Avengers Endgame: Coming to an Epic Close

So, this is it. The culmination of stories spread across 21 movies. The Endgame. If someone had told me six months ago that I would be this excited for a superhero movie, I would’ve laughed. Six months later, I’m just so glad I got into the genre. The journey has opened up a new universe (literally) for me. Celebrating the end of this journey was a completely different ballgame. I couldn’t get the tickets to an IMAX 3D show on the opening weekend, and I was naturally upset. Of course, this meant that I was watching the movie twice. At least.

That being said, let’s talk Endgame. There is a lot to say here. The movie left me with many questions and many, many feelings. Let us first get the negatives out of the way. The movie is not perfect. The pacing and narrative are a little choppy which makes the film seem slow in the first half. The first half of the film is largely about getting the avengers to assemble and figure out their plan. It tells a number of emotional stories of how each of the Avengers are dealing with the loss of half the universe. A universe that they vowed to protect. In the end, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are the only people who have accepted this new reality (sort of). Starks relationship with his daughter is particularly endearing (“I love you 3000”? Come on!) Thor’s self-destructive behaviour, a radical departure from his usual macho self is a welcome turn. It makes the movie feel much more realistic and relatable. These stories were great and made me invested in the characters all over again. The build-up was essential for a movie this intense and emotional. But it made the first half feel slow. It is not boring, but I kept thinking to myself, when is a big action sequence coming up? And this is coming from someone who doesn’t think of herself as a fan of action movies (at least so far).

The other problem with Endgame is that for a large chunk of the movie, the Avengers aren’t dealing with an antagonist. Thanos realises that the Avengers are going to use the infinity stones to derail his plan of mass genocide a good few minutes into the movie. The Avengers don’t face off with him until later. This means the Avengers, already set up to be the “Earth’s mightiest heroes,” are not being challenged by an external antagonist as they do their jobs. The heroes barely display their powers. While there is a lot of emotion, we don’t see much avenging for a long time.

There are also a couple unanswered questions in the movie. For one, time travel. I hate when films use time travel because the physics of it cannot be soundly explained and it leaves me with more questions than I know what to do with. What happens to the alternate timelines created by the Avengers’ actions when they go back in time. What does Cap’s decision to life his life with Peggy mean for the universe? Furthermore, when and how did Cap become worthy to lift Mjolnir?

Lastly, I didn’t quite like the treatment of Black Widow and Hawkeye. I love both of these characters, and while they are integral to this film, their arc doesn’t feel as complete as that of the others. Black Widow’s big scene was in Vormir, when she sacrifices herself so Hawkeye could get the Soul Stone. One of the highlights of Infinity War was the scene where Thanos sacrifices Gamora to get the soul stone. It was deeply emotional and helped demonstrate the significance of the stone. When this scene was recreated in Endgame, the bar was set very high. Unfortunately, the scene missed the same emotional intensity. Black Widow’s death was incredibly sad, but treated better, it could have been one of the best scenes in the movie. Similarly, Hawkeye’s turn for the unhinged was a bit of a downer. Like Thor, Hawkeye cannot come to terms with his new reality and changes radically. Only in his case, the change feels much less organic. I cant understand this new Hawkeye, because I don’t know what he is feeling. True, Hawkeye is a doer, but I wish the film would’ve given the audience more of an insight into his mind and heart.

I know I am being nit-picky. I wish the emotional scenes had action and the action scenes more emotion. But Endgame isn’t just any old movie, is it? It represents the end of an era for true fans, and the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, have made it suitably grand. There are more than a few great shots and scenes. The shots of outer space, for instance, filled me with awe. The fight between Captain America and his older self from 2012 is awesome. The shot where they clash shields is one of my favourites from the MCU. Of course, when Cap yells, “Avengers, assemble!” a big smile swept across my face. And of course, there is the big action sequence towards the end of the film. Whatever misgivings I had about the paucity of action in the movie simply disappeared as soon as that scene began. It is grand and nostalgic and features every character from the MCU. Some characters get more attention than the others, but I guess in a film this big that comes with the territory. These scenes and shots, however, are simply embellishments on what is a solid movie. The film’s real strength comes from getting the audience invested in the characters. It is so easy to focus on the powers the characters possess rather than the people they are. Endgame avoids that trap by a mile. Instead it presents us with three-dimensional characters who have grown, both since their first films in the MCU and within the movie itself. Since it is impossible to do this for all the characters in a three-hour long movie, the film chooses to focus on the three main Avengers – Thor, Captain America and Iron Man.

