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

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The creation story inside “Moana”

I remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was in high school on our senior trip. I sat on the top deck of our ship, the trip was a low budget cruise, and stared into the horizon for hours. That moment staring into the endless ocean made my small town in Pennsylvania feel like a cage surrounded by bars of mountains and hills.

Often our imaginations are limited by how far we can see in front of us and, growing up, each of my horizons had an end. This wasn’t the case on the water. Witnessing the vastness of our world first hand opened my mind and with each passing year my worldview got bigger and broader. The ocean was calling.

moana-1

Disney’s new movie Moana begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” For Bible readers, this should be a familiar opening line. As with Moana, this is how our creation story begins. This is a great reminder that Christians aren’t the only culture that has a story of how the world began…but of interest is what is familiar and what is different about these stories.

In the writings of ancient cultures there are lots of stories about the world coming to be from the violent death of a beast or through a cataclysmic transformation of one piece of matter to the world as we know it. The world is formed from something. The outlier here is The Bible,

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty…” (ESV)

Or for those, like me, who like the Jesus Storybook Bible,

“In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And…nothing but nothing. But there was God. And God had a wonderful plan.”

The creation narrative in Moana begins with a goddess in the form of an island, Te Fiti, springing from the ocean to create all that is alive. In an attempt to capture the island goddess’s creative potential, her heart is stolen by the demi-god, Maui (my personal life coach, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Years later, this theft sets in motion an intersection of the personal journeys of Maui and Moana and, in doing so, models for us what it means to follow our calling and tap into our own creative potential.

moana-2

Maui’s mistaken assumption is that life comes from Te Fiti…but the truth is that Te Fiti’s power, her ability to create life, her creative potential comes from the ocean. Maui believes that he can earn this creative potential through godlike feats. The tale and music of Moana tell a different story.

“You may hear a voice inside

And if the voice starts to whisper

To follow the farthest star

Moana, that voice inside is

Who you are”

Moana’s parents have a plan for her life. She is tapped to be the next leader of her people, but Moana hears a different calling inside. Very quickly she realizes that in order for her culture and people to survive she must listen to that calling, not from her parents, but from the giver of life. Moana is about following your calling and realizing the same creative potential that the ocean placed in Te Fiti, resides in everyone. Similarly, The Bible continues from earlier,

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

God, our creator, made us to be creative. We have the responsibility to cultivate creation. This looks very different for different people and every day as I work with college students I see this first hand. Some of them were born to create lesson plans that will inspire young people, others have an innate ability to read accounting spread sheets, while someone else might have a compassion that compels them to heal others. This creative potential is given, not earned. When we answer the call of our creator to live into that potential the world flourishes.

This is the heart of our story as daughters and sons of God. We are called to enter every realm of this creation and bring the heart of Jesus with us to bless those around us. When we do our work with other motivations (looking at you, Maui) we often experience the exact opposite of flourishing, destruction.

moana-5

Moana’s ancestors were culture makers. The ocean called them off their island to explore the world and cultivate the vast creation. Her voyage throughout the film brings her to a place where she answers her call, understands her legacy as a culture maker, and comes to know that the journey of life is hard and she’ll need reminders of her purpose. The songs in the film seek to write this on her heart.

“I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide, always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way”

God may seem too big and too distant to have a relationship with us, but the story of scripture echoed in the story of Moana are telling us that God dwells inside us. When we look in the mirror we are staring at the image of God and that image is crying out, inviting you to cultivate God’s creation. God is calling…

While you watch:

What defines Moana’s identity? What defines Maui’s identity? What defines yours?

Is there a voice, a feeling inside you that you can’t shake? Is there something you feel down in your heart that you should…or shouldn’t be doing? What is preventing you from answering this call?

Are you aware of what God has created you for or leading you towards? How will you fulfill this? How will you use your passions and gifts to be a blessing to the world…to bring flourishing to creation?

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

Civil War Tony 8

If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

Civil War Tony 1

In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

Civil War Tony 2

Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

Civil War Tony 7

Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

Civil War Tony 3

I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

Civil War Tony 6

It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Moses in “Zootopia”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11

In the face of the new calling on his life, with God’s voice in his ears telling him exactly what to do, Moses takes full advantage of this personal conversation with the creator of the universe. “Who am I?,” Moses asks. This was probably a question Moses asked every day. We see the effects of a narrative Moses had been given throughout his life. The God of the universe is telling him he has been tapped for an incredible purpose and Moses’s first reaction is self-doubt.

