Tag Archives: Captain America

But What About The Men??? 2: Sexy Lamps

Back at a con panel in 2013, Kelly Sue DeConnick (writer of Captain Marvel, Bitch Planet, etc) coined the Sexy Lamp Test. Its rubric is that if you can take a female character out of a story and replace her with a sexy lamp and your plot still works, then “you’re a [beeping] hack.” Like all tests used to judge stories (ie: Bechdel), it’s not perfect – mostly because it’s a little too vague. But it still provides a good starting point to examine fiction.

Like I love The Dark Knight, but Rachel in the movie is very much a sexy lamp. She doesn’t do anything that affects the plot in a major way. She’s there for Bruce and Harvey to pine over and then to be ‘fridged and give Batman some angst. Still a great movie, but there are issues with how the film handles women.

Conversely, Star Wars aces it. You can’t replace Leia with a lamp that goes along for the ride, she does way too much – her first appearance is giving the Death Star plans to Artoo and setting the movie’s plot in motion. Throughout the film she does stuff, she has agency, she makes things happen.

You with me so far? Because here’s where we’re gonna talk about Wonder Woman. And dudes.

Steve Trevor is The Male Character in Wonder Woman. Sure, we’ve the villain and the other soldiers, but Steve Trevor is The Guy. He buddies up with Diana early on in the film and they go out and Do Things. Given that Diana is the protagonist of this movie, Steve becomes, quite naturally, the deuteragonist of the film and fulfills what in any other movie would be the ‘girlfriend role.’

This is one of Wonder Woman’s acts of brilliance: the film flips the roles. Steve is the one who buoys Diana’s force of character, he’s her tie to the real world, and he’s the one whose main role is to support her and her arc. Like I said, he’s the girlfriend.

Consider Peggy Carter in the first Captain America. Though this was later remedied in her tv show, she doesn’t really affect the plot much in the movie. She supports Steve Rogers and helps out here and there, but at the end of the day doesn’t really change the plot much more than a talking sexy lamp would. Oh, she’s still a really great character, but the plot doesn’t position her in such a way that she does stuff. This is one thing the Sexy Lamp Test exposes: cool characters who don’t actually have much agency or effect on the plot. Like Boba Fett, who outside of going to Cloud City offscreen, has no more narrative impact than a lamp in dope armor. Except Peggy is actually one of the main characters of The First Avenger.

Steve Trevor of Wonder Woman, however, does quite a bit in the movie; considerably more than your typical ‘superhero girlfriend.’ Without spoiling too much of the film, it’s his actions – particularly one he does of his own volition and not under orders – that set most of the plot in action, and in the final act he gets to make a Big Choice that changes the course of the climax.

A sexy lamp Steve Trevor is not. And maybe that can be chalked up to good writing, but I’m gonna blame it on Steve being a guy. Imagine this; it’s the climax of the film and the main male character does nothing. Maybe he drives a car so the main female character can go save the day, but elsewise he watches. It’s basically unheard of, and uncommon at best (look at how much Peeta and Gale get to do in the climaxes of The Hunger Games movies). But it happens all the time for female characters. It’s what Peggy does in The First Avenger. It’s what Pepper does in Iron Man 2. Sexy lamp or not, it’s easy to cast aside the supporting female character, the ‘girlfriend role,’ at the climax. But Steve Trevor still gets to Do Stuff, and Important Stuff Of His Own Accord at that.

For all its subversions of norms, Wonder Woman doesn’t neuter the agency of its male lead. Which, woo, equality! But at the same time, it shows how unfair the treatment of women in blockbusters – especially superhero films – is. We’ve got the first female-led superhero in over a decade and we still have a dude who goes around saving some of the day. Oh, it’s still Diana’s movie; but Steve gets an arc just about any other female character would kill for in just about any other film. Even in a movie about Wonder Woman, the dude still gets special treatment.

Which in this case means fair treatment.

And therein lies the problem.

 

For the first But What About The Men???, go here.

