In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Joss Whedon and his team succinctly emphasize what has always been true of storytelling; that no matter what genre a story is told in, tales that explore humanity are the ones that resonate and live on. Often, the heart of those stories are simple human ideas that can be easily labeled with one word: ideas including love or jealousy, angst or betrayal. The paradox, though, is that the very ideas that make stories relatable and easy to understand are also what make them complex. While our humanity acts as the tie that binds us together, we are not all human in the same ways. We all bring our own experiences to the table when consuming art, and thus we devise our own interpretations of it. We are, all of us, a prism - reflecting and refracting emotion in unpredictable ways. If art is meant to be a mirror, reflecting ourselves back at us, then it must be a cracked one.
So what makes Dr. Horrible - essentially a love story - stand apart as a well-told tale? It’s because of how clearly and authentically the focus on the love story is expressed. Dr. Horrible has elements of a lot of other stories: it’s a super villain’s origin story, it’s a musical, it’s a comedy, it’s a drama. It can be all those things because at its very core, it’s only one thing. All those other elements come out of the love story, and at any given point in time no matter what genre the piece is playing with; whether it’s the comedy behind the Dr. Horrible/Captain Hammer rivalry or the tragedy behind Penny’s surprising death; it never forgets what it is.
Dr. Horrible champions the idea that the extraordinary in life cannot be achieved until people accept the ordinary first, only to realize that the ordinary is itself the extraordinary they may have been searching for all along. Billy’s attempts at super villainy throughout the piece are laughable, until he loses Penny. Once Penny’s dead, we see the real descent into the great super villain he claimed he had always wanted to be, but at great cost. “...and I won’t feel...a thing,” is Billy’s closing lyric - it signifies the end of his humanity and the start of his acceptance of true evil. But, had he ended up with Penny from the start, it’s clear he would have gone down a different road. An ordinary road? Only insofar as that romantic love is an emotion experienced by us all. But this emotion, while seemingly commonplace, is anything but ordinary. That’s Dr. Horrible’s message. Life itself is a cliche. We all experience the same emotions, have the same thoughts, even share the same hopes and dreams. In short, we are all human, and yet we are individuals. We are all the same, and yet we’re different. We are both reflection and refraction.
The God Who Wasn't There
The God Who Wasn’t There is a documentary by Brian Flemming that openly denounces Christianity as both a religious institution and ideology. It claims that the messianic Jesus presented in biblical scripture was more myth than man and paints all Christians who believe in what the bible says (especially about Jesus) as ignorant fools who - through a combination of fear and apathy - have been duped by the church. It’s easy to condemn Christianity for its failings, and having been brought up in a fundamentalist household I’ve seen the ugliness of the religion first-hand. So in renting this, I expected a thoughtful examination of “god” in various religions and where it all stems from. I expected a documentary that attempted to use history, scholarship and expert deductive reasoning to explore the very human need for belief in something greater than ourselves, and the rise and fall of religions (past and present) in their attempt to service that. What I got was a broken man who ended up being as guilty as the community he was vilifying in trying to preach to the masses the evils of religion. How was he guilty of this? Let’s explore further:
First, the one-dimensional portrayal of Christians as buffoons. There were two sections of the film devoted to Flemming interviewing what appear to be normal, everyday Christians. He asked them two questions; “Who was Jesus?” and “Have you ever heard of Osiris, Dionysus or Mithra?” The first question was answered with all the details you’d expect a good Christian to know: i.e. “he’s the son of God,” “he died for our sins,” etc. The second was also answered with the expected response - “no.” With the second question, Flemming went on to press his interviewees for information on how Christianity spread; and of course, no one knew. The resounding response from the subjects being interviewed was along the lines of, “yeah, I don’t know exactly but it’s Jesus man. He’s all that matters.” Allow me to point something out - everyone interviewed was a fundamentalist Christian. No