Sunday, May 31, 2015

Atomic Supermen and Geriatric Soldiers: Captain America, We Need a Hero

In recent years, the concept of security has become an increasingly popular topic in our collective consciousness, what with political and military unrest abroad, the seeming rise in terrorist activity both international and domestic, and a whole host of other atrocities like school shootings and the various unnecessary death of non-white citizens at the hands of their much paler police brethren that seem to be plaguing the United States like some kind of..., well, plague.

Though on the forefront of our consciousness, there has been very little actual rumination from the common folk, or really anyone in the upper echelons of our governments and world leaders, and the Band-Aid solutions they usually slap on the most recent wound inflicted at worst are completely ineffective and at best mostly ineffective.  Perhaps highlighted best by the Patriot Act, the discourse surrounding security seems to have drifted more and more towards some strange social economy where capital in the form of freedom must be exchanged in greater and greater amounts to achieve higher and higher levels of safety. The problem with this particular paradigm is that, taken to its ultimate conclusion, the only way we can achieve Total Safety (the abandoned and admittedly less action-packed sequel to TOTAL RECALL) is by bankrupting the Bank of Civil Liberties, which may be the only bank in the Western world that may never be deemed too big to fail. While it is true that you can keep your dick free of sexually transmitted infections by keeping it in a hermetically sealed, temperature-controlled, fragrance-enhanced plastic enclosure with a tube up your urethra for proper drainage, it wouldn't be all that conducive to fucking, which is a fairly self-defeating system.

Surprisingly enough, it was a recent entry from the (nearly) socially bankrupt and self-defeating system at work in Hollywood that one of the most surprising additions to this dialogue surrounding security recently arose.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, aside from being shockingly good for a Marvel movie, also somehow snuck in under the radar as that rare beast in possession of both brains and brawn. The double whammy. The one-two punch. The double Dutch rudder. Philosophically speaking, of course. (Oh yeah, that's the stuff...) THE WINTER SOLDIER, aside from succeeding in the almost impossible task of making Captain America an engaging character, also delves into about as fairly nuanced explorations of the balance between security and liberty as can be achieved by a live-action cartoon, which it turns out are actually fairly nuanced. Also, there's this really cool knife fight between the Cap and the titular Winter Soldier and Scarlett Johansson has somehow impossibly gotten even hotter. Unlike that old false dichotomy might suggest, having your cake is only good if you can eat it too. Or pussy, depending on what version of that particular axiom you were brought up with. (I think it's a regional dialect.)

Enhance... Enhance... Enhance...
It's this kind of dichotomy that also drives the plot in THE WINTER SOLDIER. Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson's) plan to ensure the safety of the world's citizens is, as Captain America (Chris Evans) describes it, holding a gun to the collective heads of the world with an itchy trigger finger ready to squeeze at even the slightest sign of crossing the lines in the sand that have been so carefully drawn. As director of S.H.I.E.L.D., that strangely ubiquitous intergovernmental agency with very little--if any--oversight and the actual name of which behind the acronym that we've all forgotten since watching the original IRON MAN, Fury sees an increasingly chaotic and unstable world in which it's getting increasingly difficult to protect the citizenry that he's sworn to protect. With the rise of various Ãœbermenschs, aliens, gods, and totally not mutants with destructive capabilities rivaling some weapons of mass destruction, Nick Fury feels like in the game of international security, he's always playing catch up. To quote Kevin Smith quoting a documentary about Wayne Gretzky, Fury was kind of stuck where the puck was and not really able to get to where it was going to be.

His solution is to get out in front of the growing number of threat, from you basic low-level, garden variety terrorists all the way up to your gamma radiation monsters, with a triumvirate of advanced flying warships armed to the tits with every kind of gun imaginable, ready to stop any threat before it even becomes a threat, terminating with extreme prejudice, which, really, is the only way to terminate if you're going to do it right. Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. are basically sick of the shit they're constantly facing by adhering (fairly loosely) to an ethical code that their various enemies seem to be gaining huge ground without.

As a proxy for Barak Obama and the US government, Nick Fury's plan to send out armed carriers is an obvious allegory to the current drone program, which as Jon Oliver adeptly pointed out, is even more terrifying than it actually sounds. It seems, though, that neither Obama nor Fury have ever watched MINORITY REPORT, or else they'd know that preemptive strikes based on probabilistic assumptions of guilt... are actually quite effective in preventing crime and have a near-perfect accuracy rate if the system is refined to the proper degree and you don't have some self-righteous shithead willing to bring the whole thing crashing down because he can't pull his head out of his ass for long enough to consider that the needs of the many over the needs of the few.

