(The following contains Spoilers for: Man of Steel, Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness)
I’m about to say something that should be obvious to everyone. Now, when you read it I want you to keep in mind that there are plenty of obvious things in this world that people seem to forget all of the time. Things like “play fair” and “try your best” and “treat people the way you want to be treated” are pretty obvious to most of us, but how quickly we can forget them when the moment comes to put them into practice. I make this point, in all honesty, to validate the very simple statement I’m about to make. That statement is this: relatable characters matter more than anything when telling a story. Perhaps you disagree with that statement or have come up with a quick one or two exceptions to the rule (something artsy and abstract), but know that the stories I’m referring to are the ones that the general public will potentially invest themselves in. I’m talking about the stories that impact our culture and capture the hearts and minds of millions (billions).
Every summer we are exposed to a fresh batch of films. The biggest ones get to be called blockbusters. Yes, summer is open season for the movie lovers, and our game of choice is original spectacle. We want to see something new and awesome. Show me something that will fill me with awe, and give it a massive budget. I’m thinking of Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Terminator 2 (1991), Independence Day (1996), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Avengers (2012), just to name a few. These movies were loved by the people who couldn’t help but throw millions of dollars back at them. But what makes these, and many other blockbuster movies so influential in our popular culture is not their massive budgets. Big budgets can make a good movie look better, but they are powerless to transform a bad movie into a good one. It’s similar to the way technology can improve a good business, but it can’t make up for the shortcomings of a bad one. Summer blockbusters can be as loud and big as they want to be, but if the characters don’t come alive or impact us within the story, we’ll be zoning out halfway through the first explosion.
So far, in the summer 2013 blockbuster season, I’ve been largely disappointed by a lack of relatable characters. Iron Man: 3 was really the only exception, with Robert Downey Jr. playing the well-developed and deeply flawed character of Tony Stark. Director Shane Black seemed to understand the importance of character, as seen most clearly in Tony’s interactions with a scientifically gifted kid who shares the same dark and sarcastic sense of humor. In the middle of this super hero blockbuster film we watched Tony Stark talk and joke with a kid in the middle of a small town, and it was one of the more memorable parts. They were characters acting like people, and I cared because I could relate.
After Iron Man came Star Trek: Into Darkness, which was a just fine movie, but I couldn’t seem to invest in the characters beyond what I’ve already invested as a fan of the Star Trek universe. The Wrath of Kahn will remain a more significant film within our pop- culture consciousness because we enjoy the characters more. Ricardo Montalban has a certain charm to him that was lacking in Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. And Kirk was just another non-hero with a lot of issues that made him more irritating than charming. Worst of all, when many people are killed in the end, none of the characters seem moved by the tragedy. That apparent lack of compassion makes already unappealing characters into heartless monsters, which is unfortunately a perfect transition into Man of Steel.
I’m a big fan of the character of Superman. One of my favorite films is Superman:The Movie (1978) starring Christopher Reeve. In that film we see a Superman/Clark Kent who genuinely wants to help people. He does some big things to help, like stop California from falling into the ocean, but he also does some small things. I believe it is the small things that make Reeve’s Superman so relatable. He certainly has a genuine nice guy quality to him, but beyond that he portrays a level of compassion and societal awareness in every scene. This Superman talks to authority figures with respect, and goes out of his way to help them out. He is an inspiration to people, and isn’t too important to rescue a cat out of a tree. You just feel glad to watch him be so good to people. You want to be that good. I feel good just writing about it! Anyway, I came into Man of Steel with the hope that Henry Cavill’s portrayal of the character would reflect the same heart for service and compassion for humanity. You can imagine my horror when I watched him carelessly punch villains into skyscrapers full of people and destroy property like a child knocking over his Lincoln Logs. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to make a more realistic and gritty Superman, but they sacrificed his heart to do so. Even a tiny indication that he cared about the hundreds of thousands that were dying all around him would have gone a long way for me. Instead, it’s all about him finding his identity while punching bad guys through skyscrapers, and the little people in paper houses are objects to be used as fodder for explosions. Heck, all of these people are dead or trapped in rubble, and Superman’s more concerned with making out with Lois Lane (while making some random comment about being better than humans when it comes to romance) and finding new creative ways to punch down buildings. Even with that ending where he makes a huge sacrifice to save a few people, it was too little too late. He saves people when it doesn’t interfere with punching villains into crowded areas. Every life should matter to Superman, and because this Superman showed a disregard for the sanctity of life and property, I cannot embrace him. I can’t let this character matter to me, because he doesn’t care about what matters. He’s a false Superman, in direct conflict with the character I’ve been relating to for years.
So that was my overview of what has been a mostly disappointing summer blockbuster season. I’m sure many will disagree with my analysis, but I am confident that time will reveal these films to be insignificant within our popular culture because the characters in them weren’t relatable or particularly enjoyable. It is important to mention that all of these characters that I’ve mentioned have already existed for decades, and I’m confident that plays a role in reducing their cultural impact. Superman and Captain Kirk are especially troublesome, as they are associated with specific actors who no longer play them. But hey, I don’t want to end on a negative note…
There’s still hope for this summer. Pacific Rim comes out July 12, and from what I’ve seen, this thing has the potential for some original and relatable characters with heart. If all we get are big monsters and big mechs fighting each other amidst a sea of destruction, the movie will fall flat and lose any chance for cultural resonance. But if the characters controlling the big mechs are interesting and we can find a little of ourselves in them, this summer blockbuster could become a part of the larger conversation for years.
