My #1 Animated Feature on Netflix is…

Last week’s post ended with a cliff hanger of sorts.  One Redditor very compassionately commented “Coming next week?  F*ck you.”  People are sweet.  In all honesty, I had originally planned to include #1, but the post was becoming too large.  And I decided my last post deserved it’s own post.  So what could possibly take my number one spot over Fantasia?

1. BoJack Horseman

Am I serious?  Yessir!  Dear readers, I beg you to hear me out.  The show follows 90s sitcom star, BoJack Horseman.  But, the 90’s are gone and it is 2014.  The first episode introduces us to a BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) who spends his morning drinking booze in front of the television, watching reruns of his old show, and struggling to write the first chapter of his biography. He has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship with his agent, a fluffy pink cat named Princess Caroline. A homeless young man named Todd (voiced by Aaron Paul) is the eternal optimist who sleeps on BoJack’s couch.  And Diane is a ghost writer who is quickly burdened with finishing the aforementioned biography.  BoJack is a man (or rather, a horse) in search of wholeness in the wake of broken relationships with producers, actors, old friends, and so on.  It is evident in the first episode just how bankrupt BoJack’s selfishness has made him, and the depths he will dive into denial to evade that reality.

BoJack Horseman stands out among similar animated shows: it’s humor is similar to Archer. While shows with crude humor are a dime-a-dozen, and some of them may have a continuing narrative from season to season, Bojack is the only one in which the characters develop. These characters all have their own history and struggles, all have their dysfunctional tendencies in relationships, and they are all living in the riches of Hollywood (Hollywoo..?) trying to comprehend the emptiness that lurks inside themselves. Den of the Geek and Vox each wrote articles back in 2015 drawing strong comparisons between BoJack Horseman and AMC’s Mad Men. And having watched both in their entirety, I couldn’t agree more. Yet, while thematically similar, the despair of BoJack lies not in a secretive, polished life a la Don Draper, but in the comedic cynicism that makes one both laugh and cry. I laugh because it is so absurd to hear it voiced out loud by a drunk BoJack during a 9am interview on PBS, where he asks if it’s okay that he parked in a handicapped spot. I cry because it is makes BoJack’s pain so visceral and transparent even when he is not honest with himself about it.

But does this show even need animation? Is it enhanced at all by not being live-action? It’s not full of costly action like Archer or science fiction tropes like Futurama. It doesn’t display the exuberant insanity of Animaniacs or the epic washes of color and motion of Fantasia. What does such a medium bring to BoJack Horseman?

The opening scene of the series is the theme and title to BoJack’s sitcom, Horsin’ Around in which a horse in ugly sweaters adopts three kids and raises them. It has all the hallmarks of an early 90s sitcom, and the animation and color palette feels oddly reminiscent of cartoons from that period. Characters have soft, curved features not dissimilar from shows like Care Bears, Doug, or even Rugrats. Everything visual about the show from the outset invites the viewer into 90s nostalgia, which is so culturally pervasive today. But no sooner does our introduction to Horsin’ Around appear then we are introduced to 21st century BoJack and all his cynicism and longing for his fame. However, the color palette and animation style never changes. BoJack and his cohorts are still in a world of pastels and talking animals, yet unable to see that the world they inhabit has many of the same woes and joys as the foregone 90s.

The animation of BoJack takes us further into our own 90s nostalgia, and like BoJack we are wondering what this new era means for us. The romanticized (perhaps exaggerated) safety and security of the 90s are gone, yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Full House, and even The X-Files have been given reboots. BoJack Horseman visually looks right a home next to such beloved 90s shows, as well as their reboots. The brilliance of BoJack is that it beckons us to reflect on how desperate we are to return to a period nearly thirty years in the past. And the writers know it. In the second season, a television producer (a penguin who formerly worked for Penguin Publishing) expresses that “Everything feels fresh if you just forget the last thirty years ever happened” (s2e2).

Animals are regular characters, and they live very human lives alongside humans. They work jobs, pay taxes, and go on dates–nearly always outside their species. The animal characters are painted like the animal-themed cartoons of our youth, only they are adults bearing scowls and grimaces. It is almost as if the fun animals we loved as children have grown up with us, and are now cynics just trying to get by. In BoJack Horseman, humans and animals alike are from a variety of generations: Baby Boomers and WWII folks to Gen-X, Millennials, and beyond. And each generational incarnation is in the search for purpose and joy in an uncertain world.

Yet the more flashbacks we see, the more it becomes evident that BoJack and friends were the same cynics, optimists, and everything in between, long before 2014. BoJack slowly comes to this painful realization by the end of season 1 (SPOILER AHEAD!). Speaking to Diane, he pleads…

“I mean am I just doomed to be the person that I am? The person in that book? I mean it’s not too late for me, is it? It’s not too late? Diane, I need you to tell me it’s not too late…I need you to tell me that I’m a good person. I know that I can be selfish and narcissistic and self-destructive, but underneath all that, deep down, I’m a good person, and I need you to tell me that I’m good. Diane? Tell me, please, Diane. Tell me that I’m good.” (s1e11).

BoJack Horseman is a show that is not only about longing for the bright and vivid colors of the past and stumbling around to find such vibrancy in our own age. It is a reminder that seasons of disorientation and confusion expose us, and invite us to heal.
Season 4 aires September 8.

Did I miss any gems on Netflix?  Think I couldn’t be more wrong?  Please comment and let me know!

