Finding Jesus in Wonder Woman

You may be thinking, “What does a Greek-based, pantheon-touting, superhero film have to do with Jesus?” And that would be a fair thought. But there is something to the idea of taking every thought captive and submitting it to Christ. And, really, if we want to help our kids, they need to learn to see God’s Big Story wherever they can. Sure, there are going to be some cultural moments that are born entirely from the muck and mire with little or nothing to redeem them, but these are rarer than we think. Take Wonder Woman, DCs latest film endeavor, for instance.

The following paragraphs contain spoilers galore, so continue at your own peril.

The story involves the child of a god who is sent into the world of “man” in order to provide a positive answer to the problem of evil and suffering at the hands of an enemy. The world doesn’t deserve this hero, but this hero must find a way to defeat the enemy, even at great cost to that hero. Sound familiar? It should.

Diana learns over the course of the film that she is a child of Zeus, who embued her with the ability to defeat the enemy of the Olympian gods and humanity – Ares, the god of war. Ares’ motivation is to prove just how evil humanity is, not by outright forcing people to make war or initiate cruelty, but by whispering ideas, inspirations, encouragements toward greater acts of violence. Before Diana leaves Themiscyra, her mother states outright, “Mankind doesn’t deserve you.” And, to all intents and purposes, her mother is right.

Diana encounters the effects of war on both soldiers and civilians and becomes indignant. She puts herself at risk multiple times in order to break the siege of a still-inhabited village. WWI still stands as one of the more gruesome and terrible wars of history, due to the clash of old and new warfare that no party involved knew how to handle, and those dark realities shock Diana. Diana discovers that her “team” is a group of outsiders, liars, murderers, smugglers, and thieves who use their skills to help her reach her destination.

Near the climax of the film, when Ares’ identity has been revealed, Diana finds herself reeling upon discovering that Ares’ hasn’t forced humanity into fighting, but has just encouraged their inner darkness. Diana up to this point has believed firmly in the inherent goodness of humanity, but her faith is shaken. One conversation with Steve has him saying, “We need you, Diana. No, we don’t deserve you, but we can save millions of people if you stay.” Diana ends up losing the man she loves as he sacrifices himself to destroy a weapon that could annihilate London. Diana defeats Ares in a rather flashy showdown that ends with some intense lightning bolts being thrown about – but seeing as Diana is Zeus’s daughter, lightning isn’t much of a problem.

This movie lends itself well to finding God’s Big Story. Jesus is God’s son, sent to a world that didn’t deserve him, on a mission to defeat an enemy that works through deception, lies, and whispers. Jesus, like Diana, is concerned with the plight of humanity, the poor, the oppressed, the outsiders, even his enemies. True humanity, as God created it, is inherently good – but that humanity has been corrupted by violence and selfishness, but Jesus’ work frees humanity from the slavery to and oppression of sin and death. And like the climactic scene in Wonder Woman, the moment the hero seems completely overpowered is the moment the victory is won which bring Jesus’ crucifixion and Resurrection to mind.

In so many ways I have praised this movie for its triumphs. I also understand it isn’t a perfect movie either, and have chided it for a few issues here or there. But the overarching plot does resonate with Jesus’ story. And, really, we should be looking for God’s Big Story in whatever we see. We spend so much time and energy looking for the negative, the evil, and the critical – why not spend that time and energy looking for whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable?

How can you help train your kids to find Jesus’ story in the media you view? What questions can you ask to help your child think critically about what they are watching, reading, or playing?

Wonder Woman: “More than we deserve”

I finally saw Wonder Woman. Gathering my thoughts on this one might take a little while, so join me on a journey of discovery as we sort things out together. (Please don’t leave, that last sentence was a rhetorical device – I mean, I’m not a DC movie, after all.)

Cheap jokes aside, DC has finally crafted a solid film that keeps pace, maintains a consistent logic, gives characters fair amounts of screen time, and tends to favor the underdog in a way the previous DC films have been less than eager to. Wonder Woman contains good writing, great acting, and a diversity of cast that makes for a depth of world that has been missing in previous films.

