REVIEW: Parasite

Tens of millions of television viewers recently rejoiced at the big screen return of a silver screen favorite. For four years, fans just couldn’t wait to once again walk down that gravel path to Downton Abbey. It’s a classic story of a society in transition and the ways progress affects or stifles characters throughout the different classes. Downton’s following were swept up in the romance of the extravagant traditions of the upstairs family and rooted wholeheartedly as the downstairs characters attempted to climb their way out to various success.

In all honesty, the film installment of Downton Abbey served more as a special episode of the show than it did a movie that might make awards moves, but a similar story is already being dubbed one of the year’s best! Imagine if Downton Abbey was set in modern day South Korea and helmed by one of world cinema’s most creative filmmakers. Well, that’s what you get in the genre bending heist-suspense-thriller-horror-political-comedy, Parasite.

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There are many reasons that Parasite is getting its praise. The movie excels in the major components to any movie: acting, writing, editing, sound, cinematography, etc. What makes it so uniquely special, though, is the vision and voice of its director. It is almost always hard to say what genre Ho is playing with in any given movie, and he often covered several. What’s more important is what he’s trying to say and how he’s using the medium to say it.

Like Downton, Ho often focuses on themes of class, exploitation, and society’s woes. In Snowpiercer, he depicts a future where the survivors of a global freeze are confined to a moving train with each car representing different class positons. In Okja, Ho tells the tale of the daughter of a lower-class farmer who raises and then must protect a genetically engineered future pig. Most would say these are strange movies, but there really is something unique and gripping about Ho’s vision. They manage to be weird without being inaccessible. They manage to have a dark edge but with a light of life. They exist in fictional universes but somehow evoke extremely real feelings. With Parasite, though, he’s doing something a little different. It features characters, a setting, and a premise that’s fairly normal. Yet, in perfect Ho fashion, the film manages to be anything but.

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Parasite follows one of the downstairs families of South Korea. They live in a subterranean apartment where they fold pizza boxes for grocery money and huddle into the highest corners for just a taste of nearby WiFi. Fortunes change when the son is hired as a tutor by a very upstairs family and from there Ho takes his audience through somewhat of a genre obstacle course. This is just not a film you can stay ahead of. There’s no typical roadmap to follow through its narrative. In the year of our Lord 2019, that is such a rare gift.

What you will feel throughout the film is Ho’s ability to reach into your body and spark a reaction. It’s a visual medium but he orchestrates a sensory experience that you can smell and feel. It’s beyond the visceral feeling of texture and stretches into your involuntary bodily reactions to make you feel what the characters are feeling. At times, I was relaxed and confident. Ten minutes later I was suspicious and nervous. A few seconds pass and I’m breathless and shaking, and as it continues I’m uncontrollably sad.

I was exhausted. Ho wants you to feel what it is like to be those downstairs people trying to climb. It is reminiscent of another incredible film recently released from South Korea, Chang-Dong Lee’s Burning. Both films highlight a younger generation of South Koreans experiencing an ever expanding gap in the classes, and both films do so by focusing on what the lives of the lower class are truly worth. They explore the highs and lows of a life lived at the bottom of the stairs.

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The downstairs family gets so close to the life of the upstairs family, but it is all an illusion. What is a minor inconvenience to our upstairs characters, alters the life of everyone in the downstairs community. At the peak of their maneuvering to ascend into greater flourishing, the downstairs family feel a small measure of control and power only to have their schemes descend into pure chaos. The upstairs family maintained power the entire time. Our protagonists were only ever one squish or slap away from losing connection to resources and a better life. Thus is the life of a parasite.

*I’d love to say more, but I don’t want to ruin the experience. Snowpiercer, Okja, and Burning are all currently streaming on Netflix and including Parasite should all be watched with viewer discretion as ratings vary. But they should be watched!

REVIEW: Jojo Rabbit

There is nothing funny about the Holocaust or the Hitler Youth or any of our current expressions of white supremacy. And yet, in the midst of the great divisions we feel in our world today, comes Jojo Rabbit, a satirical comedy from Taika Waititi who is known for comedy bangers like What We Do in the Shadows and Thor: Ragnarok.  He’s also known for pulling out the comedy in tragedy like he does in the acclaimed Hunt for the Wilderpeople. This is what he does with Jojo. Waititi tackles a horrific subject through comedy hoping that the laughs will keep our eyes locked on something we often turn a blind eye to.

Jojo is a young German boy who goes away to Hitler Youth camp as World War II is coming to an end. Even in the world of young Nazis in bloom, it’s impossible to escape the clichés of youth. Jojo is starving for acceptance, eager to prove his masculinity, and regularly bullied by the older boys. These are just distractions, though, because Jojo is there to learn how to be the best Nazi he can be. He’s swimming in a pool of indoctrination and sponging up every drop. This is a lot of pressure for little Jojo, but he finds strength in his imaginary friend, a version of Hitler formed in his young mind played by the film’s New Zealander director.

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In the role, Waititi gets to pinpoint the absurdity of hate. He’s not just playing Hitler, he is playing the personification of Jojo’s learned racism and fascism. He is Jojo’s sinful nature and he, along with the film as a whole, is brilliant. Calling out the senselessness of white supremacy is easy. People do it all the time on Twitter with short, jabby quips accompanied by the perfect animated GIFs of Kermit the frog sipping tea. Waititi doesn’t leave us with an impactful jab, though. With Jojo Rabbit, he offers a solution, because a quarter of the way through the film something unexpected happens.