Take the case of Iron Man. I never much liked his character (I know, I know, it’s an unpopular opinion). I thought he was too arrogant and quippy. After the first Iron Man movie, when he reveals to the world that he is Iron Man, it is largely another feather in his cap. He is not just a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, but also a literal superhero. Over the years, he understands the responsibility he has on his shoulders because of his suit both towards his fellow Avengers and to the people affected by his actions. Thor transforms from a brutish fighter to a protector of nine realms to realising the magnitude of his own power to languishing in despair when he finds that his power isn’t enough. Over the years, Captain America sheds some of his old fashioned, military man personality and begins to question authority. He goes from being just a supersoldier to becoming an Avenger who keeps the interests of the universe at heart. These are changes that the Avengers and other MCU movies have showed us over the years.

Endgame completes the arcs for these characters. It does so by making these characters dig deep into their feelings. Additionally, Banner finally reconciles with the Hulk and the characters work together to become mutually beneficial to each other. Thor and Stark get to reconnect with their (dead) parents. Iron Man – or shall we say Howard Potts – who had always been distant from his father gets a chance to spend some time with him and learn how much he is loved. Frigga’s counsel helps Thor accept his failure and move on from it. The drunk and sloppy Thor returns from Asgard as the God of Thunder with his beloved Mjolnir. Cap gets to see Peggy again and gets glimpse of the life he lost. These backstories are important because they dictate the course of the characters’ actions for the remainder of the movie. Thor sheds his sloppy avatar and returns to battle as the fighter he is. Cap understands the magnitude of his sacrifices over the years and accepts that he needs to live for himself, and not just for his duties as Captain America. That explains his decision to live his life with Peggy as Steve Rogers and pass on the mantle of Captain America to Falcon. Stark realises that his father loved him very much, but he had to do the work he was supposed to. When it comes time to sacrifice himself, Stark – initially reluctant to re-join the Avengers for the fear of losing his own family – then fully accepts the responsibilities that come with his suit and comes through for the Avengers and the universe. After all, he is Iron Man. Despite the paucity of action in the first half of the movie and the disappointing character arcs of Black Widow and Hawkeye, Endgame’s ability to make me care about the characters the way it did left me feeling a multitude of emotions at the end of the movie.

I think I can safely say that Avengers: Endgame was exactly the sort of ending that this phase of the MCU needed. And what a ride it has been! When else have you seen twenty-one inter-connected stories come together in one great movie? Starting to follow these movies has given me one more thing to love and be excited by. And that is absolutely wonderful. I can wait to see what Phase 4 has to offer.

 

 

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Pacing and editing in Infinity War

I can’t believe I am nearing the end of my Marvel journey. Although I am ready for more diversity in the movies I watch, my little project of watching and reviewing Marvel movies has been such fun. I didn’t immediately review a few movies towards the end and wasn’t very good about posting all reviews before Endgame released. And while I wish I had been better about that, distance from this project has made me better at understanding the nature of Marvel movies. A number of film nerds, particularly those who have read comic books, don’t like the formulaic nature of Marvel movies. I didn’t really mind that, especially because I was trying to understand the genre and dissect different elements in the movie. But now (after 23 movies!) I appreciate a movie like Infinity War much more for breaking the formula and giving the viewer a roller coaster ride.

Writing a film with over twenty protagonists is no easy task. Don’t expect to understand all or even a few of them by the end of this film if you are not familiar with the Marvel universe already. Infinity War is one of two Marvel movies that doesn’t work as a standalone film. I hadn’t watched Guardians of the Galaxy when I first saw Infinity War. I doubt I had watched Ragnarok. And I remember not enjoying the movie and wondering what the hype was all about. Oh, how wrong I was! Once I was familiar with the characters, the movie kept me on the edge of my seat throughout its run time.

