Judging a movie by its trailer

Okay, so just in general, this is a bad idea. Trailers are not designed to provide useful information about movies; they are designed to provoke interest in seeing the movie, not remotely the same thing.

That said… okay, let’s talk about Captain America: Civil War based solely on the trailer that just dropped.

First off, it’s kind of neat how the positionalities of Stark and Rogers have swapped over the course of the MCU films. Initially Stark was the rebellious “bad boy” and Rogers the good soldier, but their experiences have changed them. Now, as the moral center of the MCU, Rogers naturally opposes a policy almost certainly rooted in fear of the Other and the desire to control and weaponize the abilities of “the gifted” (to steal a term from Jessica Jones) while Stark has positioned himself as a protector, so of course to him the fear of the Other is only natural.

And therein lies the dilemma with this film, because… look, any genre, by its nature, has assumptions built into it, and those tend to lead towards particular philosophical, political, and aesthetic positions. That isn’t to say that any work in the genre necessarily endorses or expresses those positions, and still less that those are positions held by the writers or even the characters, but rather that the genre has a sort of gravitational pull that must be actively resisted if you want your work not to fall into those positions. So, for example, a story of aliens infiltrating our society with malicious intent is naturally going to pull toward xenophobia and hostility toward immigrants, and requires active effort to construct a story that resists that reading. High fantasy tends toward nostalgia for an idealized pre-modern Europe, which pulls toward very regressive politics. Anything which is about fear of the radically Other is going to pull toward racism.

And superheroes… well, they’re stories about how society is under constant menace from powerful, unsavory individuals and organizations that threaten it, against which we are helpless. All we can do is cower and hope to be rescued by specific individuals endowed with superior moral fiber and physical abilities. That’s some pretty ugly politics, right there.

So it makes sense to have superhero stories that interrogate their behavior as vigilantes. Who can be trusted with this kind of power, and how do we make that decision?

These are good questions… but they run afoul of the serialized nature of superhero narratives, and that includes the MCU (which, so far as I know, has no more plans to ever actually end than Marvel Comics does). Quite simply, the final conclusion must be that having vigilante superheroes is the correct answer, because otherwise we don’t get superhero stories anymore. (Of course some heroes can work for the government, for a time, but their essential nature as vigilantes means that they will inevitably either eventually go rogue, or else be given so much freedom to step outside the normal rule-of-law limitations that (supposedly) restrain government agents that they might as well be vigilantes.)

Which means that of course the MCU’s moral center is on the side of rampant unrestrained vigilanteism, because the MCU necessarily must be on the side of rampant unrestrained vigilanteism, because that’s what we’re all buying movie tickets to see. Which, in turn, makes it that much harder to resist the strongman politics inherent to the genre. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I fully expect Civil War to be at best incoherent, and at worst actively regressive.

Age of Ultron and the Impending Collapse of the MCU

We all know the MCU is inevitably going to collapse, right? It’s a shared superhero continuity, an attempt to force an ever-expanding number of stories into the straitjacket of continuity nitpickery. It is not only deliberately encouraging the paranoid reading style and gossip about imaginary people, it wants us to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Daredevil as two windows into the same world.

So of course, sooner or later, it will do what the comics always do, and implode. The need for ever-more obscure references in order to build ever-more elaborate conspiracies for viewers to unravel, combined with the unrestrained growth of constantly adding new characters and new media–so far, in order to fully follow the MCU, it is necessary to watch two network television shows, a web-series, and five film series–and those numbers are growing allm the time.

Now of course it’s possible to follow and enjoy an Avengers movie without knowing what’s going on in Agents of SHIELD (says the person who hasn’t watched any Marvel TV shows). But remember, it is the nature of a conspiracy theory to grow more convoluted and complex with time, and a shared continuity is essentially a conspiracy theory about a group of fictional works. Right now, the MCU films spend relatively little of their time laying clues for future films or paying off clues dropped in other series–but that amount is growing.

There is a particular minor subplot in Age of Ultron (if you have seen the film, you know which I mean) which serves no purpose except to bring Age of Ultron‘s own story to a screeching halt so that it can spend a few minutes congratulating us nerds who recognized how Captain America, Thor 2, and Guardians of the Galaxy were building toward Avengers 3. (To his credit, Whedon apparently fought against including these scenes, and had to be forced into it by executives threatening to cut a major character-building sequence. But not too much credit; that sequence includes Black Widow suggesting that being unable to have children makes a woman a monster.)

This kind of thing is only going to keep getting worse. How long until plot threads introduced in Agent Carter get resolved in Ant-Man 3? Until we get entire films that exist solely as set-up and teaser for the next big crossover? Until the whole thing is just the same mess of conflicting reboots, alternate universes, and continuity lockouts as mainstream comics?

(Rhetorical questions, but I’ll answer anyway: No later than Avengers 4, and possibly much, much earlier.)

