What’s So Appealing about Comic Book Movies?

X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer, as of this writing, surpassed its franchise predecessors and grossed over $500 million, which is not far behind 2012’s blockbuster, Avengers, directed by Joss Whedon.  Avengers grossed over $600 million. As long as comic book movies keep winning in the box office, Hollywood is happy to indulge. Indeed, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is set to come out in theaters in May 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse will come out sometime in 2016. What is it about comic book movies that have such mass appeal?

1)      The Obvious: Over-the-top fight-scenes using high-tech graphics all done by super-fit people in tight-fitting outfits (or in the case of Mystique, no outfit)

More than mere eye-candy, there is something to the visual component of all of the recent comic book movies. Comics have always been about visual as well as verbal communication, but now the visual is accomplished with striking effects. Consider the high-budget fight scene guaranteed to appear in every comic book movie. The viewer not only sees or reads about the fight, but is able to experience it through the use of camera angles, lighting, and choreography. <Minor Spoiler Alert> For example, in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the scenes in which the future mutants are fighting the sentinels intentionally uses lighting and backdrop to convey despair, while the fight scene between the past mutants and the sentinels, is well-lit and hopeful.

2)      The Just: The good guys beat up on the bad guys

Human beings have an innate desire to see justice done. The protagonist(s) winning over the antagonist(s) satisfies some deep yearning for cosmic justice. One major theme in comic books is good versus evil. Stan Lee originally wrote Tony Stark (Ironman) to be an unlikable protagonist in the comic books. But, the appeal of the Ironman movies, particularly the first movie, is his redemption and subsequent fight against evil to make things right.

3)      The Alien: Mutants are weird, but not too weird

One literary device that writers often employ is the “alien” or the “savage”. This character is an outsider to the world as we know it that causes us to look beyond ourselves. It introduces the other. One classic example is the noble savage in Huxley’s Brave New World. He serves to question the infrastructure of the world that all of the other characters find completely normal, and in questioning the fictional world, he is questioning those similar elements in our world. Marvel’s mutants are not aliens, but serve the same purpose of representing the other. A theme in several of the X-Men movies is  prejudice and dehumanization.

4)      The Myth: Superheroes as modern-day gods

It is no secret that there are many parallels between comic book heroes and pagan gods, the writers even going so far as to borrow gods, such as Thor and Loki. Comic book heroes are inhumanly powerful, but with human flaws, making them both relatable and god-like. And, like pagan gods, they can be intimate with humans (Wolverine, The Wolverine), they can hate humans (Magneto), and they can have compassion on humanity (Professor X).

Comic book movies appeal to a mass audience because they touch on timeless elements, including, but not limited to its visual appeal. It’s the old story retold in modern trappings.

Related:

See “X-Men Ethics Class” from Salvo 18

The Language of Morality

When it comes to making moral decisions, is it better to have emotional distance or to have compassion?

An ethics professor once told me that ethics is not about choosing between right and wrong because you should always choose what’s right. Ethics is typically about choosing between two wrongs. Certainly, if two people are approaching a decision from differing moral foundations, they may disagree on the “right” decision, but what the professor meant was that they are still trying to decide the “right” decision in a difficult situation in which there are “wrongs” that must be weighed on both sides of the issue. When people disagree, they are often prioritizing the wrongs differently.

Let’s take a typical example from ethics class: if a train is running out of control, and one track has one person tied to it and another track with five people tied to it and you have control of the switch that will direct the train to either of these two tracks, which one do you pick?

More than merely a macabre puzzle game, these improbable scenarios are meant to illuminate how one makes ethical decisions. Often, in the train example, people will kill the one person to save the five people. The next bit is to change the scenario slightly to see if the same kind of utilitarian calculation applies. For example, the one person on the train track is your father, and the five people on the other track are strangers. You still have control of the switch, what do you choose to do? Or, another way to change the scenario is to change the demographics of the victims. What if the one person is a child, while the five people are escaped prisoners? Or, the one person is a woman and the five people are men?