In order to talk about some of the power of Jojo Rabbit, we’ve got to dig into spoiler territory. I’m going to spoil a major plot point, but I promise, even if you know it, there are plenty of twists and turns in the film. It is an important point to help draw out the film’s larger themes and, might just be a selling point if you haven’t seen it and you really should! Regardless, if you want to go into Jojo blind, stop reading now and come back!

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Circumstances lead to Jojo being forced to stay home from camp where he discovers a young Jewish woman hiding in the walls. Jojo is terrified. He’s chilled to the bone, his veins streaming with the power of an irrational fear of the other. This fear was implanted in him by the counselors at camp and the national pride in the air. It is a fear that could only exist and be made stronger by Jews being an absolute mystery. As long as Jojo doesn’t come in contact with an actual Jew, he can maintain the picture of a hellish demon that has been fashioned in his mind. But then there is Elsa, played with such power by Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie. She’s thin from eating scraps, and dirty from hiding in the walls, but she is human and Jojo is now locked in the house with her. Proximity will now slowly, but surly, dismantle fear.

This is why Christ dined with sinners, touched lepers, and pushed his disciples into Gentile communities. Fear and hatred can create seemingly insurmountable distance between people, but that vitriol can only survive as long as that distance in maintained. What do you mean that a Samaritan can be good? How can it be that Paul, the ultimate Jewish leader who sparked such violence towards the Gentiles, would be their pied piper of salvation? Fear feeds on the unknown, and the best way to combat that is by making the unknown known. Being locked in proximity to Elsa gives Jojo a chance to see she doesn’t have horns, her heart is actually kind, and yes, she does bleed the same color red. It can be simple or easy for us to let go of distance and separation, but the problem is that fear and hate don’t so easily let go of us.

Just when the disciples were starting to warm up to the idea of the Gospel being for everyone, even the Gentiles, here comes Peter gripped with fear. In Galatians, Paul catches Peter engaging in conduct that “was not in step with the truth of the gospel,” and he is furious. Paul had been working tirelessly to close the distance between these people groups and Peter was driving the wedge again. Peter’s fear wasn’t letting go, and neither does Jojo’s. The more Elsa makes him smile, imaginary Hitler begins to frown. Waititi’s Fuhrer begins acting less like a cartoon character and more like the man of the news reels and propaganda.

Jojo Rabbit depicts the fight for a young boy’s very soul, and, in many ways, the fight for ours as well. Every laugh is followed by a cringe of reality knowing how many adorable little kids, and Jojo actor Roman Griffin Davis is adorable, have been, and are being, turned into monsters with time-tested methods. It is an absurd film, but one that is going to pull you through a gallery of tears. There are tears of laughter, tears of sadness, tears of pain, and tears of great, personal conviction. The film asks what devils of ignorance and fear are living in your own heart while it walks a very fine line between making fun of the hypocrisy and making light of the horrors. This line, however, is walked with a hope that maybe one day we can make hate a figment of our imagination.

 

 

 

Joker: Should We Sympathize with Evil?

It’s been out for two weeks, and Joker has already sparked a season’s worth of controversy. It won the highest prize at the Venice Film Festival, Joaquin Phoenix is getting widespread praise for his leading performance, and it has an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. All great accolades which should indicate this film is a must-see.

Joker is a stand-alone story loosely set in the DC Comics universe, an anomaly these days as seemingly every new action movie hopes to launch a franchise. It is an origin story of sorts for Batman’s most popular nemesis, The Joker. This is already a bold departure from comic book canon as The Joker notoriously lacks a personal history. A characteristic played upon so well by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, who asks others throughout the movie, “Do you want to know how I got these scars?”, always telling a different story to each person. He is a shadow, unknown, unpredictable, unscrupulous.

But director Todd Phillips takes his Joker in an altogether different direction. We follow Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged down-and-out clown with a history of mental illness. He works thankless jobs and gets beat up by street kids. His social worker is apathetic and ineffective. He has to care for his invalid mother. He has a chronic, uncontrollable laugh that makes social situations painfully awkward. And then the city budget for social services gets cut and he can no longer get his much-needed prescriptions. He is a person who has been beaten down by life and forgotten by the system. As a result, he turns to increasingly erratic and brutal acts of violence.

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This is what I found so problematic about Joker. It gives evil a sympathetic back-story. Arthur kills multiple people throughout the film, with additional situations alluding to possible violence that occurs off-screen. But all of his victims to some extent “had it coming.” None of them are innocent bystanders, his killings all have some form of reason behind them. Perhaps they did not deserve to die, but the audience can understand why Arthur acts as he does. And in many ways this takes Arthur off the hook. He is a product of the system. He is a product of chronic mistreatment. He is a product of isolation. He is a product of the true villain: Society.

But if we give evil a sympathetic back-story, it is no longer evil. It is no longer purely malicious and destructive, it is simply a reaction to forces outside one’s control. This may be one reason why the Bible is conspicuously silent on the origin of evil. We have plenty of lore about Satan, everyone has a different story about his downfall, very little of which is actually rooted in scripture. He is the true Joker, a force of decay seeking to tear down the structures of society with no aim other than to cause chaos. As Alfred so sagely puts it in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” As God’s true opposite, Satan embodies everything that God is not: deceit, selfishness, isolation, hatred, shame, bitterness, injustice, destruction, etc. And that is what Satan seeks to propagate in God’s world. How evil came to be is irrelevant because it does not change the nature of what it is. It is inherently and purposefully negative in every way. It is not a product of other forces, it is the force.

So it is a dangerous game to justify the unjustifiable. To humanize the inhumane. To make evil a victim rather than expose him for a victimizer. There is a reason that Satan is called the Deceiver. Jesus says his native language is lies (John 8). Joker is just one more product of a Deceiver who would convince us that he is not so bad after all. One who would fabricate a sympathetic origin-story to make his villainy less villainous in an effort to convince our culture that there is no absolute evil, just a lot of misunderstandings and bad breaks. That our biggest problem is Society and not the presence of sin in the world and in our hearts.

