Doom Patrol’s Gospel of Strangeness

In my latest for Think Christian, I write about one of my favorite DC Comics teams: the Doom Patrol. The team has been largely defined by Grant Morrison’s ground breaking run in the late 80s/early 90s, but the current series revisits many of Morrison’s themes and puts them in a more positive and surreal perspective. They’re still the world’s strangest heroes, but they’re now celebrating and building community in their oddness.

The Doom Patrol reminds me of what the Christian church should be: a bunch of weirdos supporting and loving other weirdos. As I write in the piece,

Christians often face a similar challenge when forming churches. Whatever the reason we choose a congregation, we’re fundamentally there because we’re sinners who abandon the world’s vision of domination to enact God’s grace. As a matter of necessity, then, churches are filled with misfits who don’t just reject conforming to the world, but are, in fact, called not to.

And yet, we still get upset or threatened by our fellow church-goer’s oddities, and we get the urge to “fix” people whose differences we find especially troublesome. In those cases, we risk acting like [Robotman], trying to make others more acceptable, while ignoring our own quirks and issues.

Check out the whole thing here!

Review: A Wrinkle in Time

At a key point in the A Wrinkle in Time, awkward teenaged hero Meg Murry (Storm Reid) declares, “I’m messy and flawed but you still love me.” At that moment, she was speaking for me. Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the beloved Madeleine L’Engle novel is a mess, and it has some significant flaws. But between its open-hearted sincerity and its psychedelic visuals, I love it anyway.

I know that won’t be everyone’s experience, especially those who grew up with the book (like I did). DuVernay doesn’t so much adapt the 1962 original as she translates it, changing some elements (like the racial make-up of the Murrys) and completely omitting others (specifically the book’s Christian worldview – more on that later). But what remains is so personal and affirming that I can’t help but go along with it.

The story more or less follows the original plot: Meg, along with her unnervingly intelligent brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and sensitive cool kid from school Calvin (Levi Miller), travel across space to rescue their missing scientist father (Chris Pine) from an evil force called The IT. Guiding them along the way are three supernatural figures: the childlike Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), the quotation-speaking bookworm Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), and the wise and powerful Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).

But DuVernay moves the story along that outline at a strange pace, lingering on the stuff she likes – such as a comic bit involving Zach Galifianakis as a seer called The Happy Medium – and then almost hand waiving past other points with “just so” explanations.

It’s fortunate, then, that she indulges in the movie’s best parts. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler fills the worlds with colors, whether it be the idyllic Uriel, complete with sentient flowers, or the IT’s ever-changing homeworld Camazotz. DuVernay provides images to match, including Mrs. Whatsit’s transformation into a flying plant creature or a 20 foot Mrs. Which towering over a field. Paco Delgado’s costumes for the Mrs. Ws accentuate their hallucinatory glory, full of glitter and excessive design, but they never distract from the performances. The camera still catches moments like a comforting smile on Mrs. Which or a reassuring nose crinkle from Mrs. Who.

These reassurances are necessary to the story, as it’s all about Meg learning that she matters. When the Mrs. Ws appear, their message isn’t so much that she can fight evil like a superhero, but that her “faults” make her who she is and who she is wonderful. Images of Meg discovering her self-worth, floating secure in the knowledge that she is loved and worthy of love are powerfully moving and effective.

DuVernay carries over that theme from L’Engle’s book, but removes its Christian worldview along the way, which weakens the plot. L’Engle’s faith in a personified God lent a degree of intentionality to the story, giving it an It’s a Wonderful Life quality to it, as the Mrs. Ws were angels sent to show Meg that she was designed by a Creator who considered her a masterpiece, faults and all. She learns that her ability to love her faults and the faults of others dispels an evil called The Black Thing, and its order and homogony-obsessed servant IT.

