“We have a saying, my people. Don’t kill if you can wound, don’t wound if you can subdue, don’t subdue if you can pacify, and don’t raise your hand at all until you’ve first extended it.”
~Wonder Woman, written by Gail Simone
A few weeks ago, some of our family from New England came to visit. There were three children in our (small) house, as well as several adults, and it was noisy in the way that family visits are. For an introvert such as myself, it’s a bit nerve-wracking at times, but still…it was good being around family that we hadn’t seen in person since last summer.
The day that they left, they backed out of our driveway early in the morning, pulled slowly to the end of our cul-de-sac, and began their journey home. I walked to the end of our house and into our daughter’s room, which has the best view, and watched them drive away. I was thinking about how remarkably quiet the house was now. Too quiet at times. While it was soothing to my introverted nerves, I still missed our visitors.
That was three weeks ago. To say that things have taken an unexpected turn in those three weeks would be the definition of understatement.
Karen and I have been aching to return to New England for some time, especially now that the New Year’s addition to our family means that we have outgrown this house. We didn’t expect that to happen so…unexpectedly. An unexpected phone call resulted in an unexpected phone interview, which resulted in an unexpected trip to Boston to meet a team that resulted in an unexpected job offer. It felt so good being back in Boston, if even for a day, and now that will be a much more permanent state of affairs.
We’re moving in just three weeks.
With moving, of course, comes carefully orchestrated chaos as planning and organizing, phone calls and paperwork become interspersed with the day-to-day complexity of life. Things become progressively more…interesting…as more and more items become packed into boxes. No matter how well one plans, there will still always be that moment when you say of something that you need, “Where I did I put…oh, it’s packed.”
Karen and I have moved multiple times in the last few years. This will be our third major move up (or down) the East coast in just four years. While I am eagerly looking forward to this new part of our adventure, I find myself doing what I always do when we move.
Now, this isn’t the overly nostalgic sort of remembrance to which I was (all too) prone for a bit, but rather a learned focus on recollecting the good things that happened during the phase of your journey that is ending.
When Karen and I moved (quite abruptly) to take care of this house, I felt as though I screeched to a halt. I had been moving at a breakneck pace since finishing school, and now found myself without a job to go to. This made time for unexpected things. We had been watching the Harry Potter movies before our move (I had never seen them, and Karen rightfully took it upon herself to remedy that tragic situation), and we had quiet evenings to finish them. I had time to pause and learn new technologies for my profession. Because we made several stops during that move and consolidated items that had been left behind at parents’ houses since we were married (or, in some cases, since we had left home for undergrad), we now had all of our stuff under one roof for the first time. I spent several evenings going through old comic books and novels that I hadn’t seen in years. While there was pressure involved (I was essentially beginning what would become two years of earning a living as a freelancer and contractor), it was relaxing for those first few weeks.
Of course, life became incredibly hectic again, and I had the opportunity for some really fantastic professional achievements here. There were several moments of renovating this house that I will hold quite fondly in my memory. We had the chance to frequently visit some of our closest friends from before we moved to New England the first time, and I am so very grateful for all of these opportunities.
I am more than ready to leave the South. As things become more quiet, though, I have more of a chance to remember. The contradiction of moving is that, while many things begin to move at a frantic pace, others slow down paradoxically. There is a huge importance, I think, to making space for the spiritual discipline of remembering these good times, these positive events. While I become less tolerant of moving as I get older, I find that these moments of reflection are gifts that only seem to occur as markers in these sorts of occasions.
For everything that has frustrated me here, there has been so much good, as well. I am grateful for every moment, as well as for every unexpected turn that our adventure together has taken, and for the family that we’ve become as we’ve embraced them together.
Moving forward is frantic, but there are tiny moments of quiet involved. Those moments hold beauty when you listen.
Of the challenges that I’ve encountered during my life, being a parent is by far the most difficult.
I don’t mean for that to sound as though I’m some wise, ancient guru or something. Certainly I’m not, as anyone who knows me well will happily attest. Still, I have had some experience at life, and, relatively speaking, I haven’t encountered an experience as difficult as parenting.