Catholics, no liberal Protestants, no one from the Orthodox denominations, just fundamentalists. These people are defined by their strict adherence to the fundamentals of Christianity and a militant opposition to any form of modernism in religion. On top of that, the film aptly stated that “Christianity is a religion that teaches us not to ask questions, but instead rely on faith.” Of course, Flemming knew that most people wouldn’t know anything about mythical foreign gods or the true, bloodstained history of Christianity - and it was meant to be an insightful condemnation on Christians as a whole. But factor in that Flemming only represented one branch - arguably one of the most fanatical - of Christianity and not only does his portrayal of Christians prove dishonest, but it also calls into question the kinds of oversimplifications he presented as proof for the other arguments of his film. One faction does not represent an entire religion. As far as fundamentalists are concerned, going to church and reading the bible is all the religious education they need. Besides, it was the implication of his questions, and not the questions themselves, that was interesting. The idea that once upon a time Dionysus and Mithra were just as real to people as Jesus is to Christians today, but eventually those religions died out and the gods along with them. Why wasn’t that idea explored? Why weren’t scholars and historians interviewed for their insight on trying to lift the curtain on why those religions died out and how Christianity compares and where it is on the path toward becoming mythology? No, the better idea was clearly to belittle normal people who have beliefs the filmmaker didn’t agree with.
This all leads to the biggest flaw of the film - its attempt to disguise character assassination as concrete, empirical evidence. Is there a God? Was Jesus the son of God? These are inherently simple questions, but answering them is a challenge as old as Christianity itself. In this hour-long film, there were two pieces of actual, unbiased evidence that supported only one of the filmmaker’s claims; that Jesus Christ was mythologized. The first came from a literary scholar who cited The Epic Hero, by Dean A. Miller (which the man mentioned that he helped to edit – good to see that there was room for shameless self promotion). In The Epic Hero, Miller outlined twenty-two attributes that were common amongst the mythic heroes. The attributes consisted of things like the virgin birth, the ability to cast out demons, being the son of a god, etc. Jesus, as described by all the gospels, had nineteen of those attributes. The second piece of good evidence came when a historian tracked when the gospels were actually written. It has been agreed by biblical scholars that Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke relied on Mark for their renditions, but added a lot of their own material and John is the most radically different of the four. The film pointed out that none of the gospels were eye-witness accounts of the life of Jesus, and the earliest Mark could have been written would have been forty years after Jesus' death. Granted, both are solid pieces of evidence – but they lack that “nail-in-the-coffin” sense of finality. They both point to the unlikelihood that the scriptural Jesus ever existed, but neither of them disproves anything.
The end of the film depicted a final interview with Flemming’s own principal from the private Christian school he attended as a boy. What started out as a promising attempt at holding a Christian institution of higher learning accountable for brainwashing children into believing that spiritual conviction somehow equals scientific fact eventually revealed the truth behind the filmmaker’s motives in making this documentary – that he was not really trying to prove anything. In the interview, Flemming accused his old principal of manipulation and succeeded in making the “educator” look like a fool in the process. The principal, after blustering around and realizing he was being put on the spot, retorted that this was not the interview he was told they would be having, and abruptly ended it by walking out of the room. He stated that Flemming was “accusing them of a wrong he felt that the school committed against him.” An insightful statement from an otherwise ignorant educator. Flemming wasn’t interested in finding the truth. He wasn’t really interested in disproving the mythic Jesus, or shedding light on whether or not God exists. This film was about him getting up on his soap box and shouting from the mountain top that the boy cried wolf. It was about him using half-truths and stereotypes in his attempt to discredit any belief that wasn’t his while bullying the people he felt had bullied him all his life. An eye for an eye.
