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Joker: Good News for the Outcasts, Losers, and Freaks?

Screenshot taken from Official Teaser Trailer

Written By Simon Moetara, New Zealand

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

SPOILER ALERT: This article contains mild spoilers.

Joker (2019) is unlike any comic-based film released so far; there are no costumes, no heroic battles, and not one bit of CGI on display. It’s a slow-burning character drama more concerned with personality than plot, as we follow Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime, the psychotic villain known as the Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix is mesmerizing in the role of Arthur Fleck, a sad, middle-aged clown-for-hire who lives with his mother. Fleck also suffers from mental illness and is on seven kinds of medication. He has a rare condition in which he bursts into uncontrollable fits of laughter at the most inappropriate times. He often takes refuge in a deep and rich fantasy life (and it’s difficult to know at times where imagination ends and reality begins).

Fleck lives in Gotham City circa 1981, a soulless concrete jungle that’s suffering from garbage strikes and giant rats living in the growing mounds of trash, and where the divide between rich and poor is on the rise. Rather than drawing on the latest DC film offerings, director Todd Phillips seems to derive inspiration from the urban grittiness and violence of the New Hollywood era cinema of the 1970s, from films like The French Connection (1971), Death Wish (1975), and Taxi Driver (1978). Gotham is a bleak, filthy, nasty place, and beneath the surface of its exasperated populace is a simmering and roiling frustration and rage ready to boil over.

 

Surviving in the Midst of A Horrific World

Theologian John McQuarrie argues that when we consider sin as not simply the action or even the attitude of an individual, but rather as “a massive disorientation and perversion of human society as a whole,” we can begin to see its truly horrific nature. We see this in communities or societal structures that violate human dignity and create greater inequity. According to McQuarrie, this social dimension of sin is particularly terrifying in that it makes a group or community “answerable to no one,” and exhibit “a hardness and irresponsibility that one rarely finds.”

And it’s in Gotham’s cruel world that the brutalized Fleck must try to survive. Sadly, it’s a world that doesn’t acknowledge, let alone care about, his existence. In one scene, Fleck confronts his social worker, saying, “You don’t listen, do you? I don’t think you ever really listened to me.” She responds that funding cuts mean they won’t be meeting again, before saying, “They don’t give a s**t about people like you, Arthur. And they really don’t give a s**t about people like me either.” The “hardness and irresponsibility” of Gotham’s broken system is plain to see.

In moments of vulnerability, Fleck is saddened by the rudeness and lack of civility between people. He longs for human connection, to be treated with warmth and dignity—to be loved. Sadly, such tenderness and affection evade him, and his awkward attempts to reach out and connect with those around him result in mockery, humiliation, and rejection.

 

Restoration and Hope for the Rejected

In a review for Empire, Terri White commented that in the current climate Joker could be viewed as “a lament for outsiders and the ignored,” but she felt such a reading was “too simple.” It’s true that this is an origin story, a dark interpretation of how one of DC’s greatest villains came to be, and we need to be careful of justifying Fleck’s eventual homicidal madness.

And yet I hear the plaintive lamentation for the excluded and overlooked that plays throughout Joker’s tale. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if Arthur Fleck had received some of the love and acceptance—indeed, just the basic human respect and civility—that he longed for. Gotham city is a brutal place, and Fleck is constantly on the receiving end of its denizen’s harsh tongues, and ‘just for kicks’ beatings. He is seen as an outcast, a loser, a freak.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18, NLT)

In the social world of Luke’s Gospel, “poor” meant more than those who have little or no money but was a broader category that referred to those of low social status, to social ‘outsiders’ and the marginalized. Jesus came “[t]o set the burdened and battered free” (Luke 4:18, MSG), and throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus bringing restoration and reversal for the life circumstances of so many people, inviting them into the family of God to experience His love and healing power.

Arthur Fleck’s circumstances are tragic and pitiable, and his naïve, almost child-like desire for affirmation and warmth is heartbreaking. He has suffered so much: parental rejection and a traumatic upbringing; lack of a supportive social network of friends and extended family; his mental health issues and lack of social skills; and an incessant barrage of verbal and physical abuse.

Fleck is an outsider, someone lacking status and dignity in his world, a man desperate for Good News, whose father-hunger could be assuaged by the love of the God who is  a “father to the fatherless,” and whose yearning for familial love could be fulfilled, as “God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5-6).

 

Do We See the Forgotten?

One of the most relatable struggles Fleck faces is the difficulty of defining himself in a complex social world that bombards him with messages of his lack of worth. At various times, Fleck’s language reveals an inner-world filled with pain and futility: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.” “Nobody saw me. I didn’t even think I existed.”