I also am not writing from the perspective of the things that you generally think of when you think of parenting challenges. No, diapers, cuts and scrapes, temper tantrums, cleaning up after projectile…sickness…all are inherently challenging in their own right, but I’m referring to something more…well, more metaphysical than that.
There’s an angst, for me at least, that comes with knowing that there are two small human lives for which I am responsible. This is angst born of the desire to somehow protect them from harm, to keep away that which would do them wrong at all cost to myself, as impossible a goal as that is. As frustrated as I have always been at injustice in the world, I am doubly so now, because I find myself sometimes feeling an overwhelming guilt about bringing our children into a world in which there is a seemingly constant state of war or power-mongering or profit at someone else’s expense.
Of course, when either of my daughters smile at me and express a desire for my time, this all goes away, because I know that I can only do my best within my sphere of influence. Still, when the emotional onslaught makes its presence felt, it is a force to be reckoned with.
The reason that it is so overwhelming is because it is rooted, I think, in a feeling of hopelessness. I see violence and hate growing around us, and I feel that I have no ability to stop it, despite my intentionality of choosing to not engage in it. I know that both of my daughters will make poor decisions, likely decisions that will harm them at some level, in the future, and that I will be unable to prevent this, as well, as much as I would give anything to do so. A lack of hope is a dark place, indeed, and the smallest glimpse of hope in a dark situation is cause enough for the fiercest struggle.
Except, sometimes, the hope that I’m missing comes, seemingly, out of nowhere.
I was in a coffee shop a few days ago, waiting what in my Western mind was an unacceptably long time for my over-priced drink, and I watched an older couple come and go. They were traveling, is my guess…passing through as this particular Starbucks was right off a major Interstate. I watched them interacting with each other, their talking and their smiles, and my imagination began to weave a story around them. How had they met? How many children did they have? Where were those children now? What insurmountable odds had they faced at various points in their life together?
Certainly they’ve seen more than I have, and overcome more than I could imagine simply by virtue of their age. I wonder what pain and grievous moments might have interrupted their joy at being parents, either by decisions made or by the actions of outside forces over which they had no control. I wondered when they had felt powerless, as I sometimes do.
And I concluded that, whatever their story, whenever and however these events had occurred, that they were here now, enjoying time together, having made it through whatever challenges they had faced.
And there, in my imaginative wandering, was the hope for which I sometimes find myself grasping. They made it through.
And we will, too.
Not without scars, of course. Life gives us those regardless of our best efforts, but it is by those scars that we learn.
I don’t know those people, their names, or their stories. I very likely will never see them again. We do have friends, however, in the same position, friends who have been through more life than we have, and that, with only their presence, give the same hope.
I wonder if, one day, someone will see Karen and I in a Starbucks (that part, at least, is very likely) and think these thoughts. Because I know that we will have made it. I know that our children will have made it, that, in the end, everything will be okay. Not because things around us got better, but because life is created to survive, and because Light is created to overwhelm the darkness.
If we’re open to it, the hope will find us. Sometimes we have to force ourselves to be receptive to it, and that’s okay. That’s a spiritual discipline in itself. When revealed, though, the smallest hope will always bring us through the most crushing of obstacles.
Hope, by definition, will always point us to faith.
And hope is always, always more powerful than hate.
Sometimes, you go into a long-awaited movie wondering if you’ve already seen the best it has to offer in the trailers. Certainly, this thought occurred to me as I stood eagerly in line for Captain America: Civil War on opening night. In true geek fashion, I had been anticipating this movie since before Age of Ultron, and had devoured every hint, rumor, teaser and trailer in the preceding months. I had discussed theories and possibilities with friends and colleagues, and still felt as though I was unprepared for what I was about to witness. There were so many possibilities here, my head was swimming, giddy with what could be about to take place.
As it turns out, the trailers were as carefully composed as the film itself, because they led you to believe that you knew what would happen, giving you just enough to inform, yet still leave you gasping with shock in the theatre.