Playing the John Anderton to Nick Fury's Lamar Burgess is Captain America AKA Steve Rogers, the guy who goes from being a complacent part of the system to the righteous moral arbiter who sorts out the black and white from the grey. For the Cap, there's no question that Fury's plan to enforce peace with the constant and very real threat of force followed, if necessary, by the actual application of that force with a very big stick. For old Stevie, the cost of peace by placing the world's civil liberties in a massive vice along with its nuts is too heavy a price to pay. Sure, his way is a far more perilous proposition than Fury's because it relies on risking trust on a number of potentially dubious agents, but it also maximizes the individualistic self-determination that most free societies hold as an ideal. It also results in some exceptionally vice-free nuts that are allowed to roam where they will, seeking adventure and fortune on the open road.

The thing is, neither one of them is entirely wrong. Or, by extension, entirely right. For the first time, we truly see the Captain as a man out of time: not because of the 70 odd years of pop culture references he is unable to draw on (except WAR GAMES, which we're expected to believe he saw before STAR WARS) but because of his perception of international relations and security. He comes from a time where good and evil, right and wrong were far more crystallized in the minds of kings, countries, and common men. The Nazi regime (though not as sexy as Genghis Kahn and the Mongols or as stylish as the gay mafia) was an obvious enemy and presented a clear goal: As always, kill Hitler. Life wasn't necessarily as black and white back in the good old days as our grandparents would have us believe, and as every war movie has shown us, during wartime one is often faced with morally dubious decisions in order to service the greater good, but there was a clear end game for the players.

I don't remember asking you a goddamned thing.
Nick Fury grew up in a world where international conflict was driven underground, reemerging as the frosty phoenix known as the Cold War and evolving in the sordid web of international intrigue we know and love today. (He also grew up in a world where Shaft set the template for bad mother fuckers everywhere.) The fact that the master assassin known only as the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) was a Soviet evokes exactly this sort of social lineage.  Now we're involved in a War on Terror in which allegiances aren't so cut and dry and the win conditions are even less clearly defined. And even when a target pops up and rears its ugly head, the answers for how to address it never seem to be as straightforward as we'd like them to be. Fury is the weary parent who's had enough shit from squabbling children and wants to declare a blanket grounding for all involved so he can get a moment's peace and enjoy a nice, quiet bottle of rum.

Fury's paradigm for world peace is basically that of a benevolent dictator, with S.H.I.E.L.D. calling the shots (literally) as to what would constitute a threat to that peace. The flaw in this line of thinking is that no matter how benevolent, the dictator is still a dictator, and infringing upon the freedoms and agency of the people he or she is dictatoring is never going to end well. There's also the whole moral conundrum with becoming the very enemy you were fighting against, which defeats the point of the fight anyway. This happens quite literally in THE WINTER SOLDIER, where S.H.I.E.L.D. has has been infiltrated and co-opted by Hydra, the Third Reich's younger, more insecure, more sadistic sibling.

It isn't until Fury is confronted face to face with the cold, hard logic of Hyrda, chillingly revealed by its highest operative, the leader of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford):

"I can bring order to the lives of seven billion people, by sacrificing twenty million. It's the next step, Nick. If you have the courage to take it."   

Cold, hard mathematically calculated fact. The real bitch of it is that in the context of the movie, Hydra's premise was actually demonstrably true do to the predictive algorithm it had created to determine threats to world peace. A comparatively small sacrifice in service of the greater good was exactly the mindset that had led Fury to develop his own hard-nosed solution of peace by force (and baldness by choice). But the moment you find yourself entertaining the same thought process as an organization of homicidal maniacs, you really have to take a minute to stop and consider your life choices. Maybe think about taking some time off. Working on that novel, with a nice little story with a compelling protagonist with an obstacle to overcome, a nice little narrative, some enemies become friends, some friends become enemies...

Captain America, as it turns out, was, indeed "in the wrong business" as his fellow Avenger, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) quipped at one point. He's about as guileless a person as there ever was working for an agency that deals primarily with espionage. He doesn't get his butt into gear until Hydra rears its ugly heads and he sees a clear enemy whose (red) skull he can smash. The true danger that Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., and all of their secretive methods represented led Captain to the probably correct decision to dismantle the entire goddamned apparatus. The problem is that he doesn't provide any answers beyond beating up the bad guys. There's no plan to establish a replacement for S.H.I.E.L.D. that relies on mediating international disputes through clear, effective dialogue that attempts to develop mutually beneficial solutions based on finding common social and political ground to try and establish some sort of lasting change.

