Finding the story for old glory By M.Schinke
Let’s get it up for the stars and bars, Opinionnerds!
When Iron Man was released in 2008 it established a new plateau for what we could expect from comic book films. Coming in the same year as The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan‘s second in his adult oriented Batman series, Iron Man was positioned as drama for a much different crowd of film goers who would much rather see themselves as the snarky, globe trotting, womanizing and loving every minute of it Man in the Iron Mask Tony Stark than the brooding, always serious, “rich beyond the dreams of avarice” yet always miserable Bruce Wayne. Where the Batman films were thrilling they were presenting a character in Bruce Wayne that you loved to watch but simply did not want to be. On the other hand, EVERYONE wants to be Tony Stark.
Wait – if this article is about Captain America, why the hell am I spending such sweet, sweet word count on Tony Stark and Batman?
After Iron Man, the nascent MCU hit a bit of a rough patch. Despite making some strong coin and getting average to decent reviews the next three films from the house that Lee, Kirby and Ditko built (The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Thor) didn’t really peel anyone’s wigs back. In those early days the game was one of anticipation. We all knew the studio was making plans for, “the most ambitious crossover in movie history” with The Avengers but at this point it was all frosting and no cake with one more tough sell on the way.
See, patience pays off.
For those of us who were there, we remember the conversations around Cap’s solo film being along the lines of, “Ehhh… I don’t know if this is gonna work. I mean, Cap’s cool and all but isn’t he a bit…. dull?” Those fears were somewhat allayed when it was revealed that Cap’s debut film would be a period piece, featuring the Star Spangled Avenger (Chris Evans) tromping his old WWII stomping grounds. With director Joe Johnston of The Rocketeer fame on board there was an audible sigh of relief from the murky nerd deep. If the director could bring half the broad, period adventure fun of that film to Cap’s first go round then we could be in for a solid entry in what was, at the time, an MCU on rather shaky ground.
One of the obstacles to making Cap a successful big screen Avenger, in this writers opinion, is the fact that as much as we love the guy Cap doesn’t really have a, “built in” story to draw from. Now I’m not saying that Cap doesn’t have great stories he’s been a part of, but the character himself doesn’t have a story that, “drives” him. Batman has the trauma of his parents death that fuels all sorts of internal issues from his paranoia to his desire to build a family around him to what can happen when his mechanism for dealing with his trauma breaks down. Spider-Man has his obsession with responsibility that can turn any number of ways on him. Superman will always have the fact that he is an alien, an outsider and the fact that people look at him like a god. These characters, and many more, all have some issue that underlies their basic structure and provides a foundation for creating stories that push, test and challenge them emotionally. I have no intent to slander the good Captain; I love the guy. But he just doesn’t rank in terms of having a story built into him from, “birth” like some other characters. This is neither good nor bad – it just is.
Becoming Captain America
As featured in Captain America Comics #1, the person that would become The Star Spangeld Avenger isn’t treated as particularly special. Unlike the movie version, the person under the mask isn’t as important as the image of the character in action in these early publications. When we’re first introduced to the Captain America idea we aren’t given much information about who the character actually is either by omission or by design. We are told that the skinny man we see in the first half of the book tried to volunteer for military service but was rejected for his frail stature. He is chosen for Project: Rebirth for reasons unknown and, after the procedure, is designated Captain America on the spot. After killing the enemy agent that murdered the creator of the Super Soldier serum, we eventually learn that the volunteers name was Steve Rogers. While working covertly disguised as a bumbling private stationed at Camp Lehigh in Virginia, he spent his time pretending to be useless in between missions. And.. that’s it. That’s more or less all we know – and it’s more or less all we ever needed to know.