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My Top 5 Animated Picks on Netflix

Hello everyone! This past weekend I had the joy of watching the pilot episode of Disney’s reboot of Ducktales with my wife. If you haven’t seen the new Ducktales pilot, you can watch it on YouTube. The show is a wonderfully fresh take on this late 80’s treasure. Huey, Dewy and Louie all have distinct personalities (enhanced by the impeccable voice talents of Danny Pudi, Ben Schwartz, and Bobby Moynihan). And perhaps the greatest change is Scrooge McDuck’s role as a retired adventurer who is drawn back into the game by the spirits of his great-nephews. Former ‘Doctor Who’ David Tennant carries Scrooge in a direction pleasantly removed from the 1987 rendition, whose desire for treasure just happens to drag the Duck triplets along for the ride. Instead, Scrooge is a seasoned adventurer inspired by the youth of nephews to strike back out in the great unknown. The voice acting is superb, the writing is fast and witty without sacrificing the plot, and the animation embodies it all in with smooth transitions and an eye-catching color palette. It’s a great start to what will hopefully continue to be an enjoyable adventure series.

I love animation. As a medium, it allows for the storyteller’s imagination to be unleashed without the budget/technological constraints of a live action production. Despite the pervasiveness of CGI/3D shows and films like Zootopia, the 2D landscape still holds the greatest flexibility for the absurdity that cartoons have thrived on since Looney Tunes. And cartoons have also shown a high level of versatility for an array of art styles and narratives. With that in mind, I’ve compiled a brief list of what I consider to be the cream of the crop of animation on Netflix. I’m only including 2D animation, as well as strictly Western shows (meaning no anime… this time). Below are my Top 5 Tastes of Animation on Netflix!

5. Futurama

In spring of 1999, Matt Groening (The Simpsons creator) and David X. Cohen introduced the television viewing public to the world of the 31st century in the illustrious and bustling city of New New York. The show primarily follows the exploits and adventures of Philip J. Fry (referred to as Fry), a pizza delivery boy who is accidentally cryogenically frozen at midnight on New Year’s Eve in the year 1999. Fry then finds himself in a future that no one ever could have predicted. Cars fly, aliens, robots, and humans co-mingle in relative peace, and faster-than-light travel has been discovered through burning dark matter (which is conveniently left in the litter box by adorable house pets called niblonians). And Fry quickly becomes a delivery boy of the future for Planet Express, accompanied by the one-eyed ship captain Leela, and the robot Bender.

As science fiction and fantasy nerd, Futurama had my attention for four seasons which consistently delivered memorable homages and subtle jokes that were written for nerds by nerds. The crew of the Planet Express ship turn out to have been the source of the Roswell landing in 1947 (this episode, “Roswell the Ends Well” was the season premier of season 4, and won an Emmy in 2002!). In another episode, Fry learns that Star Trek fandom has evolved into a banned religious cult and all evidence of the series has been destroyed. As a show with such a plethora of references , allusions, and whole episodes that are spins on classic sci-fi and fantasy, animation was the only way to capture such a vast love-letter to nerd favorites throughout the past century. Unfortunately, the show was canceled by Fox after 4 seasons, to be followed by 4 movies and subsequent seasons that were produced and aired on Comedy Central. This later material tended to be more topical (often related to current events) in its humor, and the writing suffered because the change in networks (as well as being written several years later) meant that the crude humor that was subtle and witty to avoid censors was replaced with more grotesque, explicit jokes that didn’t try to hide their intent. But if you’re a nerd, the first four seasons of this animated space adventure are for you.

4. Archer

I hesitated including this show because the humor is far from wholesome and family-friendly. I stopped watching Archer for a couple years after I found joke to be in extremely poor taste. Yet, I came back. The show follows a privatized, international spy agency whose staff is composed of insanely dysfunctional field agents and administrative folks. While many spy stories focus on the hero or heroes completing missions, this unhinged cartoon wraps the missions in administrative red tape, vindictive interpersonal dynamics, and pathological chaos.

Why do I include Archer on my list? Because the animation has a unique pseudo-realistic style. Unlike most cartoons, the caricature is visible in the drawing of the characters themselves, Archer‘s cast at first glance do not look humorous at all. They appear rather plain and boring. Yet the writing embraces the style, delivering the majority of its jokes with a deadpan seriousness that is both gut-wrenchingly sarcastic at worst and deliciously awkward at best. Not only that, as soon as the laughter starts to subside the screen often explodes (perhaps literally) with some well choreographed actions sequences. Archer delivers on humor and action, utilizing all it’s animation style has to offer in doing so. If your children are in bed, take a chance on Archer‘s pilot episode. You’ll either laugh until you cry, or you’ll think much less of me for suggesting it.

4. Animaniacs

In the late 80s and early 90s, Warner Bros Animation was experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Saturday mornings were full of the best the studio had produced since Looney Tunes. Airing on Fox Kids in 1993, the hijinks and antics of the Warner Brothers (and the Warner Sister!), and their accompanying cast brought insanity that surpassed that of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. The show was a half-hour sketch comedy that didn’t hold back. The animation captures every hyperbolic facial expression and exaggerated bodily stunt, including those performed by frequent, animated celebrity “cameos.” Animaniacs features sketches of historical events such as Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel (with some unrequested help from the Warners) and in another they inspire Einsteins paradigm-shifting formula. Musical numbers such as Yakko naming each country on the planet or learning multiplication are even educational. Anyone watching cartoons in the 90s remembers other notable characters like Pinky and the Brain (who eventually got a spin off show) and the ‘Good Feathers’ (a running parody of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas with pigeons), and more.