What struck me most about Infinity War (other than the ability to weave multiple stories into one mega-narrative) was the pacing of this film. Infinity War starts with full force. There is no time to get settled in and take stock of what is happening either for the audience or for our protagonists. This conveys a sense of urgency that lingers for the entirety of the film. Everyone just has to react to the situation in front of them. In this fast-paced movie our favourite superheroes seem to be in a constant state of struggle, with their heads just above the water. As a viewer, I have seen them struggle in previous films but they have always come out on top. This time, their victories are small, and come with a sense of desperation. As if there is another fire just waiting to be put out. For instance, we see Ironman, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange struggling to protect the Time Stone aboard Maw’s spaceship. While together they are able to match up to the far more powerful Maw, there is no time to relax or take a breath. The film cuts to Scotland where Vision is attacked and it is up to Wanda – and later, Cap, Falcon and Black Widow – to protect him. The audience is now exposed to another action sequence within minutes of the first. The non-stop action distinguishes Infinity War from the films that have come before it.

This kind of pacing – short, intense action sequences ending in small victories before moving on to the next challenge – is also instrumental in subverting audience expectations and making the film’s climax shocking. This is because, after a while I got used to the fast pace and small victories in the film. Furthermore, the superheroes, though down on their luck, don’t seem defeated. I mean, Thor took the power of a star to make Stormbreaker, arrived in Wakanda like an absolute badass and struck Thanos in the heart. So, when Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the population of the universe, with the superheroes scattered and defeated in different parts of the universe, I was left more than a little stunned. This is the first time that the heroes have failed in their mission.

Apart from the pacing, film is made so that the sense of shock lingers on right until the post-credit scene. Thanos’ snap doesn’t cut to a black screen followed by credits. We see our favourite superheroes turn to dust. We see Ironman’s horrified expression (and we share that horror) when we hear Spidey say, “Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good… I don’t want to die.” We see resignation on the faces of the survivors when they realise they have failed, and that their failure has wiped out half of all life in the universe. They, along with everyone else, have lost people they loved. This is further compounded by the next scene, wherein we see Thanos retire like he said he would. We see him alone, calm, walking through empty green fields, believing he did the right thing and that the universe was grateful to him. That genocide was his mercy to the universe. That wordless scene, seemingly calm in its setting, makes the end even more eerie. Furthermore, I think the credits make it such that we cannot snap out of that feeling soon. So far, MCU movies have half the credits shown in a stylised manner with fun music to accompany it. Not this film. The film’s grim tone is carried forward through the design of its credits – a black screen with formal font. The film manages to show what Doctor Strange says after handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, namely, “we’re in the endgame now.”

To me, the form of the film is what made Infinity War special. It helped me understand how constructing a scene and editing can help steer the viewer’s emotions and expectations. Most of my reviews so far have been focused on writing and character development. Perhaps because I am only beginning to understand filmmaking as an art. I think this film is my cue to pay closer attention to editing and understanding the elements that go into constructing a scene.

Before I sign off, I must make a note about Thor’s character in this film. I think it is safe to say that of all the superheroes, Thor gets the strongest part in the film. A lot of that, I think, is owing to how the character was written in Ragnarok. At the beginning of this film, we have a character who has found himself but lost everything of worth to him. Thanos kills all the Asgardians aboard the spaceship along with his best friend, Heimdall and his brother, Loki. The Russo brothers do a fantastic job in using Thor’s arc in Ragnarok as a base and taking the character forward. He is still funny in this movie. But we can see that it is more to cover up his pain than anything. The scene between Thor and Rocket on the way to Nidavellir conveys this perfectly. Thor jokes about losing every person he ever loved. The scene is funny but also horrifying. With a realisation of his power, and nothing to live for except revenge, Thor comes the closest to defeating Thanos. The viewer, in turn, wants to see Thor come out on top as the towering hero. His entry in Wakanda is epic. But it isn’t only because of the stylised entry and his blow with the Stormbreaker. It is because of a close understanding of character and careful writing to carry him forward.

