The Hidden Meaning of Onward

One of the best perks of being a parent is seeing your kids enjoy things for the first time. Whether it’s petting a baby bunny, wading in the water, or tasting cake and brownies, the overwhelming joy they experience is contagious. The world is infused with wonder not just for them but for the parent, often in a way we have so long forgotten was possible. These experiences make you question what ever happened to the fascination that we had as children.

So much was new and there was so much to be learned. Seeing a giraffe or elephant at the zoo took your breath away. You were struck with a sense of awe when staring at the stars at night or looking out from a mountaintop. Even the seemingly small joys like seeing your parent return home from work elicited uninhibited elation. And they provoked unfiltered and pure amazement with the world for child and parent alike.

So what happened to us? Where did the excitement with the world go? Was the new car smell destined to wear off once we lived long enough to see the world for how it really is? If having kids seems to give us a little taste of this experience again, could there possibly be other ways to recover the appreciation for life from our childhood?

Cue Pixar’s movie Onward, which, maybe better than any movie I can recall seeing, can point us toward rediscovering that fascination with the world all over again.

more than a story of two brothers

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

Pixar’s latest film begins and ends with these words from a father’s note to his sons Ian and Barley. A note accompanied by the father’s gift of a magician’s staff and a spell that would allow him to visit them for a day, which were left behind for his sons’ use long after he passed away. A gift that, when received as teenagers, would spark an adventure for these two elven brothers.

Their mother cautioned them that he was only an accountant, and that “he got interested in a lot of strange things when he got sick.” She was bracing them for what she thought was inevitable. That this gift was a nice gesture of their dad’s affection but sadly nothing more. There wasn’t really any magic. The world had long forgotten it and failed to even acknowledge its existence anymore.

And so, to their surprise when Ian’s attempt to bring their dad back partially works – bringing back the lower half of their dad – they have to embark on a quest to find another Phoenix Gem to finish the spell and restore the rest of their dad so they can see him face to face before the spell wears off. A quest that provides the setting for an endearing and relatable story about two brothers that is poignant in its own right. A story that certainly jerked a tear or two from me (like nearly every Pixar movie), but also struck a chord even deeper. Something beyond the mere tugging of heartstrings.

I think the writers’ intended to offer much more to their audience. A subtle and hidden message that is so relevant, especially today. A story that has everything to do with rediscovering that wonder that has gone missing.

the pitfalls of modernity

People haven’t always thought about the world in the same way that we do today. It seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet, it is so hard to step back and understand the very frames or lenses we use today to see the world. Having a child helps you to see it. You get to relive aspects of your own childhood and experience the novelties of life a second time. You may be visiting the beach, lake, or park, or spending time with family like you had done for years before having kids. But suddenly it’s all the more meaningful. The setting hasn’t changed. Your perspective has.

In the opening scenes of Onward, the note from Ian and Barley’s father shows the stark contrast he found between the ways of the past and the ways of today. In the past, magic was integral to the community and to every facet of their lives. But as science offered easier solutions to life’s problems, the apparent need for magic slowly faded away and with it, their ties to it. It was pushed further and further to the periphery of society until it was almost completely forgotten. Magic was still available to them, but they could no longer see it.

Motorcycles, cars, and planes replaced their previous methods of transportation. Sprites didn’t know they could fly and instead started a motorcycle gang. Centaurs, who could run up to 70 mph, gave it up to drive their cars.

Historical architecture was commodified into nothing more than a fantasy version of Chuck E. Cheese. And the ancient fountain which served as a significant landmark for past ancestors was considered an “old piece of rubble” by current citizens and an obstacle to be removed for new construction.

Unicorns garbled down some garbage from a trash can and a mermaid basked in a inflatable kiddie pool in the backyard. This wasn’t how things were supposed to be. And maybe nothing captures this change in culture more than the fact that what was left of magic was now relegated to a trivial board game that only the geeks would take part in.

The writers of the movie attempt to draw a line between magic and science within this movie and the outcomes of society’s dependence on each.