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Regarding Movies About Two Superheroes Fighting Each Other

If you were to put 2016’s blockbusters in a museum, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War ought to be displayed next to each other. They’re the sort of movies that, when looked at together, take on a whole new dimension. Because one is far more successful than the other.

To understand why Civil War succeeds, you don’t have to look much better than at how BvS fails. Both movies have the same conceit: Two heroes fight each other. Thus, if you want both characters to remain sympathetic, they’d better have a dang good reason to be fighting. Funnily, both movies end up on the topic of collateral damage. In Civil War, Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America disagree on whether to put the Avengers under UN oversight, something that is complicated when brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes enters the fray, forcing Steve to go outside the law. Bam, conflict.

In BvS, Batman doesn’t like how Superman is so powerful and causes so much collateral damage, and Superman doesn’t like Batman because he, um, takes the law into his own hands? Right off the bat the difference is clear, Civil War had a clear conflict, BvS was murky at best. Watching BvS, I was never sure why they were fighting, what it was they disagreed on. Furthermore, BvS has no complications in the conflict between Batman and Superman; they don’t like each other in the beginning, and continue to dislike each other the same amount until the fight. In Civil War the accords form the initial conflict, which then get complicated by Bucky’s reappearance and what they uncover about Zemo. Meanwhile, in BvS, the status quo between Batman and Superman doesn’t really change.

Which is weird; you’d think that with Lex Luthor running around with Kryponite and Zod’s corpse he’d be in a good place to incite some tension between the two. However, he doesn’t have any direct bearing on the plot until he kidnaps and threatens Superman’s mom well into the second hour (blowing up the Capitol sends Superman into exile and doesn’t directly escalate the conflict between the two heroes). Compare this to Civil War, where Zemo (who fulfills the same role as Luthor) blows up the UN (and frames Bucky), thereby setting Cap on a path that’ll put him at total odds against Tony. That’s before he sets Bucky on the other Avengers too, by the way. In other words, Civil War escalates the animosity between its two heroes. By the time they come to blows, we totally get why.

The coming to blows bit is where we see another divide. In BvS, Batman and Superman’s fight is just a skirmish before their big brawl against Doomsday. Civil War has a big airport fight with all the heroes happen before Steve and Tony’s one-on-one. This ordering shows where the priorities of each movie lie. See, you save the best, biggest, and most important climax for last. Rey and Kylo fight after Poe blows up Starkiller base. Frodo climbs Mount Doom after the battle of the Pelennor Fields. If the fight against Doomsday is the Biggest Moment of BvS, then the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle becomes the most important part. Which is weird, because the whole movie up to that point has been ploddingly trying to excite us to watch the heroes fight, only for the big thing to be them teaming up. Despite Batman versus Superman being the dang title, the ending tells us we’re not supposed to be interested in watching them fight. In Civil War, however, Steve and Tony throw down comes at the very end and proves a catharsis for the entire movie.

Okay, so, there’s actually a lot more about these movies. Both of them have a third party who joins them in the climax, though where Wonder Woman gives interesting looks throughout, Black Panther brings an additional point of view to the plot and ends up being the only true hero. Both have heroes manipulated into fighting, but while Lex kidnaps Superman’s mom, Tony finds out Steve’s best friend kill his parents (and so Tony fights Bucky [and Steve] because he wants to, while Superman is doing it because he has to). Then there’s also BvS contorting Batman and Superman into being funhouse mirrors of their accepted selves to fit the plot, while Civil War sees Steve and Tony’s own flaws orchestrate their undoing.

But I’m at my word limit and it’s getting late here, so I’m ending this here. Point of all this? Sometimes it’s worth watching a lesser movie to appreciate one that does the same thing better.

Except for Fant4stic. That movie just tells you what not to do.

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A (Civil) War of Flaws

Civil War came out. This post it about that. Yes, that’s all the intro I’m giving.