Captain America, like Superman in the early days, was more a vessel the reader could pour themselves into than an individual person with their own needs and desires. In the mid 1980’s, writer Roger Stern added some context to this character of Steve Rogers by expanding on his back story; giving him a hard, depression era life with parents who both die while he is a young man – this information helped form the basis of the characters MCU backstory. What the movies didn’t offer was Stern’s support for the characters heroic nature – a healthy love of fantasy books at a young age. Yes, it’s a bit self-congradulating on the part of a fantasy writer to imagine one of the worlds greatest Avengers having his heroic foundations laid by reading fantasy stories but we can forgive that. The power of inspiration is a real thing and, considering that Cap has gone on to inspire so many others, it’s not a bad thing the reflect on. After Cap is taken out of the ice you can get the, “man out of time” story going on but really, that’s about it. As a character, Cap isn’t given a, “story” because that wasn’t the point of why the character was created. But a movie’s gotta have a story, so we’ve been told, so where does that leave us with regard to the movie version of the Star Spangeld Man With A Plan?
So I again am going to state that I’m not making any declarative statement that my assessment is definitively, “correct” and the rest of you can suck eggs. Any thoughts or opinions that differ from mine are welcome to be shared; write them up and send me a link! As always; I reserve the right to be wrong.
The First Avenger
The First Avenger is positioned as a period film with a wraparound prologue and epilogue set in the, “present” much like Wonder Woman (2017). Since the plot is very straightforward, when looking for the conceit I had to remember to look past what Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America does in the film and try to find the emotional core; what he’s experiencing and what he feels. I am a firm believer that one of the first stops on the road to assessing conceit is to look at the protagonists arc. Once you understand their story it will usually push you in the right direction, though storytellers can be sneaky. In my observation The First Avenger is, at its heart, a love story about missed opportunities. It’s conceit, or it’s long metaphor, is about someone who has been looking for love but, when they find it, doesn’t act on it until it’s too late. The bits between Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) and Steve peppered into the film aren’t simply there to provide the requisite hetero-love backdrop that people feel these movies require. These story pieces provide the actual emotional journey Steve is on that begins with him telling best friend Bucky Barnes that he’s waiting for the right, “dance partner” and is capped off when, being defrosted after 70’s years as a red, white and blue Klondike Bar, his first concern for his new situation is the fact that he missed out on his date with Peggy, which is more of a metaphor for losing out on his whole life but you get the idea. There are some other elements tossed in there with Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) trying to convince him that the two of them, coming from similar chemical origins, have somehow transcended humanity and should rule them as gods but it’s not something the movie focuses on, much like the movie doesn’t focus on the obvious, “two sides of the same coin” that are Cap and Skull*. As far as what is actually happening with the character, what is really driving his arc, this love story seems to be the best fit. Otherwise Steve starts and ends the film as primarily the same person, give or take about 150 lbs, and all that happens is the plot. A comment Cap makes to Bruce Banner in Avengers: Age of Ultron puts a point on this when he claims to be the an authority on, “waiting too long” to tell someone how you feel. Is it obvious; yes. My issue with it isn’t that it’s obvious but that it doesn’t really connect with the plot.
You could reasonably remove this love story from the film and not a whole lot would change. The greater majority, if not all, of the choices Steve made would still be made the same way. I have to follow this line of thinking or else the love story is just a superfluous bit of storytelling and I refuse to believe that’s true. This isn’t a requirement, but I feel a film is stronger when the characters story drives the plot rather than sitting in the sidecar as the plot trundles along. Peggy isn’t the reason Steve wants to join the army, she isn’t the reason he is chosen for Project: Rebirth and while she does help keep him encouraged she isn’t the reason he does what he does. The inclusion of Peggy Carter is much like the inclusion of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Her presence isn’t strictly necessary to drive the plot, but it gives Cap something other than his own life to fight for and something other than his own life to lose. And let’s all be thankful the screenplay spared Peggy the indignity of getting damseled for Steve – that’s Bucky’s job! This story isn’t important to the resolution of the film, but its emotional stakes are necessary to keep the movie from being just a plot that cleanly resolves itself. We feel for Cap not because he’s sacrificing himself to stop the bombs but because we know he’s losing out on the love he’s been waiting for. I’m not saying this to devalue the character or the film; I enjoy the movie very much and Peggy is one of the big reasons why.
