Super dads don’t save themselves

 
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CHRIS PRATT stars in THE TOMORROW WAR

If you’re a fan of the 2001 comedy Zoolander, you’d have to agree: “Chris Pratt? He’s so hot right now!” It seems that everything the 42-year-old actor touches, from The Lego Movie to Guardians of the Galaxy, turns to gold. But is even a super A-lister like Pratt able to save The Tomorrow War if its premise for being a good dad rests on something the most talented commando just can’t accomplish?

Father’s Day inevitably turns us towards our own upbringing and the men who were responsible for them. In some cases, it will be the little things our dads did that stand out. My clearest memory is riding around in a wheelbarrow he was pushing while working in our backyard. You may have something just as enduring. But for others, sadly, it will be the absence of such memories that did the most to shape their lives. The empty chair at the breakfast table can be as powerful a force for shaping a life as the grizzled, paper-reading man who filled it. For those who will be spending this time contemplating the dad who wasn’t there, you have my sincere sympathies. I reserve a portion of those feelings, though, for the dad’s who are there but are struggling to make a positive contribution to their children. My advice would begin by cautioning you not to take too strong a lead from Hollywood’s current ideal.

The Tomorrow War—one of the latest Amazon Prime Video films from director Chris McKay of The LEGO Batman Movie—is a case in point. Recently released to streaming services, this action-packed adventure presents Chris Pratt as Dan Forester, the perfect balance of career-focused and family-loving father. His back story is a little improbable—a special forces commander who resigned to study chemistry at Cal Tech and now teaches high school biology—but it can be forgiven in the face of the very normal struggles he confronts. Dan is fighting to get his post-army career off the ground while being a faithful parent alongside his wife (Betty Gilpin) to his daughter, Muri (played by Ryan Kiera Armstrong and Yvonne Strahovski). His own father is no help; James Forester (J.K. Simmons) abandoned his family in order to spare them his Vietnam War PTSD. And if that wasn’t enough for Dan, a dramatic message from the future turns the world he’s living in upside down.

Soldiers from the future capture international attention when they materialise in the middle of the World Cup. They come to inform present-day residents that in 2048 alien creatures known as the ‘White Spikes’ will invade earth and in three short years bring humanity to the verge of extinction. The only hope of victory is if the people of our present agree to time travel to the future to bolster the ranks of the failing defenders in the war effort. Forester now faces the difficult choice of staying to guard his daughter’s present or going forward to ensure her future. Now, the story that unfolds is for the most part comfortably in the vein of Aliens, Battlefield Los Angeles and Cloverfield, right down to the scrappy band of heavily armed civilians (Edwin Hodge and Sam Richardson) who have to achieve an improbable mission. However, two-thirds of the way in, The Tomorrow War lines up an unlikely collection of toothy monsters and “jumps the shark” half a dozen times. Reality isn’t so much suspended as expelled from school with a principal’s note to never return. Without getting into major spoilers, Mr. Pratt will not be lining up for an Oscar for this one—though you might argue the film may get a VFX nod for the work on the alien race which causes the future war. That said, The Tomorrow War does succeed in repeating a dubious trope that has come to be accepted as a parenting truth.

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J.K. SIMMONS stars in THE TOMORROW WAR

The entertainment industry is built around tropes. They are the innumerable recurring themes that give the lives of characters an expected shape. Star-crossed lovers will find a way to be together. Black-hat heroes always turn out to have a heart of gold. You get the idea. And the one The Tomorrow War trumpets is “Fathers who pass through a crisis turn out to be better dads.” In the case of Dan Forester, his journey into the future reveals that he will one day allow his quest for a better career to break up his family. He sensibly decides he won’t succumb to that pressure and so becomes a better dad. This is not the first science fiction film to champion this trope. In Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds remake, Tom Cruise stars as a barely-there dad who forges a new connection with his teenage son by virtue of the crisis they both pass through. It’s also present in other action genres produced by other cultures, like ­Train To Busan’s divorced, workaholic dad whose zombie encounter teaches him to truly value his daughter. Even children’s films trumpet the crisis-transformed dad. Finding Nemo’s Marlin leaves his stress behind to become a more trusting father; How To Train Your Dragon’s Stoick’s passage through a cataclysmic battle creates a man more understanding of his quirky son. In each case, a crisis becomes the agent of change that allows a dad to make a legitimate and long-lasting transformation.