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It’s not a surprise that Joker theologically flawed, but it’s also thematically flawed. While Phoenix’s lead performance is indeed mesmerizing, it is for little good purpose. The way the story is told perpetuates the flagrantly toxic narrative that white men only resort to violence as a result of mental health issues, thereby exonerating them of personal responsibility or plain malfeasance. The film also portrays a narrative that mental health treatment is useless and mental health professionals have nothing helpful to offer. What a bleak, hopeless picture it could also potentially paint for those who struggle with their mental health. No one will help you, you are all alone, and you may as well give in to the negative thoughts.

If that wasn’t enough, Phillips treats his female characters poorly, making them weak and incompetent victims of Arthur’s outbreaks. His strong female cast are wasted in roles that do nothing with their talent. In its most extreme interpretation, Joker also glorifies acts of violence and glamorizes them as “starting a movement.” By the end of the film, Arthur feels a sense of power and belonging through receiving a positive public response to his actions. All of these messages have the potential to impact individuals and audiences in a dangerous and harmful way.

Perhaps Phillips wanted to draw attention to a broken economic system. Perhaps he wanted to confront America with our neglect of the poor and unwell. But what he produced is a shoddy and cynical story. One that runs the risk of perpetuating the things it claims to indict, and one that allows evil to wear a mask of decency. We do not move forward as a society by continuing cycles of violence. We do not move forward by creating so many anti-heroes that we never unmask our true villains. That can only be done by naming evil for what it is, and turning away from it. Change doesn’t happen by disguising evil in the garb of artistic cinematography and art-house performance. That is not true to the character, and is just another clumsily cloaked lie passing for insight.

Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

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From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

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The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.

 

REVIEW: See You Yesterday

What is it about time travel that brings storytellers back to the concept again and again? There have been countless movies, TV shows, comics, books, and songs inspired by it (Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” anyone?). Perhaps the biggest movie ever made, Avengers: Endgame, revolves around going backwards through time. Yet, so much of what we know about time travel stems from one source, Marty McFly, Doc Brown, and their flying DeLorean. Paul Rudd’s Ant Man lays out the rules of time travel in Endgame warning that his Avengers teammates need to be careful they don’t talk to their past selves or bet on sporting events, all references to 1985’s Back to the Future.

That singular movie has shaped so much of what popular culture thinks about time travel and has inspired other contributions to the culture as well. Rick & Morty, a cartoon loosely inspired by Doc and Marty, has gathered an enthusiastic, albeit occasionally problematic, fan base. This year Nike debuted its third major attempt at recreating the sequel’s famous self-lacing sneakers. The Nike BB Adapt will even be seen in a Back to the Future II colorway this year! Don’t forget our recent obsession with “hoverboards” and geocache scooters that have us all feeling McFly on the sidewalks. What about time travel itself, though? Why are we so drawn to the ideas explored in Robert Zemeckis’s landmark film?

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In the Netflix movie, See You Yesterday, a delightful cameo states, “If time travel were possible, it would be the greatest ethical and philosophical conundrum of the modern age.” This character, whom I’ll keep a surprise, goes on to ask, “If you had that kind of power, what would you do? What would you change?” There lies the magic of this classic sci-fi scenario. Time travel offers audiences the opportunity to dream about what could be, and the continued allure of Back to the Future may be in just how simple the film makes it look to change everything. Marty pinpoints all of his family’s troubles down to one moment from his parents’ past and it causes a butterfly effect that improves life for every McFly. It’s that easy. Marty wakes up at the end of the film and his parents are more in love than ever, his siblings are more professionally successful, Marty gets the girl and the cool car he could never afford, and, in general his family is more affluent. What if it was more complex than that? What if the issues holding you back reached farther and deeper than one specific moment?

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See You Yesterday follows teenage prodigies CJ and Sebastian, students at a New York science-focused high school. They are so brilliant that years before Tony Stark could, they’ve figured out time travel! In their first successful test, CJ inadvertently causes a ripple that leads to tragedy. In the wake of her mistake, someone attempts to comfort CJ by saying that we all wish we had the power to go back and change things. CJ and Sebastian have that power and are launched into a race against time to fix everything! It doesn’t take very long before CJ realizes she isn’t in Back to the Future, and that changing the world isn’t as simple as Doc and Marty have led us to believe.

Here is where See You Yesterday shines. Writer/director Stefon Bristol uses time travel to explore the systems in our world that simply cannot be undone in one move. There are times when the film is incredibly frustrating. CJ is trying to accomplish something no one has ever done before. There’s no rule book and the pressure to fix things is an incredible burden. Again and again and again it becomes clear that her past mistakes, the culture she lives in, the prejudices around her, and so much more are working against her. Every step forward feels like forty steps backs. One can infer, this is precisely the point.

See You Yesterday CJ and Sebastian

For many people in America, even with the advent of time travel technology, they can only dream of something resembling Marty McFly’s life at the beginning of Back to the Future. They own their own home? They have working vehicles to begin with? They only have one relative that’s incarcerated? Life can be a lot worse, and for large portions of our population, it is. Where would you even begin to fix it? Would helping Bill Clinton draft a better crime bill help? Perhaps pre-empting cocaine flow into America in 1980’s would alleviate some problems? Would stopping the assassinations of the 1960’s fix it? Would going further back and stopping discriminatory housing practices post abolition do anything? Maybe we’d have to go back further and try to stop the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Or perhaps even further and give some pause to colonizers like Columbus? Or even further and stop Cain from striking Abel?