I am really sick of being commanded to like things by the Nerd Hivemind

I can already see that Guardians of the Galaxy is going to go, for me, the same route as Pacific Rim:

World: Hype hype hype hype hype.
Me: …What is everyone so excited about? I don’t see what’s particularly special about this.
*movie actually comes out, I see it*
World: OMG THAT WAS THE GREATEST THING EVAR!!!
Me: Eh, that was okay, not great.
Everyone I say that to: How dare you? Anyone who considers this less than the absolute pinnacle of human achievement is a horrible person!
Me: *sighs, enumerates the flaws I saw in it*
Them: But raccoon with a machinegun/giant robot punching kaiju!
Me: …yes, and? I’ve been an anime fan for twenty years, neither of those even registers on the novelty-meter.
Them: [accusations regarding my character, statements that I “hate fun,” etc.]

Repeat for several months, during which “okay, not great” steadily devolves into outright hatred.

Admittedly, Guardians of the Galaxy was WAY more entertaining than Pacific Rim, but it was still ultimately just another disposable popcorn movie that should have been about the female lead and instead shoehorned in a vastly less interesting Whitey McManpain to be the main character.

(No but seriously everything wrong with Guardians of the Galaxy would be fixed if Gamora were the main character and her journey the main focus, and Starlord reduced to comic-relief sidekick.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Spoiler-Filled Review

Apologies for lateness.

Spoilers below the cut!

Captain America, within the Marvel universe, is a living relic of World War II. He signifies that war’s position within American pop-cultural history as “the good war,” the war in which the enemy was clearly evil and Manichaean logic can therefore declare the U.S. good. 
By contrast, the name of his opposite number in this movie, the “Winter Soldier,” clearly refers to the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, in which the organization Veterans Against the Vietnam War sought to expose American war crimes in Vietnam, and to demonstrate that these were not isolated incidents, but a direct consequence of military policy. 
In its title alone, then, Captain America: The Winter Soldier represents a transition from a world in which fighting “the bad guys” makes you good to one where how and why you fight matters as much as who you fight against, and it takes more than a team affiliation to be one of the good guys. 
Captain America, of course, is always going to end up one of the good guys. He is the moral center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as he often is in the comics as well); where Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor struggle with impulses to self-indulgence or violent temper, and Black Widow has a checkered past and a ruthless streak a mile wide, Captain Anerica’s only flaw is a lack of information. Sometimes he’s lost due to missing most of the 20th Century; other times it’s because he doesn’t know who to trust or all the details of what’s going on–but given the information, we can presume that anything he does will be treated by the film as morally right. 
Case in point: Hydra’s plan is to kill millions to save billions. This makes them villains. Cap’s team kill thousands to save those millions; this makes them heroes. Of course the two are not equivalent; Hydra is seeking to kill millions, mostly civilians, in order to establish an authoritarian rule by fear. Captain America and the Shield loyalists kill thousands, mostly Hydra operatives, to maintain some semblance of freedom. But that’s the point; the difference between good and evil is not, as in the theme park version of World War II from which Captain America hails, a matter of killing members of the opposing team; what matters is why and how and when. Killing someone because an algorithm suggests they might someday upset the status quo of orderly society is evil; killing someone because it’s the only way to stop them from doing far greater evil is, broadly speaking within this movie’s moral universe, good. 
The film’s criticism of the Manichaean worldview is vital, because that worldview underlies the post-9/11 security-and-surveillance culture which is the film’s main target. Much has been made by critics of this heavy-handed, but bold and extremely welcome attack on the way in which terrorism and the fear of terrorism has been used as an excuse by multiple world powers to undermine the civil liberties, civil rights, and privacy of their own citizens.
In this sense, the film builds on Iron Man 3, in which the alien attack on New York in The Avengers is framed as equivalent to 9/11, with people referring to it obliquely as “New York” and Tony Stark being told he needs to move past it and get on with his life. In Winter Soldier, the comparison becomes blatant; the attack on New York is explicitly stated to be the impetus for Shield stepping up its surveillance efforts and taking a more “proactive” (read: authoritarian) role.

Interestingly, there seems to have been little attention paid to perhaps the most interesting use of 9/11 imagery in the film, namely the collision of an aircraft with the tallest building in the city, destroying both. In many ways this is an inversion of the normal depiction of 9/11, in which both the airplane and the building are filled with innocents, but evil people caused the plane to crash into the building. By contrast, the Helicarrier is part of Shield’s plot to control the world, which in turn is a front for Hydra’s plot to control the world, while the Triskelion is equally a center of Shield and Hydra corruption. Notably, the Triskelion is literally above the law–the view from the glass-walled elevator positions it directly across Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway from the Watergate Hotel, which is to say within D.C. city limits, and at 41 floors it is therefore in violation of federal law limiting the height of buildings in D.C., specifically the Height of Buildings Act of 1910. Debatably, the sub-orbital position of the Helicarriers also puts them literally above the law in the sense of being outside any nation’s airspace; however, they never actually reach that height.

Examine more closely, however, and the imagery isn’t quite so clearly a reversal so much as it is a reclaiming. To understand this, consider the hydra. In the movie, the significance of the hydra is in the organization’s motto: “destroy one head, and two grow in its place.” In regards to the Hydra organization itself, the hydra represents the futility of violence as a long-term solution to terrorism; even where a military response succeeds in stamping out a terrorist organization, it breeds the conditions of poverty, resentment, and powerlessness in which terrorist organizations grow. But there is one enormous difference between Hydra and real-world terrorism: Hydra is a single organization that is behind everything.

