Friday, June 22, 2007

Making Waves-- from the Silver Surfer to Evan Almighty

In the world of safe entertainment by means of sequels of popular films, some brands do better than others. Let's admit from the outset that the first Fantastic Four movie while certainly fun, was not--- well... fantastic. And the same can be said of the second one, though I found it a bit better than its prequel. There is the problem that the persons playing Reed Richards and Sue Storm, are just too young, particularly for the role of Richard. Johnny Storm in the comic books was considerably younger than them. Not so in the movie versions. And the Fantastic Four does indeed maintain its basic cast in tact with the second movie. We even get a second dose of Victor von Doom no less. The problem of course with making movies out of long running comic books is which stories do you pick to tell, and do you blend a bunch of different stories or episodes into one full length movie? The latter approach is taken in the second Fantastic Four film, and so we have both the rise of the Silver Surfer, and the wedding of Reed and Sue, and von Doom's return thrown in for good measure, all with the approval of Stan Lee, who once more appears in a cameo in this movie as well-- being on the wedding guest list (or not).

This film is based on several different struggles-- some micro, some macro. Yes there is an intergalactic entity threatening to destroy the whole world of which the Silver Surfer is but the harbinger, but there is also the struggle of Reed and Sue who would like to stop saving the world long enough to have a normal family and a normal life, maybe even children. This is of course a problem for super heroes, because the world seems to constantly need them or at least the world created in the comic books does. This is a strange premise, since the world actually doesn't have any such mere mortals with super powers, and we are nonetheless still here and plugging along. And this brings us to an interesting point that differentiates the Marvel stories, however marvelous, from Evan Almighty. The latter is actually about the relationship of very ordinary mortals (without super powers) to God. The former is about exalted versions of ourselves and how we could save the world if we could just be smart enough to give ourselves more exalted powers. The former comes closer to idolatry, the latter to doxology.

Nevertheless, the Fantastic Four movie is appealing in some respects. Johnny is still wreckless, the Thing is still wrecking things, ole Stretcho is still a bright but nerdy character who can't dance, but he sure can be the rubberband man, and Sue is well, the invisible member of the team. Too bad since she is the best looking one. It is interesting and odd that in this film an alien, the Silver Surfer, a man from a different world, with a super-powered surf board surfing the galaxies (o.k. suspend your disbelieve for a minute-- this makes surfing the web look like child's play) proves to produce the most pathos and exhibit the most human qualities in this movie. Indeed, at the end he becomes something of Christ figure sacrificing himself, going up against the powers and principalities for others not even of his race. The movie has its usual thrills and spills and CG effects, and there is nothing here offensive enough to warn off families from seeing it, but there is a question of what is the message of this film. That we need some super heroes to solve our big problems? That there is no God out there to help us, so we had better sup up our own abilities? It's hard to tell.

Less puzzling is Evan Almighty. As sequels go, I can't really imagine a further sequel to this one. Though this movie has been panned by a wide array of critics, I quite enjoyed it and Steve Carell is certainly charming from first to last as the newly minted Congressman Baxter, who vows to change the world, and as it turns out, in ways he could not have expected. The premise of this movie is the gradual spiritual awakening of a Congressman who is about to get sucked into support the raping of some of our National Park land for development purposes. Not surprisingly the wild animals won't stand for it-- indeed one could say they are leading the stampede against it. John Goodman plays the scheming Senator Long, and Wanda Sykes is comic relief as the secretary to Congressman Baxter. And of course Morgan Freeman replays his role as God-- and very effectively.