So let’s start with the obvious – this is a female led production directed by Patty Jenkins, and acted by Gal Gidot. Both shine in their respective roles, taking risks by showing vulnerability and strength in just the right ratios to create realistic characters, while managing to lean into the inherent campiness of the superhero genre for the first time in a DC movie. (Suicide Squad doesn’t count, it lacked the joy that I think campiness should bring.) The first twenty minutes, at least, are entirely centered on women – of all ages and colors. The women are shown in multiple roles: from teachers, to warriors, to queens, to senators, to homemakers, and beyond. In such a short amount of time, Jenkins manages to truly show off the gamut of women’s roles – in a society run and inhabited by only women. (Can I just note, cynically, that it seems a little sad to need an island populated entirely by women in order to show off that diversity? I’m looking at you nearly every other major film.) Gal Gidot proves herself an immensely skilled actor being able to portray power and naivety in a way that holds both in tension but never drops either in favor of the other.

Which brings me to the writing. Diana’s (aka Wonder Woman) character faces the moral dilemma of choosing to see the good in humanity or to focus on the darkness in humanity’s heart. Diana’s eternal optimism and desire to save as many as possible is a rare treat in a DC film where destruction has been prioritized over the whole “superheroes are supposed to save people” idea. Diana is entirely focused on protecting the innocent lives caught up in the brutal realities of the WWI Western Front’s “meat grinder.” (You can thank Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast for that description.) Diana has several wonderful moments where she has the opportunity to speak out and call those in authority out on their selfishness, their privilege, and misuse of power. She is also the least sexualized superheroine currently in film. Her attractiveness may be part of the package, but it certainly has little to do with her character – she is first and foremost a woman on a mission.

As far as plot goes, my wife and I were both a little on the disappointed side that many of the major plot points seemed lifted directly from Captain America: The First Avenger. There were some truly unique moments though including Diana’s charge through no man’s land, Diana exploring her powers for the first time, and Diana’s relationship with her mother and aunt. There was an interesting twist involving several characters and actors as to who the real villain was – and I was pleasantly thrown off.

I had few real issues with this film. One, the shaky camera trend probably needs to go away for a few years and then come back as a piece of film vocabulary for when things really are chaotic in a character’s perspective. There was a couple of character details that seemed like they should have gone somewhere, but were left dangling. One, in particular, involved the Scottish character, Charlie, and his ability to perform on the battlefield which was mentioned once and then never showed up again.

One moment still has me scratching my head. In one scene near the end, a large explosion goes off near two main characters and the sound goes dead as if the characters’ have been temporarily deafened. We can’t hear what either character is saying very well, but a few minutes later the character recalls what was said in perfect clarity. So my question is, were we, as the audience, “deafened” by the explosion or were the characters? If the audience was, why bring up the conversation again? If the character was, how did they then recall it perfectly later? I do realize, that if this is my biggest complaint with the film, it did most everything else very well.

Ok, for the troublesome stuff. Cursing was kept to a minimum. I think I only heard a few at most – and seeing as the setting was World War I, it seemed rather mild. There are some nasty wounds shown and scenes of war where Diana finds herself faced with the horror of war and its effects on the soldiers and civilians, for example a shot that includes a soldier lying on the battlefield crying in pain and missing half of a leg. There are some scenes of drinking, in a pub, and after a victory, but again it feels more like setting the scene than glorifying the drinking. As far as sexual content, there are some awkward exchanges between Diana and Steve (the main love interest) but nothing is shown past a kiss. The bisexual nature of the Amazons is also more of subtext and allusion rather than stated out right. I can only think of two very short moments where it even arose. If you are not keen on violence, then maybe reconsider going to see a film set in WWI – otherwise the violence is pretty acrobatic and relatively bloodless.

The soundtrack is appropriate, but didn’t really stand out to me. The only track that sticks out is the current Wonder Woman theme that, as my wife pointed out, uses an electric cello to achieve its unique sound.

So I guess the real question is, would I take my daughter to see this movie? Well, technically, I did – she’s still in my wife’s tummy. Yes. When my daughter hits the preteen age, I think I would like her to see a movie that includes a strong, non-sexualized, vulnerable, opinionated, capable, intelligent woman as its lead character. DC finally pulled out a good film that has a character that I wouldn’t mind my daughter looking up to.

Filling In Plotholes: Beauty and the Beast (2017) Review

The 1991 animated classic Beauty and the Beast is arguably one of the best movies Disney ever made. The songs and story are strong enough to lend themselves to a Broadway interpretation as well as a new live-action adaptation released this week. My wife and I went to the Thursday night showing, because we just couldn’t wait until “opening night.”