One could make the argument that we, like the citizens of New Mushroomton, are living in the afterglow of the scientific experiment or the Enlightenment. For a few centuries we have attempted to live within what philosophers would term a “modernist” frame of mind. The things worthy of the most study and debate became more and more exclusively devoted to those things that can be measured. Epistemology, or the theory of how we know what we know became all the more important. And therefore science came to the forefront. Anything that could not be proven by the scientific process of measurement and observation, would be of lesser value than those that could.

As a result, we increasingly discovered more of the world at the cosmic and atomic levels and everywhere in between. We discovered and subsequently studied and named phenomena like black holes, quarks, and photosynthesis. But in the process we largely domesticated the incredible complexities of these amazing aspects of the universe. Yes, to make our lives easier and safer, but at some cost. As the power of science was touted more and more the need for grand metaphysical claims diminished more and more over time. Religion and philosophy were pushed to the periphery like magic in New Mushroomton.

Ian and Barley were living in a post-magic world. Well… almost a completely post-magic world. We likewise find ourselves largely living in a society that is very skeptical of any claims to any overarching story or truth. Have we lost something by getting to this point?

the meaning crisis

I can recall talking to a friend a few years ago who lamented that the story he had been told for how to live his life seemed shallow. Here’s the gist of that story our culture implicitly told young people, like himself, to pursue.

“You get a few years of childhood. Then you go to school to get good grades and try to be the best athlete or musician you can be. Then those good grades and achievements help you get into a good college, where you work hard to get more good grades and accrue more achievements. Then you get your diploma which hopefully turns into a job. Then you work for decades of your life until you may be able to retire. Maybe you enjoy some leisurely activites and hobbies along the way. And then you get a few more years to enjoy in retirement before you die. What’s the point? It’s all meaningless.”

Few have the foresight to actually consider the eventual end of their lives and courageously confront that reality. Or maybe we’re scared to. My friend was willing to face it. And the sad thing was he felt he had no framework afforded to him that could infuse his everyday experiences with meaning. What was the grand purpose beyond the temporal accumulations of wealth, prestige, or bliss, if in the end we were to die and cease to exist? Culture told him the story of life was progress, but the story didn’t jive with how he knew it would end.

Couple that with the narrative that comes out of several of today’s big thinkers like Sam Harris. What seems to be one of the major frontiers for science today is the study of human consciousness. But the story that thinkers like Harris are telling thousands of young people are that we are simply a lump of cells with no autonomy or agency over what we think, do and say. That our own experience of agency in our life is an illusion. Every keystroke I hit to write that was just a part of the constantly unfolding process since the Big Bang and I have no control in it. And neither do you with any aspect of your life.

You want to see the pitfalls of a modernist framework of seeing the world? You can find it in these two dogmas we so often cling to. Progress and particles. We are told to hop on and stay on the hamster wheel of life and keep striving for the sake of progress. And then we reduce everything, even our own sense of agency to mere atoms bouncing off one another. And then we wonder why people are taking drugs and drinking to numb their sensations, using virtual reality to escape the reality they find themselves in, and committing suicide at higher rates. We’ve given them a decrepit story to live within and expect them to be happy with it.

Our society is in desperate need of a change of narrative. And it is this sad state we find ourselves in that Onward speaks to.

the most unexpected of heroes

The first time you watch this movie, if you’re like me, you’re probably fixated primarily on Ian’s story. The development of a young man gifted with magical abilities but lacking in confidence into a completely self-secure wizard who saves his family and town. It’s a classical hero’s journey story, like so many we’re familiar with and it naturally draws our focus in.

However, I think it’s Barley’s story that is much more veiled yet valuable to today’s audience. Barley is written off by the viewer early on because he’s the goofball, clumsy, older brother who can’t seem to figure his life out. The two things he’s seemingly most passionate about are his board game and beat up van. He doesn’t seem to have any clear direction in life. He’s an embarrassment to others in town and even to his own little brother. He’s not showing any progress. If anything he appears to be regressing.

We as a society often write off similar people in our community. The ones who fail to launch. Who bounce between jobs. Who don’t reach their potential (whatever we envision that word to mean). But Barley has something else to offer. Something unique to him that the rest of the community needs, including Ian. He even has something that we as viewers probably need.