This show is pure, unadulterated madness and the animation keeps up with it all, as did my ADD. The 90s color palette and hand-drawn animation holds up even two decades later, and the timeless humor still hits home. Animaniacs remains the best of the Warner Bros Animation renaissance. And with all 99 episodes on Netflix, there is a plethora of sketches to enjoy.

2. Fantasia

In 1940, Walt Disney produced his third animated feature, Fantasia. While I genuinely hope that this film needs no introduction, it does merit a brief overview. Fantasia consists of eight animated segments which are set to eight pieces of classical music. Each segment contains its own music-inspired narrative, ranging from the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, to centaurs and cupids having their fun spoiled by Greek gods, to the Devil summoning the restless dead for night of chaotic revelry. Were I composing such a list in 1940, each segment could count as a separate representation of animation’s versatility. Originally inspired by Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies in the late 1920s, Fantasia is what happens when imaginations enthralled with the majesty of music are captured in colored ink and on screen. The image of Mickey Mouse sporting a red robe and blue hat comes from the segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and is to this day his most iconic rendition.

My favorite piece (or at least a close second to the film’s final “Night on Bald Mountain”) may be the very first segment that opens the film. Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” opens with the live-action Philadelphia Orchestra playing on stage before slowly being consumed by vibrant, moving colors which begin to take on form and shape. This opening is a Creation story of sorts as the music slowly speaks a new world into existence.

If you have never watched Fantasia, or haven’t in years, take the time to enjoy the transcendent sounds of some of histories best musical pieces set to some of the most impressive animation of both its day and our day.

 

And Number 5 is…

 

Coming next week!

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A Prayer After Charlottesville

I do not have the words.  I do not have the words to express my anger and grief at seeing swastikas and and klansmen marching down the streets of Charlottesville.  I do not have words for my disgust at a President who ultimately refuses to condemn the evil that Nazism and White Supremacy unapologetically profess.  I have no words for Jerry Falwell Jr.’s blaspheming silence who at times I hear more loudly than the President’s and pundit’s foul, Anti-Christ words.  And I have no words for the confusion and rage I feel as I watch people’s social media presence defend, justify, or talk around the implications of this “Unite the Right” march.  Frankly, I am furious to the point of tears.  I do not even know how to engage the subject at this moment.  In the light of that, I would like to offer a prayer…

 

God Creator,
Christ Redeemer,
Spirit Sanctifier,

Where does my rage go?
Where does our rage go?

How quickly to we forget history.
How quickly, oh Lord, do we forget the evil committed under those symbols?
Under klan flags and swastikas.

Christ our Savior,
forgive me for I have no words.
But words I must find.

We have permitted evil through our silence.
On behalf of silent Christians,
I beg your Spirit to call us back to you,

or as the fig tree which bears no fruit,
dig us up by the root and cast us into the fire,
that we may no more pollute Your gospel
with quiet complacence,
ambivalence, or hate.

We need You to gives us the humility to find our voice,
To stand along side the marginalized as Christ did,
as Christ does.
We have no need to ask 
“who are the lepers and Samaritans of our age?”
We know them.
And we make excuses for their oppression.

Remind us, oh Liberator
that Empire oppresses all those under its heel.

And give us courage to call out the evils marching in Charlottesville by name:
Neo-Nazism
The Ku Klux Klan
White Supremacy
the Alt-Right.

And as You beckoned through the voice of Your Prophets
to the people of Israel,
give us words and humility
to seek repentance and forgiveness of our bloody and wicked history.

Lord, give us voices,
and help us give a voice to others.

May we not dwell on our own safety and security,
but defend Your Image residing in all Humanity.

Spirit be our Guide,
Christ be our Model,
God be our King.

Amen.

 

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the clans of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
“What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me,and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?”

-Jeremiah 2:4

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Dear Mr. President, Please Watch Godzilla (An Open Letter)

Dear Mr. President,

Please watch Godzilla.  I’m not sure what kind of movies you typically watch in your leisure, but this film is a classic and certainly worth your time, I promise you.  You may be familiar with Godzilla as the the giant lizard monster that ravages Tokyo.  But do you know the origins of Godzilla?  Originally titled Gojira, this 1954 film tells the story of beast created by American nuclear testing in the South Pacific.  The testing resurrects and mutates this dinosaur into what we now know as Godzilla.  Godzilla is as much a force of nature–like a hurricane or a tsunami–as it is a creature.

Yet what I find most fascinating about Godzilla is that the film was produced less than a decade after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Director Ishiro Honda was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army and became a POW in China until the war ended. Although Honda was not present in Japan those fateful August mornings in 1945, the nuclear bombings were certainly fresh in his mind when he and Takeo Murata penned the screenplay. Such an influence is evident in the mayhem and destruction that Godzilla rains down on Tokyo.  According to Honda and producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, the relentless force of the monster was a deliberate parallel to the destruction inflicted by the atomic bomb attacks.  Honda is quoted as saying…

“If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.”

The visual aesthetic must have been eerie for those first audiences, but the film resonated with the Japanese people and raked in $2,250,000 U.S. dollars at the box office (twelve fold the cost of making the film). And that aesthetic has endured through the majority of the 29 Japanese-produced Godzilla films.  This includes the most recent film, Godzilla: Resurgence (or Shin Godzilla), released in Japan in 2016, in which the origin of Godzilla is not linked to nuclear testing, but to radioactive contamination (a likely allusion to the 2011 Fukushima disaster).

The original Godzilla and subsequent films reflect the place of the nuclear attacks in the cultural memory of Japan.  And it’s not just the giant rubber monster movies that burn in remembrance in Japanese pop-culture.  No, Mr. President, Japanese anime carry that mark as well.

While I assume that cartoons of any sort are not your forte, please bear with me a moment longer.  Like many action-oriented movies and television shows here in the U.S., many anime titles include the threat of a doomsday weapon or some external, malicious catastrophe.  Yet unlike Western film or television where the protagonist succeeds in preventing said threat during some action-packed climax, it is not uncommon in anime for the doomsday device to activate or the catastrophe to occur.  In these cases, the narrative arc of the protagonist is no longer about preventing the event, but persevering through the event and re-establishing equilibrium in the devastating aftermath.  Some shows, such as the quintessential Neon Genesis Evangelion, even begin after the catastrophe has taken place, setting the whole plot in the midst of recovery and reconstruction.  While Western films like Mad Max may be set in post-apocalyptic worlds that are the implied result of nuclear war, the goal of the protagonist is often to maintain his or her civility in the midst of depravity.  In shows such as NGE, or in the film Akira, the narrative arc is always moving towards some form of rebirth, recreation, or reincarnation for humanity.  The post-catastrophe/post-apocalyptic narratives in Japanese anime seem to be less about survival (a la Mad Max) and more about recovery and reconstruction.

I write all this, Mr. President, to illustrate this one point: the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki irrevocably changed the history, culture, and mindset of the Japanese people.  I suspect you and I are in stark disagreement on whether or not the August 1945 bombings were justified or necessary, but we cannot (and most importantly you cannot) risk forgetting that an estimated 129,000-226,000 lives were taken by the atomic bomb. That’s at least 23 times the casualties of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the attack on Pearl Harbor combined.  You are the leader of the only nation to ever use nuclear might against another nation.  You are quite literally the most powerful person on the planet.  And if that order is given and that button is pressed, you would be responsible for bringing about death and destruction on a scale only truly known and fathomed in Japan.  You would drastically and irrevocably change a nation’s history and culture, their art and their narrative.  I have no doubt you  would change their identity.

Do you comprehend the burden of such power?  Can your imagination grasp what it really means to have such atomic energy at your finger tips? So Mr. President, I ask you to watch Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla.  Please take just a couple hours to catch just a glimpse of the cost of such power, and the legacy it leaves in its wake.

Sincerely, Daniel R. Garrison Edwards

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Wedding Season: Let’s Talk About that Garter Toss

Wedding season is upon us in full swing! Several weeks ago, my wife and I attended a wedding. It was a blast, as any wedding should be. The bride and groom are both wonderful people. There was food, drink, and dancing. What more could you ask for?

Like most weddings, the festivities included the bouquet toss and garter toss. If you’ve been at a wedding reception in the US, you have more than likely seen this ritual. To begin, all the single ladies are asked, encouraged, then cajoled onto the dance floor to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”. The bride throws the bouquet in the air, before a mixed multitude of eager and reticent single women. And according to wedding lore whichever single lady catches it is the next to be married. This is a ritual in which the DJ has near complete control over, and often times this person is a stranger working the crowd for all they’re worth. How can this ever go wrong?

For the next phase of this custom the bride takes a seat, and her groom slyly removes the garter from her thigh. Now the single fellas gather on the floor and the groom tosses the garter. In this particular instance it was wrapped around a football, rather than shot as a sling shot. A single guy catches it, and (in the final phase of the ritual) now he must place it on the leg of the bouquet-bearing single woman. There are usually cheers, and perhaps whistling, surrounding the activity.

At this particular wedding, a couple of guys in their late twenties hoisted a 14 year old boy into the air to catch the garter. There was cheering and high-fiving, and I confess, I thought it was funny. Then it came time to place the garter on the leg of the young woman with the bouquet, who was at least a decade his senior. This is when stuff got uncomfortable. The boy slipped the garter over her ankle. Then he continued up her calf with enthusiasm, milking as much cheering from the male voices in the crowd as he could. Then he passed her knee. The young woman’s eyes went wide as he continued sliding the garter up her thigh! Once the boy was a third of the way up her thigh, she looked to the groom (a generally decent guy, I insist) who was laughing with the rest. She put a hand out towards the boy to stop him, but he didn’t stop sliding that garter until he was two-thirds the up her thigh and well under the hem of her dress. (And how vociferously could she protest when the crowd was cheering their approval?) The crowd hooted and hollered (especially the groomsmen), the 14 year old boy offered her a handshake which she reluctantly accepted, and he sauntered off the dance floor. The young woman, on the other hand, walked back to her table visibly uncomfortable and ashamed. The sense of violation was plain on her face.

My wife and I walked away from an otherwise enjoyable night feeling queasy and angry that this wedding game had played out as such, (my wife in particular was horrified and furious, feeling sick to her stomach) and that no one had intervened. More importantly, the whole scene had been encouraged, right down to the DJ telling the boy “Jimmy, today you start becoming a man.”