It is thus very easy to give Hydra, and by extension the film, a paranoid reading. Already fan speculation is rampant on whether the villains of the previous Iron Man films might have been Hydra members or splinter groups. The problem with this reading is that the film is clearly concerned very much with the real-world issues of government secrecy, surveillance, and authoritarianism, and a too-literal paranoid reading of Hydra leads to “9/11 was an inside job”-style conspiracy theorizing.

More interesting is to consider the other major feature of a hydra: that it is multiple independent entities which, deep under the water, connect in a single body. Shield does not know that it is a branch of Hydra; it believes itself to be an independent creature. This is key, because in real life, al-Qaeda and the NSA do not believe that they are part of the same phenomenon, and the suggestion that they are fundamentally connected, that they need one another to survive, is generally seen as absurd.

But both are organizations that thrive on fear. Terrorist organizations are Hydra in its overt mode, killing people and spreading panic and destruction. The security sector is Hydra in its subtle mode, watching, collecting data, silently and without legal or moral restraint taking out key individuals, all of it justified under the mantra of “protecting” people. Without overt Hydra, subtle Hydra has no justification for its surveillance and attacks; without subtle Hydra and the establishment it represents, overt Hydra has no autocratic powers to target. The difference between the movie and real life is that Hydra knows it is a single beast, and so coordinates the fighting between its heads in a grand show designed to keep the populace docile. In real life, the heads of the beast are fighting in earnest, and there is no conspiracy to dupe into people joining terrorist cells or voting in favor of more “security”. That’s what makes conspiracies so popular; it’s more comforting to imagine that someone is deliberately manipulating the system than to acknowledge that there are problems inherent in the system itself.

Ultimately, the movie rejects the conspiracy theory model and acknowledges that the system is the problem. Black Widow emerges as the real hero of the movie, striking the most important blow out of all the characters by exposing both Shield and Hydra–both the security sector and the terrorists–to the light, destroying secrecy and thereby breaking the power of fear. That this is the most heroic act in the movie is made clear by two factors, first that it is framed as a major personal sacrifice on Black Widow’s part, and second that she is the single character who changes the most over the course of the film.

Of course the ending of the movie shows that the system still endures. A blow has been struck against it, certainly, but it is not yet destroyed; the CIA still exists, as does at least one Hydra cell. The threat remains; cut off one head and two grow in its place. But lives were saved, and for now at least, those who put themselves above the law have been brought crashing down to Earth.

I have little doubt that the next several Marvel movies will fail utterly to pick up this particular ball. It’s simply not an appropriate topic for a silly CGI-fest space romp or a big crossover superhero “epic.” But it would fit well with a Black Widow movie, and Winter Soldier‘s writers and directors are already confirmed for Captain America 3, so there is hope that a couple of years down the line we will see a bit more of this kind of revolutionary impulse and anger.

Hopefully by then a little will have spread out into the real world. Don’t hold your breath.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Spoiler-Free Review

I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier  last night. Here’s what I can say without spoiling it: All that relatively subtle poking of the post-9/11 security-theater world in Iron Man 3? “You have to forget about New York” and all that?

Yeah, they’re not being remotely subtle anymore, and it’s glorious. There’s even a largely successful attempt to reclaim iconic 9/11 imagery as a symbol of resistance to the surveillance state. I’ll talk more tomorrow when I get spoilery. As any good Captain America story should be, this is about the ghost of our grandparents looking at our world, and finding it insufficiently progressive.

Also cool action sequences, an update of one of the last Marvel heroes I was expecting to see in a movie, and a mostly predictable but still entertaining conspiracy-thriller plot. (Oddly, the thing I was surprised by was played as being not particularly revelatory, while I saw the Big Twist coming miles away.)

None of the warmth of the first Captain America, and that’s most definitely intentional. This is an angry movie, and rightly so. One of the best entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

I saw Muppets Most Wanted as well. Amusing, also lacked the warmth of the previous movie, and suffered terribly for it. Probably worth a rent if you like the Muppets (which I very much do, rather predictably), but not worth the cost of a movie ticket.

Am I the only one who feels this way?

I can’t shed the worry that I’ve actually posted this thought before, but a search didn’t reveal it, so: Am I the only one who’s more interested in the next X-Men movie than the next Marvel movie? Obviously, it’s hard to judge a movie by its trailer, but based on what I’ve seen, neither the new Captain America nor Guardians of the Galaxy looks like it’ll be up my alley, though at the moment I plan to see both. Meanwhile, I really enjoyed X-Men: First Class and I love stories about time travel, especially ones that follow events in both time periods. (Once again I point to Frequency as the closest to perfection of any movie about time travel I’ve ever seen.) So I find myself, even though I disliked X-Men 3 and deliberately avoided the Wolverine movies, much more interested in Days of Future Past than anything Marvel’s got lined up this year. (Though what I’m really anticipating is the Black Widow movie, but that’s still a good couple of years off.)