In perhaps the one profound divine speech in the whole movie God asks the Congressman-- do I make you courageous, or do I provide you with opportunities to be courageous? Good question. Is God's role in our lives to make us all we ought to be, or rather to enable us and provide us with the opportunities to be our best selves? There something to be said for choosing the latter answer. Is God a cosmic bellhop, or does God actually expect us to play our part in the divine plan? I think it is the latter. The other especially interesting feature to this latter day Noah reprise of a story is that God tells us that the flood story is not primarily a story about God judging the world. Rather it is a story about God's love for us-- he does not desire anyone to perish. So it tells the tale of how God rescued those who would be rescued. This is certainly an interesting reading of Gen. 6-9. The flood was a redemptive-judgment. It redeemed those who were willing to be redeemed, and the same flood waters that helped Noah and his family rise above the catastrophe judged the rest. But there is something else to both the original and this retelling of the Noah story, something about harmony between animals and human beings-- that we are all in the same boat, all God's creatures great and small and God wants all to be saved. God informs the Congressman near the end that ARK in fact stands for Acts of Random Kindness. Alrighty then.

In the movie version there are of course various humorous scenes with the animals, who actually help to build the ark. There are hilarious scenes of Steve Carell constantly growing hair, and of his interactions with the animals, even within his office on Capitol Hill. Those animals keep following him around and pestering him until he finally relents and builds the ark. And of yes, there is also the message in this film that you need to spend more quality time with your family. Poor Mrs. Noah-- she could hardly have realized what she was getting herself in for when she married the man.

Both of these movies are about an hour and a half, which is perfect for small kids, and there is certainly nothing in "Evan Almighty" to take offense at-- its just good clean summer fun. Not profound, but fun, and not offensive either. Even the trailer with everyone dancing is funny. So enjoy-- but don't expect great revelations.


Rick said...

I'll add that I felt in FF, Johnny and Sue seemed to come to grips with their place in this life - which might have more of a redemptive aspect to it in being somewhat repentant and honest. So at least there, unlike the Spidey3 and Shrek3, I felt there was something of a story.

Josh said...

Hey Ben, What do you think of the comic films in general?

I have read comics since I was a kid (and they had a profound affect on my sense of morality; in a good way) and I don't think the medium translates well into film. I think it translates into ongoing T.V. series well. Comics unpack stories kind of like Lost and spend a lot of time developing characters and interweaving storylines (if you haven't read a comic in a while you don't know what your missing; Action comics currently has a series co-written by Richard Donner, the director of the Superman II film [the best one]). Trying to pack in a bunch of info to newbies to comics just bogs down the movies and makes for simplistic plots. Nothing like the Mutant Massacre or the Dark Phoenix Saga.

Rich Robinson said...

I agree that Reed Richards and Sue Storm are too young, and Sue in particular looks more like a model than what I remembered from the comics. Johnny was good, and got better when he started showing a little vulnerability. I just learned that in the actual comics, Ben Grimm is Jewish, which could have made for an interesting spin in the film. In our local theater, there was a fullsize mockup of the Silver Surfer, which looked really cool, and I asked about where I could get one. I wasn't the first to ask, either. Apparently, when the movie's over, someone comes by and snatches the Surfer away.

Josh said...

Dr. Witherington,

You gave me your e-mail address the other day but I forgot it. Can you post it again?


Ben Witherington said...

I agree with you Josh about the movie vs. a TV serial approach to these comic book stories. As for the email address--


Greg Johnson said...


Thanks for the reviews. After reading, I look forward to seeing both the movies.


Michael Gilley said...

I saw Evan last night. It went in a different direction than what I expected. However, there were a few parts that puzzled me. First, I liked God's advice to the Baxter's wife in the restraunt about giving opportunities but after thinging on the issue later I wondered about the power that God gives us to act righteously. Obviously, this was a secular, universalisitic view of YHWH. Also, I noticed that some subtle, yet perhaps sneeky slaps-in-the-face when it came to the ark. First off, Noah in the Bible was said to be a righteous man, blameless in his time. Only Enoch was said to be of same stature as Noah. They are the only two in scripture who "walked with God." In the movie, Evan Baxter never prayed. He even doubted God after he showed himself to him on several accounts and even in the midst of the animals! What does this suggest? God can use anyone?