Civil War is the third MCU installment for Captain America, and the thirteenth Marvel film in its modern universe. I have, as I suspect have most fans, entered a bit of a comfort zone with these movies. That is, I’m not nearly the kid in the candy store as when I waited in line, pre-purchased ticket in hand, for the first Avengers movie. That’s not to say that I love these movies any less…if anything, the opposite is true. The reason is because I love the characters. Having read their adventures for most of my life, of course, helps, but I think that every viewer who has engaged in this genre since the first Iron Man movie all those years ago has become emotionally invested in these characters. We’ve watched them grow and develop, lived through their struggles and (sometimes Pyrrhic) victories with them, and, while we’ve come to awe at their heroism as they confront the evils over which we could never possibly hope to triumph, we’ve also come to appreciate their humanity.
That’s what I walked away introspective about at the end of Civil War, and, while it’s what I expected, it’s not what I expected.
The tone of the Civil War story arc in the comics, upon which this movie is based, was highly political in nature. Certainly, the character of Captain America is uniquely positioned to explore questions of politics and national identity, and we’ve seen that used to great effect in previous films. I expected that, not the emotional weight of the way in which we see each character struggle. The struggles are not just external, although there’s plenty of that, and the fights are not the fun, fanboy match-ups from the early minutes of the first Avengers. This is what you feel when you watch loved ones fight, when you can see from the outside that both are right in their way, that all motivations are honorable, and that no one is going to win while everyone will lose.
The internal struggles are just as real, with deeper implications. Steve Rogers has been attempting to find his identity since the truth that he assumed he fought for collapsed in the Winter Soldier. He is refusing to follow logic because his first allegiance is to his best friend, the one friend who can begin to understand what he has survived. He wants to do what’s right, and isn’t certain what that is any longer. Tony Stark continues to battle against his past, to try to make up for the horrible mistakes that he seems to continue to make even while attempting to atone for other mistakes. Bucky Barnes struggles to undo the evil into which he was made against his will. Wanda Maximoff struggles with her identity, wondering if she is still who she was in a more innocent time. The Vision struggles to find what it is to be human. Natasha Romanoff struggles to balance pragmatic survival with loyalty to the closest family she has known. And these struggles are only some of what are carefully developed and tracked throughout these two hours as these characters whom we’ve come to love, this family to which we feel we’ve become observers, split as their own best intentions consume them.
Civil War is never meant to have a happy ending. The implications of this movie have rightly been predicted to forever alter the Marvel Cinematic Universe moving forward, and that’s a fair assessment. Just as in the conclusion of the same story in the comics, there is no going back. Just as in the arguments that we wish we had never had, those words can never be unsaid, their wounds never reversed, only, hopefully, healed.
So, the political inferences are there in Civil War, if you want to see them. Certainly, though, they are not the focus. The characters are, and that is a wonderful decision on Marvel’s part.
There is humor interspersed at just the right times during the fights, keeping the script from becoming too weighty while simultaneously adding to the tragedy of these events. The movie introduces new characters, of course, and unless you have no idea what was coming, you were as excited to see Spider-Man done well as the rest of us.
Spider-Man was my big disappointment in the movie, though, I have to confess, mostly because a young Aunt May is something that I’ve never seen in any incarnation of this iconic hero. It makes sense to focus on a teenage Peter Parker, though, because this gives much more room to develop the character as we move forward, and I have no doubt that the writers will continue to take as great care with this as they have to date. Visually, of course, Spider-Man’s great, and, even with his flaws, we’re already exponentially better off that the last tragic attempt to put the Web-Slinger on the screen.
The Black Panther could not be introduced in a better way. T’Challa grounds the film. He serves as the center of gravity as both sides spin further out of control, an outsider who brings clarity to the conflict in a very unexpected way. His monologue at the end as the climactic battle wages nearby is simple but unbelievably profound, and brings out what we as the viewers know, a quiet but powerful expression as we are screaming for the fighting to stop.