The reality is that CJ going back in time to fix her worst day won’t change things like it did for Marty McFly. The deeper this young, powerful black woman digs into the obstacles in her way the more they multiply. Her power, though, isn’t solely in her unique intelligence. CJ’s power is that in the face of these obstacles, she can still dream about a better world where other young women will have it easier than she did and people in her neighborhood and in her family stop dying too young. This is a power stories like See You Yesterday gives to our next generations. Providing platforms for storytellers from different backgrounds to play with these sci-fi concepts creates space for our young people to dream and those dreams might actually change the future.

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REVIEW: Minding the Gap

Death defying kickflips from concrete ledges. Balance bending rail grinds that will leave you breathless. One of this year’s films in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary is “Minding the Gap,” a film that should have also been nominated for its cinematography. The film is about the skateboarding community in Rockford, Illinois and features camera work that could have only been honed in alleyways, empty swimming pools, and public stairwells trying to capture the sickest tricks. The film is about the sport it depicts so well, but as it unfolds is about something else entirely, generational patterns of sin and hardship.

As filmmaker Bing Liu follows his skater friends around, he allows the story to develop naturally. Digging deeper into their lives he begins to recognize the broken homes and abusive families they come from. These dark commonalities give Liu the open door to shed light on the unusually high rates of domestic violence in the city of Rockford. Unfortunately, this is a trend continuing in Liu’s friends as they enter young adulthood.

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They have trouble keeping jobs, they drink excessively, and they abuse their significant others. Liu takes his evolving movie as an opportunity to unpack his own childhood with help from his mother. It’s heart-wrenching hearing his mother show deep remorse for the ways Liu was abused by his stepfather, while also documenting the disintegrating, unhealthy relationship of his friend Zack and the mother of Zack’s child. Two generations living out the same story.

This generational deja vu is something very human, and something God speaks into from the very beginning. In Genesis 20 we read,

“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’”

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before. As Genesis continues in chapter 26,

“So Isaac stayed in Gerar. When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’”

You’re not going crazy. Here are father and son, Abraham and Isaac, their hearts filled with fear and insecurity, lying an identical lie. They didn’t trust God and took the protection of their wives into their own hands. In both cases, the lie backfires and they nearly lose everything. In families, in institutions, and in the hearts of man we are prone to these generational patterns. We are stuck dragging the heavy chains of the past, slaves to the sins of our parents. They are thick chains, but they are not unbreakable.

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The book of Deuteronomy gives us a painful instruction manual. In chapter 12 we read, “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling.”

The prior inhabitants of God’s chosen land left patterns behind, almost grooves in the land leading to the worship of their gods. These verses are warning God’s people that if they’re not careful as they enter the land, they could easily click into the grooves of the past. The only way to prevent this is to tear it all down. Patterns are comfortable, they’re easy. Sometimes clicking into the routines of the past even feels good. The process of tearing it down is always the opposite. Changing the direction of a generation always comes with pain.

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For Liu and his friends it involves bringing the generational patterns into the light with his film. Zack will see this film and come face to face with some of his worst moments. Liu sat behind his camera and watched tears stream down his mother’s face. Even as an outsider, it is heartbreaking to watch, but that feeling of lament is the feeling of chains of the past being broken. What you hear in the film isn’t just plastic wheels filled with ball bearings hitting pavement, it’s the sound of shackles falling off. It’s the sound of future generations being freed. “Minding the Gap” is about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, but it’s also about hope.

REVIEW: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (Netflix)

What were you doing at 13? Many of us, our bodies entrenched in the chaos of puberty, were professional eye rollers. Discovering rebellion for the first time, we’d roll our eyes at the authority of our parents shirking off any kind of wisdom, instruction, or discipline they’d impart. These optical protests weren’t restricted to the home, of course, because school was also “such like a total drag, am I right?” At 13, we are taking significant leaps towards adulthood and recognizing our unique agency in the world and we often use it to act like we don’t care about anything. So we roll our eyes telling our parents and teachers to, “ugh, get a life.” Meanwhile, William Kamkwamba, at 13, was saving lives.

This is the story of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s based-on-true-events directorial debut headed to Netflix this week, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind. In the 2000’s, crushed by the growing global financial crisis and feeling the very real effects of a climate in chaos, Malawi was experiencing life-threatening circumstances. The harvest that the local economy rested on was dangerously light. Unregulated grain prices were causing hunger and violence. Every aspect of life was being torn apart. Land that belonged to families for generations was being sold off for pennies. Schools were shutting down. Families were being forced apart.

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All of a sudden, more so than ever before, insurmountable dollar signs were associated with every human need. It was the kind of tragic reality that made Kamkwamba and his family question their worth every day. In the film, Kamkwamba’s father, played by Ejiofor, is tortured by the decisions of how to use the family’s resources. Every move feels like a gamble, even investing in his children’s education. In their village, if you excelled in school it was a way out. So why would he spend money only to break up his family and lose his best help around the farm?

So education becomes a threat to their family, to tradition, and to their resources. Kamkwamba, however, saw great value in education and, despite what he saw around him, knew that his village, his family’s land, and his family itself were worth more than anyone thought. He had to keep learning. Without money for tuition, he had to sneak into school and his local library. In the film, there’s a scene after Kamkwamba gets caught and a teacher coming to his defense says that he’s not sneaking into the school, he’s sneaking out of the fields. It was in that library where he got the idea that would save his family and his village.