Full disclosure: my wife and I love the original. In fact, we loved it so much that we inadvertently played Belle and Beast in two separate productions of the musical in towns on opposite ends of our state the same year. So we have spent a good amount of time with the story and songs of both the movie and stage production. Even after being surrounded by it for months at a time and with over a hundred views between the two of us of the animated version, it is safe to say we still love this movie.

Going into the viewing, we were interested to see the changes and what the director and art designers had come up with for each of our characters. Looking at stills, I can say I wasn’t a huge fan of the art design when it came to the characters like Lumiere and Cogsworth, but they grew on me and I began to accept the new art style as a unique take on the characters. I did miss some of the original voice cast, but due to age or death, we could not have all of them back.

Right out of the gate, this movie drips with amazing costume design and a gorgeous orchestral soundtrack. The costume reflect the period of French history that the story would have taken place, and the references to historical events such as wars and plagues give the world a stronger pull of reality than the animated version. My wife and I were floored at the attention to detail of both the set design and costuming that both paid homage to the familiar look of the animated film, while creating a solid, more realistic world for these characters to inhabit. The opening narration and score brought chills again, but with added visuals that created a greater sense of urgency than the stained-glass approach.

I have to give it to the writers this time around: they listened.¬†Beauty and the Beast has been a whipping boy for unanswered questions in a film since it was released. I cannot tell you how many videos and articles I have read jokingly teasing the 1991 film for the amount of details that were glossed over that would have allowed for a more compelling story. In this retelling, we discover what happened to Belle’s mother, learn about Beast’s family life, why the villagers seem to have no idea about the gigantic castle not so very far away, and even why the servants were implicated in the curse as well. It felt at times as if the writers were cleverly nodding and winking when these details were given.

Speaking of writing, every character gets an upgraded story that makes them more relate-able, especially LeFou and the Beast. The Beast’s banter with Belle creates a much more believable relationship, while LeFou is given some genuine challenges and complex moral choices. Overall, I was happy that each character was given a fair shake and their characters fleshed out with their dialogue and choices as well¬†literally being “fleshed out” by this being live action. The Beast is also much less terrifying and “beast-like” in this version, coming across much more like a wounded person than animalistic. (That said, the wolves have gotten an upgrade in intensity, so do be wary of that.) Each character has the ability to make choices, or has made choices in the past that affect the plot. It is refreshing when every character has agency, especially the female characters (Belle, Mrs. Potts, even the wardrobe and village women.) Belle is especially bold in this version, shedding whatever demure qualities she had in the animated film for a more confrontational nature that does get her into trouble – receiving some direct abuse from the villagers for teaching a young girl to read. (I was also very impressed at the fairness given to the Catholic, I assume, priest. For one, the priest is black – hooray! And second, the priest is the one villager who seems to respect and support Belle and her father. I was a little disappointed he disappeared near the end of the film, but I did not spot him in the angry mob, except to try and stop Maurice’s capture.)

This film is much less about fate and magic than it is about facing the choices and the consequences that follow. Some characters make truly heartbreaking decisions, and the weight of those decisions shape the overall mood of the story. And, honestly, this aspect makes this movie a must-see. Children need to be shown that they always have a choice, and those choices often have consequences that can’t be fully realized. I was truly encouraged by the way this film handled it’s message about choice without using the sledgehammer to beat the audience.

Ok, I’ve put it off as long as possible. I know you’re here for my take on the “controversy.” I will tell you, though, that you’re going to feel silly about all the outrage. LeFou isn’t really “gay” unless you really picture him that way. Otherwise, he’s just a bullied man who has a heart that shows as he struggles with the choices placed in front of him. The “crossdressing” scene is done completely for laughs, one of the tough brutes being tossed into a dress and preening to the camera for a second. And, really, it felt like the “bros” you know who have done the cheerleading for mock homecoming powder puff games who prance and preen as a joke. It’s not offensive, unless you’re looking for it. And lastly, I missed the guy couple dancing. It may have 2-3 frames at the most, because I blinked and heard my wife say, “There it is!” I watched this movie with an eye toward the controversy and came out chuckling to myself at how overworked everyone had gotten.

So, I give this movie a 9.5/10. I know I don’t usually give ratings like that. But I need you to know how highly I feel about this film. I still love the original, but this adaptation is so darn near perfect that I have to give it a high score. Understand that there is so much I didn’t discuss in this review: the well-composed new songs, the combining of animated, Broadway, and original fairy tale sources to create a unique experience, and the added humor and one-liners. Go see this film. Take your family. If you need to, preview the film, and then have the joy of being able to see this film twice!