Marvel’s done a fantastic job of giving their characters major flaws. Look at the original (cinematic) Avengers: Iron Man’s selfish, Captain America’s noble to a fault, Thor’s proud, The Hulk’s, er, angry, Black Widow doesn’t trust anyone, and Hawkeye’s just the archer (okay, so he’s more the cynic). It’s these clearly defined character defects that make them clash so well, something made overt in the first Avengers when Loki’s scepter has them arguing in the lab. Flaws make characters interesting. The Avengers wouldn’t be half as fun if everyone got along like sunshine and rainbows, instead they spend half their time arguing and trying to get over themselves.

It’s because it builds on that central tenet that Captain America: Civil War succeeds so well. The question posed to the Avengers in the film is simple: should they report to a higher authority? It’s a question of authority and also who’s responsible for the Avengers’ actions. The creative team behind Civil War deserve major credit for making the question, herein rendered as the Sokovia Accords, feel nuanced, with no side feeling altogether right or wrong.

But that’s all plot stuff, and, as the last eight years of Marvel Cinematic Movies have proven, the best of part of these movies are the characters.

And so the divide of the Avengers falls firmly along character based lines. Tony Stark, who’s selfishness has given way to guilt and paranoia, sees the Accords as a safeguard. Furthermore, they’re a way for him to further absolve himself of guilt; he can be part of a tool to make things right, going where the majority feel he and the Avengers are most needed. Conversely, Steve Rogers’ nobility and idealism has him see the Avengers as guardians. They’re there to fight threats no one else can and they need the freedom to use their own judgement. Where Tony wants approval, Steve believes that they’ll do the right thing no matter what. It all fits into their established characters, characters which, for good measure, get set up again quickly in the film’s opening.

Thus, Civil War’s divide is one built on flaws. Many characters’ allegiances comes out of fears and flaws. War Machine and Falcon are loyal to Iron Man and Cap and so will follow them. Black Widow and Vision see the Accords as an insurance against an unknown danger; Scarlet Witch fears control. Black Panther is nursing a grudge. Even Cap’s idealism is tempered with asking “what if they send us somewhere we don’t want to go?” The battle lines develop naturally rather than arbitrarily. The combatants have a horse in their fight and it becomes personal.

To see this done wrong, you don’t have to look much further than Batman v Superman. There the central question is one guy going “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and cause massive collateral damage” and the other saying “I don’t like the way you’re above it all and brand people.” That Batman and Superman’s eventual fight isn’t born out of an escalation of tensions and faults makes it pointless at best and arbitrary at worst. They start out not liking each other and spend the movie prepping for a fight until they’re manipulated into coming to blows.

Civil War has Steve and Tony start out amicable before the Accords cause an ideological split. It’s the reappearance of the Winter Soldier driving a wedge deeper between them, plus a couple other turns that happen so that by the time they really come to blows it is an inevitable extension of their (flawed) characters. Civil War led it’s hero-fighting-hero with character, Batman v Superman relied on a contrived plot; so while the audience feels apathetic watching Batman fight Superman, the fight between Captain America and Iron Man is brutally tragic.

And so we’ve come full circle. Tragedy is born out of flaws. Creon’s pride is his downfall in Antigone. Othello’s jealousy costs him everything. And in Civil War, it divides Captain America and Iron Man.

Man, aren’t character flaws great?

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Importance of Different Narratives

Narratives are important. They don’t just affect how we interpret events happening around us, but influence the way we see the world. Stories tell us what to expect.

The question then is what narrative do we hear? Chances are, there’s an ‘accepted’ version of it all. Y’know the saying about history being written by the victors? That’s the thing about narratives: they tend to be established by whoever’s in power (usually meaning white, male, and wealthy). The problem is, that’s not everyone’s story.

There’s a great TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie about how there needs to be more narratives out there. She talks about how, growing up in Nigeria, she would read a lot of British books and thus, when she started writing her own stories, they were about traipsing about in the heather and drinking ginger beer and doing other things that were decidedly not typical of Nigeria. Because when people begin to accept one narrative and see themselves as the Other, there’s a hesitation to embracing that Other, even if it’s your story. The epiphany for Adichie was realizing that stories didn’t have to be about that; that she could tell a story about her own life. So she created narratives that were ‘different,’ but normal.

