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Leah Schnelbach

The Stan Lee Cameo in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a Perfect Farewell

I do not want to spoil Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (unless saying it’s really really good is a spoiler) so I will simply say this here, above the cut: while the requisite Stan Lee Cameo can feel a bit gratuitous or creaky at times, Lee’s appearance in Spider-Verse is absolutely, completely, no reservations perfect.

I’ll talk about why (WITH FULL SPOILERS) below.

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Why You Should Add AD/BC: A Rock Opera to Your Holiday Movie List

Every year, people who get paid to write on the internet celebrate a very strange ritual: we try to dig up obscure Christmas specials, or find new angles on popular ones. Thus, we receive epic takedowns of Love Actually; assertions that not only is Die Hard a Christmas movie, it’s the best Christmas movie; and the annual realization that Alf’s Special Christmas is an atrocity. These are all worthy specials, deserving of your limited holiday media time. However, I have not come here to ask you to reconsider anything, or to tell you that something you watch each December 24th is actually garbage—I am here to offer you a gift.

The gift of AD/BC: A Rock Opera.

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Celebrating the Liberating Weirdness of Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle was my first sci-fi. Maybe also my first fantasy. I read her before Lewis, Tolkien, Adams, Bradbury. I was 11 when I read A Wrinkle in Time, and I quickly burned through all the rest of her YA, and I even dug into her contemplative journals a bit later, as I began to study religion more seriously in my late teens.

My favorite was A Swiftly Tilting Planet (I’m embarrassed to tell you how often I’ve mumbled St. Patrick’s Breastplate into whichever adult beverage I’m using as cheap anesthetic to keep the wolves from the door over this past year) but I read all of her books in pieces, creating a patchwork quilt of memories. I loved the opening of this one, a particular death scene in that one, an oblique sexual encounter in another. Bright red curtains with geometrical patterns, The Star-Watching Rock, hot Nephilim with purple hair—the usual stuff. But as I looked back over L’Engle’s oeuvre and I was struck, more than anything, by the sheer weirdness of her work.

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Religion and Rocketry: How German Theology and Russian Mysticism Shape Our View of Outer Space

While researching the history of the space program for a previous article, I ran across the phrase “Godspeed.” Uttered spontaneously by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter in the early days of NASA, it’s a phrase that, while not overtly religious, feels prayer-ish—and its repetition, and use as sort of secular benediction in the SFF community, became increasingly interesting to me the more I researched. The more I looked into it, the more I came to think the phrase itself sets the tone for our coverage of space exploration, both in contemporary news reports and fictional portrayals. Where you might expect films about feats of engineering and math to be quite secular and scientifically rigorous, there was often an interesting spiritual dimension to our space media. What I began to realize was that the vast majority of US-made space films use the space program to explore the German concept of the Heilige, or numinous.

As a person who used to study religion for a living (and who still studies it in their off-hours) I found this—excuse my use of a technical term—neat. In pursuit of this neatness I’m embarking on a journey across 40 years of film to look at how films have created a conversation between the realm of religion and the realm of rocketry. Join me, won’t you?

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A Love Note to Mystery Science Theater 3000, on The Occasion of Its 30th Birthday

Thirty years ago, on November 24, 1988, Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered on KTMA, a cable access channel in Minneapolis. This very Thanksgiving is the show’s anniversary. It’s out of college by now (probably), maybe trying to buy a home, or start a family. It bristles when Cheers calls it a millennial—it’s always felt like an old soul, with the references to Get Christie Love and Charlie McCarthy, and it gets frustrated when other shows consider it shallow. It’s not just a reference factory, after all. There’s real depth and heart here, if you know how to pay attention.

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The Surprising Depth of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is the least of the Big Three Peanuts holiday specials. The Peanuts Gang’s take on Halloween gave us The Great Pumpkin, and A Charlie Brown Christmas became the standard by which all other Christmas specials were judged. When the Gang tackled Thanksgiving, however, there just wasn’t as much to dig into.

Or so I remembered.

But when I rewatched this one I found that the show packed a surprising amount of depth in between all the Snoopy shenanigans and toast-buttering montages. In fact if you look closely enough, I think you might find a statement about what it means to be an American.

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Learning Empathy From Robots: How MST3K Helped Explain My Parents

This week marks a milestone for all of humanity—Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The first ever episode, “The Green Slime” was shown on a small Minneapolis cable-access channel called KTMA on November 24, 1988.

There are many things to say about MST3K, (and eventually I plan to say all of them) but since this is Thanksgiving week I wanted to thank the show’s writers for helping me with a very specific issue I had as a kid.

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The 17 Best (and Worst) Cartoon Sidekicks of the 1980s

After years wandering the wilderness, Princess Adora and her bad-ass alter ego—She-Ra, the Princess of Power—is starring in a series of new adventures on Netflix. While I’m thrilled to binge the new show, I’ll always have a soft spot for the original 1980s series—partly because of the amazing sidekicks that tagged along her adventures in Eternia. This got me thinking about some of my favorite sidekicks from across the varied landscape of 1980s kids’ cartoons, which, naturally, resulted in a ranking list post.

THESE ARE MY OWN PERSONAL VIEWS. IT’S OK IF YOU LIKE SNARF.

I mean, I think you might want to talk to a therapist, but it’s probably OK, cosmically speaking.