We indulged this custom at our wedding too… It was my idea, and my wife was willing to indulge me, even to the point of surprising me with a Superman garter. When a minor nabbed the garter, we insisted the teen who caught it choose a friend over the age of 21 who we were confident would be respectful of the woman who caught the bouquet. It was a decent contingency plan, cooked up on the fly out of sheer necessity. And yet, the game was played.

And as I watched this teenage boy slide the garter with gusto up her bare leg, I felt my own sense of shame and remorse. At our wedding (not quite 4 years ago) a small crowd of teenage boys looked on as I removed that Superman garter (using my teeth no less…). These young guys composed my small group at church and many I had known since they were 12. What message did I send them? What did I hope to prove? That I was cool? That since I had been open with them about my commitment to abstinence until my wedding night that then I could go ravenously wild in public?

As we were trying to unwind in our hotel after this recent wedding, my wife commented that it would be abhorrent if a group of women encouraged a 14 year old girl to caress, or even touch, the abs of a young man in his mid-twenties. There would be an outcry, and the young man would under no circumstances be tacitly expected to allow such a spectacle. Yet, this boy was encouraged to “go for it!” Had she protested, resisted, or removed herself from the game, I suspect that would have been frowned upon. After all she caught the bouquet! It’s like entering a social contract, right? And women catch the bouquet first, so whoever catches it has no idea who the “lucky guy” will be. If the garter toss happened first, at least then these women would get have some consent in who touches them.

Have you ever watched the single ladies as they’re ushered on to the dance floor to catch the bouquet? The majority of them look completely disinterested or even reluctant. I suspect this is because they know that one of them will have to expose a fair amount of leg in public and let a stranger place an undergarment on said leg as a high as his pleasure may be. Here’s a reminder that garters are an undergarment.

If any of the guys from my small group read this, I am sorry that I set such an example. You all deserved better than that, as do the women you may pursue.

And to everyone else, when we celebrate at weddings, what are choosing to celebrate? Rest assured, at a celebration of two lives becoming one before God and their community, no one should feel violated or humiliated. As a Church, we need to reconsider the garter toss.

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Do Heroes Fight Skybeams? (Accidental Minor Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming)

Last week I shared some thoughts on the latest installment of the DCEU, Wonder Woman. I tried to stay focused on that film, but found myself floundering around with broader thoughts concerning superheroes in cinema. A friend and I were discussing Wonder Woman and he suggested that (spoiler ahead!) the scene of Diana courageously crossing No Man’s Land was the most heroic moment in a superhero movie since Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was willing to remain maskless in front of dozen of onlookers in order to save their train car from disaster.

http://https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhRZB-nqOU

In light of our conversation, I have been pondering this question: When was the last time a key moment in a superhero film revolved around the hero saving someone in an act of heroism? I’m not asking about pieces of dialogue where characters plan to evacuate bystanders or brief clips of people being pulled from danger. I’m asking about scenes that portray the heroism of the character, scenes that display courage or sacrifice.

Frankly, I can’t think of any such scenes that have occurred in any recent film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Many of those films revolve around some larger conspiracy or larger-than-life foe. Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, while MCU high points, are more concerned with internal conflicts within the superhuman community. Would it be so bad to see The Vision get a cat out of a tree (which could be both endearing and hilarious!) or watch Bruce Banner serve in a local free clinic as he steps back from the life of an Avenger? Batman hasn’t stopped a mugger since Batman Begins in 2005. Say what you will about Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.  Brandon Routh’s Kal-El is in the business of helping people.

Why have we as the audience traded heroism for the sky beams? It appears that studios believe we desire for higher powers like the Avengers or Justice League to confront insurmountable alien forces rather than reflect what courage, conviction, and compassion look like in the streets. The Avengers team rarely interacts with regular civilians in any substantial fashion.  Instead, foes and threats remain abstract to such an extent that they’re not even allegorical or symbolic for real world conflicts and tragedies.

I thought this post would largely be about my disappointment over this trend in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, over the weekend I saw Spiderman: Homecoming. (Surprise Minor Spoilers!) If you saw Captain America: Civil War, you know that that was Spidey’s first appearance in the MCU. This next MCU installment follows Peter Parker as he fights street crime in the snazzy Stark-spider suit given to him in Civil War. He desires desperately to be an Avenger and to take his fight beyond the streets of New York City (and mostly Queens). The film’s big baddy, played by Michael Keaton, who makes his money selling alien technology left over from the wreckage of the alien attack on NYC (in the first Avengers film). Keaton plays the Spidey villain, Vulture. I could write a post just on Vulture and his relationship with Spider-Man throughout the film It’s fascinating.

As I mentioned, Spider-Man wants to be an Avenger. He spends his after school time at his “Stark internship,” where he saves cats, helps old ladies, and thwarts bicycle thieves (sorta). At the end of each day, he leaves a voice message for Happy Hogan (so cool to see Jon Favreau again) which recaps all his activities and asking when he can speak with Tony Stark again.