So we need more narratives. Different ones. Ones about different people, by different people.

It’s one of the big reasons I’ve really been loving Marvel’s recent work. I’m not talking about the MCU here — which tend to employ white dudes named Chris — but rather the comics. Marvel’s done quite the shake-up in their titles recently, adding a lot more women and people who aren’t white.

Sometimes it can be simple things. Silk features Cindy Moon, who was bitten by the same spider as Peter Parker, but instead of having an uncle Ben she was locked away in a bunker for ten years. Now out, she’s adjusting to the normal world while looking for her missing family. That Cindy’s both Asian and female isn’t overly important, but she does facilitate a new story. With that, she’s also a new face in comics that’s not another white guy.

These new stories can be really interesting. There was some outrage when Sam Wilson, who used to be Falcon, took over as Captain America from Steve Rogers. Some people said it was just a political correctness move, a plot to sell more comics because diversity. Thing is, Sam Wilson makes for a very interesting Captain America. Yes, he’s trying to live up to Steve’s reputation, but there’s the added depth from just who he is. The son of a Harlem preacher, Sam tries to father his father’s example best as he can while he, a black man, takes on Hydra — who still show shades of their Nazi roots. Sam as Cap is very different from Steve as Cap. There’s the story of a black man representing the US and taking over the mantle. It’s interesting, it’s new, and it represents someone else.

Perhaps the most interesting new face is Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. Kamila is fourteen, a total fangirl, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to New Jersey. She’s a lot like Peter Parker of old, a teenager thrust into superheroing and wrestling with all that means. Alongside that is her own personal life. Ms. Marvel is in many ways a story about identity: it’s Kamala as Inhuman, Muslim, an immigrant daughter, and a teenager. Each attribute affects her adventures; she finds solace at Attilan with the other Inhumans, but lessons from her Imam help her grapple with the heaviness of being a superhero. Kamala’s story is unlike many others in fiction in general, let alone comics. Importantly, her narratives says that anyone can be a superhero.

So yeah, narratives are important. Diversifying a cast lets more and different stories be told. And all this is hardly touching on the topic of representation, which is important too. Let’s not have just one narrative in fiction, like Adichie says, let’s bring more in and create more normals. Let’s tell more stories.

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Masculinity in Age of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron Thursday night and I have thoughts. There’s the obvious nerd-out factor of the film, and it’s really cool and does a lot of things right (and, arguably, does indeed go smaller than the first Avengers), but those are essays rants for another day.

So let’s talk about how the movie portrays the idea of masculinity. Because it’s actually really interesting.

Age of Ultron, like The Avengers before it and probably every Marvel movie until I get my friggin’ Captain Marvel movie, is very male dominated. But that doesn’t stop it from portraying a variety of roles for the men to take on. Macho men being manly all the time this is not, rather the Avengers portray different shades of masculinity.

Bruce Banner may be the most obvious. His ‘alter-ego’ is inherently violent and destructive, a stark contrast to his more mild-mannered usual self. He’s a violent man who eschews violence. Here’s a man who would rather that problems not be solved by punching.

This serves as something of an antithesis to Thor, who delights in battle (and tries to comfort Bruce at one point by telling him how well he fought). That said, when Thor competes with Tony, it’s not over who’s the better fighter. Instead they’re boasting of the impressive accomplishments of their significant others. Implicit here is that these two who embody traditionally masculine traits (Thor’s the fighter, Tony is characteristically bawdy) are both with accomplished and important women, and both are okay with it. Being ‘manly’ doesn’t mean downplaying the accomplishments of others and sometimes it means deferring to that as the true measure by which they measure themselves.

It’s Steven Rogers, though, who as Captain America is in some regards the paragon of masculinity: he’s brave, physically fit, honorable, a leader, and so on. But at the same time he’s also humble, he hopes for the best in people, is willing to be vulnerable, and knows he can’t always do it alone. He’s a lot like Captain Awesome from Chuck, in that he embodies a sort of ideal masculinity, but without a lot of the toxicity that goes with it.