The completely integrated life that invites others to find the magic again.

When you watch this movie, you will find that Barley far more than any other character helps others bring their life back into touch with the magic they had long foregone. He states to the sprite biker gang that “they used to fly around spreading delight.” A comment that provokes a fight but ultimately leads to the sprites rediscovering their ability to fly.

Barley reminds the Manticore that she isn’t just a restaurant manager but the heroine who wielded the Curse Crusher and led people on quests. And maybe most importantly he serves as the biggest supporter for his younger brother and helps him realize his potential. He helps Ian to see in himself what Barley has always seen in him. Barley is the unlikely hero who revives his family and community. And how does he do it?

more than just a beat-up old van

When the trailer for this movie first came out I was really curious what the title would have to do with the story. Most other Pixar movies have pretty self-explanatory titles to them. Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Up, The Incredibles, and Cars… But Onward is much more mysterious.

That is until you get to the car chase scene with the sprites when Ian has to shift Barley’s van Guinevere not into drive, but to “O for Onward”. You may not have noticed this, but the O was written on duct tape. The point wasn’t that all vehicles in this alternate reality called the drive shift selector position “onward”. Barley had duct taped this over the normal “D” for drive.

And a closer look at the name for his van “Guinevere” indicates the name’s meaning is “white, fair and smooth, or soft.” A fitting name for a van with a Pegasus adorned on both sides. A van Barley constantly referred to as his steed. His proudest accomplishment that he wanted to share with his dad. And the van that Barley sacrificially gives up to help them escape the police. Notice how much of this pivotal scene embraces the magical and mythical elements of what Guinevere represents to Barley.

The sound of a horse in the revving of the engine. The galloping motion and sounds when the tire is punctured by the rock. The van taking flight and the unpaid tickets resembling wings. And then the camera’s focus on the Pegasus adorning the side of the van. This was more than a van. Barley lived a completely integrated life where everything, even his method of transportation was infused with his belief in magic. She was more than just “a beat-up old van.”

His method of transportation was more than a piece of technology helping him get from Point A to Point B. It was so well tied up into everything he believed to be true about the world. His whole life was a quest and Guinevere epitomized this reality.

This movie is similarly laden with seemingly unexceptional moments that become so crucially important and meaningful later. A bag of cheese curls. A splinter from the wizard’s staff. And the reflector that falls off Guinevere.

This movie reminds us that everything can have meaning again if you’re willing to look back in history for what we’ve lost along the way. As Barley says, “On a quest, the clear path is never the right one.” Maybe the clear story our culture is currently telling us to live by may not be the right one. The story of Onward never indicates that science in and of itself is a bad thing. It just cannot be the thing. It asks us to consider that maybe there is a way of seeing the world from the past that can bring the wonder back for us today.

I think that’s what Ian and Barley’s father wanted for them as his dying wish. That gift of a story one can live within may be the best thing we can hand down to the generations after us. Something he clearly imparted to Barley and that Barley then gifted to Ian. A beautiful depiction of the role we can play in helping to restore the lives closest to us and helping all in need.

I think Ian and Barley’s father said it best.

Long ago, the world was full of wonder. It was adventurous, exciting, and best of all—there was magic. And that magic helped all in need. But it wasn’t easy to master, and so the world found a simpler way to get by. Over time, magic faded away, but I hope there’s a little magic left in you.”

I certainly hope there’s a little magic left in us too.

The Illusion of Omnipotence in the Midst of a Pandemic

If 20 formative years of your life involve a major terrorist attack, two recessions, exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary wars, tangibly worsening inequality, climate emergencies, and incompetence during a global pandemic, it might make you think things aren’t good.

Well that’s a pretty sobering post to find in your newsfeed on Facebook…

Odds are you have read similar posts to the one shared by one of my old college acquaintances. But they aren’t the only one sharing this type of feeling during this time of crisis. Across the spectrums of political party affiliation, age, gender, race, and class there are many who see that things aren’t as they seemingly should be. And to be clear upfront, those frustrated feelings are understandably so.