Yet, by the film’s conclusion (spoilers) Peter Parker decides to remain “Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” The events of the film and the parallels between Vulture and Spidey convince Parker that he is needed in the neighborhood. This is in stark contrast to whatever larger-than-life conflict the Avengers are wrapped up in. Although Spider-Man will enter cosmic-grade warfare in Avengers: Infinity War, for the moment Spider-Man chooses to be the local hero. While giving an elderly woman directions and being awarded with a churro isn’t exactly the action of blockbuster cinema, there is a groundedness to this hero that much of the MCU and DCEU lack. Spider-Man’s The Vulture and Wonder Woman‘s Ares are foes that embody familiar realities. The Vulture is a villain born out of economic hardship.  Ares incites the chaos of war.  Both economic hardship and pervasive war are the subject of daily news headlines. Whether it be the Chitauri of The Avengers, or Ultron in its sequel (not to mention whatever Lex Luthor is doing in Batman v Superman), there is little to nothing these threats that make our heart ache for justice. By the end of Spider-Man: Homecoming, I was even aching for justice and mercy for Keaton’s Vulture.

Why do our superhero movies so regularly lack heroism, compassion, and a human connection? Wonder Woman’s exposed sprint to draw enemy fire in No Man’s Land is an act that inspires the enlisted soldiers to storm enemy lines. Tom Holland’s Spidey is a beat cop of sorts, who also performs even the most menial of favors. How do our movies define the word “hero?” Is the servant leader such a far-gone concept in our popular culture that our heroes can only be known as they fight large, structural oppression? Not only that, these structural oppressions in the MCU are a conspiracy of some hidden evil, and make light of the structural oppression that does exist.

Perhaps Tony Stark’s admonishment to Peter Parker “to stay close to the ground” reflects his own regret at not focusing his justice at the grass roots (in light of the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War). While such a pivot would be fascinating and likely welcomed by film goers in the MCU, a conflict on the scale that is promised by Avengers: Infinity War brings little promise of that.

What kind of heroes do we desire? If we want to define heroes strictly in a mythological sense, god-like beings alone fit the bill. But if we want heroes that truly inspire us to live for others, then our heroes must defined by actions of selflessness and mercy. So far Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are the heroes that do just that.

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Wonder Woman: The Hero We Deserve (Minor Spoilers)

I have always been a fan of DC Comics. The pantheon of DC heroes is simply iconic. Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have largely defined everything we expect in superheroes. DC is still going strong in the DC: Rebirth titles, which I wrote on here. Decades ago, these heroes set the bar. So imagine my disappointment when the DCEU, was turning into a total mess of a cinematic universe. I, for one, did not despise Man of Steel or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as much as many audiences and critics. There was plenty I enjoyed about both films. Yet, it became apparent that the masterminds behind the DCEU did not understand what these iconic characters were truly about. The comicbook nerd in me could explain away the elements that seemed to betray the nature of these characters. I could buy a Kal-El who recently turned superhero being neglectful of human life while fighting Zod then snapping his neck in a fit of rage. I considered this to be a great moment for Supes to make his trademark commitment to protect all life. And I was intrigued by the idea of a Batman so devastated by the murder of Robin and so jaded after years of crime fighting that he was less discriminate in his preservation of life and his pledge to not use firearms. Such a dichotomy would have made for a fascinating dynamic between a young Superman and a seasoned Batman. But instead we got this.   And director Zack Snyder was adamant that his revisioning of the iconic heroes was his final intention. It seemed the DCEU would only ever offer us brooding, angsty, negligent superheroes who are so caught up in their own depression that they play fast and loose with human life.

But low and behold! One hero has entered the DCEU with the conviction and uncompromising virtue we comicbook nerds expect from DC Comics. Here are some Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman!

Much has been written about the role of gender in Wonder Woman and the hopes that this film will encourage studios to tap into the treasure trove of female superheroes (superheroines?). These reviews are well worth the read. I have high hopes for how Joss Whedon, who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, will handle the character of Batgirl, and I am curious about the portrayal of Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey/Phoenix in the next installment in the X-Men film franchise. But the gender study of Wonder Woman and the future of female superheroes has been discussed at length by others. What this film brings to the table is something that has been lost in the world of comicbook movie franchises: a hero with conviction, compassion, and idealism.

The film begins with Princess Diana growing up on the Amazonian island of Themyscira. Her mother, Hippolyta, tells her how Ares, the God of War, rebelled against Zeus and incited war amongst an otherwise peaceful humanity. It is the purpose of the Amazons to defeat Ares should he appear again, and, to that end, on Themyscira resides the weapon “the Godkiller.”

The plot thickens when the English spy, Steve Trevor, crashes onto Themyscira while fleeing German ships, and brings the reality of World War I to Diana’s attention. The unprecedented chaos and the moral ambiguity of the first World War stands in stark contrast to the idealistic paradise of Diana’s homeland, The Princess of the Amazons is adamant that the God of War has returned, and that it is her duty defeat him and return peace to humanity. The rest of the film follows Diana as she, with a ragtag squad of soldiers, penetrates the Western Front in search of General Ludendorff (a real historical figure) who she is convinced is actually Ares.

Spoiler Alert: Diana does succeed in killing Ludendorff. However, it is immediately evident that her understanding of war, humanity, and Ares himself is incomplete. I’ll let you find out who is actually Ares in this film. What is important is that Diana quickly learns how integrated good and evil are within human persons. In light of this, Diana must nuance her convictions and discover her role amidst the chaos and joy of human existence.