Before Endgame, Infinity War was probably the boldest movie in the MCU. It is no easy task to write a coherent, compelling story that follows narratives and characters across 18 movies and then present that story convincingly to a hungry audience. But Infinity War manages to deliver an entertainer that turns the Marvel formula on its head without relying on clichés (perhaps because it doesn’t rely on clichés). So, do yourself a favour, and watch this movie (or watch it again). Ponder on the journey it takes you through. You will not be disappointed.

Captain America: Civil War – Characters and Scenes

I must admit something. In trying to write this review, I have now ended up seeing Captain America: Civil War four times. Before I started my fourth viewing, I was wondering if my liking for superheroes was a phase (gulp!) I haven’t watched a superhero movie in a while and haven’t been able to post on the blog for a long time too. So upon the fourth viewing, I thought, surely all the action and the characters would be old by now.  I was also getting tired of my writing on this blog. There wasn’t anything different that I was really bringing to the table. I was dreading the movie and what came next – concocting some banal observations into a post for the blog. And then I watched Civil War

Turns out, I was wrong on both counts. Civil War is a good film, and most of it feels good even after a fourth viewing. And thankfully, I do have something to say at the end of it. After watching the movie, I went on to YouTube (as one does when one wants to procrastinate) and amid browsing I saw a video by Nerdwriter1 about comic books and their similarities to Greek mythology. As an aside, if you haven’t already seen his channel, I highly recommend checking it out. He makes really engaging videos about pop culture, art, filmmaking and more. Anyhoo. After watching that video, I watched two more videos about superheroes on his channel. One about the importance of constructing action sequences well and one about the importance of constructing full scenes rather than trying to build up to big moments in a film. Granted, these last two videos are critiques of the DCEU, but I believe his observations across all three videos when taken together can give us a pretty decent sense for why Civil War works the way it does.

The first of the aforementioned three essays asserts that comic books and Greek mythology are similar not just because of the supernatural powers possessed by the characters, but that across different stories, both of them can present fuller, richer narratives of characters and stories than any individual story can hope to accomplish. I am not an expert on Greek mythology, so I certainly won’t talk about that. And although I have mentioned character growth across films on the blog before, I think it bears mentioning here. This film is essentially a tussle between Captain America and Iron Man. Following the battle in Age of Ultron, and the death and destruction that followed, nations across the world want the Avengers to operate under the oversight of the UN. Captain America is deeply distrustful of working according to agendas set by other people, while Iron Man believes that the Avengers are overreaching and must be kept in check. This premise serves as a launch pad to analyse how these characters.

Let us consider Captain America. From being a propaganda poster in his first film to questioning authority and realising that his responsibility is to the world, not to any institution, this character has come a long way. How then can this character grow? Civil War confronts Cap – and the audience – with his limits. For a long time, Cap has been presented as a grown up in the room. The man who was always worthy to lift Mjolnir (Age of Ultron party scene) but didn’t out of respect for Thor. The soldier who never wavers in his duty. But when his best friend Bucky is framed for bombing the UN, Cap goes against the other Avengers and rushes to his rescue. He wants to protect Bucky from the authorities, and consequently the other Avengers who have agreed to work with them, not simply because he believes his friend is innocent. He knows that as the Winter Soldier, Bucky killed Stark’s parents. Cap keeps this information from Stark to protect himself and Bucky. In doing so, he tears the Avengers apart. In other words, he acts in self-interest and ends up hurting friend and the group he worked with. Captain America may be better than a lot of the people in power, but he is not immune to agendas other than altruism.

Let us look at Iron Man. For a long time, I detested Iron Man’s character. He was arrogant and condescending and all the tech in the world couldn’t make up for that. But we see that as the stories progress, Stark realises the responsibility that comes along with having the suit. In Age of Ultron, for instance, we see that one of Stark’s biggest fears is being unable to protect the other Avengers. In this film we see that when confronted with the death of an innocent boy in the battle of Sokovia, Stark realises that there need to be limits to how the Avengers operate. This is a big leap for a man whose ego is as high as Stark Tower. It would have been nearly impossible to imagine Iron Man take this step after his first two solo movies, or even after the first Avengers. The film also picks away at the “genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist” image of Iron Man and shows us a lonely man who is lamenting he loss of his parents and his break-up with Pepper Potts. Add betrayal from Cap to this, and it’s not a stretch to see him fight Cap and Bucky.