Life in Kamkwamba’s village was wholly dictated by the harvest, so much so that the film itself is framed by the seasons of planting. This is not unique to Malawi. In the Old Testament, much of the lives of God’s chosen people are controlled by the harvest. Even their calendar of festivals is framed by seasons of sowing, seasons of growing, seasons of harvesting, and seasons of hunger waiting for the rains to come. This rhythm of life put into perspective man’s reliance on God to provide.

Deuteronomy 16 describes the festival that ends their harvest calendar, “For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.” With the harvest complete, the joy of God’s people was also complete. A fruitful harvest showed them that God was with them. So imagine how Kamkwamba’s village felt when the harvest dried up.

Thankfully William Kamkwamba was at an age when he was discovering his agency and self-worth. His optimism kept him searching for ways he could bring flourishing to the world around him. Where everyone else saw nothing but dry lands, he saw potential. Thus began a journey that led him to the TED stage and, eventually, across the graduation stage at Dartmouth College. His father thought education was the enemy of his family, but Kamkwamba’s time in that library restored his family and his village to their God given glory.

TBWHTW 1

The Boy who Harnessed the Wind is a movie about the importance of education, it’s a movie about family, it’s a movie about God’s ability to provide beyond our imagination, but it is also a movie about the growing influence we have on God’s good creation. Learning more about how the rest of the world economy depends on the health of America’s economy should make us consider more deeply our democratic responsibilities. Seeing a story about people whose lives are so impacted by the weather should make us think more about how we impact the weather.

William Kamkwamba sought to be a blessing to the world around him. His pursuit of knowledge saved lives. Ejiofor showed incredible talent in telling this story. It is exciting to continue to see Netflix give filmmakers the opportunity to make films you may not see otherwise. In his TED Talk, Kamkwamba suggests that there are young people out there that may one day watch his story and be inspired to change the world and believe in themselves. Now, on one of the most popular streaming services in the world, maybe his story will stop the eyes of 13-year-olds from rolling and instead looking for ways they’ll make the future better.

 

REVIEW: Shazam!

Lex Luthor stands before his arch nemesis, the fully human/fully Kryptonian savior of the masses, Superman. A showdown of fists awaits Superman over in Gotham City, but not before he must sit through Luthor’s attempt at an intro to philosophy class. Luthor contemplates how Superman could possibly be so powerful but also without corruption. Several decades prior, Wonder Woman enters a similar discussion. The god of war, Ares, is trying to convince her that war and suffering aren’t products of his evil scheming but are the natural yield of the depraved hearts of humanity. The DC Comics film and television world, dubbed the DC Extended Universe or DCEU, has been doing a delicate dance to the tunes of power, morality, and depravity for years and that dance continues in their latest effort, Shazam!.

Shazam Flossing GIF

Those philosophy exercises have left the DC fan base pretty mixed and has added more pressure on a franchise constantly trying to catch up to Marvel and their Avengers. Starting with Wonder Woman and then, a largely reshot, Justice League, DC has been trying to lighten things up. The result was Aquaman, a mindless, CGI adventure more on par with the recent Fast & Furious films than the engaging, blockbuster comic book movies always topping the charts. While it was fun, DC’s resident fish wrangler may have been an over correction. Shazam!, though, could be their new sweet spot.

If Batman v Superman was their exploration of God’s sovereignty, and Wonder Woman is their white paper on total depravity, Shazam! is DC’s doctrine of grace. The movie is about one ancient wizard’s quest to find a human who is pure of heart. Once this champion is tracked down, the wizard, Shazam, can pass on his incredible powers equipping this human to battle back against the seven deadly sins, actual embodied representations of greed, envy, and the like. All Shazam has to do is find the perfect human. Should be easy right? It is not. Turns out the perfect human doesn’t exist.

Shazam Powers GIF

Time’s running out for Shazam so he’s forced to settle for Billy Batson, an almost 15-yeard-old foster kid preoccupied with running away from group homes on a quest of his own to find his mother. Now this pre-teen that has a hard time avoiding police custody is imbued with the power of six Roman gods to become the new Shazam! The movie is about confronting Billy’s imperfections, healing from his wounds, opening his heart to forces outside himself, and finding something all the Roman gods in the world can’t provide. Shazam! is an interesting look at the nature of man, it’s a heartfelt story about wounded and broken people, and it is also hilarious!

Sure Shazam! evokes all the Hanks-ian charm of Big, a kid trapped in an adult body navigating the often absurd world of increased responsibility, but it just works. This is partly due to Zachary Levi (NBC’s Chuck) playing the child-like hero. They also fill out Billy’s foster home with cast mates that challenge the adolescent rosters of Stranger Things and It.  Now that might be an easy, crowd pleasing formula, but just try not buying in to the smile of This is Us’s Faithe Herman or the teddy bear wiles of The Walking Dead’s Cooper Andrews. Shazam! is impossible to resist.

Shazam Transform GIF

DC still has a long way to go in building trust with its fan base as well as average movie going audiences. Unfortunately, the news out of the DCEU doesn’t exactly instill confidence. There’s reportedly going to be several different Joker stories (one that’s already in production), a Suicide Squad sequel/reboot, a separate Harley Quinn movie, another Batman reboot, and maybe a Green Lantern Corps movie with the studio saying they’re scrapping the idea of a shared universe moving more towards isolated stories. Not to mention there’s also an entire league of heroes in developmental purgatory like Cyborg and The Flash. There is hope, though. Aquaman was fun, there is a new Wonder Woman movie next year, and Shazam! does take place in the interconnected Justice League universe. If DC wants to continue to build towards another team up movie, Shazam! could be the spark they need or it could be a bolt of lightning in otherwise dark and stormy sky. Either way, go enjoy DC’s new boy wonder!

REVIEW: Tolkien

Have you ever seen the Saturday morning cartoon Captain Planet? With its infectious theme song (“Captain Planet, he’s our hero. Gonna take pollution down to zero!”) and cast of young people changing the world, it was hard to deny. The kids in the show held rings that gave them the power of the elements of the Earth. Their powers were magnificent. One controlled water, another earth, and another fire! There was one that seemed a lot less cool as a kid, the heart ring. What was the power of heart anyway? Then I met artist, Scott Erickson. He explained that as he discovered what it means to be an artist in the world and in the church, he realized he’d been given the heart ring.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien, Fox Seachlight’s new movie about the life of the author of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings tells the story of his upbringing, his schooling, his military service, his loves, his friendships, and his art. The John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, played by Nicholas Hoult, we meet in the film believes that art has incredible power. It does, doesn’t it? It is the artists of the world that give us words, images, and melodies to name, express, process, enjoy, or escape our emotions. Great art unifies, questions, challenges, and comforts sometimes all at once. In the film, Tolkien needed all that art provides but lived in circumstances that didn’t exactly allow a young man to explore it. This puts him on familiar ground with a group of other young men that become the foundation of this story.

Samwise Gamgee Carry GIF

There is a famous moment in the film adaptation of Return of the King when Sam tells a despondent Frodo, “I can’t carry [the ring] for you, but I can carry you!” This is what the “Tea Club, Barrovian Society” or TCBS does for each other. Tolkien along with Christopher Wiseman, Geoffrey Smith, and Robert Gilson form a bond around their passion for art, culture, language, and love. In the film, they push each other to challenge the status quo and carry each other through the Mount Dooms of life. There is something about this era of world history with the great wars (The TCBS all served in World War I) and stories of great courage and loss that have birthed incredible works of art. Tolkien is the story about how the TCBS and Tolkien’s friend turned wife, Edith, inspired a fantasy that still captures the world’s imagination today.

Tolkien’s life falls fairly short from being a fairy tale. He was orphaned at a young age and encouraged to place the loves of his life on hold. First, to pursue a stable career, and then by war. His response to the horrors of the world was to offer it a different story. His mother gave him a love of languages which led him to create his own. In the film, Tolkien says that language is the lifeblood of people and culture. Well it’s through his created languages that he gives life to Middle Earth, and to all the characters fans have grown to cherish.

Tolkien Mordor GIF

You can expect with Tolkien to see images and references to the author’s famous works, but the film does a great job at not hitting you over the head with the visuals seared into our hearts and minds from the Peter Jackson trilogies. This is an intimate film that pulls you into the trenches of war where beauty is hard to find, but also gives you a door into the mind that created a world filled with it. This world, Tolkien’s art, is about journeys and adventures, magic and love, quests to prove ourselves, courage, and, of course, fellowship. It’s art like this that should be consumed with a friend. It may help you discover who, in your life, has carried you up the mountain.

Tolkien TCBS GIF

The Ultimate Avengers: Endgame Think Piece (SPOILERS)

Every time I think about the history-making finale to Marvel’s Infinity Saga, my mind swells with the sweet sound of Adele’s hit from another movie, “This is the end. Hold your breath and count to ten. Feel the earth move again. Hear my heart burst again.” Avengers: Endgame capped off a major movie franchise 11 years in the making and has eclipsed dozens of box office records including a Galactus-sized opening weekend haul of over $1 billion. The Endgame has obviously struck a chord and did so making bold character choices, paying off a ridiculous amount of story arcs and references, and laid a solid foundation for the mysterious future of one of Disney’s biggest cash cows. Let’s take a deep, SPOILER-FILLED dive into the biggest movie of all time and marvel at the beautiful journey “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” have been on since Iron Man debuted in 2008.

The Avengers Initiative Failed

Seriously, we are headed for spoiler land. If you haven’t seen Avengers: Endgame turn back now. The opening scenes of Endgame almost serve as a major trolling of the fan base! For a year now, fans have wondered why Thor didn’t go for the head, why wasn’t Captain Marvel there from the beginning, why couldn’t our heroes punch Thanos harder and faster and win by the force of their wills. That is not the story of Endgame.

Avengers in spaceship GIF

When Thanos’s years long quest to bring the universe under his power unfolded in Avengers: Infinity War, he was battling against a divided Avengers. They were battered and broken from the battles that led them up to that point and the team was in shambles. They had all had their heroism challenged by their own mistakes but also the mistakes of their literal and metaphoric forefathers.

Think about the impact that Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Ego the living planet, the founders of SHIELD/Hydra, and Odin have all had on the Avengers! Think about the mistakes that had led to the creation of the Hulk, the creation of Ultron, or that war in Civil War. Just tally all Thor has lost by the end of the opening scenes of Infinity War! The story of the Avengers leading into the Endgame was filled to the brim with failure. If report cards were handed out after Thanos snapped his fingers, the Avengers would have earned a hard ‘F’. Endgame is about the grief associated with the last decade of collective failures not about how hard they can punch. Thanos dies in the first twenty minutes of the film, and still the Avengers are left stewing in their losses. Where do they go from there?

The Hulk Smashes Relationships

Five. Years. Later. Endgame features a heartbreaking time jump for the “snapture” survivors, and, as we catch up with the heroes, it’s easy to define those five years by what the Avengers have been doing in that gap. However, what might be more telling is what they haven’t been doing. With the exception of Tony, no one has established any new relationships and they certainly haven’t revisited past ones.