If you’ve paid careful attention to the previous films (and I mean careful…there are details in the Winter Soldier specifically that are critical to know), you’ve seen this conflict coming. Still, while we want to see our heroes in action again, we don’t want this, and that makes Civil War dramatically different from every other film to date. These are events that we didn’t want to see happen, a conflict in which our heroes do not win, and, in fact, a conflict in which no one else wins, either, especially not those who depend on them.
When heroes are proven as weak as we are in important ways, it damages our view of them. Their power and dedication seem unimportant when built on the same emotions and experiences that the rest of us have. Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps their humanity makes them even more heroic, knowing that they overcome it far more than they succumb to it.
Perhaps we have cause to fear them, however, when they fail in their responsibilities.
Perhaps we all fall down if we don’t learn to talk to each other instead of fight.
Civil War leaves us wondering where we go from here. Make certain that you watch this film.Image attribution: Andrew Buckingham under Creative Commons.
I was sort of numb.
Really, that sums up my entire journey with this film, from the first teaser all those months ago, to leaving the theatre this week. To be honest, it began with Zack Snyder’s less-than-impressive Man of Steel, the entire purpose of which seemed to be “how dark and brooding can we make Superman?” Superman isn’t a character that’s particularly dark and brooding. In fact, while recent incarnations of the character have made good efforts toward the sorts of questions with which someone with his level of power would struggle, he remains sort of the antithesis of darkness.
Really, that’s what should position him opposite of a character like Batman, who, when written well, is always walking a very thin line between hero and vigilante, at times not in full possession of his faculties, struggling with a trauma that would overwhelm someone without his sense of purpose.
And, when permitted to develop, those sorts of distinctions can be fascinating. There was none of that after this movie, though. I was just numb.
The numbness wasn’t born simply of the overwhelming darkness of this 2-and-a-half-hour mess (many critics have noted, with some exaggeration, that no one smiles in this entire movie. In Snyder’s defense, there is one scene where Lois Lane laughs with Clark Kent, but that’s just to relieve tension from his brooding). The numbness was caused equally by the sheer speed at which this film moves.
Comics have a phenomenon called the gutter. That is, something often happens between the image in one frame and the image in the next. The reader’s imagination fills in the gutter. In order for this work, one must be aware that there’s a gutter to fill.
Superman’s adventures, both in rescuing Lois Lane (a perpetual damsel in distress instead of the strong character that she should be) are disconnected. Only knowledge of the previous movie leaves any idea for the viewer as to why he’s struggling (or, for that matter, why the public is struggling) with who he is and what he can do, and even that is fragmented. Superman is just generally unhappy with life, here, and we can only guess why.
Still, Superman is developed extravagantly compared to Batman.
Now, let me say up front that I have always been a huge fan of the Dark Night Detective. His is a character that has so many possibilities when done well, so I’m even more sensitive to a poorly written adaptation of Batman than I am of Superman. That personal issue aside, though, let’s understand something about comic books that makes what Snyder did with the character incredibly risky and, in the end, an incredible failure.
In comic book literature, there’s an event called a retcon, or “retroactive continuity.” In a retcon, characters are taken in dramatically different directions, and writers often explore various “what-if” scenarios and facets of a character that would otherwise be left undiscovered. Retcons, when done well, are really interesting journeys. In 1986, Frank Miller, arguably one of the greatest writers in comics, published a miniseries called The Dark Knight Returns. In this retcon, set in a future Gotham City, Bruce Wayne has retired as the Batman, and he’s gone a bit insane. Batman has become a second personality, clawing to get out, with Wayne holding him at bay. Eventually confronted with a horrendous crime wave in Gotham where unspeakable acts of violence are taking place, Batman resurfaces, except, this time, he hurts people. He uses firearms (something that he swore never to do because of how his parents were killed). Superman is essentially an agent of the government in this story, and is sent to bring Batman under control. The battle ensues.
Dark Knight Rises was also influenced by this miniseries, but didn’t alter the character to fit.