Also, I was a bit hesitant going into the movie wondering how they were going to treat this being that God promised never again to flood all the earth (or mankind). Well, the movie solved that problem, but then there were animals galore from all over the globe, not just the Prestege Valley. I didn't get this other than it suggesting God reworking his prior Noahic story. Ok. But then God talks with Baxter's wife about the redemptive side of the Noah story and how he saved those who wanted to be saved. Evan cried out for people to get into the ark. They taunted him. I'm seeing parallels. Then, somehow, they ended up on the boat and were saved? What does this imply? Also, I noticed that God did not shut the ark.

I just noticed a few things that I am squeemish to believe were simply negligence on the part of the writers. I wondered if it was more. All in all though, the movie was good and humurous.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Michael:

You need to keep in mind that this story was never intended to be a simple reprise of the Noah story. It was rather a subsequent Noah-like story involving a very different person, a more modern person, indeed a politician. And yes I think it is true that the Bible is full of stories of how God can even use the least likely persons to pull off his miracles. I found Evan, as someone who believes there is a God, but doesn't really have a personal relationship with God to be all too characteristic of so many Americans, including those in public life. I also liked the speech to the wife. It was great, maybe the highlight of the film in terms of dialogue. If you have ever seen the outtakes from Bruce Almighty you will see there were lots of good speeches like that deleted from the first one, because Hollywood didn't want the thing to be 'too' theological. The danger when you leave out any serious content is it becomes insipid or innocuous.

But I found something profound in the reflection of how God actually interacts with the world, not secular at all. God guides, goads, guards, and he tries to persuade and direct us so we will do our parts as well. We are not incidental players in a pre-determined script. We are real actors in the drama of salvation history and we have choices about how we will play our parts, or not.


Michael Gilley said...

This is true. It's obvious how God uses other people, even those who do not believe in him, to bring about his plan. (i.e. pharoah) I did like how Evan did come 'closer' to God through it all. It came to the point that he even became some type of a modern-day prophet on capitol hill. From the weatherman God played on tv I could tell that Evan had a choice.

I would agree with you also that the speech was the best part of the movie. It was an innovative thought for most I'm sure and battled the American consumerism of cheap goodies. The one thing I like more than anything else throughout both movies is that time after time when God appears, he takes the form of a servant. (Custodian, server, etc.)

Sarah said...
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Sarah said...

Awww, I am glad to hear that you liked Evan Almighty. While it is not, as you say, amazingly profound, I did not by any means find it to be 'theologically insulting' (as one critic put it on I esp. appreciated the matching of creation theology with environmental responsibility (sadly, an inextricable connection that is lost all too often within the world of Evangelical Christendom).

Incidentally, will you be attending the WTS Annual Meeting at Duke this spring on Science and Theology? I am hopeful - or, perhaps, even certain, seeing as how Juergen Moltmann will be the keynote speaker - that such a matching will come up (albeit in much more profound and thought-provoking ways) in many of the presentations.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Sarah:

No I shall not be at that meeting, but I would hope for a harmonic convergence of creation theology and environmental concern there.


P.S. I also liked the way Evan Almighty even poked fun at its Hollywood self in the movie marquee which read "The 40 Year Old Virgin Mary" spoofing one of Steve Carell's recent films.

Jeff Gill said...

Ben --

With this statement: "Is God a cosmic bellhop, or does God actually expect us to play our part in the divine plan? I think it is the latter." -- you are showing your Arminian roots rather well! For anyone who has Biblical issues with Evan Almighty, check out the not-one-but-two rants at on the movie, who seem to be rather disturbed that anyone might feel some kind of personal, human, and humane relationship with the Divine. I'm thinkin' this movie must be annoying all the right people, especially when it drives one of them to express an ironic appreciation for Mel Gibson's "The Passion." Beware of where such irony can lead you, sir; the Hound of Heaven may be on your tail . . .

Shaylin said...

I've not seen either movie yet (though I plan to watch both at some point). I will say, though, that the fact that Evan's wife is named Joan just kills me. :)