Thankfully, we rarely find ourselves in such troubling situations. However, what influences our answer to these questions becomes much more important when we move out the realm of imaginary trains and into real situations. One example of this is in medicine. Bioethicists often debate how to determine who receives scarce medical resources.

Take the train example, and whether your answers changed when we changed the demographic of the people tied to the rail. This is quite similar to the questions ethicists ask when it comes to deciding who should receive an organ from an organ donor. There are more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are available organs, so we have a situation in which the ethicist must decide how to choose the person who lives in a fair and just way. This is a case of weighing out the “wrongs” because no matter what the ethicist chooses, someone will likely die.

People make decisions based on many factors, but an article in The Economist indicates one unforeseen factor. A study in which some participants were asked two variations of the train scenario in their native language while other participants were asked these scenarios in a different language showed a difference when asked in a different language. Participants were not fluent in the other language, and were tested to ensure they were able to understand the question. In one scenario, the train will hit five people who are lying on the track, and the only way to save them is to push a fat man onto the track in front of the train. You cannot jump in front of the train; the only way to save them is to shove the fat man in the path of the train. The other scenario is the switch and two tracks mentioned above.

The switch scenario emotionally distances the person from the violent act. When given the switch scenario, most people opt to kill the one person in order to save five. This was the case whether the question was asked in a person’s native language or in a different language. However, when the person must push the fat man onto the track, about 20% of people would push the fat man onto the track when asked in their native language (This was also the same for people fluent in a particular language), but when asked in a different language, the percentage was 33%.

After several tests and analyses to account for factors such as cultural mores and randomness, the study confirmed that when people are asked about the fat man scenario in a different language, they were more likely to push him onto the track compared to when they are asked in their native language or a language in which they have fluency. It seems that the different language provides emotional distance similar to the way the switch provided emotional distance.

We live in a globalized world in which many people communicate and make decisions in a different language. Based on this study, it seems that language barriers also create emotional distance that is not necessarily there if the person is making the decision in his or her native language. In the area of medicine, this may have implications for patients who are asked to make a decision while living in a different country that does not speak his or her language. Additionally, this may have implications for patients who are unfamiliar with technical medical jargon, in which the use of jargon may be similar to hearing a problem in a different language. This may prompt a patient to make a more emotionally distanced decision.

Unstoppable

Unstoppable

When a young friend died at the tender age of 15, Kirk Cameron was left wrestling with the perennial faith-breaking questions, Why does God allow suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Matt had lived a full 2/3 of his young life with cancer. His parents were good people. They loved God, even as they had to watch their son slip away. Kirk loved God too, but he had a hard time reconciling the seemingly senseless pain of life on this earth with the Christian doctrines of a sovereign and loving God.

Is it that God loves his creatures but can’t prevent the things that cause suffering? Or could he prevent them, but doesn’t really love people enough to bother? Well, no. The Bible tells us that God is both fully loving and completely sovereign. This leaves honest Christians with something of a personal/theological puzzle. How to reconcile the two absolutely good characteristics of God with the inescapable (and ultimately inevitable) pain of suffering and death in the world?

His most authentic and vulnerable production to date, Unstoppable is the product of Cameron’s search for satisfying answers. Part Bible exposition and part visual diary, Unstoppable dramatizes and records his personal Q&A journey with God. It’s one fruit of his own suffering, if you will.

There’s life and death seriousness in Unstoppable – this man is not one to shy away from something just because it’s hard. But there’s also some comedy: Imagine you were going to make a film about the biblical story of the flood, and the central character was going to be God. From a storytelling point of view, this is a hard sell.

Nonetheless, Cameron dons his Sunday best and goes before a committee of Hollywood big shots bearing “Hollywood Pitch: The Flood.” It goes something like this:

Cameron: The setting for the story is the apex of evil. Humanity is destroying itself. Then God steps in and raises up a man named Noah. He has a heart after God and is blameless in his sight.

Exec 1: Hero, hero

Cameron: And he begins calling everyone to turn back to God.

Exec 1: He’s the savior

Cameron: And God commissions him to build a giant ship.

Exec 2: Like a cruise ship?