(* If I recall correctly there is an intimation that Red Skulls intense level of shit-your pants megalomania was exacerbated by the Project: Rebirth process. If the process took a, “bad” person and made him worse, is it possible that the same process took a, “good” person and made him better? I’m not going to make that argument definitively because it threatens to undermine Cap’s character a little. But; could it be that the reason that Dr. Erskine wanted a person with a good heart is not just because he wanted to see the process used for a subjective, “good” but because he understood that as it amplifies the physical properties of a person so does it amplify their psychological and emotional properties as well? Where Skull was, “bad” and the process made him, “evil”, Steve was, “good” and the process made him, “super heroic”. Thinking about it this way gives a little more foundation to the superhuman, “good” that Cap maintains, as well as giving a little more weight to Tony’s dig during The Avengers that, “everything special about you came out of a bottle.” I don’t really think this was ever intended, but it’s fun to think about.)
The Winter Soldier
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the pair that also penned The First Avenger and Civil War, The Winter Soldier doesn’t feature a continuation of The First Avengers story but there is a relation to it in Steve’s desire to find connection in his new world, presented in Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) continued attempts to find him a date (get him laid?). Under the eyes of directors Joe and Anthony Russo the film wisely avoids any man-out-of-time or fish-out-of-water tropes by positioning Steve as a person who adapts quickly to his new situation, with the benefit of a couple of years between the end of The First Avenger and the beginning of this film. Being what I consider the best of the MCU, and a pretty damn entertaining movie on it’s own, I have had a number of conversations concerning what this movie is about and I have never been satisfied with many of the conclusions drawn, including my own. Story is about character and the challenges they face, right? So what do I feel is the challenge Cap faces in this film? Well cue up the George Michael because I think we have another superhero film telling us we, “gotta have faith, faith, faith-ahhh!”
Watching movies just to watch them is a whole hell of a lot easier than watching to analyze them. I’ve gone over and over this section as I’ve tried to narrow down this conceit and was surprisingly embarrassed before my own hubris. For the longest time I was focusing on the idea of trust, as this film features a lot of talk about it. The question I kept asking myself was how is the idea was being applied to the story? Issues concerning trust are very close to the heart of the kinds of political thrillers that The Winter Soldier pinches it’s subgenre from, so it makes sense that a mistrustful atmosphere would be presented here. The problem I had with it is that, while great as a theme, nothing in the movie is really challenging Cap’s willingness to trust people. Sure, there is a very brief moment where Cap doesn’t seem to know if he trusts Natasha Romanoff, AKA The Black Widow but, for the most part, trust isn’t an idea that”s on the chopping block. The biggest stumbling block for me was in understanding the choice that Steve makes when he faces his true challenge in the film – what to do about Bucky (Sebastian Stan). He has every reason to believe that Bucky would just as soon kill him where he stands as speak to him. He has to fight Bucky to finish his mission, but that mission isn’t the end of his story so I had to try and find the choice he makes to get through that last bit. I started by looking at it through the lens of trust. What does he have to trust in Bucky? Bucky hasn’t lied to him or betrayed him so trust is rather a non issue. Where is the active choice? I then remembered that the concepts of faith and trust are closely related, so I turned around and looked at the issue from the point of view of faith. Cap choosing to have faith in Bucky is more fitting of the resolution in my book as it also contextualizes his story throughout the film. Cap isn’t just choosing to trust the individuals around him as much as he’s putting his faith in people; the team he builds and the people in SHIELD he calls upon for help. He puts faith in Bucky that the person he loves is still somewhere in there, trapped beneath all the darkness HYDRA has him buried under. As FILM.CRIT.HULK has stated, “The ending is the conceit” and in the end we see that Steve’s faith in people pays off. As I’ve said before, the belief in something without proof is all that faith is. And again, as if to put a point on it, Steve flat-out narrates this faith at the end of Captain America: Civil War. And I have to believe it’s true because, as Cap says, he’s always honest.
