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Avengers: Infinity War and the value of life and unity

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Screenshots taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

The Dark Lord Thanos has finally revealed himself in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it will take the combined might of the Avengers to stop his genocidal plans of destroying half of all life in the universe.

 Avengers: Infinity War (2018) is the culmination of 10 years and 18 films (starting back in 2008 with Iron Man), and it embodies an ambitious and epic scope unseen before on screen, bringing together numerous storylines with more than 70 characters working across multiple worlds across the universe.

Thanos is Marvel’s greatest cosmic threat (save for perhaps Galactus, the colossal “Devourer of Worlds,” who dines on the life energy of entire planets). It’s a brilliant and emotive portrayal by Josh Brolin, as good a CGI performance as anything Andy Serkis has delivered, such as Gollum/Smeagol in LOTR, or the brooding Caesar in the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

We first see his purple visage smiling out at us in a post-credit sequence in the first Avengers film, but he has been standing on the fringes of all the action so far, watching from a distance, manipulating events, and biding his time. And now the Mad Titan has stepped out from the shadows and arrived center-stage. As one writer put it, He is “the coming storm, the creeping death, the threat of apocalypse and Armageddon, oblivion and omega.”

The massive Titan warlord wants the dimension-controlling Infinity Stones, six artefacts of inconceivable power that were forged into concentrated existence at the beginning of the universe, and to use them to enforce his despotic will on all of reality. At the start of Infinity War, he has one of the stones in his Infinity Gauntlet; but he needs the other five to put his twisted “plan of salvation” into action. Driven by an insane utilitarianism, inspired by a crazy cosmic pragmatism, Thanos desires to alleviate overpopulation, lack of resources, and suffering by randomly destroying half of all life in order to bring “balance” to the universe. Thanos isn’t intentionally cruel. He derives no pleasure from decimating civilizations. He actually thinks he’s helping people by randomly snuffing out billions of lives.

And against this megalomaniacal plan is arrayed Earth’s mightiest heroes: Asgardians, aliens, and androids. Scientists and soldiers. Spies and sorcerers. The philosophy of the heroes is quite different to that of the Titanic purple bad-guy. When android Vision suggests destroying the Mind Stone in his forehead (which would mean his own death) Captain America Steve Rogers responds, “We don’t trade lives.” This reflects the heroic stance.

 

The Value of Life and the Power of Love

When challenged with a worldview that says life is meaningless when confronted with the vastness and the fate of the universe, the heroes uphold that every individual life is precious. As Christian blogger Logan Judy says, “Super-hero stories have a way of becoming life-affirming stories.” In a world filled with suffering, the Avengers insist on the value of life.

Whenever we take a distant view, seeing human beings as economic units or mere numbers, it’s easy to be dismissive and to de-humanize others. But this is far from the depiction of humanity and of God in Scripture. First, every person in this world is a precious being, bearing the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). As Bible scholar John Stott declares, “It is the divine image in man which gives him an intrinsic dignity or worth, a worth which belongs to all human beings by creation, regardless of race, religion, color, culture, class sex or age.” Such a belief affirms the value of every individual life.

Second, the God in Scripture is both powerful and good, both transcendent and immanent. Christian author David Jackman notes the difficulty of speaking meaningfully of God’s love when we think of this “grubby tennis ball” of a planet, set in the vast infinity of space, our own lives as mere blips in the ever-onward surge of time, and our own individuality among countless billions. Or when we consider the world with all its evil and suffering and so many damaged lives.

Yet the apostle John tells us that the very nature of God is love (1 John 4:8). Jackman declares that, “we must realize that such an infinite yet personal Creator is not too great to be bothered with my tiny life. He is so great that he can be bothered with each of us individually.” As the early church theologian Augustine of Hippo said of God in his Confessions, “You are good and all-powerful, caring for each of us as though the only one in your care, and yet for all of us as for each individual.”