As if the shameful final interview wasn’t enough, Flemming ended his opus inside the church where he first accepted Jesus. In one final sweeping dramatic gesture, he pointed the camera onto himself and denied the holy spirit – the one sin that is unforgivable according to scripture. It just reinforced how egotistical this piece was and again brought to light the oversimplifications Flemming preached. It’s true that the idea of Jesus Christ existing as he is depicted today is improbable. Yes, there are crazy and idiotic Christians in the world. But idiocy is not proof and improbability is not impossibility. Making people look like fools lends no credence to the central thesis of trying to disprove God, Jesus and Christianity. I never actually expected the film to disprove, without the shadow of a doubt, anything. But I did expect it to treat its subject matter with intelligence.
The Legacy of Zelda
A land besieged, a princess in peril, a courageous young hero, a journey that tests mind and mettle alike. These are some of the basic tenets of fantasy that we have heard, read, seen and even played through a thousand times. There are hundreds of varying twists to how we’ve experienced this tale; some have been good, most have been bad. But when it is retold well, this is a story that people are thrilled to revisit over and again. The reason being that the pieces we are all so familiar with are primal; ingrained in the very DNA of our storytelling. At some point or another everyone has the dream of being the hero and saving the day. That dream never leaves us, but develops as we age. What starts out as a longing to be an avenger on a white stallion racing to save a lost love matures into scoring a winning touchdown, closing a huge sale, being promoted. It’s all part of the deep-seeded belief that we have in ourselves: individually, we each believe we are special.
Enter “The Legend of Zelda,” a video game franchise that spans twenty-five years and sixteen games. It has all the complicated trappings of high fantasy, but its core story elements are the same today as they were when the series started. A land besieged, a princess in peril, a courageous young hero, a journey that tests mind and mettle alike. Essentially, the first game introduced the world to a playable fairy tale. The hero of the games, Link, is meant to bridge the gap between human players and the virtual land of Hyrule. All video games put players in the shoes of the main characters; but angst-ridden protagonists with fully realized personalities and motivations often lead to players simply watching a movie unfold before them that they get to interact with. Those stories can be captivating and incredibly satisfying. But the beauty of Link, of the entire “Legend of Zelda” series, is that it has always used the technology of the time to give players the experience that they are the ones questing on this journey. Link is not a character, he is an avatar in the truest sense of the word. He does not speak, he is minimally present even in the cut-scenes of every game and the only defining attribute he’s given at all is that he is courageous enough to go on the quest that calls him on. This use of minimalism in the presentation of a game protagonist allows the player to define Link for themselves: as themselves.
Like all good fairy tales, “The Legend of Zelda” has always captured a mood of child-like innocence and wonder. That is no easy feat on Nintendo consoles, always notorious for being light on hardware capability. But Nintendo’s games have never needed photo-realistic graphics to accomplish their desired tones, moods, or senses of scope. They have always been works of artistic expression: choosing to emphasize specific art styles, intuitive game-play mechanics and easy-to-learn but difficult-to-master controls that all work toward immersing their players in the game worlds. No Nintendo series has captured this like “The Legend of Zelda,” but no Nintendo series was ever meant to. “The Legend of Zelda” is the flagship adventure title in Nintendo’s library. It offers action and exploration, but what truly sets this series apart from other similar games are the puzzles. The player is forced to think as well as react throughout the adventure, which allows for a richer sense of accomplishment than just cutting through hordes of minions or defeating an especially challenging boss.
Ultimately, the appeal of “Zelda” has always been the simplicity at the core of the series and their reinterpretation of old ideas. While The quest is the same every time, each iteration offers a reinterpretation of the series staples. Time and again, “Zelda” successfully combines old and new ideas to provide a complex and fulfilling experience. By tapping into a childhood fantasy, and by working hard to allow players to feel like they are “Link,” Nintendo is taking every step possible to allow players to “experience” what it means to be the Hero of Time. The fact that it’s accessible to a wide range of people will never be a deterrent, but rather make the experience all the richer. For we’ve all, at some point, wanted to mend a land besieged, rescue the princess in peril, be a courageous young hero, and go on a journey that tests mind and mettle alike.