Sunday, September 2, 2018

Captain America: the original is still the best

We watched Captain America: The First Avenger the other night. It was my fourth viewing. Yesterday, I brought home Winter Soldier, which I sat through a couple of months ago, and Civil War which I had not seen yet. The first movie continues to hold up well. The second was better than I remembered, but not stellar. The third installment was largely a waste of two-and-a-half hours.  

Serial fiction must identify and cross a boundary that separates the uninformed reader from the true fan. The theory of mythology insists that we know the characters: the warrior, the wanderer, the orphan, the magician… Some heroes are born that way and die still blessed even though fallen or taken down. Siegfried is an easy example. Others struggle their whole lives as did Heracles. When you have a boatload of them, as in The Iliad, Argonautica, and Star Trek, the narrator is under some burden. 
Captain America: The First Avenger reviewed here.
If you could travel through history you could take the story of Captain America: the First Avenger to just about any castle or camp. You would need more rhyming couplets to explain how Hydra infiltrated SHIELD. I had to consult the oracles at Google and Wikipedia to put Hawkeye in the Civil War and that was all: he was just a character with some attributes. He has no compelling backstory. Similarly, I know of Ant Man, but never followed him and was unaware that resizing himself and other objects is one of his super powers. (Where does the mass go or come from?) The Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Widow, Rhodey/Rhodes,... they are just a bunch of people with special powers and could be anyone with any powers. That aspect of the movie was definitely for the true fans. But the same unmet challenge afflicts the Star Trek universe: if you do not know the crew before you see the movie, you are ignorant. On the other hand, for all of its flaws, the continuing Star Wars saga makes use of such disposable characters. 

That photojournalist Peter Parker uncritically accepted Tony Stark’s glib talk about Steve Rogers is disturbing. It would have been even worse if the kid had been approached by a wily Hydra salesman. 

The putative cause of the Civil War is the legalization, licensing, and control of “enhanced individuals,” a theme already developed in the Marvel universe through the X-Men. It was explored by The Watchmen. It even pitted Batman against Superman: “They sent me to bring you in.” “You always were a Boy Scout.” It was cited in Haldeman’s Forever War  (1974), where high-IQ kids were drafted first. The identification, nurturing, and therefore control of the gifted is known in public education from the turn of the previous century with the work of Lewis Terman. (See NecessaryFacts here.) It is an interesting theory, one too close to fact in an era of presidential doublethink and double talk. 

However, the “save the cat” school of screenwriting insists that every twisty turn lead to another twisty turn. In this case, in addition to the United Nations, we have one otherwise ordinary but understandably bitter man, Helmut Zemo. He tricks and overpowers a Hydra psychiatrist. (Hey, your shoe is untied!) On the other hand, Tony Stark has spent his life never finding out why his parents just never made it to the airport, as if they suffered a perpetual flat tire down a dirt road with no farm houses in sight. At least Helmut Zemo put two and two together. 
 ZemoMy father lived outside the city, and I thought we would be safe there. My son was excited. He could see the Iron Man from the car window. I told my wife, “Don't worry. They're fighting in the city. We're miles from harm.” And the dust cleared, and the screaming stopped. It took me two days until I found their bodies. My father still holding my wife and son in his arms... And the Avengers? They went home. I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other... 
That the loss of innocent lives led to the Sokovia Accords to corral the super beings is no comfort (understandably). But did Spiderman sign them before he joined Ironman's team? As a minor, can he? What about the hundreds of other enhanced individuals? 

The middle story, Winter Soldier, held up better to a second viewing. The cast of characters is manageable. But the eye candy of Ragnarok escalates from cataclysmic conflicts in street traffic to the titanic destruction of three aerial carriers (each about ten times the area of football field or maybe 8000 times the volume of a stadium) that crash into the Potomac River without the inconveniently equivalent displacement of water. And it is the same amount that had to have been sucked into the submerged hangars when they opened to launch the helicarriers. 

The premise of Winter Soldier is purely Cold War. From our point of view, it was easy for Hydra to infiltrate the secret laboratories of the USSR. The Russians probably still feel the same way about us today. Pythagoreans, Freemasons, Jesuits, Dr. No, Thrush, Kaos, Dr. Evil … so many have trod that path that it is a superhighway with rest plazas.  

Captain America: The First Avenger must have its own problems. But they remain much smaller. The Red Skull flies toward New York and Chicago in his Valkyrie, a machine similar to the real XB-70 nuclear bomber of the same name wrecked in a collision on its maiden voyage in 1964. 

The original Captain America is lost to time because his world of 1940 is not ours now. As he said to Sam Wilson at the opening of Winter Soldier: “Well, things aren't so bad. Food's a lot better; we used to boil everything. No polio is good. Internet, so helpful.” But what we understand of him is constant, continuous, immutable. The problem is that he sometimes get lost in the noise and confusion of computer graphics and franchise licensing. 



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