Exec 3: Oooh, cruise ship; that’s a good idea. We could go with that.

Exec 1: Midnight buffet! (laughing) How many desserts can you have at 1:00 in the morning?

Cameron: Guys, this is not about a cruise ship. It’s a three-story, massive, cargo barge –

Exec 1: [gets a quizzical look on his face]

Cameron: – with Noah, his family, and some animals.

Exec 2: Alright, this is where the family comes in. The animals could talk to each other. Kids love animals.

Cameron: No. You see, there’s a complete deluge of the entire world, and everyone –

Exec 1: Yeah, I can see it. Everyone gets on these floating cities and –

Exec 2: – and everyone forms, like, a republic?

Cameron: No floating cities. One ship. With Noah. And his family. And all the animals.

Exec 1: Where are all the people?

Cameron: [pause] Drowned.

Exec 1: Whoah, whoah, whoah –

Exec 2: It kinda portrays God as the enemy here.

Cameron: The reason God does this is –

Exec 3: If we go back to the boat and the animal thing … the more I visualize this, I see this more as a cartoon kind of thing.

And the beat goes on. The execs like the idea of the family, the adventure, the talking animals, and the rainbow. They really like the rainbow. Exec 3 can already see the spike on Pinterest. But Cameron wants to stay true to the story. In the end, the execs tell Kirk they love him. And they love the story. All except the part about God and what really happened.

Do you see what they’ve done here? They want to rewrite the story according to what works for them. “That’s the story people want to hear,” says Exec 1.

The scene is staged for maximum comic effect. It’s like a scene from The Office. But there’s a very serious point to be made through it. We can be like those execs. After all, don’t we all want to rewrite the story of life according to what works for us?

But then, when the world doesn’t act according to our script, we don’t know what’s going on. We get angry. Or depressed. Or both. We don’t get it. And we gnash our teeth at God. Whether we believe in him or not.

Perhaps we don’t “get” God because we don’t want God. We have not paid attention to what he has already told us. We have instead rewritten the story of our life according to what works for us. And then, when we find ourselves at odds with life, or when tragedy strikes and we reel in confusion, not only do we not understand, we don’t even know where to look to seek understanding. We wrote God out of our story.

Meanwhile God’s story goes on. And it’s not over. God, who is exceedingly patient and gracious, still calls all of us to repent and seek him. Sometimes that happens as a result of suffering. For some of us, it doesn’t happen any other way.

Unstoppable2Cameron has produced a beautiful and brutally honest film, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Dedicated to Matthew James Sandgren, May 2nd, 1997 – August 23rd, 2012, the Q&A session between Cameron and God ends with satisfying answers. Satisfying enough, at least, for the time being. The name “Unstoppable is fitting, but I had to watch all the way to the end to figure it out.

You should too.

Unstoppable will premier September 24th. Get your tickets here.

Related:

Diplomat on Ice

Katarina Witt Gold MEdalsEast German ice skater Katarina Witt was arguably the best skater in the world in the 1980s, earning gold medals in both the 1984 and 1988 Olympic games. Graceful, smart, confident and articulate, for many she was the face of East German socialism. One Western headline dubbed her, “The Shining Star of the GDR.” (“German Democratic Republic” – the official name of East Germany.)

During the Cold War years, two mutually exclusive political systems stood at an impasse for decades. One venue for proving superiority on the world stage had been sports, and for that reason, East Germany, geographically miniscule compared to the Soviet Union and China, devoted maximum resources to athletics. With Katarina, they scored gold.

The Diplomat, the sixth film in ESPN Films’s Nine for IX Series, will premiere on Tuesday, August 6th at 8pm, ET, on ESPN. The Diplomat – so named because it was said that East German athletes “were raised to be diplomats in track suits” – examines the rise of Katarina’s skating career against the socio-political backdrop of the fall of Communism. Katarina loved to skate; she loved the competitive challenge and the art of performing. And the prospect of being able to travel, to see parts of the world others weren’t allowed to see, was an incentive to train hard.