The issue here is that a retcon never works in the mainstream continuity, and this movie is supposed to launch the Justice League franchise for the DC Cinematic Universe. This is to DC what the Avengers have been to Marvel. This movie defines the mainstream universe for the film, and it was written based on a retcon. By definition, this doesn’t work.
So, I expected to not be impressed.
Let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, though, that this could work. One of the reasons that Miller’s story was so compelling is because we see how Batman ended up as angry and disturbed as he is. Snyder gives us no such reason. There is a brief glimpse of a Robin costume in the Batcave with words scrawled across the front. Batman readers will assume that this is indicative of a well-known event in Batman’s past where the second Robin is killed by the Joker. We don’t know for certain, though, because this is never explained. There is also a brief line of dialogue by Alfred (who is something other than a butler, here…who knows…) about cruelty resulting from a feeling of powerlessness. Certainly, Batman has felt powerless as the conflict between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel left many of his friends dead, and this would be more compelling if we weren’t pushed through the memory so quickly. These events, though, are the only explanation we have as to why Batman hates Superman, why he wants to kill him, and why he is vindictively harming criminals, and they seem to somehow fall short of the end result.
A hate-filled character with such little backstory…particularly when that hatred is superimposed on a character that we know is not normally possessed of this trait…is more than difficult to accept. It just doesn’t work.
This is to say nothing of the machine guns on Batman’s vehicles, or his willingness to use villains’ firearms against them, one scene of which nearly made me walk out of the theatre I was so disappointed. This is tremendously out of character. Adapting a character and re-writing a character are two different things. Snyder apparently felt justified to do the latter.
The fast-paced disconnection doesn’t stop, there, however. There are dream sequences that are bordering on delusional and add nothing to the film except an excuse to portray Superman as a warlord and Batman as a gun-wielding purveyor of vengeance. Batman’s sudden change of heart in the end of his conflict with Superman is so abrupt and without motivation that it leaves one with emotional whiplash.
The film isn’t without positives. Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor, which I expected to be disappointing, was gripping and a pleasant surprise. The combat sequences were well-paced, making for the sort of fan-boy matchup that a large part of the audience was expecting to see. Certainly, Snyder excels in visual storytelling. If only a fully-developed plot and fully-developed characters had been there to accompany his visual acuity.
Of course, one of the aspects of this movie that fans were eagerly awaiting was the appearance of Wonder Woman. I’ve talked before about how important a character Wonder Woman is, and I wasn’t impressed with the choice to cast Gal Gadot in the role. This was another pleasant surprise, however, as Gadot brought a good performance. Still, there wasn’t time for her to do anything other than fight for the brief five minutes in which we see her as Wonder Woman. Again, this moved too fast. Of course, the over-arching problem with Wonder Woman here is that she is one of DC Comics’ three most important characters. Introducing her in a minor role in someone else’s film is simply unacceptable.
There has been a conscious decision here move in the opposite order from what Marvel did with the Avengers. That is, the Justice League is beginning with a team film, and moving forward from there, without giving most characters their own films to begin with. This is a great idea, but it isn’t working in execution, because there simply isn’t time to develop major characters in a team film. Our glimpses of the rest of the Justice League here happen…you guessed it…very fast, in one case condensing an origin story into about 30 seconds, and leaving a good deal of the audience confused, I imagine.
By the time we see Superman’s rushed death in the end, I wasn’t just numb, I was completely numb. Partly because it was so rushed as to feel fake (although fans really should have seen this coming knowing that Doomsday is the villain), and partly because we know that a Justice League film can’t be made (I certainly hope they don’t try) without Superman. So, this was an emotional stunt to bring back viewers.
I left the theatre feeling nothing at all, hurried to a state of being completely anesthetized. After a couple of days, I felt profound disappointment. I’m a big fan of these characters, and I really wanted to see them done well. This film places the entire Justice League franchise on extremely shaky ground.
I hope it recovers.Image attribution: a_marga under Creative Commons.