The element of Wonder Woman that I find the most well crafted is Diana’s integration into early 20th century western Europe. Once she and Steve Trevor are alone on the boat sailing away from Themyscira, she begins learning about this mysterious new world in a fish-out-of-water style of story. Yet the brilliance of Allan Heinberg’s screenplay, Patty Jenkins’ direction, and Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Diana, is that Diana’s convictions about justice, compassion, and the need to defeat Ares, never waver. While she may wear the clothing of the period and learn small pieces of etiquette, Diana remains uncompromising in who she is and what she believes is her mission. The film’s climax does little to undermine her core commitments to justice –which is a far cry from Snyder’s murderous Batman. Rather, she is forced to understand her convictions in a new light as she experiences the epiphany that the evils of the world are enmeshed in the human experience and not the machinations of one deific figure. These new revelations do not change Diana’s character, but call her into a deeper understanding of the principles she learned in her youth. What makes Diana heroic at the beginning remains what makes her heroic at the end. In fact, her powers are very much secondary to her convictions which is more than I can say for Superman in Man of Steel.

Wonder Woman stands out among superhero films because Diana’s heroism clearly inspires heroism in others throughout. This is most apparent when the troops push across No Man’s Land, following her fearless drawing of enemy fire, breaking the stalemate between the English and German forces. Unlike Man of Steel‘s assertion that the House of El crest (the iconic “S” emblazoned shield) means hope, or Bruce Wayne’s verbal desire for Batman to “become a symbol,” in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Wonder Woman does not require such verbal articulation because her actions and countenance convey exactly these things.

I have more to say on superheroes. But that is for next week. In the mean time, go see Wonder Woman. 

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Jacob Travlers Goes on an Indefinite Hiatus

Can I share a secret with you all? Writing fiction can be challenging, especially if what one is writing is a long, plot driven narrative that requires cohesion and few (hopefully none) plot holes and incongruities. Frankly, The Life and Times of Jacob Travlers has turned out to be more than I can chew in this season of my life.

When I first began this story, I aspired to write a serial epic in the style of the pulp stories of the late 19th and early 20th century. I was very much hoping to channel my inner Edgar Rice Burroughs (without the racism) and Charles Dickens (likely without the same wit and charm). The original title for this section was Pulp Fiction Friday! I was hoping to encourage other writers I know to take on the task of writing a serially published story so my readers would have a new chapter every Friday from three or four alternating tales. Each story would get a monthly installment, and several genres would be represented.

That was the portion of the blog that I was most excited for.

Alas, writing serial fiction requires extensive planning and forethought, so writing week to week is a poor strategy. While it certainly worked for the first couple of seasons of Lost, it is also a reason the show floundered in the middle, killed off characters without reason, then crashed into an ambiguous ending with unanswered questions.

I certainly hope to bring Jacob Travlers and his adventure to the world wide web again. I have notes and scribbles and other such gris for the proverbial mill. But I’m not sure how soon that will be. Consider this an indefinite hiatus.

I thank you for reading what four chapters I do have posted. I will continue to share with you all where my imagination goes and what musings come to the surface.

Peace, fellow pilgrims.

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A Year Later

Holy guacamole! Noggin Squall has been live on the world wide web for over a year! Honestly, I’m a little surprised. I have the unfortunate tendency to dream up cool ideas, then abandon them rather quickly, and then regret that project’s indefinite hiatus and/or death six months later. But not here! I’m still blogging strong (ish) since May 24, 2016.
When I started this blog, it had no clear focus. On the About page, I describe the blog as “my attempt at reflecting on my integrated, scatter-brained self on the Internet.” It was what spawned both name and the tag line- “More chaotic than a brain storm.” Noggin Squall has been nothing more than my creative experiment. For a year it has been my place to throw stuff against the wall and see what stuck. I’ve enjoyed it, and having the relative accountability of a blog has kept me writing. I think my writing has sharpened significantly since my first post. I learned very quickly that Noggin Squall was just as much about my own self-discovery and pilgrimage as it was about blogging. And I hope that shows and will continue to show.
Within this experiment have been several smaller experiments that yielded varying results. I’ve really enjoyed writing Minor Spoilers, and yet they don’t draw the same attention as my more self-reflective pieces. The Life and Times of Jacobs Travlers was my first endeavor into serial fiction writing, and damn, I was surprised at how challenging keeping up such a project would be. I was quite naive about the planning and forethought required in writing a continuous narrative from one month to the next. There have been moments when I’ve been a touch more political than I had expected, and there have been posts that you all loved when I thought I spewing nonsense. It has been a fun way to sharpen my writing skills, and my written voice. For being part of this process, I thank you all.
However, the blog has very quickly become more than a mere splattering of random thoughts and mental rabbit trails. My first series, Why Christians Should Write Genre Fiction, started bringing a focus to the blog. Or perhaps a fulcrum is a more appropriate image. Or in the interest of keeping with the storm imagery of Noggin Squall, I have begun to recognize the eye of the storm.
The eye at the center of all my mental wind and debris is the role of the imagination in engaging the spiritual life. For my part, this is largely reflected in my love for narrative as it plays out in a host of nerdy mediums. Frankly, being a geek and being a person of faith feels like inseparable pieces of myself. It reminds me of a soft-serve ice cream cone that is twisted chocolate-vanilla. Have you ever watched a younger kiddo try to lick away one flavor first? It can’t be done.
This feels like a revelation, friends. With the discarding of my cerebral veil (at least in part), I am very excited for the future. Here is some glimpses of what is blowing our way.