Ironically, her success may have played a small role in the massive upheaval that would soon sweep East Germany toward the Communist dustbin of history. After the 1988 Olympics, Katarina was allowed to travel outside East Germany to perform in Carmen on Ice. Never before had an East German athlete been granted permission to even perform as a professional, let alone in a Western nation in pursuit of a capitalist enterprise. The news appeared in West German papers and soon, made its way into East Germany.

In October, 1989, tens of thousands of fed up East Germans took to the streets in Leipzig, sometimes defying cold rain, demanding freedom – free elections, free speech, and freedom to travel. Katarina watched it all on the news from her hotel room in Seville, Spain.

Sadly, but hardly surprisingly, as this innate spirit of freedom awakened from its 40-year slumber, along with it came a surge of pent-up anger and hostility. Whereas the average East German might wait fourteen years for a car, which probably wouldn’t even have been a very good one, Katarina had a sleek sports car, a penthouse apartment, and a country retreat. It was typical of Socialist/Communist modus operandi. Those who serve the interests of the rulers share in the spoils of the rule. The useless get nothing.

With this turn of events, Katarina went from celebrity to persona non grata almost overnight. But there was more disillusionment to come. In January, 1990, East Germans stormed Stasi Headquarters, where the East German Secret Police archives were held. Three thousand people applied to see their own files in the first 24 hours. Katarina was shocked to discover that the Stasi had been watching her since she was seven years old. Her file consisted of 27 boxes containing 3,500 pages of surveillance information. Worse, trusted personal friends had signed papers, albeit under threat of imprisonment, to become what the Stasi called “unofficial co-workers,” otherwise known as informants. This too is part and parcel to Communist rule.

To her credit, Katarina speaks as graciously today as she moved across ice then. She says she will always be thankful for the State’s support in helping her pursue her skating dreams, and expresses no bitterness toward Stasi informants. She acknowledges that it may well have been what they had to do “to survive. It’s their story. You have to let go, and you have to close the chapter to be free again.”

The DiplomatAt the same time, she’s become convinced that people should not be arbitrarily confined in a country. “You should be allowed to travel the world, to make up your own opinion. You need democracy.”

She would know. The Diplomat is worth watching for the beauty of Katarina Witt and her skating alone. But as socio-political autopsy, it’s pure gold. Born in Europe, the political offspring of a German in fact, East German Communism barely survived 40 years before it gasped and collapsed into so much Berlin Wall rubble.

Westerners would do well to take note and learn from this diplomat.

Related:

Should the State be Involved in Marriage?

In my various writings on the topic of same-sex ‘marriage’ (for a complete list, click here) I have argued that government has a duty to recognize marriage as being between a man and a woman. But perhaps the state should get out of the marriage business completely. Perhaps the state should not be involved at all in publicly recognizing certain types of relationships as being marriage. This is the position taken by radical libertarians
and it is an attractive solution to the ‘gay marriage’ debate, even among Christians. According to this line of thinking, once the state begins pronouncing that certain types of relationships are marriage, this itself shows that government has overstepped its God-appointed mark.

In a Christian Voice article , ‘Why Gay Marriage is a Public Threat Part 2‘, I addressed this position. “If it were true that the state has no business recognizing certain types of relationships as being marriage, then how far do we extend that?” I asked. For example, is it wrong for the government of a nation to recognize certain types of relationships as being marriage, but okay for the government of the state or shire or county to recognize certain types of relationships as being marriage?

Let’s try to be completely consistent with the libertarian position and say that it is wrong for government to recognize certain types of relationships as being marriage all the way
down to the level of village government. That would mean if there was a small tribe of a thousand people in the jungle of South America, that it be wrong for them to have formal or informal mechanisms in place for recognizing who was married and for then using those mechanisms to generate the presumption of paternity or to settle disputes about
inheritance or other matters. Few libertarians would want to go that far, and yet it is hard to see how that example is qualitatively different to the situation today, where the people of the community have certain formal mechanisms in place for identifying a legal marriage. Whether one does this through the large-scale community of the state or a small-scale community of the village or tribe, it is in principle the same thing, namely, formal some type of formal way to recognize the difference between being married and being not married.