Professor Hulk

Hulk finally returns from space and he and Black Widow survive the snap. Why are they not together? It’s not even just that they’re not together, but Bruce Banner has been working instead to reconcile his relationship with the Hulk permanently transforming into the hybrid Professor Hulk or Mister Fixit. Bruce can say all day that he did this to exist in a healthier state, but it’s also a really convenient state to avoid starting a relationship with Natasha. Before he left for space, they had all but admitted their love, but after the snap, after so much loss, they are avoiding having to lose anyone ever again.

Why haven’t they rebuilt a version of Vision? Sure, Scarlet Witch was dusted, but Vision was everyone’s friend and Bruce and/or Tony definitely would have the means over five years. It only took them a handful of days to turn the Mind Stone into Ultron. Recreating Vision would be too strong a reminder of the casualties of the Infinity War and that the joys of loving are paired with the grief of loss. And grief sure has taken hold in the MCU.

Thor’s Dark World

The Marvel movie machine was in desperate need of a course correction after the universally panned Thor: The Dark World. Yes, it introduced the Reality Stone. Ok, it featured continued growth in the relationship between Loki and Thor. Absolutely, Rene Russo was a great Frigga (Thor’s mom). Definitely, the final battle was creative. However, Thor 2 was birthed in the midst of The Hobbit taking us back to Middle Earth and Game of Thrones sweeping the media landscape. What is so appalling about Thor 2 is that it tried to copy the vibe of both of those universes without succeeding at either. Marvel has always tried to be a cinematic innovator, but this just felt like they were copying people’s homework. Then came Thor: Ragnarok with a new comedic thrust, a galactic setting, the companionship of The Hulk, and the vision of director Taika Waititi. Pairing Thor with the Guardians of the Galaxy in Infinity War cemented this new direction. Thor is funny now! But humor can often be used to hide deep pain.

Thor Comics

Across the 6 films that have featured Thor, he has lost his entire family and his entire support system. His story in Infinity War was a quest for redemption for all he has lost. He travelled across the universe and took the full force of a star all to prove that, even with all of the bodies in his wake, he is still worthy. A new weapon was born, and, if he could plunge that weapon into the universe’s biggest threat, his worth would be proved once and for all. Thor did plunge, and it meant nothing. Thanos won and, while all the others were tossed aside, Thor stood alone watching from inches away as a simple snap murdered billions. He fails once more in the opening of Endgame when the team realizes there is no reversing the snap. Not only could his worth not be earned with an axe, but it’s quite possible he was never worthy at all.

Thor Snap GIF

The Thor we meet in Endgame is very different from past films. Some of that is played for comedy, but the truth is far more tragic. Thor is depressed and coping by self-medicating with alcohol. The character change is jarring unless you realize it’s always been there, and he has actually been covering it up with a smile and a wink. Thor’s comedic transformation served him in hiding deep trauma and pain all of which comes crashing down at the beginning of Endgame.

How fitting is it then, that for Thor to be redeemed, he has to return to the film that was Marvel’s biggest creative failure to date, Thor: The Dark World. Not only does he get some closure with his mother, but gets a powerful reminder that he was born with inherent worth into a family that unconditionally loved him. He has virtue that no amount of failure can take away. Thor needed to have his armor of bravado and masculinity ripped away and his comedic defense mechanism defeated in order to set him up for future flourishing, and he’s not the only one who has a past that needed confronting.

Cap Had to Move On

Steve Rogers has always been a man out of time. Contrasting him against morally complex characters like Black Widow and Tony Stark, his personal constitution has never really fit in the modern world. Even the war that created Cap was slightly more clear cut. There were pretty clear lines between the good guys and the bad guys. Then he came out of the ice in an era of modern warfare, political corruption, and anti-heroes galore. Hardened by the Infinity War, Cap’s optimism and morals are still there, but this is a man who, over the course of these films, has gone from blurting out, “Language!,” in Age of Ultron to exclaiming, “Let’s go get this son of a [expletive]!,” in Endgame. The present reality has been tearing down the man of the past.

Cap and Peggy

For awhile, Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier has kept Cap tied to some part of himself from the past, but Bucky was dusted. His friend Sam the Falcon understood Cap on a level that a fellow soldier only could, but he is gone as well. In the five years after the snap, Cap tries to move on by helping others move on. The problem is that he can’t forget the Infinity War because he never really forgot the past. You can see it in his face in that support group early on in Endgame. He’s saying all the right things and talking about how the survivors have to hope for the future and what could be. Steve tells that group that if they don’t start living their lives than they might as well have vanished too, but you get the feeling that part of him wishes he had maybe vanished, not in the snap, but all those years ago in the ice.

Cap Support Group GIF

He’s tried for years to accept his present. Joining the Avengers, defeating Hydra, and saving Bucky were all attempts to move on, but at the end of the day he’s still looking longingly through the window of the past at Peggy. She was supposed to be his future. In the final moments of, Captain America: The First Avenger, he runs into Time Square in a completely unrecognizable world and when a stranger in an eye-patch asks him if he’s going to be ok he says, “Yeah, its just…I had a date.” In the Endgame, Cap is surrounded by hundreds of Avengers and finally utters an, “Avengers…ASSEMBLE!” The problem is, no one in that battlefront is Peggy. So it should come as no surprise that, with time travel now in play, he can finally move on…to the past. As the credits are about to roll on the Infinity Saga, we are treated to a scene just moments after reuniting…Peggy Carter’s home…the door still swung open from Cap’s entrance…and they finally have their dance. It is a poetic and perfect end. Steve had to return to the past just as…

Tony Stark Had to Die

He started it all! There’s two ways to look at that. Iron Man, Tony Stark, can take credit for launching the MCU and creating a space for heroes to rise or it’s fair to say that it’s all his fault. Well, to be fair, it is his fault but the blame also lands on his father, Howard. Think about the big events that have pushed us through a decade of storytelling. Stark weapons and the wars they featured in manufactured and created the need for Iron Man. Sure, Tony had a literal and figurative change of heart, but when we put weapons down it nearly always creates new fears. Fears that simply never let Tony rest.

