Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Super cool (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Ever since 2010 I have been keeping track of my pop culture consumption by various metrics, mainly because of this weird dread I have of looking around one day and saying to myself, “Huh, I honestly can’t remember the last time I read an entire novel/bought a new album/looked at a comic book/&c.” That probably seems like an unreasonable and unlikely concern, given the frequency with which I post about all of those things, but there was a specific realization that cemented it in my mind as worth doing, back in January of ‘11, when I noted that in the previous calendar year I hadn’t gone to a movie theater at all, not even once. And I’m the kind of person who loves going to the movies, rude fellow audience members and overinflated prices and inflexible showtimes and all. So since then I’ve gotten better about it, and set a goal to go to the multiplex (or, you know, I’d be fine with a small independent cinema, I just don’t know of any reasonably accessible ones) three times per year. I’ve actually managed to surpass that goal and catch four or five flicks on the big screen every year. This year I’m particularly pleased with myself because it’s only mid-April and I’ve already hit the minimum of three, after taking my wife to Pompeii for Valentine’s Day and the kids to Frozen, and now having caught Captain America: The Winter Soldier with one of my buddies last week.

In fact, I had a strange experience at the Winter Soldier showing which I dimly recalled from way, way back when I was a teenager. As I fully expected for the opening night of a big blockbuster, there were a ton of previews ahead of the feature. What shocked me was that I had basically seen all of them already. Partly that has to do with the ubiquity of trailers online these days, and given the amount of screentime I log browsing through comicbook-centric sites, of course I’ve seen the trailers for Spider-Man 2 and X-Men Days of Future Past already. I also happened to have seen the trailer for Lucy (the Scarlett Johanssen as accidental chemically enhanced psychic ninja riff) on a broad pop culture website. But the other half of the raft of trailers, Godzilla and Guardians of the Galaxy and Maleficent, were all ones I had seen in front of other movies in February and March. As I said, that hasn’t happened since high school or college, when I would go to the movies so often that seeing the same trailers over and over was pretty commonplace. In any case, the point is I’m grateful for the current capacity for self-indulgence my life allows at the moment, and if you hear me saying that I never have any time to do anything I am a big fat liar.

Oh, so how was the movie itself? It was good! Really, really good. I’ve heard some reviewers call it the best Marvel movie since The Avengers, and I can buy that (mainly because that only puts it up against Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, the former of which I liked but thought was far from perfect, whereas the latter I haven’t managed to catch up with yet). I’ve heard other reviewers call it better than The Avengers, and I don’t think I would go that far, but that just means I thought Avengers was amazing and Cap 2 was slightly less amazing, though definitely in the ballpark.

What’s interesting to me is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has demonstrated a very keen insight into its own source material. These are not movies that are slightly embarrassed to be based on stupid comicbooks, and feel the need to tweak and modify things quasi-arbitrarily to make them more palatable to grown-ups. The changes rendered in the characters or the plot points are not intended to make things more mature or edgy, they’re just the changes necessary to survive the transition from one medium to another, and in order to tell the best possible stories. The first Captain America movie was based loosely on the WWII-era comics, plus some of the early-60’s reframing of Cap (including explanations of why he disappeared at the end of the war). Winter Soldier is based on a storyline from the comics that was published in the mid-00’s. So the movies skipped over a lot of the main character’s published history, and I don’t fault them for that at all, because they surveyed the entire body of work and decided to start with the origin story and then move on to a story that was maximally resonant with the themes developed in the first installment. Neither beholden to continuity nor disdainful of it, they just cherry-picked in the best possible way. And, presumably, whenever Cap 3 comes out it will bring together the best threads of other Captain America comics, and the (by that point) extremely deep Cinematic history, and put a satisfying conclusion on the story arc. Because, at that stage in the game, after a trilogy of Cap movies and Avengers movies, Chris Evans will be very much done with playing Steve Rogers and it will be time to either move the focus to other characters or to reboot the franchise (clearly, after my experience with Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man, I’ve more than made my peace with the speed of that particular cycle), and I’m pretty sure they know that and will provide the most graceful exit possible.

But as impressive as the scope and ambition of the overall multi-phase Marvel Cinematic Universe is, each movie still has to be able to stand on its own, and Winter Soldier very much does. It has fantastic action sequences, and it has fantastic character moments. It’s not just a story about good guys and bad guys and stuff blowing up that happens to have Captain America in it, it’s a story about what it means to be Captain America (and, by proxy, what it means to be America), a question which does not have a simple answer. So the movie contains multitudes, as well it should. There’s consideration of ideas from different angles, a lot of them stemming from the fact that Steve Rogers fought in WWII and then was frozen for sixty-some years and is now a man out of time. The movie gets laughs out of that inherently funny fish-out-of-water scenario, and it gets pathos out of it as well, but mostly it positions Captain America as someone who questions the ways in which the world he awoke to has gone through radical changes, contrasted with everyone else who lived through those gradual shifts over time and passively accepted them. It sounds cheesy, but it gives Captain America a reason to fight, for something he believes in and something that matters. It is good stuff.

And I know, I know, I have promised that I would shut up about it already (but sometimes I am a big fat liar!) and yet I can’t help but see Winter Soldier as a very direct rebuttal to Man of Steel. Both Captain America and Superman catch a lot of flack for being corny, outmoded concepts (they both had their comic book debuts within three years of each other) who are so noble and pure that they wind up coming across as boring and unrelatable. Patriotism and altruism (which both characters are paragons of, just in slightly different proportions) can only be regarded by modern audiences with skepticism and irony, or so goes the conventional wisdom, and so goes the apparent thinking behind Man of Steel. (Finally going to get into some SPOILERS for Winter Soldier here, I reckon.) Both Man of Steel and Winter Soldier climax in crazy battle sequences with human casualties and massive amounts of collateral damage. But in Winter Soldier, the casualties are all agents and operatives of SHIELD (and HYDRA) and while the costs may be high and lamentable, they all knew the risks they were taking when they signed on. In Man of Steel, there’s an appalling number of innocent bystanders amidst the carnage. Winter Soldier’s big setpiece of destruction takes place at the spy headquarters in the middle of a river, so even as buildings are smashed and huge airships collide and explode and fall from the sky, they’re doing so in a basically uninhabited space. Again, contrast with Man of Steel where most of downtown Metropolis gets razed. And of course, Man of Steel ends with Superman facing a choice, to kill Zod or not, and he chooses to kill him. By the movie’s own internal logic, Zod has killed people and will continue killing people, so Superman (I cannot tell you how much I want to put scare quotes around his name, because the movie gets the character so fundamentally wrong it practically becomes a knockoff “Superman”. But anyway.) does a justifiable thing by acting as executioner. By the end of Winter Soldier, the eponymous assassin has killed and will (probably) kill again, and Captain America has a chance to finish him off, or at least let him die, and instead Cap risks his own life to try against desperate odds to save his enemy. And he succeeds, but that’s almost beside the point, which is that he made the right decision and he gave it his all, because that is what heroes do. (Take note, Goyer and Snyder! Also, your movie was hot garbage.)

Winter Soldier begins with Captain America suspecting that he now lives in a morally compromised world, and has a somewhat downer ending which essentially proves that the world is even more amoral and sinister than he ever realized. And yet it still feels triumphant, because Cap has been tested by fire and proven that he isn’t going to bend or break; he’s still one of the good guys and still willing to fight the good fight. If you think that sentiment is stupid, and is the reason why comicbooks are only for little kids, then you probably shouldn’t be spending your money on superhero movies (and you absolutely shouldn’t be in the business of making superhero movies). Me, I eat that stuff up.

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