Now as you probably know, having a good antagonist is really important to me. I have ranted and raved about weak villains who manage to ruin a story. After all there is no point in showing a superhero with awesome powers if he/she doesn’t have a challenge of commensurate magnitude for him/her to overcome using those powers. Many of the films in the MCU have fallen prey to what I call the ‘villain problem’. The villain problem is where the antagonist isn’t as well-developed as the protagonist. He/she is either uncharismatic, doesn’t match up to the protagonist or doesn’t have significant motivators to justify his/her actions. A number of MCU movies have that issue. But not this one. Zemo is a villain without any superpowers or significant resources. Yet he is the only villain aside from Thanos in Infinity War who manages to achieve his goal. I love how Civil War uses the Avengers’ powers against each other in big action sequences of the movie. These are powers that we know and love. The protagonists also have strong character motivations on both sides that are believable precisely because we have seen them grow across different movies in the MCU. And all in all, by using the antagonist as a catalyst and keeping the fight between the Avengers, the movie manages to create two of the most memorable action scenes in the MCU (the almost iconic airport scene and the fight between Cap, Bucky and Iron Man at the end of the movie).

This brings us to the next two Nerdwriter videos I was talking about. First, the importance of constructing an action sequence well. According to Nerdwriter a good action sequence is constructed when the superheroes use their powers creatively, the physics makes sense on an intuitive level and use the moments between the action to further character growth. Nerdwriter has also used clips from Civil War (and other Marvel movies) to illustrate this. Second, he talks about the need to construct scenes as propelling the narrative forward, rather than have it build up to a moment that is supposed to convey some sort of awe-inspiring message. To illustrate how Civil War manages to succeed on both these counts, I will talk about the final action sequence in the movie – the fight between Cap, Bucky and Iron Man.

This scene very well illustrates the powers of each superhero – Cap’s vibranium shield, Iron Man’s cool tech and Bucky’s metal arm. Each are powerful in their own ways, but the scene lets us see them all in action. Cap’s shield can cut through the restraints that Iron Man’s suit throws at him. Bucky’s arm overpowered Iron Man in hand-to-hand combat and almost succeeds in pulling out his arc reactor. And Iron Man’s arc reactor manages to blow Bucky’s metal arm apart. His suit, even when damaged by Cap’s shield, is still capable of flight. There is still a lot of punching and hitting, but that is made memorable by the creative use of each person’s powers. And even though this scene doesn’t use pauses to make quippy remarks or little jokes like most action sequences in the MCU, it still manages carry the narrative forward. This scene is all about completing Iron Man’s character arc for the movie. The pauses between the action scenes are all used to illustrate his rage at the injustice he has suffered. Take the rage with which he says, “I don’t care, he killed my mom,” or the determination of “Let’s kick his ass.” He doesn’t care about victory in battle anymore, only about avenging his parents’ deaths.

Furthermore, while the scene gives us the awesome shot of Cap’s shield resisting Iron Man’s power, it isn’t building up to that shot. The scene is wholly committed to carrying forward the narrative and everything is in service of that goal. The music conveys the desperation of the scene but it is in no way overpowering. It is subtle and quietly enhances our viewing experience. Same with the visual effects. Sure, there are some slow-motion shots that are used to illustrate Zemo’s victory over the Avengers, but they exist in harmony with the rest of the scene, not in service to it. Even though this is the end, and fans are horrified at seeing Cap fighting Iron Man, no single element of the fight is used to convey that horror. Rather the scene harmoniously conveys horror and rage and desperation. And that’s what makes it great.

 

There you have it. A film with rich characters and well constructed scenes. Thanks to Nerdwriter1 you get a long, long post on why Civil War is a movie well worth your time.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – Lessons in Empathy

It’s the Age of Ultron. The second instalment in the Avengers series currently the least popular. And I don’t think it’s because it’s a bad film. But compared to the other two movies, the film has some weak links. Here is what worked and what didn’t for this movie.