Avengers Endgame Iron Man GIF

A Stark missile planted the seeds of revenge that pushed Wanda to give Tony a nightmare that scared him into creating Ultron who incited the events in Sokovia that inspired the Sokovia Accords that started the civil war that broke apart the Avengers who then weren’t ready for Thanos. Tony is a futurist, but a side effect is that living in the future means living with fear. Allowing our minds to constantly live in the future places us in the prediction business and part of predicting the future means accounting for the worst possible scenario. The vision from Scarlet Witch wasn’t new. It was already something in Tony’s mind, but that’s not all that has been in his mind since the beginning.

Avengers Big Three GIF

Tony wanted so desperately to shift the focus of his company and his family to making the future brighter, but it has always been tied to a dark past. All of his solo films featured villains born of his father’s mistakes and mistakes he made trying to be his father. So Tony’s tireless work isn’t just about ridding the future of fear, it was about breaking the cycles of the past. The problem is that Tony was a part of that past. So much of the world viewed Howard as a villain and that made it impossible to view Tony as a part of a purely optimistic future. When Tony wielded the iron Infinity Gauntlet and completed the snap that ended his life, he was breaking the thick chains of his father’s past mistakes and redeeming his present mistakes for all time. This could have only happened with the next generation watching, and now Morgan Stark will grow up in a world where Iron Man is the hero that saved the universe. Tony Stark gave his life very publicly for the sake of a future that his child, and many others, can now imagine without fear. That is what heroes do.

Black Widow’s Ledger is Clean

Redemption sure does come with a high cost. This is something Natasha Romanoff knows all too well. Tony Stark did almost everything in front of the brightest flashbulbs and biggest crowds he could. He was the Avengers’ most public hero, and his contrast was the Black Widow. From the very beginning, she has been the definition of a spy. She was complex, always playing multiple sides and evaluating every scenario like a chess board. Spies have to stay hidden to do their best work. And so it makes sense that while Tony’s death was very public, Natasha’s was very private and intimate. She died in the company of a close friend on a remote planet and was mourned by a small group at a secluded base. The nature of her death definitely makes sense, but the death itself definitely doesn’t to anyone…but her.

Black Widow Hawkeye GIF

Natasha could never have a family like Hawkeye or Tony. She didn’t have the purity of Captain America or the powers of Thor, but Black Widow’s life is no less valuable than any of the other Avengers. However, it has been obvious from the first Avengers movie, and even more so in Age of Ultron, that she felt very differently. Throughout, these films Black Widow has carried a very heavy weight, as she calls it a ledger with red in it. All she has ever wanted to do was to repay that debt to the world, and seemingly specifically to Clint Barton, Hawkeye, as she tells Loki in The Avengers. Tony couldn’t rest because of his fear, but Natasha could never rest because of the weight of this debt.

Then an opportunity arose for her to give all she had for the sake of her newfound family, and also, to Clint. It is obvious in Age of Ultron that she had been working hard for years to protect Clint both on the field and by keeping his family a secret, but in her final moments on Vormir she sees the chance to make things right forever and ever. She could protect Clint, her family, and the universe one last time. Now Black Widow’s ledger is forever clean and then some. It’s everyone else who owes a debt to her, one that can only be paid by a life of flourishing and a life spent helping the Natashas of the future see just how valuable they are regardless of the red in their ledger. Black Widow was the only woman in the initial circling shot in The Avengers. Her willing sacrifice paves the way for many heroes to follow and proves that actually…

The Avengers Initiative Worked

“There was an idea…called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could,” Nick Fury explains in The Avengers. This was the idea that started this journey. It was an idea of a man who saw the exact opposite happening. Before Tony Stark was kidnapped, before Natasha Romanoff was made a spy, before Bruce Banner was hit with Gamma Rays, before Thor was banished to Earth, there was still no shortage of remarkable people. Odin, Howard Stark, Hank Pym, Bill Foster, King T’Chaka, and Peggy Carter were all avenging the world at the same time but they were missing one key ingredient to Fury’s idea. They weren’t working together.

Avengers Hands In GIF

There is plenty of evidence right in front of us. Do you think there really wasn’t anyone in the span of history that could recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America? Everyone wanted to try but because greed, fear, ego, oppression, and division got in the way the story of the MCU is littered with the failings of not working together. The Hulk himself was the result of a failed attempt. What if Bruce and Tony worked together from the start? Maybe they would have gotten it right! Do you think nobody thought about time travel before Tony figured it out in Endgame? What’s interesting is that Tony wasn’t the key to time travel, Pym technology was! They needed Pym particles and the quantum realm research combined with Stark’s technology to do it. Tony and Scott Lang did something together that Howard Stark and Hank Pym were too proud to do. Imagine if more people were helping Peggy Carter succeed instead of holding her back because she’s a woman. Maybe Hydra doesn’t infiltrate SHIELD.

The story of the Avengers was never about any one hero, it was about the idea that if people could see the potential in the differences of others and combined our collective contributions and skill, no one could defeat us. In so many ways, the emotional state of the Avengers in Endgame were scars from the sins of the past, a past where the universe’s most remarkable beings couldn’t or wouldn’t work together. Now we move into a phase where T’Challa has opened his borders, everyone recognizes the power of Captain Marvel, and the wide-eyed optimism of Peter Parker is undeniable. The Avengers have assembled, and hopefully, one day may inspire us to do the same.

Avengers Walk of Fame