Notwithstanding Thanos’ god-like powers, his followers’ references to him as “almighty Thanos” and “Father,” and his references to others as “child” or to his plan of “salvation,” he leaves a lot to be desired in a deity. To invoke C.S. Lewis’ famous description, Thanos may be powerful, but he isn’t good.

 

Unity is Paramount

And so the heroes of the MCU must stand together against the growing power of Thanos. But at the start of Infinity War there is friction, and factions, and egos clash. Stark and Dr Strange butt heads. Thor and Starlord don’t see eye to eye. Secretary of State General Ross still sees Captain America and his crew as fugitives. Thor is wounded after the destruction of Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). James Rhodes (War Machine) is still recovering from injuries suffered in Civil War (2016).

Thanos is an adversary so powerful that you really think he might succeed. If the Avengers are to have any chance of stopping him, they must be united. The things that unite come first; that which divides can follow.

Can Stark put aside past hurt and betrayal? Can Stark and Strange set aside their monumental egos? Can the Avengers unite after being torn apart over the differences that led to Civil War? And can they stop the Mad Titan from getting his hands on the Infinity Stones and wiping out half of all known life?

Our heroes all show courage and a willingness to sacrifice themselves for the sake of those who cannot defend themselves. However, the desire for unity is paramount in the story. It’s present in the catch-cry “Avengers Assemble”, reflecting the truth of the old adage: united we stand, divided we fall. These are very real flesh-and-blood characters, with their own pride and pain and ideals and values, but to see them all battle to overcome their individual issues and strive for the sake of others is incredibly moving.

The idea of unity is a powerful theme for God’s people (Ps 133:1). They too “assemble” as the ekklessia, the “called out ones,” i.e. the church. God desires us to reach unity in the faith (Eph 4:13) and to live in love, which “binds all things in unity” (Col 3:14). Our deep love for another “covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8) and allows us to remain in powerful and united community, and to stand in unity against all the things that would seek to drive us apart and destroy us.

Even though it’s 160 minutes in length, the story travels along at an action-packed break-neck pace. This film is really Part 1, with Part 2 to come in May 2019. Whatever happens, the Avengers will need to assemble, to come together, and persevere in unity if they’re to stand against the growing destructive might of Thanos.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and the necessity of hope

Rating: 4/5

Screenshots taken from Official Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has finally hit cinemas, and it was well worth the wait.

As the film begins, the malevolent First Order is on the verge of wiping out the Resistance forever. The Rebels are outmanned, outgunned, and on the run for their lives.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out the legendary Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for his help to stem the rising tide of evil. Rey hands Skywalker his old lightsaber—but his reaction is not what we were expecting.

 

Luke Skywalker, despair, and the loss of hope

Luke Skywalker has been through a lot in the series. Since the first days when we met him as a whiney youth on Tatooine, he’s been beaten up by Tusken Raiders, hung upside down by Wampa, stuck inside a dead Tauntaun, attacked by a giant Rancor, and mutilated by the biggest bad guy in the galaxy, who just also happens to be his Dad.

Over the course of the series, we’ve seen Luke grow on his hero’s journey from annoying, idealistic adolescent (Episode IV: A New Hope) to poised and self-assured Jedi (Episode VI: Return of the Jedi). However, in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find the youthful hero now a cynical and haunted hermit.

The Skywalker we meet is no archetypal Wise Old Man, no Gandalf or Dumbledore, no sage mentor a la Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, dispensing fatherly insight to guide our confused heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) on her path to master the Force. Rather, we find a man who has withdrawn from life, lost confidence in his ability, and lost hope for the future. He is all too aware of his faults, his hubris and weakness. Skywalker has become disenchanted with the Jedi way, despises himself due to his own inadequacies and failures, and despairs in a hopeless future.

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann tells us that, “without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live.” Moltmann goes on to see hopelessness as a description of Hell, as represented by the inscription above the gates to the abyss in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, “Abandon every hope, ye who enter here.”

Hope is essential for our lives. It’s far more than “fingers-crossed” wishful thinking. For the Christian, Biblical hope is a confident expectation, a sureness that something will come to pass because God has promised it will happen. Our hope is ultimately rooted in God Himself, and what He has done for us in Christ. Paul speaks of hope in Romans: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Rom 3:24-25).