In DuVernay’s translation, the Mrs. Ws are avatars of the universe, looking for “warriors” to fight the darkness with light. Thankfully, the warrior rhetoric never manifests in actual punching or killing, but it isn’t clear how self-love equates to warriorness. This fuzziness is most evident when Mrs. Which tries to affirm Meg’s self-worth, addressing all of the biological and physical accidents that had to happen to make her who she is. It’s supposed to work like Dr. Manhattan’s “everything is a miracle” speech from Watchmen, but ends up sounding like a platitude, a condescending pat on the head that a smart teen like Meg would surely shrug off.

But, as with all of the other unclear parts in the movie, the visuals and sincerity quickly makes up for what the explicit story lacks. And by the time we reach a colorful hugfest, it’s hard to complain that the film wasn’t more clear about how and why you should love. Just telling us to love is more than enough.

 

 

Perfect Faults and Inconsistent Communities: Hope Larson’s A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time was one of the defining books of my childhood. I have vivid memories of sitting on my couch as my mom read it to me, and being terrified by the image of a rhythmically pulsating brain. I read the book several times throughout my life, most recently to my own children.

And so, I’m pretty excited about the film adaptation (I’m going to see it in a few hours and I’ll review it tomorrow), but as a comic fan, I was delighted to see Hope Larson’s graphic novel adaptation in 2012. One of the things I love about it is its emphasis on Meg Murry as a messy protagonist, one whose heroism comes about not because she changes, but because she changes the way she sees herself.

I wrote about the book recently for Tor.com:

While comic books are known for their ability to visually convey bombast and complex action (dating back long before filmmakers had the technology to do so convincingly), Larson’s cartooning slows the narrative and grounds it firmly in Meg’s experience. She does not excise the story’s surreal elements, but subordinates them to the arc of Meg’s shifting perspective. Doing so allows Larson to keep Meg’s faults front and center, filling the book with weirdos whose mere presence undoes IT’s uniform utopia.

We see this devotion to peculiarity in the way Larson renders the characters, conveying paragraphs’ worth of development in a few lines. Her Meg alternates between sloping when sad and tightly angled when angry, glasses forever sliding around and occasional unruly curly-q’s atop her mop of hair. Larson retains Calvin’s ebullience with a smile beaming from between two too-big ears and crowning a too-long body, his knees bent outward and his ankles protruding from his pant legs. Charles Wallace has the wide eyes and small stature befitting his age, but Larson’s skill at facial expressions reveals a mind sharper than any ordinary child’s. Larson follows L’Engle’s basic descriptions for Mrs. Whatsit and her compatriots Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, making the first two little old ladies and the last either a traditional witch or a floating blob of light, but her use of tight curved lines indicate an ethereal lightness. Even when the figures recall familiar types, Larson gives them an odd distinguishing touch.

You can read the whole thing here, and see some cool images from the book. Check it out, and then come back tomorrow for my review of the movie!

2017 in Film: Breaking the Rod of the Oppressor

For Living Lutheran, I wrote about what I saw as the prominent trend in 2017 movies: a focus on those who are dejected, powerless, and (financially, politically) weak.

The films that resonated most with critics and audiences were about the monstrosity of systematic racism (Get Out), the poor outside of Disneyland (The Florida Project), the mute and disrespected and exploited (The Shape of Water), or those from “the midwest of California” (Lady Bird). We certainly had the customary power fantasies — Justice League or Kong: Skull Island — but those failed to ignite the public imaginations. And the superhero movies that did catch our attention weren’t really about strong people punching other strong people. They were about the motley Guardians of the Galaxy, the perpetually losing Peter Parker, the dying Wolverine, and Wonder Woman defending the powerless.

Looking primarily at The Last Jedi, Get Out, and The Florida Project, my piece claims that these movies have a cathartic element:

Catharsis, argued philosophers like Aristotle and Nietzsche, has always been part of communal storytelling, but for the Christian viewer, it can also have a prophetic element: Our stories tell us how things can or should be, not just how they are. In the same way that Jeremiah’s poetry insisted that those who trusted in Babylon’s apparent might were “stupid and without knowledge,” and Isaiah’s poetry transformed “swords into plowshares,” movies can remind people that exploitative power is not inevitable, that other ways of life are possible.

Check out the whole thing here!