Whenever you have a community that has formal or informal mechanisms in place for recognizing a marriage, then questions of what can count as marriage will arise and have to be settled by the community. Whether that community is represented by the gathering of local chiefs, or whether there is a de facto tradition of common law that is appealed to, or whether there is the apparatus of the modern state, the basic principle is the same: the civil community has mechanisms in place for recognizing what is and is not a marriage.
But let’s suppose this wasn’t the case and the radical libertarians have a point: we should abolish civil marriage completely. In their book What is Marriage?, Girgis, Anderson and George suggest some of the consequences that would arise if such a state of affairs were realized:

 

Sherif Girgis, Robert George and Ryan Anderson, authors of the book What is Marriage?

Abolishing civil marriage is practically impossible. Strike the word ‘marriage’ from the law, and the state will still license, and attach duties and benefits to, certain bonds [benefits such as the presumption of paternity]. Abolish these forward-looking forms of regulation, and they will only be replaced by messier, retroactive regulation – of disputes over property, custody, visitation, and child support. What the state once did by efficient legal presumptions, it will then do by burdensome case-by-case assignments of parental (especially paternal) responsibilities.

“The state will only discharge these tasks more or less efficiently–that is, less or more intrusively. It can’t escape them. Why not? Because the public functions of marriage–both to require and to empower parents (especially fathers) to care for their children and each other–require society-wide coordination. It is not enough if, say, a particular religion presumes a man’s paternity of his wife’s children, or recognizes his fights and duties toward their mother; or if the man and his wife contract to carry out certain tasks. For private institutions can bind only their own; private contracts bind only those who are party to them. A major function of marriage law is to bind all third parties (schools, adoption agencies, summer camps, hospitals; friends, relatives, and strangers) presumptively to treat a man as father of his wife’s children, husbands and wives as entitled to certain privileges and sexually off-limits, and so on. This only the state can do with any consistency.

But more than inevitable or necessary, it is fitting that the state should do this. Consider a comparison. Why don’t even the strictest libertarians decry traffic laws? First, the orderly traffic protects health and promotes efficiency, two great goods. Second, these goods are common in two senses; private efforts cannot adequately secure them, and yet failure to secure them has very public consequences. It is not as if we would have had the same (or even just slightly less) safety and efficiency of travel if people just did as they pleased, some stopping only at red lights and others only at green. Nor would damage from the resulting accidents (and slower shipments, etc) be limited to those responsible for causing it. To ensure safe and efficient travel at all, and to limit harm to third parties, we need legal coordination. Indeed, it is no stretch to say that the state owes its citizens to keep minimum security and order: to these we have a right. Finally, unlike private associations, the state can secure these goods, without intolerable side effects. Al this makes it appropriate for the state to set our traffic laws….

If something would serve an important good, if people ha a right to it, if private groups cannot secure it well, everyone suffers if it is lost, and the state can secure it without undue cost, then the state may step in–and should.

 

Pro-Choice Inconsistencies

During one part of the trial for mass murderer Kermit Gosnell, the defence attorney thought he had scored a decisive point when one witness acknowledged that he could not say with “medical certainty” that a certain baby had not been killed while still in the womb. However, in a penetrating USA Today column, Kirsten Powers noted that “whether Gosnell was killing the infants one second after they left the womb instead of partially inside or completely inside the womb — as in a routine late-term abortion — is merely a matter of geography. That one is murder and the other is a legal procedure is morally irreconcilable.”

Also, whether the baby was partially inside or completely outside the womb makes absolutely no difference in the amount of pain the child would have experienced. This may be obvious, but it is worth pointing out because during Gosnell’s trial one of the points brought up by the prosecution was the excruciating pain the babies went through as their necks were severed. It is hard to see how the issue of pain is even relevant outside a pro-life framework, for the babies would have died just as painfully inside the womb if they had been subject to conventional, and legally acceptable, forms of abortion.

Last week I wrote a couple articles for Christian Voice where I pointed out similar inconsistencies in the public discussion serounding the Gosnell trial. They can be read at the following links: