Last night, I saw my first movie in an actual theater in about four months. Before I say anything about the movie, I was astonished at the number of unoriginal movies that are currently in the theaters. It seems like everything is a sequel of some sort or continuation: Kung Fu Panda 2, Pirates 4, X-Men: First Class, Hangover 2 to name a few. Are there really no good stories out there anymore? Have we exhausted the well so badly that all we’re left with is theatrical versions of comic books, remakes of classics, continuations of over-done and completed storylines, or precursor movies that give the background and context of a movie we saw years ago? Ok, enough with the ranting about the state of modern-movie making.
A couple of my college students and I went to watch X-Men: First Class. It was a very entertaining movie, and in keeping with the purpose of my blog, I wanted to point out a few of the deeper mythological elements in the overall story (spoiler alert!).
1. The desire to fit in. Two of the characters, Raven (Mystique) and Hank (Beast), have this internal struggle at wanting so desperately to fit in. They just want to look normal and they will do whatever they can to keep up appearances (literally). Hank even goes so far as to develop a serum that he thinks will make his hand-like feet go away. There’s several conversations they share about the desire to be ‘normal’. The script even goes so far as to have them both muse separately, then in unison say normal. I guess they hadn’t noticed that the movie Aladdin and about a dozen other movies have already used that device. In any case, it underscores the universal desire to fit in, to be normal whatever that ‘normalcy’ might be. It’s funny how we can paralyze ourselves from being who we are because we think that normal is somewhere out there to be achieved and embraced. It’s the desire to be normal (or in an inner circle of normal people) that makes a good man go bad, said C.S. Lewis. I’ve seen it in adolescents, adults, pastors, doctors, homemakers, etc. We want to maintain individuality, but we don’t want to be so different that people differentiate us. Until we realize that who we are is grounded in something objective and completely satisfactory, we will always be chasing this desire to be normal. That’s what Christ’s righteousness imputed to us offers – steadfast normality because God has declared us righteous.
2. Optimism vs. pessimism. Two other characters have an ongoing struggle – Charles Xavier and Erik _______ (the guy who will become Magneto). I found it intriguing how the Jewish Holocaust of WWII provided an interpretive framework for what could happen to the Mutants. Charles wants to believe in the good of humanity to work together as mutants enable progress. Magneto sees that the differences will lead to fear and then to hatred. He says that he’s seen a time in which identification led to gathering, led to experimentation, then to fear, and finally hatred. He experienced it with the Nazis, and he expects (and rightly so) that the same will happen again with the Mutants. This kind of optimism and pessimism of humanity has been embodied in the history of ideas. The Enlightenment and modernism brought with it a blind optimism that assumed humanity could bring about a utopia by the use of reason and advances in science. In the aftermath of the World Wars, the mood swung in the other direction. Post-modernism exemplified a pessimism about human nature and its ability to be objective and morally neutral. With the recent rise in humanism and renewed optimism due to the advance of technology, we are in an uncertain period of time indeed. The movie showed this tension on a micro scale, and I believe once again that the Gospel provides a solution. If left to our own devices, there is indeed good reason for pessimism. In an age of bail-outs, increasing gaps between the wealthy and the poor, human trafficking, materialism, and the list goes on and on, it’s easy to believe that we need to fight for ourselves and defend our kind at all costs (in the vein of Magneto). Yet Jesus’ death and resurrection promise for us that our own propensity for evil is not the end of the story. That in fact, God is making all things new and will make all things new. We have reason for optimism because in the end, to borrow a much used phrase as of late, love wins. God has the victory over his enemies and the enemies of his people. Our sins are forgiven and death has no victory. While Prof X put his confidence in the mutations and universal brotherhood of man, I choose to put mine in the Nazarene who conquered death and sin itself.
3. Mutant and Proud. Related to my first thought, we need to be careful that we blindly accept that who we are is fine and doesn’t need to be ‘cured’. This is one of the underlying messages of X-Men in general. Our mutations should not cause us shame, but rather we should celebrate them, even glory in them. The rest of society tells us we need to be ‘cured’ because they are afraid of us. This seems to be the overwhelming sentiment of our culture as of late. While we should celebrate who we are, we must also realize that sin has affected our world in such a way that who we are is sometimes not who we were meant to be. We are in the process of becoming that, for sure, but we are in process. Just as the mutants needed to learn to harness their abilities, so we must learn the path of obedience and holiness. God loves us as we are because we bear his image, but this is not license to just be without any desire or effort to grow and become. At the same time, we must also be careful not to be so afraid of who are that we project an image of who we think people want us to be. Brennan Manning calls this the ‘impostor self’, and he goes on to say that the impostor self is not known by God because the impostor self does not exist. So many of us have impostor selves, ‘covers’, to hide the real me because we have not fully believed that God loves us where we are. Still others have taken that to the other extreme, wantonly living our lives recklessly in the name of ‘just being me’. Neither of these is the place of truth. The Gospel declares us new creations, and yet we are to continue to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Perhaps John Newton said it best,
“I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ “
At the risk of over-analyzing to the point where you suck the joy out of the experience, I’ll end with those thoughts. My hope and prayer for you is that these short thoughts about a movie-going experience would remind you to constantly listen for echoes of the Gospel myth wherever you go and whatever you’re doing.