Which brings me to Hawkeye, who gets a vastly expanded role in this film. Not only do we get a deeper look into his inner life, but we also see his role as a part of the team. Clint is, not unlike his comics counterpart, effectively the most normal of the Avengers. More than that, though, he’s the one with the most normal and fulfilled personal life, making him also the most stable; the least ‘manly’ of the Avengers is also the one who’s got it the most together. Furthermore, within Age of Ultron he carries much of the film’s emotional weight; he may not be the hardest hitter but he is the heart. In many other stories this position is usually occupied by a woman, or the most feminine one if there are multiple (think Katara from Avatar and Kaylee from Firefly). Clint isn’t seen as less capable for it; he, like Raleigh in Pacific Rim, portrays a form of masculinity that’s supportive in nature.

The male action hero has been somewhat pigeonholed over the years. There’s an immense focus on the John McLane, John Matrix, and Indiana Jones type, that is the swaggering, self-reliant, gun toting, never backing down sort. Compare The Expendables, an ensemble cast of very traditionally manly action heroes, to Age of Ultron. The former are all cut from the same hyper-masculine cloth, whereas the male Avengers are more nuanced. None of them are seen as lesser for not being as much of a brawler as Thor or as brave as Captain America. Rather, the film acknowledges that masculinity comes in different forms and that’s perfectly okay.

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Superhero Overdose

If you haven’t heard, DC recently announced their cinematic plans for the next six years. We’ve got a Justice League movie, a Wonder Woman movie, one with the Flash, one with Aquaman, a Green Lantern movie, and so on. It’s DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers. They’re looking to emulate Marvel’s formula, releasing two a year. Not only that, it looks like most of the Justice League roster from the cartoon is getting their own movie (except Martian Manhunter which is its own infuriating can of worms). Between Marvel and DC, we’re looking at four superhero movies a year — and that’s not even counting other studios with rights to Marvel characters, like Fox with X-Men and the Fantastic Four. That’s a lot of superhero movies, a lot of men in proverbial tights (and one woman, so far) running around doing superhero stuff.

Now, with so many superheroes flying around, it’s likely we’re looking to get a glut of that genre. Woohoo, there’s Age of Ultron, Ant Man, and Fantastic Four next year, but after that there’s gonna be Batman v Superman, a new Captain America, a new X-Men movie, and Suicide Squad. And then after that comes Wonder Woman, and Justice League (so far). Genres can become tired, look at how few Westerns there are as opposed to a few decades ago. With all these superhero films coming out, and with superhero movies usually following a specific pattern we could end up watching the same darn movie over and over again. If that happens, then people get tired, people stop watching these movies, and people stop making superhero movies.

Thing is, we’ve seen the superhero movie a hundred times. The hero gets powers, the hero figures out what to do with powers, the hero fights bad guys. Sequels have been playing with the follow up, but we’ve seen the super-powered-hero-fights-evil formula over and over again. Superhero movies as we know them has happened.

So how do we keep it interesting? So far the trick has been genre blending. The Dark Knight was a crime movie with Batman. It was different and it was big (though I’ve heard the argument that it wasn’t a Batman movie, but that’s another issue). More so now than ever, superhero movies have to stand out. The Avengers was a heroes-fighting-villains narrative, but did it better than anyone else and threw in some internal conflict and hints of a war movie for good measure. Unless a new movie surpasses it, doing the same thing will be repetitive.

Marvel Studios, and Joe Quesada, know this. Look at the most recent releases from Marvel. Iron Man 3 was as much Lethal Weapon-y as it was Iron Man, The Dark World was borderline pure fantasy, The Winter Soldier was a spy/espionage movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy was pure space opera. Looking ahead, Ant Man is planned to be a heist movie, which there are never enough of. Marvel’s keeping things varied. In fact, I think one of the reasons Winter Soldier and Guardians were so well received is that they were so unique. Both tapped genres relatively unheard of at the moment, and both executed them incredibly. If Marvel Studios can keep making movies that challenge the idea of a ‘superhero’ movie they’re in good shape.