Judy Hopps

You see Moses was a man caught between cultures, with a mishmash of an identity, carrying the weight of past failures. When God tells him he will be the deliverer of the Hebrew people Moses balks citing his lack of identity, lack of knowledge and spirituality, and lack of gifts and skill. Basically, Moses is asking what is the use in trying, Lord? I’m just Moses, a nobody, a murderer, a shepherd, and that’s all I’ll ever be. God’s answer is one that can carry even us through the deepest valleys of self-doubt, but before we get there…let’s go to Zootopia because in Disney Animation’s newest film that very same question is posed. What’s the use in trying?

Zootopia is a story with battling narratives. The narrative printed across the brand of Zootopia, a city where eons of predatory instincts in the animal kingdom have been squashed in the name of peace and prosperity, is that “You can be anything.” In reality, though, written on the faces of the older generation is a different narrative. “You can be anything…as long as it aligns with your zip code, species, gender, and place in the food chain.” No one whose worldview is based in reality would ever truly believe that first narrative. Enter a young Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a rural area that has bought into the brand of Zootopia.

ZOOTOPIA

Despite there never being a bunny cop, in the face of pressure from her parents to accept her fate as a carrot farmer, Judy remains a trier. The question of what’s the use in trying has never crossed her mind. Judy is a beacon of hope in the world of Zootopia because not only is the film her story, a story of trying, but it’s also the story of how the roads of this world are paved with the broken hearts of triers everywhere.

This fact is hidden behind the smiley façade of Judy’s parents and it is emotionally told through the life story of Nick Wilde, a sly con-fox, who fails to understand where Judy gets her optimism. With these characters in place we get to see the narratives of Zootopia played out from beginning to end.

ZOOTOPIA

In Judy’s parents we see the end of the story, a life lived believing reality says there are limits to what you can accomplish based on your class, species, and culture. In Nick, we see a character with a fresh break in his heart. We get to hear his story of trying only to have culture slap a muzzle on his predator snout. He even says at one point he’s stopped trying to be anything other than what other animals see him as. Then there is Judy who is in the midst of having her heart broken. We get to witness the process in action, the world beginning to break her down. It’s through these stories you start to realize Zootopia isn’t about animals at all…it’s about us.

Young Nick

Disney is the crew that brought us the line, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.” The sugar of Zootopia are the stunning graphics, adorable cartoon animals, self-aware jabs at Frozen, and the fun, pop beats of Shakira. The medicine is a hard look at the state of race/gender/class relations in America. These same narratives battling in Zootopia are at war in our reality every day.

The narrative painted across the brand of America is that racism is a non-issue, that we’ve moved past the dark marks on our history. You can be anything you want to be in America. There is a narrative at war with this, though, and we can see the effects in minority communities. Across the board, people of color are less likely to apply to top institutions even when academically qualified, less likely to choose fields with top starting salaries like STEM majors, and less likely to come into higher education prepared for academic differences between high school and college.

We are at most two generations removed from the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s and our current minority communities are still lacking opportunities and environments to establish economic and academic success. This is a situation that is crying out for a different narrative. There is a moment in Zootopia where Judy breaks through the narrative Nick has built in his life. She tells him that he can be more, that his story isn’t over yet. This changes Nick’s life.

Nick and Judy

Recently, I attended the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, and there I got to hear Dr. Brian Bantum, author of “Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity,” speak on diversity in higher education. His story is unique. Someone late into his academic career broke through the narrative of his life and told him that he had the knowledge and the gifts to become a PhD. And he did.

Dr. Bantum went on to say that had he not had professors of color, compassionate mentors, and others in his life guiding him, achieving the academic success that he has would have had to be a “pure act of imagination.” Without a different narrative he might have answered those encouraging him with doubts. He may have even asked them, “What’s the use in trying?” or even “Who am I to be a PhD?”

That leads us back to Moses and the answer he received to his doubts. Over and over again, in different ways, with different words God repeats to Moses, “I am God. You are mine. I will be with you.” Maybe you will never be whatever you want to be. My window of being the first astronaut to play electric guitar on Mars is closing more and more every second. There are some limitations to what we can accomplish but at the very least God tells us that we are all created in His image. We have the power to achieve amazing things in that image. We can flourish. In America, we really can’t be anything that we want to be, but no matter what your race, culture, or gender is you should have the opportunity to at least try.