The fact is that Rogers' methods of dealing with enemy threats is basically a less refined version of Fury's, with the exception being that he follows the model of the famous Scipio Africanus, renowned for relinquishing the dictatorial powers bestowed upon him by the people of Rome to stop Hannibal and his invading his hordes and retiring to a humble life of farming (and, presumably, those famous Roman orgies we've all heard so much about). He's a knight, excelling at battle and against tangible enemies and inspiring others to raise up arms against a common foe, but he's no nobleman or diplomat. He has no strategy for dealing with the underlying ideologies that inspire these conflicts.

Or does he?

Is peace truly only found balanced on the edge of the sword? CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is a condemnation of sorts of the current strategies and foreign policies in place for dealing with the threats to our freedoms, from drone strikes to surveillance. The problems are complex, but perhaps the solution is simpler than we make it out to be. Perhaps all it takes is to embrace the courage of our convictions. To stand up in the face of injustice, and in unison offer our response: No. We will not allow this.

Maybe it's as much about knowing when not to fight, as the Captain demonstrates in his final confrontation with the Winter Soldier, who turns out to be his severely traumatized, incredibly manipulated, and horrifically mutilated friend Bucky Barnes. Despite it coming after Cap took out a literal army of bad guys (not all of whom made it back to their families), it demonstrates at least an attempt to show that the only way to have trust and respect reciprocated is that one party must first be willing to take the risk to offer that trust and respect. Maybe we don't have to just beat the shit out of people who disagree with us. Maybe courage comes in more forms than we typically think. Maybe the courage not to fight is just as important as the courage to fight, and the key is not to rely on the latter as our default setting.



Of all of the superheroes that have ever been created, Captain America can certainly be said to be one of them.  I've never been a huge comic book reader, but even so, Captain America AKA Steve Rogers never really appealed to me. Maybe there are some awesome stories written somewhere, but he always seemed to me to be the most boring out of the Marvel pantheon.  Dude is fucking white bread with a scoop of vanilla and a side of tap water. For me, the character seemed to suffer from a severe case of boy scout syndrome. There didn't really seem to be any conflict with the character. Not to mention the nationalistic and uber-patriotic overtones with his name and the design of his costume--a riff on the American flag--which are also a huge turn-off.

His first couple outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) did little to win me over.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, besides suffering from shitty subtitle syndrome, was a passable action flick that didn't really stand out from the crowd.  In THE AVENGERS, the good Captain was there and kind of established as a sort of leader during the final fight, but he was mostly just kind of there.  He seemed like a super serious stick in the mud, a counterpoint to Iron Man AKA Tony Stark, basically showing us how fun and interesting Stark was in comparison.  Even the final battle, it was mostly Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor doing the heavy lifting.  Sure, Captain America was fighting street level, but he never seemed like that much of an asset or a threat beyond his military experience and training, which I guess helped him in battling an invasion of aliens with advanced technology and using tactics that his previous military experience would in no way whatsoever have prepared him for. It kind of seemed like the real reason he was in THE AVENGERS was because they needed some blue in the palette when they did that 360 degree shot of the team so that all of the primary colours in the scene would really pop.

Then along came CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and I was blown away not only that Captain America actually kicked all kinds of ass, the depths of which I hadn't even fathomed, but that one the characters I had previously considered to be one of the least engaging now had one the best movies in the MCU and a genuine contender for the list of best comic book movies period.  It turns out crow is a dish best served steeped in political paranoia with a side of sexy redhead.

To say that I was blindsided by THE WINTER SOLDIER would be an understatement. Marvel and Disney's slew of superhero films, while seminal in firmly cementing an emerging genre into the Great Pantheon, have been the very definition of hit or miss.  Most have been fairly average, such as THE INCREDIBLE HULK, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, and THOR, a few have stumbled into the territory of the genuinely shitty--looking at you IRON MAN 3 and THOR: THE DARK WORLD--with a few excellent stand-outs like the first IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY was a nice little anomaly that wound up being not only one of my favourite MCU movies but one of my favourite movies from 2014 and even made a splash in my all-time favourite list. Almost immediately afterwards I popped THE WINTER SOLDIER into my BluRay player (that's what she said...) expecting, based on the law of averages Marvel had previously established, another splash in the kiddie pool of mediocrity but instead found myself awash in the rapids of awesomeness and being guided by one of my least favourite characters of all people.

Captain America kicked all kinds of ass in a way that he always never did before, apparently having studied a wider range of martial arts since his last outing. Not to romanticize violence as the ultimate solution to every problem, but the good Captain seemed much more effectual than any of his previous outings, and for the first time I really got the feeling that this dude was hovering around the pinnacle of human physical performance.

For perhaps the best Marvel film since IRON MAN, my final verdict for CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER is a 9/10 = One Brainwashed Head with a Simultaneously Horrific and Awesome Cybernetic Appendage Kicking All Manner of Ass


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