It’s all about characters we can relate to.
Take a look at that amaryllis plant. Do you notice something strange about its appearance? Its skinny green stem shoots up over a foot while a fully formed flower sprouts straight from the bulb. This is not how an amaryllis is supposed to grow.
It should look like this:
The stems grow long out of the bulb before blossoming out of the top. This plant is well-developed and quite beautiful. There is even new growth sprouting up with the promise of more flowers. When the conditions are right, an amaryllis will bloom in a spectacular fashion.
Growing up in the “country” with a dad who kept a serious garden, I learned much about plant life. I learned the values of cultivating and appropriate watering. I learned that different varieties have unique needs when it comes to fertilization and sunlight. But I didn’t just receive an education on how to keep plants alive; that’s not the true purpose of a garden. The purpose of a garden is to produce fruit.
When I say fruit, I don’t just mean apples and oranges. I am referring to any desired product. So in the case of something like parsley or oregano, the fruit is in the leaves. With potato plants, the fruit is in the roots. The fruit of flowering plants, like that amaryllis, is the flowers themselves. Fruit is the reason you grow in the first place.
Plants do a curious thing when they are perfectly content. As my father says, “If a plant is too happy it will make a lot of nice looking leaves, but not much fruit.” He likes to recall the early years of his garden when his older neighbors would stop by to poke fun at him for his pepper plants. “Nice big plants you got there!”, they would say. My dad didn’t know at the time that it was possible for pepper plants to be too happy. He figured that if they liked a little fertilizer they must like a lot of fertilizer. But when the plants are living it up in comfort, they aren’t too concerned about making fruit. They’re like the grasshopper in that story with the ants. He lives in comfort all summer while the ants are storing for the winter, and when the winter comes he’s in a lot of trouble because he has no food. When you think about it, the whole reason a plant makes fruit is to pass its life to the next generation (or germination if you like). Fruit is evidence of a type of wisdom within the plant; a wisdom that prepares it for hard times ahead. Plants that are too content to make fruit are foolish, so to speak.
So what about that funny looking amaryllis plant? It was on track to grow normally until a small child (my cousin’s son, Sam) decided to test its durability. If you look at the picture you can see where the stem was bent, about a third of the way up. That unexpected calamity left the plant hunched over, looking sad and defeated. But over the next week the stem slowly straightened again, and a fresh blossom appeared out of the bulb. In no time at all a new flower bloomed at the base. This was how the amaryllis plant responded to adversity: to make fruit. With no care for its looks, or concern for being different from the other plants, it straightened up and turned tragedy into new life. Yes, it had to mature faster than it would have liked, but it had the wisdom to mature. And now that it has time to grow in a safe environment, I expected new growth to shoot up the way it was intended.
We all experience adversity, and it is how we respond to it that determines our outcomes. Will we learn from our pain and mistakes and grow in character, or will we let fear and bitterness keep us bent over and without fruit? Likewise, when the times are good and we are content, will we grow foolish and forget the fruit that our lives are meant to produce? Fruit like patience, kindness, courage, perseverance, discipline, and love. Wisdom cries out to us from many places: even a broken amaryllis plant.
What are we looking for in a good character?
One who has great power, but does not use it for selfish gain.
One who sacrifices much for the sake of others.
One who serves friends, and also rises above the threats and violence of enemies by serving them as well.
One who speaks the truth plainly, without biting sarcasm or fruitless profanity.
One who treats great and small alike, without self-serving favoritism.
One who lives in a way that proves the existence of our highest ideals, virtues, and values.
One who is relatable, and not too important or busy to pay attention to others.
One who gives without expecting to receive.
One who does not fall prey to the influence of popular opinion.
One who does the right thing when no one is looking.
When I watch a movie or read a book I can’t help but look for these qualities. They are the qualities that I’m drawn to because they are the qualities that I aspire to. It is no coincidence that these qualities are also found in the character of Jesus Christ: the one I am always searching for.
When I am talking to people, always am I considering the character of Jesus Christ. Am I exhibiting these qualities, or is the other person? What can I learn about Him through this? I am searching internally and externally. I am skimming all of creation for signs of my God.
When I watch a movie I search for Him. Do the characters I’m watching imitate any of His characteristics? If not, what is their value? If so, what can I learn about my God and myself? I watch hours upon hours of film watching for signs of life. The fiction has only as much value as it proclaims what is true of reality.
How can I help that my heart is hungry for such a good character? When you’ve tasted something that is better than everything else, don’t you want to taste it again and again? When you see something more attractive than anything else, can you stop yourself from looking at it? When you’ve heard something that rings true, how can you then block your ears to it?
I’m always searching for a good character.