In the midst of a corrupt world, we are called to believe, to love, to serve—to hope. While we are well aware of the pervading darkness and evil that surrounds us, we are equally aware that there is a greater power, a mighty and loving God who is at work in this world and has promised to never leave us. As we trust God, the source of hope, He is able to fill us with joy and peace, allowing us to “overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).

Isolated and disconnected, Skywalker has fallen into despair. Can he forgive himself, accept his weaknesses alongside his strengths, and once again find a new hope in a world in which the darkness can seem so overwhelming? Will he be able to bless others with hope, or will he succumb to doubt and despair, forever wallowing in the regrets of the past?

 

Kylo Ren and the hope of redemption

Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is the fallen villain in this latest trilogy. The son of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and rebel princess Leia Organa, Ren was trained by Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force, but ultimately yielded to the dark side, killing his father in The Force Awakens.

But in this latest film, there are signs of doubt and tortured inner struggle within Ren. Without giving away too much, Rey manages to form a connection with Ren. Can she bring him back to the light, as Luke once did with Anakin/Vader, or is Ren the “son of darkness” Supreme Leader Snoke declares him to be?

At the heart of the first six episodes of this epic series is the tragic fall into darkness of Anakin Skywalker, and his subsequent redemption through the love and belief of his son Luke. As entertainment critic Paul Asay puts it, the story arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader presented a very New Testament-type message: “Even the most broken among us can still be salvaged. They can still, ultimately, be made whole.”

This is why we love a good redemption story.

Because if these bad guys, as flawed and lost as they are, can be redeemed, then that’s good news for us, because we aren’t beyond hope.

There is an old Christian song that contains the beautiful lyric:
“All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife,
but He made something beautiful out of my life.”

This is a wonderful truth about the gospel. God’s love and power can redeem us from the darkest places as we turn to him in humility and repentance, and His grace restore us to the men and women we were meant to be.

We aren’t alone in this life. God is for us; who can be against us?
And this reality fills our lives with hope.

Justice League: Heroes & Insecurities

Rating: 3/5

Screen shot taken from Official Trailer

Written By Lydia Tan, Singapore

What makes a person a superhero?

Would it be his superpowers? (That would exclude Batman, since the only thing he has is money.) Or a track record of being undefeated? (Superman may be in trouble then.) Or is it simply a person who overcomes his fears to do the right thing in the most trying of circumstances?

In Justice League, our beloved DC superheroes all come together for the very first time to—of course—save the world. Things are not easy, however, because our favorite man of steel is lying six feet underground (watch Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to find out why). That leaves the ridiculously wealthy yet lonely Gotham defender the task of putting together a team of people who barely know each other and who have their respective insecurities and inner demons to fight.

What adds to the challenge is that unlike our dear Bat friend, these guys actually have superpowers—and strong personalities. Put them all together, and the sparks naturally fly, thus raising the question: Can they put aside their differences in time to save the world from ultimate destruction by the evil Steppenwolf and his fly-like underlings? (In case you think the answer is obvious, don’t forget—even Superman can die.)

It’s not an easy challenge. Throughout the movie, we see the insecurities of each superhero laid bare onscreen. Here’s a quick snapshot:

Batman: Trusting others and working in a team
Flash: Acceptance, fitting in
Wonder Woman: Fear of failure, lack of confidence in her leadership ability
Aquaman: Uncertainty, averse to change
Cyborg: Identity, self-acceptance

Each of the superheroes has to confront his or her insecurities head-on if the Justice League is to triumph. To avoid giving any spoilers, I’ll just focus on one—namely the only female superhero, Wonder Woman. Through a conversation with Batman, we learn of her reluctance about taking on leadership responsibilities for fear of bringing harm to the people she cares about. Will she be able to step up to the plate when called for? That’s a question she has to answer in the final showdown.