But by all means tell me about your faves in the comments.

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Fractured Fairy Tale: Northwood by Maryse Meijer

For so long literature was dominated by the idea of the Huge Fat Novel with teeming casts of characters, multiple points of view, and overarching themes that Say Something About How We Live Now. The characters lives would often intersect with historical figures, to give the author a chance to show off their research. Sometimes the action would slip into the near future so we could get a taste of the Dystopia To Come. Sometimes there would be an Event that was so Important the author Capitalized Its Name. Often, the main character was a philandering male.

While these books aren’t always written by guys, they were emblematic of that intensely flag-planting type of masculinity that wanted to put their stamp on the hottest issues of their day. And to be fair, I love these kind of books. (I’m kinda sorta writing one of these kind of books at the moment.) But lately I’ve become much more interested in ‘smaller’ works—not in theme, but in length: books that act as scalpels cutting down to the bone of a story, and often pack a far more emotional punch than the hefty tomes that are usually called ‘important.’ Maryse Meijer’s dark fairy tale Northwood is one of these.

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A Heroic Journey Inward: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore

This week, Saga Press releases a gorgeous new omnibus edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Books of Earthsea, illustrated by Charles Vess, in celebration of A Wizard of Earthsea‘s 50th anniversary. In honor of that anniversary, this week we’re running a different look at Earthsea each day!

When we first began discussing a week-long celebration of Earthsea, I knew immediately which book I wanted to tackle. Depression is difficult to write about—if you want to capture it well you risk alienating your readers, and I’ll admit that there are a few points in The Farthest Shore that are hard to keep reading. But when I revisited the book I was reminded of just how perfectly Ursula Le Guin writes about the unwritable. What Le Guin does with The Farthest Shore is take the trappings and structure of a heroic quest narrative, and send her hero inward on a quest through his own mind and will. What results is one of the greatest portraits of depression that I’ve ever read, and I’ll attempt to talk about why it’s so great below.

Be warned this post talks about depression and gets pretty personal, so please duck out if you think this might pull any threads for you.

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Moral Kombat: How Narnia and Harry Potter Wrestle with Death and Rewrite Christianity

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been on Broadway for about six months and collected six Tonys after a successful run in London. I was lucky enough to see the play a few months ago, and while I liked it enormously, I can’t stop thinking about how odd it is. With Cursed Child, Rowling foregoes the possibility of a simple fun adventure and instead adds a coda to the series-long meditation on death, and continues her ongoing tickle fight conversation with the moral fantasy of C.S. Lewis.

[Come, join me below the cut, and I’ll explain.]

Explosive Action Meets Religious Horror in the Giant Demonic Fireball that is End of Days

1999 was a weird year. Plenty of people believed that Y2K was a thing that would kill us all, and there was a fascinating spate of gritty, strangely lit films that either used sci-fi to tell us Reality Is A Lie (Existenz, Thirteenth Floor, The Matrix) or horror to tell us that Ghosts And/Or The Devil Are Real (Sixth Sense, Stigmata, Omega Code, Dogma, End of Days).

Of these, End of Days was the only film that attempted to merge my two favorite subgenres: bombastic ‘80s action thrillers, and religious horror. Some might say it tried too many things, but I say, if you’re going to fly, aim straight for the sun.

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All Hail Brimstone, The 90s Supernatural Cop Show that Deserves a Cult Following

Twenty years ago a television series premiered about a man returned from the dead, stalking monsters through Los Angeles, hoping for a second shot at life and redemption.

No, not AngelBrimstone.

Brimstone was an early entry in the urban horror genre, before Angel, Constantine, or Supernatural, even beating out the rash of apocalyptic religious horror that hit movie theaters the following year. It only lasted a single short season, aired out of order, with nowhere near enough promotion to help audiences attach to its high concept. Which is a shame, because the alternate universe where the show was a hit is probably a much more interesting place.

Revisiting the show for its anniversary, it’s a conflicted but fascinating work of horror shot through with ’90s cheesiness, but also dotted with moments of brilliant writing and heart.

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Daredevil Succeeds When Matt Murdock Gets His Catholic Mojo Back

Part of the reason Daredevil’s third season is so good is that it once again centers Matt Murdock’s spiritual journey in a way that allows for layered storytelling. I’ve found three different stories spread across the three seasons of Daredevil that focus on elements of Matt’s religious life: his commitment to Catholicism, his personal faith, and, most interestingly, a terrifying meta story of good versus evil.

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A Grand Unified Theory of Hayao Miyazaki: MiyazakiWorld: A Life in Art by Susan Napier

I love Studio Ghibli’s films. Repeated viewings of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service were all that got me through college with my mind (more or less) intact. But more to the point, I love Hayao Miyazaki. I love that he obsesses about his work, makes absurdly detailed films, never stops at good enough. I love that he’s prickly and irascible in interviews. I love that he constantly harps on how much better things were when it seemed like his generation were going to turn Japan socialist. I love how he’s unafraid of an ambiguous ending, and indeed, seems to regard happy endings with suspicion—but that he’s also willing to lay pure joy on us and expect us to keep up.

All of these elements are discussed in Susan Napier’s MiyazakiWorld, a masterful look at his life and career that balances the best elements of pop culture enthusiasm and academic analysis.

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