So the onus is on DC to do the same thing. It’s hard to judge how they’ll do, especially given the kinda mostly alright Man of Steel, but if they can make Aquaman feel very different from The Flash and not just in subject material, then there’s hope. We don’t wanna keep watching the same movie with swapped out details.

But I cannot overstate how freaking excited I am about all of this. In the next two years I’m getting a second Avengers movie, a new Star Wars, a movie with Batman and Superman, and what’s reportedly a movie about Captain American and Iron Man. Heck, they just announced a movie featuring The Lego’s Movie glorious riff on Batman! All this is the twelve-year-old in me’s dream come true. I don’t like not liking things, it’s tiring and it’s not fun to hate everything you watch. I want these movies to happen, I want to like these movies. I just hope these movies are good.

 

Also, I’m making a movie! Help me get it funded!

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Interconnected

I’ve been waiting for Agents of SHIELD to really get into its groove proper. It finally did last week, courtesy of some major plot points from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Which is kinda odd, really. A feature film bearing a different name affecting a TV show that much. I mean, it makes sense within the universe they’re creating, but from a meta perspective, it’s terribly uncommon.

And that’s one thing I love about the stories Marvel Studios’ been telling. They’re all connected. This was a gamble. Back in 2008 when Iron Man came out and Nick Fury mentioned the Avengers Initiative, Marvel was asking audiences to wait a few years and watch a few seeming unrelated movies in hope of a big team up coming out later. It could have failed, some of the movies could have sucked, but they took the risk to try and build their cinematic universe.

Seeing as The Avengers made what businesspeople call a ‘crapload of money,’ it paid off. Not only that, but it was a legitimately awesome film. Best of all, it stood alone. You didn’t have to have seen any or all of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, or Captain America: The First Avenger to get it. Sure, watching those movies helped, but it was great on it’s own. Each Avenger was quickly and succinctly introduced enough for a new viewer to get what was happening.

Every Marvel movie works that way. Someone can see The Winter Soldier on its own, or after having only also seen The First Avenger, or seen all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe chronology as well as Agents of SHIELD and enjoy it. There’s a decided effort for each film to be able to stand on its own and yet play with the others around it. They compliment each other but are not dependent on the others. It’s a fun sort of storytelling; you follow a group of independent characters and then see them all in a big event, then see them apart again.

Marvel’s asking viewers to embrace a sort of storytelling not really seen in film (or TV, really). Outside of the occasional Alien VS Predator, having independent franchises team up like what happened in The Avengers just doesn’t happen. Though it does in the comics. Their Guardians of the Galaxy title may intersect with the Avengers title, but you don’t have to be following both to understand what’s going on. Does it help? Sure, but it’s not a requirement.

Consider the last episode of Agents of SHIELD, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” What happened in The Winter Soldier directly affects the show in a massive game changing sort of way. Like in the comics, they’re weaved together to stand alone but also enhance each other. “Turn, Turn, Turn” offers a different perspective on what happened in The Winter Soldier and the film shows the big picture of the events in the show.

This also makes great business sense. See, Marvel’s smart; they know that not everyone will watch every one of their movies. It’s to their benefit for every film to be as stand alone as they are. It allows them to remain accessible to anyone. Winter Soldier deftly sets up Steve Rogers as being a man out of time who feels a bit lost in a way that doesn’t feel obtrusive to someone who’s seen the prior movies, yet so that someone new can follow what’s going on. It plain works. Add in the fun of getting more understanding the crossovers and Marvel’s market expands.

I’m so glad Marvel managed to pull this off. Things like seeing Bruce Banner at the end of Iron Man 3, references to Stark tech in The Winter Soldier, and Sif showing up in Agents of SHIELD remind me of the Iron Man and Spider-Man cartoons I’d watch as a kid where anyone could and would show up. Somehow, Marvel did it: they made a cohesive cinematic universe. Now I really wanna see what happens next in that world.

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