Cinematic Visions of Humanity
Films are responding to a perceived climate of hopelessness in one of two ways. They’re either doubling down on hopelessness or they’re providing a solution in the form of humans fixing the problems by generally being good people. I can’t work out which I find more credible, even if the latter is undeniably more appealing.
A lot of this was provoked by a couple of Disney-funded blockbusters that recently hit cinemas. If you’re playing bingo of “things Nathanael will mention in an article about films,” you probably have “calling Marvel films dull” on your checklist. So, it was a great and pleasant surprise to find that Black Panther actually possesses some artistic merit! I enjoyed it! Then there’s A Wrinkle in Time, a messy, ambitious sci-fi movie about travelling across universes (only to discover that the secret to it all is to be yourself). Both are enticingly optimistic about humanity, presenting versions of the world where science and kindness can combine to change the world.
Black Panther, by many metrics is still just a Marvel film. There are messily edited fight scenes, hints at a wider world and a finale featuring two CGI models punching one another. Yet in every other respect it’s different. This is a superhero film, at last, with something to say. With many things to say, actually, all handled with nuance and a surprisingly robust morality at its core. Before, the thematic elements of Marvel were the lowest hanging fruit on the tree of ideas, only paying lip-service to ideas of family and good vs. evil. This, however, is a film that wrestles with isolationism, global responsibility, systemic violence, the role of tradition and more. More than that, it’s made with real flair, too, with occasionally dazzling cinematography by Rachel Morrison, showcasing the stunning production and costume design that draws from a panoply of African cultures. Ludwig Göransson’s propulsive, percussive score is the best of any Marvel film, too.
One of its most enticing ideas is something I’ve seen increasingly in cinema and TV – the idea that a human utopia, or as close to it as possible, is actually not unthinkable. The nation of Wakanda has captured the imaginations of audiences around the world (its global box office is currently at $1.2 billion and climbing), in part because of its shimmering perfection. This is a society that has resisted colonialism and used technology for the general good of its people. Brightly coloured cities roll into landscapes of peaceful rural life. It’s an intoxicatingly imagined world – you want to spend all your time in Wakanda.
It’s striking because in the filmmaking narrative, dystopia has dominated. Ever since the silent era, when films such as Metropolis won the argument of what an imagined future could look like, screenwriters have largely been pessimistic about humanity’s final destination. Generally, the future of the world looks like venal dictators, limited resources as the result of human greed, gross forms of subsistence, and communities shaped by violence. Dystopia is still in vogue – few would hope to live in the world of Blade Runner 2049 or Mad Max: Fury Road (another one for the Nathanael bingo sheet). Yet there’s an edge of aspirational optimism sneaking into our fantasies and sci-fis.
Wonder Woman, a film that was two thirrds good, making it the best of DC’s current crop by a mile, also envisaged a secret utopia, Themiscyra, an Edenic island populated exclusively by women, where they all live in peace and plenty. Wonder Woman then takes the Utopian ideals of this island out to a world torn apart by war. A few years ago, the much-maligned Tomorrowland also pictured a world where technology and innovation were put to the improvement of the world. Fascinatingly, as with Themiscyra and Wakanda, in order for the utopia to exist, it had to be cut off from the rest of society. In this sense, Black Panther is almost an anti-Tomorrowland, a call to share resources and technology with the rest of the world. That was the Clooney film’s greatest flaw – it was only optimistic if you were part of the gifted elite. T’Challa’s arc in Black Panther is a journey towards responsibility. Those in plenty should share with those in need. What makes the film so compelling is that this is the same ideology that drives the villain, making him immensely sympathetic, even while his methods are wrong.
Wrinkle, meanwhile, is less utopian, more high-concept sci-fi. I’ve not read the source novel by Madeleine l’Engle, but it’s apparently rich in Christian imagery and ideas, much in the vein of C.S. Lewis’ less famous sci-fi franchise. Ava DuVernay is an immensely talented director, whose Selma and 13th take different approaches to understanding race in America today, so I was excited to see what she’d make of a family film. She’s boldly taken on a sprawling, deeply weird story and has thrown a giant Disney budget at it to bring l’Engle’s worlds to life. The result is an unwieldy mess that I nevertheless enjoyed, equal parts brilliant and stupid.
There’s elements of Wonderland to the different planets visited by Meg as she searches for her father across lightyears, creating bizarre and beautiful images along the way. I’ll always respond more strongly to audacious ideas that don’t entirely work than something safe; A Wrinkle in Time created images I hadn’t seen on film before, which is one of my favourite things about visiting a cinema. The final act is, visually and thematically, a bit of a mess, which is a real shame. Wrinkle hasn’t quite got the audience numbers it might’ve hoped for – perhaps this project was just too big, too weird.
Any Christian ideas in the film will take a bit of digging to discover. The film stars Oprah and seems to have ported some of her relentless positivity into the film with her. It really isn’t a spoiler to say that in order for Meg to win the day, she needs to be herself. But Wrinkle takes that a step further, implying that the great heroes of humanity – Gandhi, Mandela et al. – achieved everything they did because they learned to be themselves. More than that, they faced darkness and chose light. Meg can be the next Gandhi because she’s a warrior of light. You can see where Christian themes may once have existed, but it has been replaced by Disney’s one true religion, being yourself.
At the heart of these films is the idea that humans have the capacity to make the world a better place. They believe in the ability of people to improve themselves and the world; in the case of Black Panther it also imagines a people who can entirely shed selfishness for the good of the rest of the world. Black Panther advocates for sensible, selfless geopolitics, Wrinkle celebrates the more nebulous concept of the light within you. Pleasingly, these messages have broadened their scope to include heroes of different races, and part of the affirmation of being yourself comes with a much-needed promotion of diversity on-screen. It’s easy to be drawn to the ideologies espoused by Disney, to believe in a better, human-made future. Technology has contributed innumerable gifts to the world, making us healthier and more connected. When used well, human progress brings with it a kind of common grace that does make the world a better place.
But it doesn’t account for the human element. You’re far less likely to see serious westerns or dramas with similar beliefs in the ameliorative power of humanity. We still need sci-fi and fantasy to allow us visions of a better world, where kindness, equality and beauty characterise entire nations. Even then, Blade Runner and Black Mirror are there to remind us that it can all go horribly wrong along the way, too. At the heart of Christianity is the belief that all have fallen short of the glory of God – you just need to look at the world around you to feel that Calvin probably made a valid point about the world’s total depravity. Disney’s sunny outlook, seeping out of their animations even into their superhero and sci-fi films, never seems to account for the fact that “being yourself” has also led to incalculable brokenness and violence. It may be an enticing message to hear that humans can bring about utopia, but that doesn’t make it true.
I’ve wrestled since with which vision of humanity rings true to me – can human society, in isolation, improve itself? Or, left to its own devices, will the human race descend into trading bullets for water and oil? The blessings of labour laws, healthcare and world travel are just a few of the ways that humans make the world a better place, but we’ve also developed the remarkable ability to kill one another in a thousand different ways. Human nature feels like it will always be a stumbling block. Utopian storytelling is escapism in its purest form and it is proving to be increasingly popular in a world that seems to be pulling us in the other direction. Proverbs 12:11 implies that those who chase fantasies have no sense; chasing utopia might be exhilarating, but it comes with a caution.