One can pretty easily presume where this person would align politically, and the crowd to which this post would most resonate with. A fact which I have no intention of taking issue with. I’d ask that we set aside any gut reactions we have about tenor of the post and focus on the more important things they state that we can all probably relate to right now.

I think we can all agree that life was different in many ways before and after the events of 9/11. I think we can all agree that the subsequent wars and then the recessions we have experienced have shaped our realities in one way or another. We can all agree that there have been seismic events in recent history that have caused significant turbulence in all of our lives. And very likely some very personal events for all of us, obviously not listed in their post, that would similarly fall into this category of life-changing moments. Loss of a job, the death of a pet, a breakup or divorce, or the passing of a loved one. Moments that many of us would not consider “good.”

This global pandemic similarly does not fit the criteria many of us would call “good”. This current situation clearly doesn’t meet the expectations this person had for the world, and probably doesn’t meet most of our expectations either. I don’t think any sane person would prescribe this for their own life, except the diehard introvert. Although I think even we introverts are getting tired of spending so much time with ourselves.

And yet this is where we find ourselves today. Life will be different after this pandemic has come and gone in ways we will not truly understand for a long time.

While we continue to confront life-altering weeks and months ahead of all of us, we will often find ourselves looking for explanations for how it is we wound up where we are. Who is to blame for the calamity we find ourselves in the midst of? Was it someone’s incompetence, as the author of post assumes? On whom shall the blame be cast?

Whether it’s substantial loss of life, a massive economic recession, or both, this isn’t and will not be ideal by any stretch of the imagination. We’re past that point already. And the restlessness for a fix to the situation will continue to grow.

But what should our expectations really be for this world and our lives? And what does “good” really look like?

I don’t intend to downplay the significance of what has occurred or lies ahead. I’m honestly pretty scared myself of what’s potentially in store. Nor is my intent to minimize the culpability of a multitude of parties. But this situation has led me to give some reconsideration to my own understanding of the “good” and I hope to share that here. An exercise in reminding myself of what I believe to be true, even if it’s so difficult in times like these to grapple with.

And I don’t think there’s a much better way to do that, than to look at recent history and the old and new ways we tell stories about this very situation.

the illusion of american omnipotence

In 1953, British political scientist D.W. Brogan wrote a famous essay at the time entitled “The Illusion of American Omnipotence” to address what he saw as a significant issue arising within American politics at the time. In the wake of World War II, the United States had gained even more leverage on the world stage. And with this increased leverage, a greater sense of power and influence beyond its own borders. We were, as some jokingly say today, Back-to-Back World War Champions.

But Brogan notes that many Americans held to “the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States only exists because some Americans have been fools or knaves.” That essentially the only reason things didn’t pan out the way we, Americans, wanted them too, was because someone lacked competence or was corrupt.

His idea of an illusion of omnipotence proved to be prophetic within a couple decades as we engaged in the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief of many today, Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to enter the war was widely supported initially by Americans as an attempt to stave off the influence of Communism in the global political arena. Maybe it’s revisionist history that we paint the war as so lopsidedly unfavorable, but the reality is many were on board with the decision early on. But after years of frustrating losses with little to no gains to show for the military engagements, the public support waned and faded.

The high favorability enjoyed by LBJ early in his presidency in the wake of JFK’s assassination diminished quickly as the citizens realized this was a war that would not be resolved the way they initially hoped. But LBJ and his Cabinet kept sending troops and crafting new narratives to try and justify the prolonged military engagements. Unable to see the significant barriers ahead of them or justify the losses already sustained by conceding the war, many would point to LBJ and his administration for causing many more lives to be lost with little to no political or military advantage to show for it.

The illusion of American omnipotence was revealed as a mirage, at least for the time being. We finally realized, at great cost, that we couldn’t destroy our enemies or shift global politics as easily as we had once thought. But the circumstances were difficult. And while there is plenty of justifiable blame to be cast on LBJ and his cohort, the reality is this was a difficult war to win, and maybe we cannot assign it all on our own country’s failures or to one particular person. Even I struggle while writing this to not fall into this very habit.

But how much has changed since then? Are we still under the same illusion?

