164: What Happens in the Movie Theater — Jumps Out into the World with Us

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“I
LOVED ‘Iron Man’!
    “I mean, I LOVED it.
    “It was so — so Zen!”

    Those were the words just one day ago from the Buddhist priest and author Geri Larkin, who we’ll feature next week in a story about her new book, “Plant Seed, Pull Weed.”
     Following our recommendation last week, Geri went to see the debut of the “Iron Man” movie. Then, this 50-something, nationally known Buddhist sage, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, and leads a quiet life of hard work, meditation and writing wound up raving about the spiritual lessons that jump right off the silver screen in this movie.
    I have huge respect for Geri’s Zen viewpoint, but this isn’t a spiritual theme limited to a single faith. A week ago, the same point was made by Christian scholar Greg Garrett, another nationally known sage — in Greg’s case concerning cinema, superheroes, popular culture and faith.
    When East meets West in a spiritual evaluation like this, then I know we’re onto something here.

Robert_downey_jr_in_iron_man_as_ton    I called Geri to talk about the spiritual adventures in her new book — an article you’ll read here next week — but here’s how our interview started. She said:
    “David — before we start — two things I have to tell you: You were right about ‘Iron Man.’ It is a movie about redemption — and Robert Downey Jr. is back, praise Buddha!”
    Now, in that reaction, Geri was mirroring a whole wave of responses I’ve been receiving via email and reading in our “Iron Man” group on Facebook, this week. I asked for Facebook reactions — and, let’s be honest, one of the strong reactions to the film from women was all about Downey himself.

     Amber Hunt, a journalist, wrote me a quick note after seeing the film: “My Iron Man answer: I saw it and I liked it. I’ll contemplate the
spiritual side later, though, because I’m too busy mentally revisiting
Downey in a tank top.”
    Geri Larkin has been known to write about her crushes on movie stars. At one point, years ago, she had a thing for Mel Gibson — pre-controversy Mel Gibson — and she wrote about that, at one point. And I know she’s glad that Robert Downey Jr. is back at the top of his form, once again.
    So, that is part of the movie’s appeal. But, there’s so much more as Geri and Greg and Amber and so many others are pointing out!

    A couple of days later, Amber wrote a much longer note. One of the first spiritual issues she spotted in the film was the problem of hypocrisy — and mean-spirited arrogance in general. Now, when Amber wrote this note, she had not yet seen the two stories that ran Wednesday and Thursday this week about the dramatic re-evaluation going on across the evangelical realm.
    Amber wrote: “This might sound a little offensive, but: I found Stark’s lack of altruism to be a reflection of a lot of
Christians’ attitudes. We all know about the hypo-Christs out there, the
people who preach that thou shalt not judge — and yet they’re the first
to judge, judge away. Many don’t seem to be interested in ‘doing right’
for the sake of doing so. They’re more interested in their own
salvation. And that, I think, is true of Tony Stark,” the man who becomes Iron Man.
    That’s another spiritual connection. Amber touched on a point that we’ve been discussing this week with Ken Wilson and Christine Wicker, over just the last two days — the problem of hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness that has nearly crippled major segments of the evangelical realm.

    Meanwhile, Facebook writers have been wearing out their computer keyboards praising this film. You can just see their knuckles turning white as they strain on the keys to type reviews like:
    “Amazingggggggggg”
    And, appeals for sequels: “Make moreeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!”
    And, perhaps this is a prayer in praise of the film? One Facebook reviewer wrote: “oooooooohmygod!” However, that reviewer didn’t capitalize the “g” I guess out of respect for the deity.
    Again, let’s keep it real, here: The bulk of reviews mentioned the special effects, the high-energy action, the suspense, Downey’s starring role, his beautiful co-star Gwyneth Paltrow. More than one reviewer referred to enjoying the scenes when bad guys get “their butts kicked.”
     But, running like a stream through the comments, especially some that were directed pointedly in my direction over the past week, was an appreciation that something very unusual and very powerful is unfolding in this storyline.
     Many picked up on the redemption theme. Click back to Greg Garrett’s take on Iron Man, because he was right on the mark.
    Melissa, a Facebook reviewer in the “Iron Man” group found the movie “above and beyond my expectations!” She added: “Robert Downey Jr.’s and Tony Stark’s lives, in a strange way, have many similarities. Downey’s past as a bad boy, arrogant, with misplaced priorities — and Stark’s past — have many commonalities. When something defining happens, the priorities are changed. Thank goodness the cheekiness, and well-played arrogance that women find irresistible are still deeply rooted in both Tony Stark and Robert Downey Jr.”

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    Now, hold on a moment! If you haven’t seen “Iron Man,” you may be thinking this is a “chick flick.” Far from it! In fact, as best I can tell, a little more than half the emailing and reviewing and Facebooking on “Iron Man” came from men. When I asked a group of a dozen teenagers recently to tell me who was interested in “Iron Man” — the guys’ hands shot up first.
    Here’s the kind of note I got back from Jimmy E. Parsons. (And, if you’re new to this, as you read Jimmy’s note — the word “Shellhead” refers to “Iron Man,” because he wears a metallic, shell-like helmet.)
    Jimmy wrote: “Personally, I am spiritual, and a huge Shellhead fan, so would like to see the spiritual hints there.”
     In his analysis, Jimmy said he enjoys other superhero films with more explicitly religious messages, but he’s thinking that there’s something larger and different going on in “Iron Man.”
     Jimmy added, “The other more recent Christ/Spiritual superhero film that was more explicit was the newer Superman film, which was chock full of Christ allusions, but Superman the character was the last son sent to SAVE all of us. I’d like to think that IRON MAN probably can be viewed as having a not exactly spiritual subtext, but rather a deep questioning of contemporary morals and the extreme meanings of life in general.”
    To Jimmy, I’d say: Yes. You’re right — with one exception. A lot of folks, including Geri Larkin and Greg Garrett and myself, are calling that “deep questioning” and that grappling with “extreme meanings of life” — supremely spiritual.

