there’re traitors among them and getting to see them as more than idea mouthpieces would have been great, and gave real weight to the final civil war struggle in the third act.

And while Killmonger is probably the strongest of Marvel movie villains, he’s not yet the Joker, Bane, or Ra’s the Marvel films are looking for. He has all the right motivations – a twisted righteous cause – but his scheme is only sketched out and plays second-fiddle to T’Challa’s personal struggles. He doesn’t become the kind of existential threat Batman faces in the Joker, or Daredevil does in the Kingpin, or Kilgrave becomes for Jessica Jones. Closer, but still far off.

Still, as I think I’ve made clear, the movie’s great.

Some Caveats on my Thoughts

My praise of the film’s devotion to the nation, dare I say, the state, may terrify some. My Catholic brethren, especially, may worry I’ve been drinking too much Alt-Right Kool-aid.

Firstly, patriotism, a species of piety, is an especially human virtue. That we’ve sought to throttle it in favor of ideas – freedom, justice – does both damage to those ideas and to our own humanity.

Secondly, it’s a breath of fresh air to see a movie expounding a path out of nihilism and relativism that isn’t individualism. Most attempts to deny our culture’s lack of idealistic aims is some species of nietzscheanism – either of the darker “overcome all barriers” form or the kindlier “follow your heart” sort. Ever since the Revolutions, we’ve given up, at least explicitly, on the old path of self-sacrifice for the greater-than-I – self-sacrifice for family, nation, and God.

Black Panther is by no means a full-throated return to such, but it’s possibly the closest thing that has come to it in popular entertainment. It is unabashed in it’s devotion to family and nation. Even devotion to God, in the deformity of paganism and ancestor-worship, is just below the surface.

For that, it should be celebrated.

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Liberty and the common life

This here is probably why I have more difficulties with my fellow right-wingers than leftists. It’s also probably why right-wingers tend to unite around the lowest-common-denominator issue of “Everything is going to hell.”

Just Thomism

One of the dominant Enlightenment notions of liberty is whatever the law leaves undetermined, which is why Hobbes takes it as axiomatic that the greatest liberty of the citizen is the silence of the law.  This was in accord with the older sense of the term liberty which was what we now call free time, i.e. we were “at liberty” in that domain where nothing was scheduled or required for persons to do together.

This division of life into law and liberty was thus the same sort of division that schools or monasteries make into [class time/ structured time] vs. [recreation/ free periods]. The crucial point is that the free period is always contextualized: it’s not as if the monks can use recreation time to open strip clubs or recruit for Scientology, and students are continually trying to negotiate and expand just how much they are allowed to do during…

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