I am in no way opposed this conceit as I believe that the idea of having faith in something is powerful storytelling if that faith is being actively challenged in the story (see my piece on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for an example here). That’s where I get off the Cap train because I don’t feel that the characters faith in people is being challenged. All the people we need to be good guys in the movie are good guys, and they all do what they need to do to resolve the films plot without question. In that vein all the people doing bad things are solidly bad people; thanks to the marketing department for spoiling Frank Grillo as Brock Rumlow, AKA Crossbones. Hard to maintain suspicion when you know the character is a villain. There is only one, “good” person in the film who chooses to side with the bad guys to make Cap question his faith in people and he isn’t even a character that Cap has spent much time with. I’m sorry, but your army of Nazi super-villains don’t cut the mustard in the, “who can you trust” department because they are such a specific cancer.
At the risk of being presumptive, here’s how I’d tune the movie more to my tastes. Cap being challenged wouldn’t just be about being betrayed by people; you can only do that so much before the character starts to look naive. What I feel could have been done is to have people he trusts really stand by choices he strongly disagrees with, things that we the audience, “know” are not right. You can challenge his faith in people by putting him in a position where he questions whether or not people are capable of doing the right thing anymore. Perhaps eliminate the HYDRA angle; the whole Nazi thing really undercuts the legitimacy of their point of view. Instead, make the, “bad guys” legitimate SHIELD people who truly believe they are doing the right thing. Perhaps you make the STRIKE team not just a group we se Cap with but almost the equivilant of a new Howling Commandos like unit with Cap a firm friend. Like with the Superman story What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way, the point is somewhat undercut by making the holder of the opposing point of view so obviously horrible. Then you can have Cap legitimately question whether or not his faith in people is just completely misplaced and the world has moved on from him and he has no place in it anymore. The movie sniffs at this idea but, in my opinion, turns sharply away from it when it should lean in. There are also a couple of other underlying ideas that get hinted at but don’t bubble up.** I think this was out of fear of the audience turning on the character of Cap if he is shown to be less than optimal, as they did with Man of Steel’s Superman; and I totally get that. If true, the question would then be if it was an appropriate creative choice or a practical business decision. I leave that to you ,Opinionnerds, to discuss.
(** The film twice makes reference to Marvin Gaye’s soundtrack for the film Troubleman. These call outs are very specific, so I looked into the film to see what parallels could be drawn. Briefly, the plot of Troubleman concerns a small time criminal who sets to revenge himself against other criminal associates and a corrupt police officer who have framed him for murder. There are some very loose parallels to that plot and some of the events in The Winter Soldier with the major deviation being that Cap is never accused of wrong doing. He is being hunted for, “withholding information” as to who, “murdered” Nick Fury. Even as a surface story covering HYDRA head Alaxender Pearce’s (Robert Redford) need to know how much of his operation has been exposed, Cap isn’t actually being accused of having DONE anything. His fight against HYDRA isn’t to clear his name or for any self serving reasons, but to bring down a corrupted organization. The paralells just aren’t there. Speculation; it might be a hold over from an early pass at a screenplay; one where Cap is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Have to admit, Winter Soldier would be the perfect tool if you wanted to frame someone with Cap’s abilities for something.)