Fast-forward a half century and we find ourselves confronted with yet another potential catastrophe, albeit not a military or political threat. COVID-19 has within a matter of a couple months developed from a peripheral issue hardly given much attention, to quite possibly the largest collective threat in recent world history. Whether it’s the risk of a global economic depression from social distancing measures or the loss of potentially millions of lives, we are in uncharted waters. A dangerous and unnerving situation to say the least.

While many of us probably thought the risk of pandemics like these were a thing of the past, we are all suddenly confronted with the reality that maybe we aren’t as safe today as we once thought. With so many advancements in science we thought we were secure from a threat like this, and yet here we are. Yes, with more tools at our disposal to confront this challenge. But at the same time, facing the very same enemy that our ancestors have for millennia. It’s this reality that makes us think this situation is not “good.”

Maybe we’re not nearly as well equipped to shield ourselves from the dangers of this world as we had thought. Maybe despite our best efforts to quell all threats, we’ve only left ourselves more susceptible to the foundation-shattering moment when we realized it was a mirage the whole time. Like a forest fire, when none of the underbrush was allowed to burn before, we’re wholly consumed. Like the dam that has been breached, where we don’t know what to make of the floodwaters heading towards us.

With situations like these, words to explain how it is we can and should respond are often evasive. But stories can help make the ineffable tangible. Let’s look at a recent film and a very ancient story to see how we have tried to grapple with similar predicaments over the years. Because whether your religious or not, the same is true for all of us. We are much more fragile than many of us thought we were a couple months ago.

reality is stranger than fiction

Tucked in between his comedic performances in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell played the lead role of Harold Crick in a little movie called Stranger than Fiction. It was a surprising role for Will Ferrell. The movie certainly had its humorous and lighthearted moments, but not enough to make the film overtly comedy in genre.

The film begs the question, what would you do if you could suddenly hear the author of your life story narrating your every move? And how would you respond when that author said you were going to die soon?

Crick is an IRS worker, who leads a life that few would think make for an interesting story. But he was just starting to figure out his life. He was falling in love with Ana, his tax-delinquent client and life was seemingly “good.” Hearing the narrator state that his death would be coming soon was not how he envisioned his life unfolding.

He seeks out a psychiatrist to help him work through the voice he is hearing in his head. Initially the psychiatrist attributes it to schizophrenia, but says if Harold is convinced there is an actual narrator behind the story, he should lean on Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), a literature expert to help him figure out who is behind the narration of his life.

Jules recommends a variety of ways to fight the author’s storytelling to no avail. So Jules recommends that he make the most of his situation and enjoy the rest of the life he has left. Harold takes off from work, teaches himself guitar, develops a friendship with a coworker, and starts dating Ana. Confronted with the reality of his impending death, Harold starts living his life more fully.

That is until he finds out who the author actually is behind his story. He is able to meet with her and plead with her to let him live. She had no idea the main character of her story was a real living person. But for the story to work, he had to die. She offers to let him read a draft of the ending, to get his approval but he can’t get himself to do it.

It leads to maybe the most brilliant scene in the movie, when Harold talks to Jules about the draft ending, and asks if there is any way to avoid his death.

Jules informs Harold the only way the story can work is if Harold knowingly confronts his death and lets the story play out. That death is inevitable, but that this death the author was prescribing would be the most poetic or meaningful death he could go through. That it would make for a beautiful story.

Harold would go on to jump in front of a bus to save a boy from being killed. Although the author decides last minute to save Harold because he demonstrated character worth preserving, the viewers are left asking themselves would they be willing to face death if it was for a noble cause.

We, like Harold, like to think we are the authors of our own story. Yet in times like today we realize to a great extent, that’s not actually true. As that Facebook post indicated, what do we do when we can’t see a noble end to the situation? When the authors seem more incompetent than the author depicted in this movie? Can we really believe that everything, even bad things, happen for a reason as we so often tell ourselves? That something poetic will come of all this pain and hardship?

waiting quietly in the midst of uncertainty

Buried in the back of the Old Testament is this little obscure book called Habakkuk. It’s considered one of the minor prophets and was a book I only recently read for the first time.