  • The blog is about to undergo some aesthetic changes in the coming weeks. Some renovations, or a facelift, if you will. Along with this, you can expect some revisions to my “About” pages.
  • I’ll be expanding my social media presence. As of now, you can find me on Twitter. But soon you will be able to track me down on Facebook and Tumblr. Both platforms will be additional avenues for you to keep up with the blog, but even better, we will be able to converse and share with each other. You can see what I’m excited about, and share with me what you’re excited about.
  • The Life and Times of Jacob Travlers will no longer be featured. It is a story that I will keep crafting and writing, but I’ve decided the blog is not the place for it at this time. I will be sure to let you all know when and where my fiction shows up.
  • The pseudo-syllabus for Imagination as Resistance will be revised and edited. I fear I wrote that from a place of greater frustration and anger than maybe was helpful. I stand by the concern and mission of that series, but I’m sure I could articulate it in a more dialectical fashion.
  • Finally, I am in the midst of writing a book. I actually have an outline. The book is turning out to largely be about identity, and the experience of growing up a nerd and a preacher’s kid amidst the evangelical youth subculture at the turn of the millennium. As I scrounge up the courage to share those wounds and reflections, I’m sure I’ll post some chapter samples. The goal is to have a completed manuscript come September.

I can’t thank you all enough for being my faithful and/or casual readers. I hope a little piece of me resonates with a little piece of you. I pray that this summer, you all find time to read good books, take long walks, and drink cool beer.

As always, peace be with you.

DRG Edwards

 

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Advocate for Net Neutrality

I tend to be a fan of the internet, and I am sure I am not alone. While the internet may have much unwholesome or offensive content, it is where many people find their news, gather recipes, post pictures of cats, and watch videos of teenage boys shooting fire works at each other. What’s not to love?

The world wide web is an expanse of information, entertainment, and innovation. It is here that many find outlets for their passions in the form of blogs, visual art, and crafts on sites like Tumblr and DeviantArt, and Etsy. It’s where aspiring musicians share their talent and seek exposure on platforms such as SoundCloud. And it is where many have sought to find financial support for their passion projects, or even physical needs, through crowd funding.

It stands as the only space where any individual can carve out his or her own niche. The beauty of the internet is that it is largely not owned by anyone. It is predominantly an unrestricted space for the exchange and sharing of ideas, art, information, and knowledge. Sure there is garbage and false information, but it is our responsibility as individuals to sift through that mess ourselves.  The internet is a near infinite resource!

In 2014, Kester Brewin re-released his book Mutiny!– Why We Love Pirates and How They Can Save Us for free online here. Originally published in 2012, Brewin made this work accessible online, no charge, in the interest of “enriching the commons.” His decision to release it into the public domain was to be in keeping with the premise of his book. The book covers the social and economic history surrounding piracy, the intent and development of copyright law, and the implications of sailing under the mark of a dead man. While I encourage you to take the time to read all seven chapters, it is Brewin’s discussion of the internet that spurred me on to tracking down Mutiny! this week. Brewin describes the internet as being the new “commons,” a space for the free exchange and cross-pollination of ideas and innovation. Brewin’s discussion mostly concerns Facebook and Google’s selling or sharing of their users’ personal information, and the development of algorithms that cater ads to one’s surmised personal interests. But today, I believe the greatest threat to the commons internet is not Google and Zuckerberg.

This Thursday May 18, 2017, the Federal Communications Commission will vote to move forward with rolling back net neutrality. The proposal comes to floor on behalf of chair of the FCC, Ajit Pai (who previously worked for Verizon). For those of you who are not aware, I’ll let John Oliver explain it best (warning: obscenities do ensue).

In brief, should the FCC remove the Title II classification from ISPs (Internet Service Providers), ISPs would be able to adjust internet speeds based on what you, the consumer use the internet for. For example, if you prefer to stream your favorite shows through Netflix rather than Hulu, and your ISP is Comcast, you may find that Netlix drags and doesn’t load at a viewable speed, while Hulu is lightening fast. Why would this be? Because Hulu is owned by NBC which is owned by Comcast. Your ISP would be able to inhibit you from surfing the web outside of what benefits that ISP. Similarly, if you’re a gamer, an ISP could slow your internet connection and then charge you more so you can play World of Warcraft.

“Dan, isn’t being concerned with your internet speed kind of a first-world gripe?” Fair enough. And my examples certainly pertain to leisure and luxury. But should ISPs no longer fall under Title II, what is to stop ISPs from charging outlandish prices to low income neighborhoods or regions, effectively stifling access to information and knowledge in those areas? Those in economically depressed areas such as rural Appalachia or inner city Philadelphia could be hindered from resources they’d otherwise have access to. ISPs would have to the power to prevent networks and online communities from developing. Imagine if Verizon effectively killed social networks and online communities like Facebook and Reddit because they refused to be bought out by the ISP.

I can’t say this enough. We should be wary of any thing that potentially prohibits the general populace from accessing information. Watch for those policies that would preserve ignorance among certain demographics.

It has been argued by those in favor of these rollbacks that the removal of Title II classification would stimulation competition among ISPs in the “free market” fashion. In light of this, I have an experiment for you:  Call an ISP that is other than the one you currently have and ask for quotes to service you area. Give them your address and what not. I suspect you will find that this other ISP does not service your address. Why? Because often times, regions and neighborhoods only have one or two ISPs. Verizon and Comcast rarely service the same city block. Where is the alleged “free market” when where you chose to live effectively selects your ISP and that ISP has no reason to offer competitive rates?

If you use the internet, and here you are reading my online blog, you should research net neutrality. I’ve added some links to help you all out.

 

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