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Avatar, Top Gun, and Hollywood’s Fixation on Fatherhood

Hollywood is a fantasy-making factory. We innately know that real life is not like the movies, yet cinema is the pulse of the culture. Most of the deepest-rooted desires, hopes, fears, and nagging questions that permeate society’s consciousness ultimately bubble up through popular movies. Even the most fantastical stories are birthed from flesh-and-blood human storytellers, and inevitably their humanity finds its way into their creations. 

Whenever a film is widely successful, Christians should question why that story resonated in such a profound way with audiences. While individual movies may reveal the filmmaker’s heartbeat, sometimes a common theme emerges as part of a shared consciousness. What has become increasingly clear is that one widespread theme that is emerging is fatherhood. Hollywood is fixated on fatherhood, and Christians should ask why.  

Hollywood’s Fixation on Fatherhood

Fatherhood is not a motif that has merely popped up in several recent movies. It has arguably been the most dominant theme for some time now. Consider the following films, which have all been released within the last year.

In Dungeon & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the protagonist’s main objective is to reclaim his estranged daughter (literally and figuratively). In the dinosaur flick 65, Adam Driver plays a grieving father on the brink of suicide who rediscovers his purpose by assuming a protective, paternal role over an orphaned girl. The core relationship in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is between Scott Lang and his daughter, Cassie. In the M. Knight Shyamalan horror/thriller, Knock at the Cabin, the premise is built on a same-sex couple who is forced to make an extreme sacrifice for the sake of their adopted daughter. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, Geppetto grieves the loss of his son, and the puppet must in turn navigate the influence of several competing father figures. But wait, there’s more…

Top Gun: Maverick saw Maverick and Rooster develop a father-son relationship. Disney’s Strange World focused on three generations of a family, including a man who must learn to be a good father to his son while dealing with the baggage of his damaged relationship with his own father. Avatar: The Way of Water follows Jake Scully as he attempts to be a protective father to his children. Actor Pedro Pascal has pulled double duty as a father figure to orphaned children in The Mandalorian and The Last of Us. In Amazon’s Rings of Power, the dwarven prince Durin must reconcile with his father, the king. Last year’s survival movie Beast saw Indris Elba’s character overcoming his failure as an absent father to protect his two daughters from hungry lions and violent poachers. Even Black Panther: Wakanda Forever was originally slated to focus on the theme of fatherhood before the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman forced the filmmakers to go a different direction.   

Interestingly, many of the most notable films from the last year that do not focus on fatherhood explore a related theme of mother and daughters. M3GAN, The Woman King, and Disentangled all fit into this latter category. It seems that if Hollywood reflects culture’s desires, hurts, and questions, then many of those relate to fatherhood.

The Role of the Father

There are likely several reasons why fatherhood has become such a prevalent theme lately. It may be that many filmmakers have “daddy issues,” and audiences have a front row seat as they publicly work through their personal emotions through their films. Or perhaps it is a forceful reaction against cultural trends and mindsets that seem intent on tearing down fathers rather than celebrating them.   

When “masculinity” is mentioned in Hollywood, it is inevitably linked to the word “toxic.” This reevaluation of masculinity is driven, in part, by the toxicity evident in some manifestations of hyper-masculinity. Yet much of the criticism is likely also the byproduct of the wider cultural trend of deconstructing traditional gender distinctions, differences, and roles. The notion of a self-sacrificial father who provides and protects his family is largely considered outdated, a relic of a bygone era. 

While the importance of fatherhood has frequently been diminished, at other times it is simply ignored. Director James Cameron has been vocal about the recent trends in cinema that idealize perpetual youth rather than exploring deeper relational dynamics: “When I look at these big, spectacular films — I’m looking at you, Marvel and DC — it doesn’t matter how old the characters are, they all act like they’re in college. They have relationships, but they really don’t. They never hang up their spurs because of their kids. The things that really ground us and give us power, love, and a purpose? Those characters don’t experience it, and I think that’s not the way to make movies.”

Cameron put his thesis to the test in Avatar: The Way of Water. Juke Sully asserts on several occasions, “Fathers protect. It’s what gives them purpose.” In the same film, Sully’s wife is the most ferocious warrior of all, and another pregnant Na’vi mother rides into battle. In other words, the film doesn’t restrict meek female characters to the home. Yet it unabashedly elevates fathers’ protective role in ways that seem starkly counter-cultural. As the 3rd highest-earning film of all time, Cameron’s approach clearly resonated with a wide audience. As the superhero genre begins to fizzle out after a decade of unprecedented dominance, perhaps James Cameron is correct that we yearn for a return to the foundational themes that have been forced to take a backseat.   

A Yearning for Fathers

There are countless reasons why Top Gun: Maverick became a cultural phenomenon (mainly, because it’s awesome). But one of the most interesting elements is Maverick’s character arc from lone wolf to father figure. The movie is bookended by parallel scenes. When the film opens, Maverick is alone in the garage fixing a plane. In the final scene, he is once again in the garage, but this time he is joined by young Rooster. They are working side by side, and Maverick is passing on his wisdom to the younger generation. This fatherly relationship ultimately gives the ever-restless Maverick purpose and peace. 

If Hollywood is a fantasy-making factory, then one of the driving fantasies is that idyllic image of fatherhood. Real life is not always like the movies, and real fathers are not always present, protective, or self-sacrificial. In fact, these idealistic images are common, in part, because they are not the experience of many sons and daughters. Perhaps that is why another common theme in Hollywood right now is “found family.” Childless Maverick and fatherless Rooster meet each other’s deep human needs. Living life alone is unnatural. Whether the fatherly role is fulfilled by a biological father or by “found” family, our human hearts yearn for that intimate bond.

Christianity satisfies this longing. As the psalmist declares, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5-6). In God’s design, men have a special responsibility not to oppress others with self-serving, kingly authority but to be loving and protective fathers or father figures. It is one thing for Christians to criticize Hollywood’s negative exploration of masculinity or to applaud when popular movies seem to course-correct by celebrating the important role of fatherhood. But what truly matters is for fathers and father figures to step up and fulfill this special calling. The stories coming out of Hollywood right now clearly indicate a culture that desperately yearns for men to embrace this critical, God-given responsibility; but men must rise up to meet that need in real life, not just at the movie theater.  

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1 Comment

  • by Jay Payleitner
    Posted May 7, 2023 8:20 pm 0Likes

    I’ve been saying this for decades. Hollywood knows what issues resonate with their audience. (That’s their job.) And fatherhood is at the top of the list. My popular talk for dads — which I’ve given in more than 20 states — includes clips from Top Gun, It’s A Wonderful Life, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Forrest Gump. Did you know all four of those movies (and actually MOST films) are about fatherhood? Let me know and I’ll come talk to any group about the positive impact of committed dads. And Daniel, track me down (jaypayleitner.com) and send me your best snail mail address, I’ll send you a couple of my books that have chapters dedicated to this exact topic. Keep at it!

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