The book of Habakkuk was probably written around 600 BC, just a few years before Judah was to be taken captive and many of its people exiled to Babylon. While many of the other books in The Prophets describe oracles, or “burdens” that the prophets had for the people of Israel and Judah, the book of Habakkuk tells of a conversation between himself and God about the incoming Babylonian invasion. A conversation about why God would allow this tragedy to befall the nation of Judah.

What is so interesting is that the book starts with Habakkuk struggling to understand how God can be good and just and allow the injustice they are experiencing. In essence, he is questioning where God is and how he is or isn’t acting in the bleak situation he’s observing. A very similar question that many of us have towards those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe today. Why would you let this happen as the author of our story?

Habakkuk braces himself for a rebuke from God, but instead of deflecting blame or pointing fingers elsewhere, God responds graciously to Habakkuk. Yet he surprises him by taking ownership of raising the Babylonians up against Judah. Habakkuk understandably complains, that if he God cannot tolerate wrongdoing, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” Habakkuk shows that God is at work, in ways we often don’t always understand or appreciate in the moment. But he allows us to question him.

The book does not end with God deciding to curb the Babylonians’ invasion. Jerusalem would still be sieged. Inhabitants killed and taken into exile. Their population dispersed. The Temple destroyed.

Harold Crick gets to save the child, get the girl, and live at the end. Even if the author didn’t change the story he at the worst would have had a poetic ending. However many of these people in Judah would not see anything close to a poetic closure for several generations. Would we be comfortable with this type of death that seems to be for no good reason for the foreseeable future?

Maybe the toughest question for any theist to answer is why do bad things happen to good people? Actually it’s a tough question for anyone to answer. Why would God allow this pandemic to happen? Or why would “X” politician, nation, organization allow this to happen?

Habakkuk could try to offer an answer to this question, but in an oddly satisfying way, he doesn’t. The book ends with a prayer where Habakkuk is confronted with the glory of God, he finds himself trembling in his presence, and vows to wait patiently for God to provide justice to the incoming calamity.

"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights." Habakkuk 3:17-19

Even in the midst of terrible circumstances, he could rejoice in his God. Even when confronting the demise of his people and likely himself, he would wait patiently on the Lord.

It may help to remind ourselves that this has been a question people have wrestled with for thousands of years and we will all continue to do so. We can plead with the authors of our lives to shield us from all harm, but calamity and death will find us all. The question is can we live within that reality?

This illusion of omnipotence is by no means suggesting that we should do nothing and idly stand by watching the pandemic run its course. There are countless stories of heroism like the priest who relinquished his ventilator to save a younger person. Actions that reveal the depth of goodness in people, many of which we will never hear of. Yet, this pandemic is providing that very opportunity for reality to be revealed, for better or for worse.

Despite our best efforts to manage all threats and keep them at bay, the threats of the natural world will always pose a threat. And when the next one occurs, we will all be inclined to point the finger and assign blame. But maybe, just maybe we can learn to wait patiently in the circumstances. To give up our illusion of our own omnipotence. And to trust that there may be an author with sufficient competence to write our story.

The Upside-Down World of the Joker

One of the most compelling television series to air in the last decade and a half was Breaking Bad. The show displayed so brilliantly what happens when Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White, realizing he has terminal cancer, makes a seemingly altruistic decision to make and sell drugs during the time he has left to provide for his family when he’s gone. While this choice certainly had risks associated with it, he felt this was the best thing he could do to ensure the security of the family. However, his cancer goes into remission but he gets sucked deeper and deeper into the life of crime and the viewer is left conflicted. At different times rooting for Walter’s success and at other times his demise.

Walter White’s descent can be traced back to that initial decision to deviate from society’s more widely acceptable path for life. He lived for all intents and purposes a decently innocent and moral life beforehand. He was a good family man who loved his wife and son with disabilities dearly. But he decided he had to give up on teaching as his primary way of earning income to lead this double life where he cooked and sold meth to ensure his family’s financial security. A decision most would say was immoral but complicated by the good intentions behind it. But that one decision led to a cascade of subsequent effects not just for him but everyone around him. And the show so aptly demonstrates all that can come from one seemingly innocuous decision.

