Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to all people, and to set the captives free." Isaiah 61:1

In their grand explosive finale, the producers at Disney have finally given us a very spiritual conclusion to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise with its third installment, At World's End.

But contrary to the advertising and buzz, the hero to watch in this story is not Captain Jack Sparrow (wonderfully played by Johnny Depp). Sure, Captain Jack is on his way to a hero's journey; but the real one you'll want to watch is Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). Like any good hero story (including the many we find in the Scriptures), the one whom destiny has chosen comes from the sidelines, not center stage. So while Captain Jack might entertain us for a few hours on screen, the true miracle of Pirates of the Caribbean lies with the handsome swordsmith from the first film.

"Destiny awaits you," declares vodoo priestess Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris) to Turner in the second movie, Dead Man's Chest. But so what? Will Turner does not want destiny; all he really wants is to redeem and free his imprisoned father Bootstrap Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and spend the rest of his days in love with Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly). Destiny, as he sees it, is something he doesn't really care about - all he wants is happiness for others.

Ironically, the very people in this film who want power are the ones for whom destiny has forgotten. Captain Barbossa (Geoffery Rush), Admiral Norrington (Jack Davenport), Davy Jones (Bill Nighy, underneath the tentacles), and especially Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) all crave power over others; all eventually will lose it.

Destiny has a funny way of choosing those who don't choose it. The prophet Isaiah among many other prophets tried to escape their destiny, but God has a funny way of choosing people like that.

Near the end of Isaiah's magnificent work, he reflects on his life and all those who are destined for true greatness: "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to all people, and to set the captives free." (Isaiah 61:1). If we, like Isaiah, the prophets, and blockbuster heroes like Will Turner, keep our eyes focused on freeing the captives and bringing good news to the poor and brokenhearted, God's grace will be upon us.

What makes a real hero? Ironically, one who doesn't even really he or she is a hero. Will Turner's goal in this perhaps-too-long third film is to simply free the captives (his dad) and love the brokenhearted (Elizabeth); but in the end, this selfless devotion to a higher good is what makes him the real hero of this story. And in a Christ-like allusion near the very end of the movie, Turner ends up doing more than save a few souls - he is able to save the world (well, perhaps just the Caribbean).

This summer, perhaps I need to be concerned less with being a hero like the ones in the movies, but rather be concerned with bringing good news to the poor, saddened, hungry, poverty-striken, alienated, margainalized, beaten down, meek, and grieving. Who knows? Perhaps that is just what it takes to be the real hero.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Shrek the Third

Are you a person of action?

Mature responsibility is a heavy crown, one that a lot of people avoid.

In Shrek the Third, the titular green ogre (voiced by Mike Myers) is thrust into a world of responsibility that he has either avoided or rushed through over three movies. He now has to grapple with the heavy responsibility of possible kingship and an even more important role of being a new dad.

But Shrek would rather stay content in his swamp, letting the days fly as the mud and swampgrass hang from the trees – and most importantly – devoid of responsibility.

Even the “villains” of this movie (led by Prince Charming, voiced by Rupert Everett), want to experience all the glory of being “heroes” without the responsibility of caring for the people of the kingdom. Almost everyone, it seems, wants to escape responsibility.

Except, perhaps, Fiona (voiced by Cameron Diaz), the true heroine of the film.

Fiona is one of the few characters not succumbed by a fear of maturity, but unfortunately for her character, she is a woman and subjected to a supporting role in the film. In a sense, many of the women in real life have to endure similar roles; they tackle and accept responsibility, but society seems to favor the journey of the man rather than the woman. Shrek the Third redeems itself by making the women with Fiona the most exciting collection of heroes to watch.
Responsibility is something many people shrink from. Responsibility is the calling card of the hero or heroine in any life situation. Responsibility means sacrificing our time, energy, and even our very selves (reputation, image, and even life) for others or for a task laid out before us. Responsibility may not be easy, but in the end, it’s always worth it.

But often times, doing nothing is the easiest thing to do.

Doing nothing means we are free from action. Doing nothing means we free from having to answer for our faults or failings. Doing nothing means we have put ourselves before others, and that others can take care of things instead of us. Doing nothing is throwing away our God-given responsibilities.

Doing nothing is what got Shrek in trouble, and it’s what got the classic fairytale “villains” into their own rut. Doing nothing never amounted to – well – anything. Because when we do nothing, we allow injustice, hatred, and selfishness to creep into life (represented in the film by a misguided Prince Charming).

In the New Testament, Jesus never tells his apostles to do “nothing.” He’s always calling them to action, to going the extra mile, to making a positive influence upon their world. In other words, he calls them to mature responsibility – for the sake of others and for the sake of their own souls.