Beyond Winter – Age Of Ultron And Civil War
When I step back and take a long view I try to see where these stories factor into Cap’s further MCU adventures. I can see shades of his First Avenger story in Civil War in regards to Sharon Carter, the niece of his once true love Peggy (creepy as that is). It does seem he’s learned something from his experiences and taken a first step with her, which also pays off some foreshadowing from The Winter Soldier, though it’s impossible to know at this point where that will lead. While this is some nice character continuation it’s not really the kind of on-going story that will lead to a change or growth in Cap as far as I can tell. At the same time we can see some shades of The Winter Soldiers story in Age of Ultron. Cap becomes noticeably agitated when it’s made clear to him that his teammates on The Avengers aren’t being completely up front with him; Thor being one example and Tony, obviously, being another. The construction of Ultron is a big sticking point for Cap because, as he blatantly states, “The Avengers was supposed to be different than SHIELD”. When Tony and Banner want to activate Vision there is a point where Cap’s faith in them is definitely shook and he seeks to prevent them from doing the thing that will, of course, lead to the films resolution. This results in a brief physical confrontation between Stark and Cap that is quickly swept under the rug; but it shows that Cap’s faith can be shaken in the wake of The Winter Soldiers events.
There is a good argument I can make that Cap’s usually unwavering faith in people is the reason that he declines to sign the Sokovia Accords at the outset of Civil War, and that the death of Peggy Carter serves to emotionally unbalance him and cause him to be more desperate in protecting Bucky. However I can also see that same faith in people being a reason to sign the accords, showing that he still has faith in people to do the right thing, as he says. After all; groups and committees and institutions are just made up of people, right? Instead he demonstrates a lack of faith in those people, as he specifically states these kinds of things, “are run by people with agendas and agendas change.” It’s a somewhat contradictory point of view that takes some of the wind out of The Winter Soldiers metaphorical sails and slightly undercuts the message in his letter at the end of Civil War; in my opinion.
Bring It Back To Me
I have said in the past that MCU characters don’t have any stories and I can admit that either I was being just shitty and disingenuous or the statement requires a qualification. There are certainly threads of character work that follow the characters from film to film but there isn’t one consistent story being told. For instance, films like the Star Wars Trilogy or Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight series have films with individual stories that also add up to one larger story when watched end to end. Is this a necessary way to run a character franchise; of course not. But for a studio that claims to plan so far ahead, I’d expect more.
It’s only been recently that I’ve begun to look at the MCU films and feel, “…. ehhhhhhh….” about them. It started with Ant-Man, a movie I like fine enough, but really started to slip after that. The First Avenger fits in fine enough with the MCU pantheon but The Winter Soldier feels hungry and ambitious in a way that the rest of the MCU, with the exception of Iron Man 3, simply does not. The First Avenger also feels like a necessary stepping stone to get to The Avengers, the first Marvel film to just say, “fuck it” and dive face first into being a full on action movie. And while The Winter Soldier is solidly an action film as well, it has a tonal quality that prevents it from feeling like just another MCU film when looked at with the long lens of history, though it starts to lose that quality during the finale. The conceit is in the finale but, to me, it feels rather passive and seems to just exist without much exploration. It’s slightly disappointing but the movie is well paced and the action is engaging enough that I don’t dwell on it. It’s an amazingly well focused movie devoid of contradictory information and without much wasted screen time. Cut a few of the extraneous bits of, “humor” and it’s a damn near perfect action/ thriller.
As I said in my previous article the Marvel films employ the same kind of illusion of change that comics generally do. You want to tell stories that will have impact and will resonate with the characters but you don’t want to create big changes that make it difficult to continue your franchise. That’s why characters like James Bond can experience life altering event after life altering event and never seem to be much affected from film to film. Good stories create change for their characters, but audiences don’t always want that, so it’s like walking a tightrope over a pool of sharks suspended above an active volcano on Jupiter (ask Warner Bros. what happens if you fall off). Neither The First Avenger or The Winter Soldier has a particularly deep or complex story to illustrate it’s conceit but they are still solidly entertaining films. I will hold The Winter Soldier as the best example of what the MCU can do until something better comes along, and I’m sure Marvel will have plenty of chances to knock Cap off that pedestal in the future.
Clever endings aren’t my bag.