Joker, however, tells a much more harrowing and dark story. For how profound Breaking Bad was, I think Joker gets even closer to the heart of many questions we are asking today? What if this descent cannot be traced back to a specific decision made by the individual, but instead a complete letdown by their society around them? Is the Joker bad? Is he good? And what does this movie say about the healthiness, or unhealthiness of our culture and politics today? I think it’s these questions that make this recent Oscar award-winning film one of the most fascinating and timely movies to come out recently.

have we been lying to ourselves?

In elementary school, I can still remember the cheers we used to shout to start all of our pep rallies. “You can do anything you set your mind to!” “Together we can make a difference!” “Believe that you can!” Even as adults, we continue to give ourselves and one another similar pep talks. Our Facebook news feeds are filled with them. Little slogans we use to encourage one another through the grind of life.

And sometimes these sayings aren’t explicitly stated but are implicitly embodied within the very fabric of our culture. We remind ourselves that we live in the land of opportunity and that anyone can live the “American Dream” if they work hard enough and take advantage of their opportunities. While these mantras may be more questioned today than at many other times in our nation’s past, we cannot underestimate the power of promises like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on how we interpret the state of affairs today and on our aspirations for a better tomorrow.

But what happens when the things you set your mind to don’t happen? Or when there is no community you can find to connect with, let alone find a sense of purpose or meaning within? Or when it seems you’re very spirit has been crushed to the point where you don’t think you can keep going? When sickness or mental illness serve as a stumbling block? When the family you were raised in did not provide the upbringing that could lead to the same level of success as those from other families? When the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness seem to be a farce?

Joker presents us with this very conundrum. Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually names himself The Joker, cannot find assistance through his medications, social workers, family, friends, coworkers, strangers, or even the heroes he looks up to. He is an impoverished man with mental disabilities who represents what can happen to someone caught up in the perfect storm of social ills. He’s an outcast, despised, misunderstood, forgotten, and invisible to the world around him.

The entire movie shows how even a man with good intentions can tailspin down into the villain we know so well. He worked hard, but it didn’t pay off. He tried to find community and invest into relationships, only to be betrayed. And he started off with so much hope only to descend into absolute despair.

One of the sad realities of this film that the viewer must contend with is that there are many “Arthur”s in our midst and there have always been. Have we been lying to ourselves and to them all this time with cliché platitudes that everyone can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps? The viewer is left struggling to answer the question, who is to blame for what happened to Arthur?

turning today’s narratives upside down

Leading up to the release of Joker, there was much concern from many in the media (left and right) that this film was going to be dangerous. That this film, just years after the shooting at a theater in Aurora, Coloarado at a screening of The Dark Knight, could serve as the inspiration for similar incels. There were fears that people would rally around the Joker character, who epitomizes the upside-down world of an oppressed social outcast who becomes the ringleader of anarchists.

None of us should want to see a replication of that Aurora tragedy occur. And we should be very wary of the power of ideas to inspire action in people, both good and bad. But good art is intended to move us, and as demonstrated by the film’s numerous awards and the clear impact it had on viewers it seems to have done it’s job.

But I think there were other aspects of this film, that for good reason would make so many fearful of how “dangerous” this film could be. But dangerous in a different way. Dangerous because it breaks down all of the simple narratives we often cling to for comfort.

Dangerous because it attacks the idea that firearms are a fail-safe to crime and injustice in our world. All it takes is a firearm falling into the hands of the wrong person to create chaos.

Dangerous because it shows that even if you pour lots of tax dollars into the “social safety net,” it doesn’t guarantee that the social workers actually serving on the frontlines will necessarily provide the humane care and concern people require.

Dangerous because the easy storyline of “you reap what you sow” or karma don’t always work. Are we really comfortable admitting that sometimes bad things happen to well-intended people and it might not be their fault? Or that bad things may come down the road to us for reasons out of our control?

Dangerous because it makes us acknowledge that people who fall outside our typical oppressed categories can still be hurt. Arthur doesn’t fit the typical mold of who we consider to be oppressed in today’s society. But I think we would be hard-pressed not to see him in that light by the end of the movie.

