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Smiles to Tears: From Kratos to Batman

Left: God of War Ragnarok (Santa Monica Studios). Right: Titans (HBOMax)
Indeed, He is the One who makes to laugh and cry

- Holy Qur'an (53:43)

We are not simply any of our given emotions. We are not merely a smile or tear. We are both and, more importantly, the transition in-between. It is these movements between contentions that relieve our tensions and allow us to unfold. We are stories being told. We are not written, as much as writing coming to know itself.

A few weeks ago, I finished playing Sony Santa Monica Studios' masterpiece God of War: Ragnarok, the next installment in the epic saga following Kratos, the greek God of War as he - tries - to guide his son, Atreus (Loki), through the rites of ritual towards manhood in the land of Norse mythology. There, other gods like Oden and Thor must also come face to face with their own children as mirrors that breathe in those empty spaces between the ink of a parent's past actions and faults.

What caught my attention in the story, unlike the previous God of War, is the comedic ambiance of the narrative that ushered the journey of Kratos and Atreus. Kratos, a war general and god-killer whose emotions are buried behind countless deaths and blood, is coaxed out of his shell by the dwarf Sindri who helps Atreus escape across the nine realms behind Kratos' back.

As Sindri invites Kratos and Atreus into his home, he can tell that Kratos knows the truth and tries to relieve the tension:

Sindri: "Anybody need a snack? Kratos? Snack?"

Kratos: "I do not need a snack!"

God of War: Ragnarok @ Sony Santa Monica Studios

In a parallel universe, Dick Grayson, aka Robin, comes face to face with the blood and death imprinted in his consciousness. In season 2 episode 7 of DC's Titans, Grayson must confront an old enemy: Deathstroke, for whose son Jericho's death Grayson feels personally responsible.

But Grayson is afraid of the shadows that secrets cast and how they might overwhelm the light he and the Titans are trying to spread in the world as heroes who fight the darkness. In comes Bruce Wayne, aka Batman, Grayson's spiritual father who took care of him after the death of his parents.

Wayne appears as an apparition, haunting Grayson with comedy that the directors and writers of the show brilliantly interweaved into the drama of Slade Wilson's (Deathstroke) looming presence. As Grayson is trying hard to bury the secret of Deathstroke's son's death, the ghost of Wayne does everything from dancing to cracking jokes, in hopes of cracking his 'son's' heart wide open.

DC Titans: HBOMax

Laughter and smiles eventually lead Kratos through his own rites of passage towards remembering his lost emotions. He cries as he embraces Atreus, as he realizes that control can no longer control his son. He can only help Atreus by letting go.

As Atreus bids farewell to his father - whose haunted by the epithet Ghost of Sparta - the ghost of Bruce Wayne also dissipates as Grayson, his son, unfurls his secret to Jason Todd, Wayne's new Robin-prodigy whom the latter entrusted under the care of Grayson. This is nothing but the affairs of fathers and sons: the tears of Grayson give way to Todd's trauma, who survived a 15-story fall at the hands of Deathstroke.

God of War: Ragnarok. Sony Santa Monica Studios

But this is not a new story, it is a cycle of reality that keeps repeating itself and emerging in the stories of our culture. For it was Yoda, in George Lucas' masterpiece Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back who played the role of jester with an unknowing Luke Skywalker before revealing himself as the last living Jedi master, training Luke and - eventually - confirming the truth that Darth Vader is Luke's father.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Lucasarts Disney

If this post began with a verse from the Qur'an, our return here to scripture is merely a testimony that the Sacred, like the force in Star Wars, is all around us. "In the trees and rocks", Yoda tells Luke. And most auspiciously in our stories and art.

We create art and characters that journey from smiles to tears, from laughter to sadness and ultimately, redemption. But like Shakespeare, who brilliantly broke the 4th and 5th walls of storytelling, our characters begin to reflect back to us the shores we need to tread and oceans we need to sail. They teach us that the journey to redemption is not a lonely triumph at the summit, listening to the siren song commemorating our eulogies or praises.

Rather, it is vulnerability dressed in strength, humbleness hiding behind the curtain known as pride, smiles paving the way to tears ... and nothingness as it embraces being.

Through poems, music, and literature we may catch a glimpse of the indiscernible God’s Eye, and discover a world where the shared vulnerability and interdependence of humanity replaces our individual selves as the center around which life evolves.

- Ruth Illman in "Mapping Religion and Spirituality in Postsecular World"

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