We all like to believe this trope is true – especially dads. We like to believe that when push comes to shove, we will find it within ourselves to do the right thing. Regardless of how things are now, when things get tough, we will become the dads the occasion demands. This way of thinking relies very heavily on a father finding the means of character transformation within himself. But how likely is that? It’s a romantic idea. It’s an attractive idea. But is it a true idea? Pause for a moment and ask yourself how often you have witnessed a crisis transforming a father so that he turns over an evergreen leaf? I don’t mean what you’ve heard about online or feel you know about people in general. Do you know someone it’s actually happened to? The struggle to put a real name to a trope should at the very least suggest how rare that transformation is. Recent experience suggests it may be even rarer than we think.

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased our awareness of the negative impact prolonged exposure to life-threatening circumstances has on mental health. According to the World Health Organization, the most likely effects of exposure to a crisis are negative rather than positive:

“Almost all people affected by emergencies will experience psychological distress . . . One person in five (22 per cent) living in an area affected by conflict is estimated to have depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.”

OK, so despite what Hollywood suggests, crisis is an unlikely agent for a better perspective on life, including parenting. But maybe that is because it takes a certain sort of man to make the most of that crisis? After all, Chris Pratt plays a character who is both physically confident and intellectually astute. There is at least some evidence that political leaders handling crisis situations demonstrate a higher level of resilience. A Stanford University paper on the impact of crisis-induced stress on decision making notes:

“There is no doubt that most individuals who reach high-level policymaking positions have already acquired relevant experience that provides them with the ingenuity, resiliency, and toughness needed for coping with the stresses of making difficult political decisions. In other words, they have learned to cope with decisional stress.

So, maybe change-through-crisis is possible for the man who is capable enough to take hold of the moment? A recent book examining church culture reveals just how prevalent that line of thinking is in Christian culture. In Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez talks about how white evangelicals in the United States became enamoured with the alleged “Alpha male” personality. Her analysis shows that western Christianity’s favoured presentation of men invariably packs a punch:

“For many evangelicals, the masculine values men like John Wayne, William Wallace, Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Jordan Peterson, and Donald Trump embody have come to define evangelicalism itself.”

This John Wayne model of male leadership is particularly visible in the sorts of advice offered to Christian fathers. Reading Charles Dobson, the founder of Focus On The Family, and Steve Farrar, author of Point Man, it’s easy to see how the most effective dads in a crisis could best be described as a “man’s man”.

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

With the entirety of the Pacific Ocean between us, we have enough distance to realise that good parenting can’t simply be the province of one personality type. Instead, we might suggest that all men who follow the wisdom encapsulated in Scripture stand an equal chance of becoming good dads. But isn’t that just another way of voicing Hollywood’s trope? Instead of taking hold of a crisis and becoming a better dad, the good man will take hold of, say, the book of Proverbs to become the dad he should be? Whichever way you look at it—in crisis or out, Alpha or Omega Male—it is the man who works on himself. Now this realisation should give us pause for thought.

The Bible regularly warns that no good thing can be accomplished by humanity’s own hand. In fact, left to ourselves we are more likely to produce evil than good. Consequently, we are encouraged to seek the Lord’s aid in every good endeavour:

“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain” (Psalm 127:1).

The same Psalm that contains this warning also encourages men to become dads. However, the two pieces of advice are clearly not meant to be separated. Just as surely as the Lord builds the strong house, the Lord builds the good father. It is vain to think that any effort apart from Him can produce such a result. No crisis will in and of itself produce the sort of character development we need. Neither will a slavish adoption of methods gleaned from scripture. They are both only grist for God’s mill.

What we bring to the equation as fathers is the same thing that every human brings to God: our innermost needs. Do you want to be a good father—the sort that can take a crisis and turn it into an opportunity for growth? Do you want to be the sort of parent that can apply the wisdom that scripture offers for raising children? The secret is to come to God with your inability to do either:

“He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9,10).

You can make a sport out of spotting storylines that put the power of the father at the centre of the picture, both in and outside of the church. And each time you do so, make sure you remind yourself that what you’re seeing is parenting built on an unsure foundation. The only strong dad is one whose agent of change is his own Heavenly Father.

Mark Hadley is a media and cultural critic who lives with his family in Sydney. Please note that discussion of a media product in Signs of the Times does not imply an endorsement or recommendation.