For me, this is truly a moment of identification. That’s because like our DC heroes, we, as believers, have a great mission to carry out which also involves saving the world—and like them, we may each have our own set of insecurities that hinder us from doing so. Insecurities that hinder us from our task of telling others about the only One who can save us from our sins.

These insecurities could stem from deeply rooted fears such as the fear of offending someone, the fear of not having enough knowledge of the gospel to share, or simply, the fear that we are not living up to what we tell others about the gospel. We can become immobilized as a result.

But like our DC heroes, we can choose to defeat our insecurities if we draw not on our own strength and ability, but on the divine power of the One who can truly bring salvation to the world. “Make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves.  For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict” (Luke 21:14-15).

Let us take heart and draw courage from Jesus himself to lay aside our insecurities and our inner preferences for the cause that is worth living and dying for.

Then, we just need to take the first step. As Batman tells Flash on their very first mission together: “Save one person. Don’t talk, don’t fight, get in and get one out.” In other words: Start by sharing the gospel with one person. No excuses, no defenses, just do it.

Thor: Ragnarok – What Does The End Of The World Mean For Us?

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

Rating: 4/5

What would you do if your home comes under threat of destruction? For Thor, it involves a journey to alien planets, squabbles with family and friends, and letting go of some of the things he was once so attached to.

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok spelt the destruction of Asgard—home of the gods. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the same narrative is brought to life with a distinctly comedic flavor. With the impending doom and destruction of his world upon him, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is stranded on an alien planet. Thor has one goal throughout the movie: get back and save his homeland.

Thor: Ragnarok represents a bold development in the progress of the series. It’s clearly heavier on comedy, but also a lot more enjoyable. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s what makes it so fun. Director Taika Waititi’s previous work in smaller scale indie comedies means the tone of this movie was always going to be different from its predecessors. And the result is a movie that is exceedingly self-aware, bordering at times on parody. The actors, Hemsworth in particular, seem to revel in the looser, more improvised tone.

The dynamics between characters are richer for it too. There’s a charming road trip-buddy feel to Thor and Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) partnership. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki also develops from the anti-hero of the past movies; the sibling rivalry and bickering he shares with Thor is both compelling and humorous. Driving the evolution of these relationships is Thor’s commitment to being a hero and preventing the end of Asgard.

Similarly, the Bible tells us that our world will eventually come to an end, and how we respond to this defines our adventure now. We all tend to get caught up in the invincibility and seeming permanence of this world, working as hard as we can to wring the value from each activity. Be it career success, performing well in school, or just enjoying life, we work hard to relish the fruits of this world.

But it’s these very things that entice us away from the purpose that God has for us. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster perfectly encapsulates this sentiment—a slave owner who tells his slaves that he loves them, all whilst making them fight to the death.

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

However, the Bible warns us about getting too absorbed in the things of this life, that hold no eternal value. The constant reminder throughout the New Testament is to look forward to the new creation, and everything that it holds in store for us. This has real implications for the way that we live now and should shape what we work for and what we are willing to give up. The plain fact is that all the things of this life will be swept away without a trace by the arrival of the new creation.

In the end, being a hero is very different from what Thor expected. The circumstances call for some hard decisions to be made, but these are the very decisions that make Thor a hero.

What about the decisions that will define us as Christians? What are the things that we will pursue in light of God’s plans for eternity, and all that they hold for us? They vary from individual to individual. But the common denominator has to be the Gospel. It is the one thing that carries eternal value, and whilst its consequences may not seem apparent now, they will certainly be felt at the return of Christ.

This means that it is not just about whether we accept the Gospel, but what we do with it after. We must continue to grow in our conviction and commitment to the Gospel and what it means for us. At the same time, we are commissioned to work for the Gospel, advancing it in whatever situation we find ourselves in.

It’s always worth sitting to the very end of Marvel movies to see what surprises the directors have for us. But for Christians, there are no surprises about the end; our world has an expiry date. God will destroy it as he ushers us into the New Creation. So how should we live now, given the temporal nature of this world? Work for the things that carry true eternal value. In light of eternity, everything else will seem insignificant.