A Review of Aquaman

Aquman. Used under Creative Commons.I confess that I haven’t been sold on the striking, “tough guy” image of Aquaman that has appeared in the DCEU films beginning with Justice League. To be fair, Justice League wasn’t exactly a terrific debut for any character as it was a waste of film overall, but, deeper than that, I’ve grown attached to the Arthur Curry we met during DC’s New 52 reboot 7 years ago, and that is the image that stuck. The blow was softened a bit by comics artists recently beginning to depict our aquatic hero with long hair to give some consistency between print and the film, but Aquaman is just difficult to sell as a tattooed, beer drinking, self-described “blunt instrument.”

Still, our hero is from New England, which gives him some home court advantage, and Wonder Woman proved that DC is capable of producing good films after all, so I gave Aquaman his chance this weekend.

I was unexpectedly surprised.

The key word there is “unexpected.” The movie is unexpected in many ways. First off, it’s very well written, with only a couple of unexplained or under-explained moments that, for the most part, I was willing to overlook as a genre convention. Geoff Johns is behind the story, and thus we can expect that the characters be treated with care.

Still, I found the inconsistency in character in events at the beginning of the movie to be jarring, as Curry leaves a pirate to die aboard a sinking submarine because that pirate has taken innocent lives. While this is loosely consistent with the source material regarding the origin of Black Manta (our secondary villain for the film), the intentionality of the act is disturbingly out of character, and decidedly un-heroic. I think that the goal here is to develop the results of a childhood without a mother and Arthur Curry’s resulting rebellious outlook on life, but I think that it still does violence to the character. There is repentance in the end on Aquaman’s part, or at least a hint of it, but this still walks dangerously close to destroying the film before it even gets started.

The world building here is beautiful. Atlantis is breath-taking, both visually and in the depth of culture that is revealed. This is quite possibly the movie’s greatest strength, as the audience is drawn completely into this world beneath our waters and its ancient history.

Perhaps Aquaman’s largest flaw is that it’s overly ambitious. This is the story of a would-be king fighting for his kingdom and a throne that he doesn’t want. It’s also the story of a man coping with his tragic childhood, with the two concurrent sub-plots of a romantic interest with Mera and the development of Black Manta. The film is around two hours and 20 minutes, but could easily have been twice that to give all of it’s plot points sufficient time to unfold. As is, it skillfully maintains the story, but comes very close to not doing so on numerous points. That is, the movie nearly derails several times because there just isn’t time to unpack everything, but then manages to tie some things together with some well-written dialogue and move on to a climactic battle. Still, a bit too close for comfort. I almost wish that Black Manta had been introduced in his own film later…we still would have had more than enough to enjoy in this one.

I enjoyed the interactions between Arthur and Mera, who is portrayed very consistently with the comic, and actually very well acted by Amber Heard. I hope that she continues to be featured in upcoming films, as well, and not relegated to a side character in only a few.

All in all, Aquaman is a surprising success. I’m actually not entirely certain how they managed to pull off as much as they did in the time frame, but this film continues to move the DCEU in an upward  trajectory. You should make time to see it over the holiday, especially if you only remember Aquaman from those old Super Friends cartoons, and re-imagine the underwater hero that never quite received the respect he deserves.

Image attribution: LucasBaiao under Creative Commons.

Scientifically Creative

Lately, I feel as though science and the humanities are placed into conflict. It sends me into a defensive posture if I let it, immediately pushing back on the diminution of the arts in favor of STEM as an ultimate educational goal, wondering at how competent use of our language seems of secondary importance to a child learning how to code. We cling to what is most natural to us, after all, and, while I work in the technological world, the humanities remain my first love.

Even in that statement, though, I’m taking the bait, because I’m categorizing them in opposition to each other. I don’t for a moment think that they should be. I’m a believer in interdisciplinary pursuits, and it’s only in relatively recent Western culture that we’ve began to see the humanities and sciences as even somehow separate, to say nothing of being mutually exclusive.

Still, I’m troubled by how I see science elevated to an ultimate concern, and find no small amount of irony in how we treat it as an absolute truth….that thing that our culture considers a reprehensible concept philosophically, but clings to scientifically with what borders on desperation. It’s dangerous to establish an absolute authority on a house of cards. Pseudoscience was once regarded as fact, after all, until it wasn’t. Prior to a specific point in history in which we had the technology and insight to say otherwise, living on a flat planet seemed a plausible theory to some, despite its basis in nonsense. While it would be considered blasphemous to say this in many circles, what we regard as scientific fact today always seems irrefutable until the underlying hypothesis behind that fact is discovered to be nonsense. As much as science likes to plant its flag of certainty into evolutionary theory, it seems to forget that it is, itself, evolving as a practice and discipline.

Think of how, in just your lifetime, theories have shifted on what is healthy to eat or not eat. A small example of exponential importance.

If, then, an underlying scientific principle should be discovered to be false, how much confidence in our society crumbles? When one’s ultimate concern falters, after all, the effects are wide reaching. This is a where faith comes in, but faith is seen as out-dated, something for the ancient or uneducated. And so our house of cards collapses.