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    Here’s a prefect example! Tony Stark, the rich industrialist who becomes Iron Man begins to realize that his long-suffering secretary, Pepper, is really a remarkable and compassionate person. He begins to fall deeply in love with Pepper as his life changes.
    At one point, after an early Iron Man mission, Pepper suddenly drops into his workshop and discovers this strange array of robots helping him remove his high-tech Iron Man costume. It’s a strange and funny scene. People laughed in the theater where I saw the film.
    In the scene, Pepper looks at Tony in the midst of this strange setting, at first, in shock. Then, Downey says, “Now, let’s face facts. This isn’t the worst thing you’ve ever caught me doing.”
    That line — and you can think about all the spiritual and moral issues related to such a moment — is a huge hit with younger viewers! It’s nominated by some younger viewers as a “favorite line” in the movie.

    Now, where Jimmy Parsons is right on the mark is that “Iron Man” doesn’t give us cut-and-dried answers.
    In particular, people are debating the spiritual meaning of the movie’s last line.
    I don’t think it spoils the movie at all to reveal that the final words spoken on screen by Tony Stark — and that’s after a full two hours of action on the big screen — are these: “I am Iron Man.” And, with that, the movie’s over.
    But what do those four words mean — spiritually?

    Here are two completely different “takes” on the same question.
    Amber Hunt argues that Tony Stark “faces potential death by way of his own weaponry, and more importantly he watches his weapons destroy the people he swore his creations of destruction were supposed to protect. In response, he decides he needs to change his ways in order to alter his legacy. He’s indeed a changed man, there’s no doubt. He’s had something of a ‘come-to-Jesus’ — and he decides that his eyes have been opened to his prior evils — his sins. He seemingly aims to cleanse himself of those sins.
    “OK, so the interesting thing to me is the last line. He’s supposed to address the media and provide his airtight alibi supplied by SHIELD. Instead in his — admittedly adorable — albeit arrogant way, he says instead, ‘I am Iron Man.’
    “And that, to me, proves that nothing he did was remotely altruistic. He didn’t change in order to find salvation within himself. He changed to save his family’s name, to leave a lasting legacy. If altruism had remotely been his motive, he wouldn’t have been inclined to announce he was a superhero.
    “Rather, he was completely geeked to say so.”
    Amber added that she found this “refreshing” and “far more realistic” than most superhero stories. In short, she really likes the film.

Iron_man_movie
    But, from a Zen perspective, Geri Larkin said the final line was perfect.
    This was Tony Stark stripping away all hypocrisy, all artifice, all facades — to slice to the core that, despite what his savvy media handlers wanted him to say — he is Iron Man. Period.
    “For me that was so Zen. That was his truth and, damn all the fumbling around and stumbling through tests that cause him to smash into cars and go the wrong way — that’s his truth and he’s going to say it,” Geri said.
    In fact, the whole “Iron Man” saga echoes a lot of great Zen tales, she said, because, “the best teachers in Zen have something about them that’s broken. Here is this guy who really has the capacity to save the world, and he’s also got so much that’s broken about him.
    “There’s a whole lot in this movie — so much more than any one of us can hope to grasp in the first round of viewing it. I do think this is a movie that’s going to go down in history as one of the memorable ones people will keep on going back to see again.
    “In fact, I’m going to go see it again next week.”

    Wow. Fascinating, hmmm?
    If you’ve been scratching your head, reading our stories about comics, film and popular culture — at this point, now, can you see the potential here for lively discussion? I mean, we tossed out the welcome mat a week ago and all week long — I’ve been hearing all kinds of creative thoughts.
    There’s still time — and the summer’s long and is exploding with spiritually themed movies.
    Next weekend, the next Narnia movie opens! This time, we’re planning a special ReadTheSpirit movie review that will run one on the May 16 opening day. So, we would LOVE to hear what you think about the spiritual side of Narnia and all the summer’s exciting new movies.
    You can find me on Facebook. You can find me in the Facebook Iron Man group. You can add a “Comment” by clicking at the end of this story. You can Email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, directly.

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A
ND, THERE’S SO MUCH MORE:

    Here’s our earlier interview with Greg Garrett, talking about “Iron Man” and his own work on the spiritual side of superheroes.
    If you’re wondering how media images shape our minds — and our spiritual imagination — read our story, “25 Words” Through a Glass Darkly.
    Want some specific tips about building a discussion group around these themes? Read our “Sure-Fire Groups: God, Superheroes and Deep Questions.”
    Want more background on the whole exploding realm of comics and superheroes? The best overview is our story on “Mourning the Purge of Comics … and Their Spiritual Rebirth.”
    Here’s a Quiz on Superhero Origins. And, a Quiz on Superhero Religious Affiliations.
    Want to choose a good starting point in “Iron Man” comics? Walk into any major bookstore this week and you’ll find books related to upcoming movies — including all sorts of Chronicles of Narnia books and other products. As an introduction to “Iron Man,” we recommend the hardback book pictured above. This week, it’s been prominently displayed in Borders stores. Or, click on the cover of “Iron Man: Demon in a Bottle” and you’ll jump to our review of this reprint of an important chapter within “Iron Man” comics from the 1980s — and you can order a copy online if you wish.
    And, finally, many independent comic artists around the world are developing their own spiritually themed storylines. Here’s a link to read the latest Cardinal comics.

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