X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Our Desire to Belong

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 3/5 stars

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) is the first in the X-Men franchise to feature a female lead, hot off the heels of successes like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. This time, fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be thrilled to see Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, a mutant with telekinetic superpowers who joins Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters at the tender age of eight.

It’s been 19 years since the first X-Men was released in 2000, and in this 12th installment of the film series, we go back to 1992, with the X-Men on a rescue mission of a space shuttle. It is here in outer space that Jean accidentally absorbs the Phoenix Force—mistaken for a solar flare—and transforms into the powerful Dark Phoenix.

 

A force for good or evil

Jean Grey’s story is one of family and belonging. Orphaned as a child and sent to the X-Mansion, she quickly becomes an important part of the X-Men family. Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) becomes a father figure, Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) like an older sister and Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) her lover.

But all that is threatened after the “solar flare” accident, when her telekinetic powers are heightened and she’s soon unable to control them. Her fear of hurting the very people she loves drives her away from the X-Mansion, and she leaves behind a trail of catastrophic damages while out and about in New York.

It is here that she meets Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of a shape-shifting alien race called the D’Bari. Vuk explains that the Phoenix Force had wiped out their home planet years ago, and invites Jean to join them in shaping new worlds together. Here, Jean is torn between using her force for good or evil—evil because the D’Bari plan to conquer other planets, including Earth, with the Phoenix Force.

And so the struggle ensues—between mutants and humans (previously allies of the US government, the X-Men are now being hunted down thanks to Jean’s actions), between mutants and aliens (the D’Bari are out to get Jean and the Phoenix Force trapped within her at all costs should she not cooperate), and within the X-Men themselves (jealousy, in-fighting, and Charles’s leadership is questioned).

 

Belonging to a family

But most central of all to the film is the struggle within Jean herself as she deals with a fragile past and a family secret kept hidden from her by Charles, for what she believes about herself will come to define her choices.

Dark Phoenix is an emotional film with plenty of drama and vengeful characters, layered with a haunting and beautiful score by Hans Zimmer. Though its CGI is lacklustre compared to its contemporaries and the storyline predictable, the powerful performances by Sophie Turner and James McAvoy more than make up for it. In my opinion, the winner in this film is Jessica Chastain, what with her silver blonde hair and nude makeup that make her look eerily alien and evil without much effort.

At the heart of Dark Phoenix is the message that Jean is, and always will be, part of the X-Men family—no matter what she has done or thinks she has become. In the film, Charles and Raven’s characters embody God, our Heavenly Father, who believes the best in us, never gives up on us, and accepts us into His family even when no one else will. The Bible says that He “sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6), “predestined us for adoption” (Ephesians 1:5), and that He will “never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

Isn’t it comforting to know that there is someone who will readily accept us despite our past mistakes? Someone who patiently waits for us to turn back to Him so we can begin to live our true identities—as children of God who walk in His ways.

It is Raven who says to Jean: “I’m not giving up on you, Jean. You’re my family, no matter what.” Jean eventually resolves her inner conflict, realizing that the very people she was running away from were always there for her and weren’t afraid of her powers. It’s when she makes amends for the wrongs that she has done in the course of the film that Jean finds redemption and true belonging.

If you’re struggling with self-doubt, guilt, or feeling out of place, why not turn to God? Just as Jean and the other X-men were adopted into the X-men family, we, too, can find redemption and a sense of belonging in the Kingdom of God, one that will last for all eternity.

John Wick 3: Parabellum and the Elusive Quest for Peace

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

 

The neo-noir action thriller John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019) knocked Avengers: Endgame off its top perch in the US box office with an estimated US $57 million gross in its opening weekend. The über-violent series follows the story of John Wick, a legendary, near mythological assassin who has been personally responsible for 299 deaths in the series to date.

In the first film John Wick (2014), we meet Wick (Keanu Reeves), who is deep in grief, having lost his wife Helen to a terminal illness. Wick receives a posthumous gift from Helen, a puppy named Daisy. The story kicks into action when a trio of Russian gangsters break into his house to steal his beloved 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1 and kill Daisy.

It’s then that we find out that John Wick was formerly a hitman, nicknamed “Baba Yaga,” (translated in the film as “the Boogeyman”), a much-feared assassin who had left his previous violent life to marry the woman he loved.  Now he’s back, and people are going to pay.

The 2017 sequel has Wick making new enemies on The High Table, a council of top-level crime lords that rule over an immense quasi-religious bureaucracy that controls the world’s most powerful organized crime syndicates. Wick kills a bad guy on the “consecrated ground” of the Continental Hotel in New York, a felonious “city of refuge” where “no business” (i.e., “killing”) can be conducted. As such, John Wick 2 ends with Wick declared “excommunicado,” a bounty of $14 million placed on his head, and an hour headstart before every assassin within the city will be after him.