I appreciate what a reader said in a recent issue of the Atlantic:

“Hardly anything in science is for keeps….That’s how the scientific method works…ultimately granting us not a measure of truth so much as a better approximation of reality.”Letter to the Atlantic, November 2018 issue, p. 15

Something that faith gives us is a love for mystery, a recognition that what we don’t…and, indeed, can’t….understand is far more beautiful than what we can. The belief that there is a reality beyond what we can measure and touch and visualize is integral to the human condition. To say that in the negative, refusing to believe in anything that we cannot see, touch, hear, taste or feel limits us as humans, places blocks on what we have the potential to be.


This weekend, as the holiday festivities came to a close, I took our oldest daughter to a science museum to which we have a membership. She’s quite the artist, our oldest, but equally loves the natural world, fascinated immediately by any new animal about which she has not yet learned. No one has told her that artistic scientists aren’t supposed to exist, and she is happy to be both.

As we walked around the new exhibits, I saw some changes from the last time we visited the museum a few months ago. Photography exhibits were on the walls, showcasing beautiful and artistic explorations of the scientific principle in place for the children to explore. In another exhibit, instead of a detailed and technical description of what was happening, a simple poem adorned one wall.

The two worlds had met. Our daughter took it all in, considering it natural.

As for me, I walked away with hope.

Aside

The Tools of Conquest

I recently read The Stories We Tell by Mike Cosper. It’s a theological exploration of themes in modern story-telling as they play out in television and film. It’s not a heavy read, and as thoroughly entertaining as it is thought-provoking.

Stories capture themes that are timeless, warning of futures that could happen. Sometimes they peek out from the past, old stories that suddenly become appropos, that we perhaps wish had been heard and considered more thoughtfully back then. Cosper quotes one of those, from the Twilight Zone:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices-to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill. And suspicion can destroy. And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own…” Rod Sterling, “The Twilight Zone”

I think that it’s import to consider today what the fallout of our suspicions, prejudices, and searches for scapegoats will be the future. Perhaps our children will wonder why we didn’t listen to our stories.

 

On Seinfeld and Wake-Up Calls

Photo of the restaurant used in the series "Seinfeld." Used under Creative Commons.When Karen and I moved into our current apartment, we reversed a decision that we had made only a couple of months into our marriage: we purchased cable. The reason was not actually that we wanted to, but that we received a better deal on our Internet package by doing so. For the first several weeks, we did nothing with it. Eventually, however, I connected the equipment, because why pay for something and not use it?

This decision has met with mixed results, but occasionally there is good. Stumbling onto occasional Seinfeld re-runs when staying up late is one of those unexpected positives.

I was enjoying one of those late night positive Seinfeld experiences last week. The episode centered it’s comedic digression around Elaine using a wake-up call service. Essentially, she paid someone to call her at a given time each morning and wake her up with conversation instead of an alarm clock.

Does this sound familiar? The premise might, if you’ve been around long enough. We used to do this at hotels, and you’ll still see it occurring in movies that we might now refer to as “classic.” When was the last time that you requested a wake-up call at a hotel, though? Some readers may see this as a completely foreign concept, something that they had never done. We have no need of this now, after all. We carry our alarms with us, in the personal computers in our pockets, likely also using them to track our sleep patterns while we’re at it. After all, health is important.

I think that the wake-up call service depicted in this episode of Seinfeld would have been a “disruptive” industry then, similar to ride-sharing now. Similarly, I know people to whom calling a cab is an alien idea, for whom “Uber” is a verb. Indeed, in the episode in question, Elaine be-friended her wake-up caller, and I often strike up friendly conversations with my Lyft drivers. These aren’t far apart, and these sorts of cultural changes are often a good thing. Of course, conversely, the wake-up call service also assumed a landline telephone, considered a concept of antiquity in many homes today.


For all of the excitement that accompanied my first mobile phone (a huge bag phone in my car that required an external antenna mounted on the back glass), I also remember the gift of my first landline telephone to connect in my high school bedroom. It was bright red. I remember calling friends. I remember using a post-it note to keep the request number of the local radio station next to the phone.

I also remember using physical maps and directions written on scrap paper to navigate long road trips to places I had never before seen, and wonder today if that part of my brain has atrophied, as the idea of asking for directions doesn’t even occur to me. I simply reach for my phone.

I read a post recently in which the author expressed longing for the days when we discovered blogs organically instead of by social media algorithms. I miss those days, too. I miss a different era more, though. This was an era of landline phones and computers that were luxury items instead of necessities. An era in which we thought about things before shouting them out, in which getting from one place to another required intentionality, not whimsical abandon. An era in which we looked for the thoughts with which we wanted to engage, and were not willing to have others make those choices for us.

This was a Seinfeld sort of era, a radically modern era at the time, too quickly left behind in our frantic scramble for the next new thing.

It’s one to which we can never return.

“The frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness.” Heidegger, “Poetry, Language, and Thought” p. 163

Image attribution: dnorton under Creative Commons.

A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.