Dangerous because almost no one is portrayed as a good person in this movie regardless of race, gender, or class? When we are so often looking for easy lines with which to divide ourselves between good people and bad people, Joker pulls the rug out from underneath us. It’s like looking into a mirror and realizing we’re all in this together, and we all together, are terrible neighbors to one another.

Dangerous because when someone cannot find any mobility within the social hierarchy available to them, they may, and often will find ways of revolting and finding their place in a new upside-down hierarchy. A hierarchy based on anarchy. How much more upside down can it get than by seeing a clown hailed as a hero? A person so far on the outskirts of society exalted as king?

And dangerous because, just like in Breaking Bad with Walter White, the viewer is given good reasons to empathize with Arthur. Something that can be incredibly unsettling. This feeds the inversion of our worldviews.

what is the solution?

As it is with every election year, these conversations about who should be elected and which party should assume leadership in Washington reaches boiling points. This year will be no different. These elections serve as a battle over ideas regarding what is best for society. The two ends of the spectrum often championed as the best solutions to our social ails are most often represented generally by the terms capitalism and socialism (or democratic socialism if we want it to sound nicer).

But you will find very little overt messaging within this film as to what their recommended solution is to this predicament? The movie actually says very little politically actually (which was another reason many media outlets were wary of this film). In fact, the movie seems to content to leave its viewers in a deep feeling of despair at the end with questions still lingering. Is there a solution to this problem? Will this movie serve as prophecy of what is to come for our society? Are we staring into the headlights of an oncoming train without adequate time to jump off the tracks?

If anything, I think the big question this movie asks is what would it have taken to prevent Arthur from taking the path that he did? And if we think that’s as simple as a limited government with a free-market system or a democratic socialist system with a big enough safety net we’re kidding ourselves.

Can any presidential candidate or political party change how we interact as neighbors with one another? Not just with the ones who return the favor, but the ones who cannot? That’s not to say politics cannot or do not play a role. They can and are important. But this movie strikes at something deeper and more profound. Something upstream of politics.

Where do we find our source of motivation today to treat each other well, especially the ones we tend to write off as not deserving it?

an alternative upside down kingdom

By the end of the movie, Arthur finds his identity as The Joker. He finds his acceptance and affirmation from others and takes his seat at the throne as leader of the crime and uprisings within Gotham.

This storyline isn’t without historical precedent. Riots have often served as a referendum on the state of affairs within a society. But I don’t think riots, social upheaval and massive deconstruction (both physically and metaphysically) are the most sustainable way or healthy way to respond to the issues the Joker presents us with.

Could religion, which is suspiciously absent from the movie, offer something here to help?

There’s an interesting passage in John 9, which has echoes of the story of Job, where Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. His disciples ask him “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” to which Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus is turning people’s understandings of the world upside down. Good standing in this life did not necessarily mean good standing before God. And poor standing in this life did not necessarily mean someone could not be found within the Kingdom of God.

In a society so often described as a dog-eat-dog world and governed by karma, or the retribution principle, Jesus further exemplifies a new way of looking at others and understanding the world. An alternative worldview that has for thousands of years served as a motivation for people to love their neighbors well. And a worldview that I would argue actually gives rise to stories like Joker.

We have to reckon with the fact that this movie would never be popularized within Nazi Germany or the Roman Empire (I know they didn’t have movies). There was no attention given to the lowliest. In fact, the Nazi’s were adamant about wiping out the very weakest in society for the betterment of the human race. This idea of taking care of the weak is so significantly tied to the ministry of Jesus.

And now this movie is wrestling with the question of how do we motivate ourselves to care for the disenfranchised as we quickly deconstruct our religious foundation within society? That’s why this movie is so poignant and relevant today.

So… Not every negative outcome in someone’s life is of direct response to something they or their family did wrong. There isn’t anyone who is too non-religious, oppressed, forgotten, betrayed, or hurt who cannot be reached by the restorative touch of a God who is rich in mercy and full of compassion for anyone and everyone.

And maybe, just maybe, the works of God can be displayed in the least of these. That God can choose the foolish things of this world, even a broken down man like Arthur Fleck, to shame the strong. That’s the type of motivation that I believe can actually change lives and change societies.