In a sense, the old adage, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop” rings true for our very selves. If we allow ourselves to slip into a life of inaction, of hoping someone else does what we choose not to do, then we fall victim to the fate of Far Far Away Land.

What actions can we do (even simple actions) to make a real difference in the world? What steps can we take to be a hero? What responsibilities are we shying away from that we need to recapture? How can we be people of action in our own ways?

Be people of action. Be people of responsibility. Be people of God.

Friday, May 04, 2007

SpiderMan 3

“This feels good.” - Peter Parker

How many of us just want to make it through each day feeling good? We usually want to avoid pain, anger, sadness, or anxiety. We just want to feel good. We’ll have enough pain in our life, so why not enjoy feeling good? Come on, who can argue with this?

SpiderMan 3 features several characters that have been through a lot (two previous movies, to be certain); they have had a lot of loss, pain, and anger in their fictional lives. We can feel for them: they just want to feel good for a movie.

Take Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire), our web-slinging superhero; as we’ve seen in past films, he began life as an ignored, pushed-aside, picked-upon geek. He’s never been appreciated by anyone beyond his immediate family and few friends. Now, two movies later, he has been endowed with incredible super powers, a stellar city-wide reputation (capstoned by a big rally in the middle of New York City), and the loving affections from the woman of his dreams (Mary Jane Watson, played by Kirstin Dunst).

In SpiderMan 3, life is finally looking up…

But over time, Peter focuses more on the achievement and celebration of his happiness and slips into a dark side (physically manifested by some black “goo” from outer space, strange as that sounds) and becomes a black-clad evil version of himself. With this “goo” possessing him, Peter starts living life based solely on this happiness. Over the course of the movie, his friendships start to fray, his relationship with Mary Jane falls apart, and his reputation in the media becomes negative. Perhaps, life isn’t looking up after all…

The villains of this movie aren’t all that different, either.

Flint Marko (played by Thomas Haden Church) finds himself running down the slippery slope into his own dark side: He began his life of crime by simply trying to find money for his daughter’s medicine. Now Flint is caught up in acts of revenge against those who stand in his way, even including murder. One act builds upon another until he eventually becomes the indestructible Sandman.

Harry Osborn (played by James Franco) began his journey through these films in a deep sadness at the death of his wayward father (from the first SpiderMan film, played by Willem Dafoe). Over time, he becomes obsessed with finding his father’s supposed killer, so much so that he becomes equally obsessed with becoming just like his father, letting reason and compassion fall by the side as he marches toward this goal.

Eddie Brock (played by Topher Grace) just wanted to impress his new girlfriend Gwen (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) with his new job as a snap photographer for the Daily Bugle. However, because of this simple need for love, he took on the persona of Venom, also possessed by that pesky black “goo” from outer space. Not only that, he treats others as insignificant people to step over on his way to an impressive young career.

Each of these “villains” began with wanting to feel good, but become overwhelmed. What makes the dark side so enjoyable that we end up going there?

For Peter Parker, attention and acceptance was so craved that he slipped into a life of being the power-hungry, self-obsessed superstar superhero.

For Marko, desperation for money and medicine was so strong that he slipped into a life of doing whatever he had to get his way.

For Brock, the need for a meaningful relationship and a good job was so strong that he took advantage of anyone he met to get ahead in his career and to have this relationship.

But SpiderMan 3 does not just teach us about our personal slope into darkness, but also about how we treat those going down that slope. How often do we discriminate against these “villains” or those who think or act differently than we do? Is Harry Osborn really a bad guy, or is there hope? Is Eddie Brock really that disgusting or does he have a human need for relationships that has just gotten the best of him? Is Flint Marko a criminal, or has society put him in this position because of poverty and high medicine costs? In that case, who is the real villain here?

Christ calls us to love our enemies, but do we ever ask why he said that? I feel he called us to do this because we just don’t know. We just don’t know where our enemies are coming from. We just don’t know if they are just responding to a deeper hurt or life situation. We just don’t know why they do what they do. And because we just don’t know what we don’t know, we need to be careful how we react. Christ called us to this love because he always wanted us to err on the side of compassion, not vengeance.

This is the problem that the “villains” in this movie had to deal with – they didn’t act with compassion, just selfish vengeance. If we don’t want to end up where they were in this movie, we are called to love our enemies.

We are also called to dialogue with people, not just assume and act on that assumption.

We are also called to help those people and the society around them, not allow the hurt to continue.

And if we find ourselves in a “villain” position in life, we are called to seek redemption because, even if no one else on the planet sees us as good, God still does. And that’s worth working toward. SpiderMan 3 reminds us what it means to be on either side of goodness. And being good is a better goal for us than just “feeling good.”