John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019) begins where Wick 2 left off, with Wick on the run through the neon-lit, rain-soaked streets of New York, and the clock ticking.

The film has elements from a number of action genres, including western, chanbara samurai cinema, ninja films, gangster crime, and kung fu flicks. The action sequences are often brutal but brilliantly choreographed, kinetic showpieces that far surpass the balletic violence of John Woo and the Wachowski brothers.

 

You still need something, someone, to love . . .

As I watch the series again, I can’t help but see John Wick as a man who desires to love and to be loved. After all, that’s why he got out of the business in the first place. In Wick 1, the love of his wife Helen called him to a better way of life.  When she dies, she organizes for him to receive a puppy, telling him in a card that, “You still need something, someone, to love. So start with this.” The gift of the puppy was “an opportunity to grieve unalone,” and the dog’s death left him devastated. When a price is placed on his head, his friend and fellow-hitman Chris (Willem Dafoe) chooses to help him, and dies as a result.

In Wick 3, we find out that Wick was an orphan from Belarus, the last of his tribe of Ruska Romani, raised in the harsh and unforgiving world of Russian organized crime. In the face of the rules and consequences of the implacable High Table, Wick chooses relationships over regulations, friendship over fidelity to the organisation. However, the dark underworld of assassination is not a world where values like love and friendship can exist untainted by the cruelty and ambition of its denizens.

 

Revenge may be sweet, but is it nourishing?

Revenge flicks have always been popular, whether it was the satisfaction derived from Inigo Montoya’s revenge on the six-fingered man for the death of his beloved father in The Princess Bride (1987) or Liam Neeson unleashing his “very particular set of skills” to rescue his kidnapped daughter in Taken (2008). We love seeing the powerless empowered to get even, and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Psychiatrist Grant Brenner notes that revenge can indeed be initially sweet. When we are socially insulted or humiliated, an initial retaliatory act can help to restore our feelings to a more positive state. However, there is an issue. The action of revenge would likely injure the original offending party, and “the other would then feel motivated to use retaliation to restore their emotional state, leading to an infinite regression of retaliatory aggression.” An endless cycle of pain and suffering, as hurt people continue to hurt people.

However, no matter how delectable a dish revenge might seem, as Christians we are called to dine on a different dish. The apostle Paul writes, “Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord” (Rom 12:9 NLT). We are commanded, as children of a God who forgives, to forgive others.

Author Philip Yancey points out that, “Forgiveness alone can halt the cycle of blame and pain, breaking the chain of ungrace.” Forgiveness offers us a way out from bitterness and the need to “get even.” It doesn’t settle all questions of fairness and blame, but it does allow an opportunity for a relationship to start afresh, and for a person to move on in life unencumbered by hostility and resentment. Best we take our pain and hurt to God and leave the “revenge” in his hands.

When we love our enemy, there is the opportunity for reconciliation and peace. None of that is likely if we forge ahead with retaliation and payback. When our focus is on the wrong done to us and the pain we feel, then the desire for revenge grows and consumes us. When we know ourselves as deeply loved, we can “let go” of the need to get even, our gaze firmly on the One who loves and accepts us.

Perhaps this is where fantasy and reality, art and life, must separate for different courses. A film where John Wick lays down his guns, knives, sword or axe and seeks to forgive and work according to restorative justice principles might well bomb at the box office, but as a narrative would certainly provide hope for a better quality of life.

After her death in the first film, John’ wife Helen sends him a card saying, “And now that I have found my peace, find yours.” As Wick prepares for the final battle in Wick 3, one character intones, “Si vis pacem, para bellum,” a Latin adage translated as “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Revenge rarely ever brings peace, and retaliation generally escalates the conflict or creates immense pain and damage.

As Wick 3 ends, Helen’s desire for peace for her husband seems doubtful. Wick’s initial desire for vengeance spirals, as obligations and consequences call him into ever-increasing cycles of mayhem, destruction, and violence. The end of Wick 3 leaves it wide open for the next instalment, which is great news for action fans and excellent for the box office, but offers little hope for the opportunity for  brother Wick to find his peace and escape the violence he longed to leave behind.

Avengers: Endgame—Is It Really the End?

Screenshot taken from Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame | Special Look

 

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

 

I remember walking out of the theatre after watching Avengers: Infinity War last year in a daze.

The good guys had lost.

One by one—Peter Parker, T’Challa, Groot, Sam Wilson, Bucky Barnes, and so, so many others—evaporated into dust, as the Mad Titan clicked his gauntleted fingers, leaving billions dead across the world, and trillions across the universe.

For days after, my mind wrestled with the “if onlys”. If only Peter Quill had kept his cool. If only Iron Man had just cut Thanos’s infinity-gloved hand off with a laser. If only Thor had gone for the head.

Western culture has not prepared me well for unhappy endings.

But Avengers: Infinity War was really only half the story, and I’d have to wait over a year for the chance at closure and catharsis.

Avengers: Endgame (2019) is the climax of “The Infinity Saga”, bringing to a close an epic 22-film series that began with Iron Man way back in 2008. In Infinity War, we saw characters we love die on-screen—will they return? Can the remaining Avengers undo the insane loss triggered by the Dark Lord Thanos?

Endgame has a sombre beginning, as we revisit the shock of half of all life disappearing from the universe. We meet a band of despondent heroes, filled with despair, struggling to cope with the unimaginable enormity of their failure. One tries to drown his sorrows in permanent drunkenness, while another takes out his rage and grief in vigilante violence. The early part of the film explores their anguish and loss. They are all grieving and overwhelmed, unsure how to continue in a world that they have failed to defend, in which they have lost so much.

 

What are you willing to sacrifice?

Human connection and relationships are central to Endgame, and many characters appear and reconnect from throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline, reminding me of the four types of human loves C. S. Lewis summarized in his classic The Four Loves. Examples abound in Endgame of Lewis’ loves, adding emotional depth and pathos to the story.

First, Lewis speaks of storge, a deep family love and affection, such as the love between parents and children. We revisit the relationship between Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and his father Howard Stark, we see Scott Lang (Ant-Man) reuniting with his daughter Cassie, and we witness Thor’s deep love for his stepmother Frigga. Often portrayed in comic form as a braggart and womanizer, Clint Barton (Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a loyal and loving family man, devastated by the loss of his family. And there’s also Rocket’s grieving over the loss of his surrogate family, the Guardians, and Nebula’s father-issues with the Mad Titan himself.

Lewis then speaks of philia, the love between friends, “as strong as siblings in strength and duration.” We see the close camaraderie between Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson) and Clint Barton, and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) reaches out to a hurting Thor (Chris Hemsworth), while Korg (Taika Waititi) still hangs out with his Asgardian mate playing Fortnite.

Then there is eros, romantic love. We see Stark in space, expecting to die, declaring “it’s always you” to Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). And there’s Rogers, often pondering the picture he keeps of Peggy Carter, and their love that never had a chance to grow.

And finally, there is the fourth love, agape, the unconditional love of God, the love that, “is all giving, not getting.” Empire reviewer Helen O’Hara notes that if the theme of the last film was, “We don’t trade lives,” this one is “all about responsibility, and self-sacrifice, and being willing to do ‘whatever it takes’ to win the day.”

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13, NKJV). In Endgame, the human cost of self-sacrifice and the selflessness of heroism is front and centre.

These loving relationships emphasize the very intimate, human aspects of this epic tale, increasing the stakes for which our heroes are fighting.

 

Can the world be restored?

There is also the bigger picture, of undoing Thanos’s dark deed and making the world right again. At one point, Tony Stark shares his desire to see “families reunited” and the “world restored.” We’ve witnessed the emotional fallout and the deep sense of loss of those left behind, but what if it could be undone? Can the death of so many somehow be reversed? What if loved ones could be reunited, and the world somehow restored?

This theme particularly resonates with me, and with the Christian worldview. Like our heroes, we live in a world filled with the pain and darkness, where suffering is an all too present reality, and we know that things aren’t the way they should be. However, God seeks to renew this present world, working until it is rescued, healed, and restored. John speaks in Revelation 21-22 of the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. New Testament scholar Tom Wright tells us that God “will transform the whole world and fill it with his justice, his joy, and his love.”  And this is good news indeed.

There is also something about us as human beings that resists the reign of death. In his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey ponders Christ’s resurrection, and recalls one year in which he lost three friends. He goes on to write, “Above all else, I want Easter to be true because of its promise that someday I will get my friends back. I want to abolish that word irreversible forever.”

Like Yancey, I yearn to see my loved ones again. I long to see the defeat of death. This is part of the joy that arises because of Christ’s resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55, NLT).

And this is the same theme that kept viewers anticipating Endgame’s release, each of us harboring an eager and expectant hope that good would triumph over evil, and, maybe, just maybe, if our heroes can pull it off, we might see those characters that we love so much somehow restored to life again.

Endgame is an emotional roller-coaster ride, with poignant moments of touching humanity and lashings of breathtaking action. It marks the end of an era, and what a ride it has been.

As I left the film, I found myself thankful that God continues to draw people to himself and seeks to renew and restore this world. And I look forward to the time when He will wipe every tear from every eye, and when “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,” for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4).

Dumbo: A Trumpeting Call to Defend the Weak

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Dumbo had me in a flood of tears, and it was not tears of joy that flowed freely down my cheeks.

Burton’s Dumbo was inspired by the 1941 Walt Disney feature cartoon of the same name, and tells the story of a baby elephant whose very large ears made him the subject of ridicule, but it was also those very ears that propelled him to stardom.

However, the little elephant did not #wakeuplikethis to his superstar status. In fact, circus owner Max Medici was horrified when he realized he had a baby elephant with oversized ears. Dumbo had a “face that only a mother could love”, Medici declared.

Dumbo made his debut appearance to a crowd of circus-goers popped inside a wooden pram, and his ears hidden under a baby bonnet. Unfortunately, his ears unraveled the moment Dumbo sneezed, and his big, floppy ears were soon in the spotlight. The crowd started to boo and jeer at Dumbo, and pelted peanuts at the poor elephant (cue more tears from me).

Mrs Jumbo, sensing her child’s distress, rushed in to the circus ring and chaos soon ensued as the terrified circus-goers tried to flee the herd of elephants gone amok. Unfortunately, Mrs Jumbo’s act of defending her child resulted in her being locked up, with only a little barred window for Dumbo to stick his trunk in when he came to visit her.

As soon as the theme music, “Baby Mine”, came on in the background during this scene, I erupted into a fountain of tears. I had also reacted the same way when I had first watched the original Dumbo movie. My tears welled up when I saw how upset Dumbo was (he sat in a corner with big drops of tears rolling down his face) after overhearing a group of older elephants gossiping about his large ears.

Seeing Dumbo’s distress immediately brought me back to my 12-year-old self, when I had discovered a classmate had created a “burn book” (a “burn book” was popularized by Regina George and The Plastics in the movie, Mean Girls, which they created to start gossip and stories about their schoolmates) about me and another friend.

I recalled turning the pages of the “burn book” to discover the mean words my schoolmates had written about me, from the different variations of the spelling of my name (hint: it rhymes with hell), to unwanted comments on my appearance (“four-eyes” was the most popular, in reference to my glasses).

So when I saw Dumbo being laughed at and ridiculed, the pain that I felt those years ago resurfaced, and it made me empathize with the wee elephant. I couldn’t understand what he had done wrong to be treated in such a way, and I had to restrain myself from climbing inside the silver screen to give his mockers a good telling off.

Watching these scenes unfold reminded me of Psalm 82:3-4, where we are called to, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

While I found it easy to empathize with Dumbo because he looks adorable with his big ears and blue eyes, I wondered if I would be brave enough to stand up for a fellow human being who was being bullied? Even though I knew what it was like to be at the center of negative attention, I realized that there were times when I had seen someone in the same situation, and did not have the courage to defend them or uphold their cause.

Years ago, when I was in high school, a group of schoolmates had locked a fellow classmate in one of the school’s toilets out of spite, ignoring the boy’s pleas to be released. I am ashamed to say that I, too, turned my back against him.

In my adolescent mind, social survival was vital, and my already failing social status in school prevented me from helping a distressed classmate. I did not want to be seen siding with the least cool kid in school. I weighed my options that day, and decided to walk away.

But the way the circus performers came together to comfort Dumbo when he was at his lowest made me rethink my actions. At this point, Mrs Jumbo was locked away as an exhibit in an amusement park called Nightmare Island. When the performers saw just how miserable Dumbo was without his mother, the group banded together to reunite mom and baby. Plans were immediately put into place to execute the grand reunion, starting with Miss Atlantis distracting the guards with her singing, to Rongo the Strongo using his strength to pull the iron bars apart, so the team could sneak in to rescue Mrs Jumbo.

Through their actions, I was reminded of Philippians 2:3-5, where we are called to “put on the mindset of Christ” (v. 5), look out for each other, and to value others above ourselves. Unlike the Medici performers, I took no action because I had put my own “selfish ambition” (not wanting to look like a loser) above my friend’s interests (being rescued from the school toilet).

But I am inspired by how Dumbo’s friends forged ahead with their mission to reunite Dumbo with his mom, and helped create a happy ending for them. The mother and son duo were eventually released back into the wild to spend the rest of their days with their own kind.

Dumbo is more than just a movie about a flying elephant. Even after I was done watching it, it kept me thinking about how we can all be a voice for the weak and defenseless—if only we will look around and notice the plight of those who are suffering. I hope that the next time a similar opportunity presents itself, I will be willing to step in and take action.