Psychologist Shahram Heshmat points out that “in the face of identity struggle, many end up adopting darker identities . . . as a compensatory method of experiencing aliveness or staving off depression and meaninglessness.” Fleck has had enough of his powerless existence at the hands of a faceless and brutal system. Sadly, his empowerment has come through travelling a dark and vicious path, and in embracing violence and mayhem.

As his metamorphosis into The Joker is almost complete, he rails, “Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy . . . If it was me dying in the sidewalk. You’d walk right over me.” While Fleck paints a picture of indifference and despair, Christ offers another way. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). This means looking out for other people’s wellbeing, to be aware of others and not just ourselves. The apostle Paul writes, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4 ESV).  Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), a man who didn’t ‘walk right over’ a person in need but instead acted with compassion and loving service.

Even though Fleck’s life is filled with trauma and tragedy, there was another path available—albeit a narrow path, but one that leads to life. Drawing on Caleb Young’s wonderful conclusion, life under God is not meant to be a tragedy, or even a dark comedy, but a redemptive love story in which God draws us out of the muck and mire of our brokenness and into his family, where we can know ourselves as loved and accepted.

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).

Solo by Name, Solo by Nature?

Screenshot taken from Official Trailer

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Written by Simon Moetara, New Zealand

When we first meet Han Solo in a seedy Mos Eisley bar on Tatooine in Episode IV: A New Hope, he’s a pirate and smuggler, cynical and smug, all swaggering braggadocio and cold-blooded ruthlessness. His dress presents him as a sci-fi take on the Old-West gunslinger, with a quick draw on both his blaster and his sardonic wit.

And Han is all about Han. Recall Solo’s self-regarding words to Princess Leia Organa in A New Hope: “Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.” He’s also not used to playing nicely with others. Remember his stern rebuke to Leia: “Look, your worshipfulness, let’s get one thing straight. I take orders from just one person: me.”

However, Solo will go on a journey that will see his personality transformed. In the screenplay for A New Hope, Han Solo is described as “a loner who realizes the importance of being part of a group and helping for the common good.”

There is a history, a story, a lifetime of experiences and injuries that led Han Solo to become the sarcastic, self-interested adventurer we knew and loved in the original trilogy. In Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), director Ron Howard looks to explore this mythology behind the Star Wars universe’s most loveable rogue, and the tension between his cynical isolation and his deep need to belong.

Early on in Solo, Han looks to join the Galactic Empire in order to escape his poverty (and a group of pursuing bad guys). During recruitment, an Imperial security officer asks Han for his last name. When Han is silent, the officer asks, “Who are your people?” Han responds, “I don’t have people. I’m alone.” The officer then enters “Solo” as his family name, a name he takes on for the rest of the saga.

Solo spends the rest of the film trying to connect with others: a past love from his days as a thief in Corellia; with a band (really, a family) of outlaws led by surrogate father-figure Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson); and, of course, with his eventual partner of many decades, the Wookie, Chewbacca.

However, Solo experiences all manner of betrayal and duplicity. One character even warns Solo, “If you don’t trust anyone, you’ll never be disappointed.” Because, as writer Sarah Welch puts it, trust means vulnerability, and vulnerability means exposure to betrayal.

But, as Christian scholar C. S. Lewis writes in his classic work The Four Loves, to love at all is to be vulnerable.

Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal… avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

For Lewis—as for us—love means opening our hearts to the possibility of hurt and sorrow. As author Courtney Reissig points out, the only alternative would be to live without love—to be alone forever.

This is the challenge set before Solo. In the face of the cruelty and betrayal of a fallen and broken world, will he continue down a path of self-preservation, safe from hurt and wrapped in his ruthless pragmatism and self-serving cynicism? Or can he risk his heart for others, daring to love?

The one person he truly connects with is his seven-foot companion, Chewbacca. Forced together in captivity, and even chained together, their loyalty and friendship of many decades will grow. C. S. Lewis speaks of the love of friendship as being, “born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…’”

Chewbacca is alone and forlorn, looking for his family or tribe; Han is likewise alone and forsaken, yearning to belong. Together they find solace in the presence and companionship of one another, and will ultimately journey towards commitment to a cause far greater than themselves.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown notes that, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all men, women and children.” Brown continues:

We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as were meant to be. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick… The absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) reminds us of that same truth: we weren’t meant to do life alone. We’re not made for it. As human beings created in the image of the triune God, we were created to belong. We were made to love and to be loved and to belong. We were created for community.

Christian writer Philip Yancey says, “Christianity is not a purely intellectual, internal faith. It can only be lived in community.” In Acts 2:42 we read that the early church devoted themselves, among many things, “to fellowship,” to koinonia. The Message translation states that they committed themselves to “the life together.”

God wants us to know we’re loved. He wants us to have a sense of belonging. To belong to His people, and to find our identity in Him as people who are deeply loved. And to commit ourselves to the life together, under His guidance and grace.