First, what a start! No set up, but diving straight into action. The Avengers are looking for Loki’s sceptre from the previous film and encounter plans to create an army of enhanced beings. This is a relatively small threat compared to the Avengers’ (specifically Iron Man’s) solution to this problem. Use AI to stop any threats to the earth. This is not a new plot. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has explored the idea of boosting security measures to the extent of starting a pre-emptive war before. That movie did it through conventional weapons, this one through AI. I give full credit to this film for treating the subject very differently. That is what made the film enjoyable and helped take the series forward. After seeing this movie – which shows the addition of two new characters (Vision and Wanda) and the return of War Machine and Falcon – I particularly appreciate the vision the makers had for this series. The group is in constant need of new challenges in order to remain interesting. And those new challenges need to be faced differently. Hence, new characters with different skills. This is very cool, and I can’t wait to see what they can achieve together.

The principal problem with the movie is that it fails to generate empathy with the viewer about the character of its principal conflict. Stark tries to create a programme that would ensure world peace, and instead creates one that believes peace can only be achieved through a complete destruction of life on earth. Unlike in Winter Soldier where the Captain and his friends were trying to clean up SHIELD’s mess, Age of Ultron has the Avengers creating the mess they must deal with. And while knowing that the Avengers are still humans (and a demi-God) who make can make mistakes makes the film realistic, it calls into question whether these are the ‘earth’s mightiest heroes.’ That does not bode well for the Avengers. The secondary problem in this film is that while Natasha Romanoff gets a chance to shine, Black Widow’s character is underwritten. Compared to her peers, her contribution is tiny in action sequences. Her weapon of choice is a pair of Glock-26s for most of the film (save for the last sequence). They are no match against Ultron’s powers. The Avengers had done a brilliant job of making sure that all characters play an equal role in vanquishing the enemy. This film fails Black Widow in that sense.

Where the film does shine is in the area of character development. It’s easy for a film like the Avengers, particularly with a lot more superheroes this time around to be a purely action film. Director Joss Whedon doesn’t give in to that temptation. Instead he spends time exploring who the characters are in order to provide a reasoning for the decisions they take. And this is done primarily through one beautifully written, directed and edited scene. It is the scene where the Avengers, after being forced to flee following a freak accident, take shelter in Clint Barton’s house. I had read somewhere that director Joss Whedon insisted upon keeping this nearly 15-minute long scene in the movie because he believed it gave the characters some much needed depth. I couldn’t agree more. The scene is all about characters conversing with each other to understand what they feel and what they must do going forward.

This scene helps the viewer understand what each character feels about his/her power. Banner and Romanoff are burdened by their abilities. The other Avengers view their powers as means to help them fight evil. But for these two characters, their powers are a curse. While they can fight tough when needed, they would rather not be a part of the war at all. Stark and Cap can’t imagine living without their suits (for all of Iron Man’s rhetoric that he wants to end the fight). They both think that their power gives them responsibility to protect those around them. Consequently, they do everything in their capacity to do so. And sometimes (as in the case of Stark), that can create monsters like Ultron. In between all these characters with loaded pasts, the film reminds us why the team needs a Hawkeye. Hawkeye is the only character whose mind Wanda can’t mess with. It shows that while all other Avengers’ decisions were based on deep personal musings, which threaten to derail their missions, here is a character who is a doer. He doesn’t have grand visions about the world or himself. He only sees and executes his missions. And the film gives him plenty of chances to shine while doing so. (Like when he tells Wanda during the final action scene, “The city is flying, we are fighting an army of robots and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense. But I am going back out there because it is my job.”)

Before I sign off, I have two random musings. First, I only just realised why action movies are so enjoyable. I guess there is a deep-seated desire within us to watch the world descend into chaos and rebuild itself. Second, when I started the movie, it suddenly hit me what these movies are all about. Characters with insane abilities trying to solve problems. And we are hooked to that because we wish this world was real. Both of these things were probably common sense to a lot of you. But I only just realised it and it blew my mind.

 

Captain America: The Winter Solider – Exploring the Limits of Neorealism

This Captain America movie? So much better than the one before it. Captain America’s character is written so that it fits in with the Idea of America. But in this film, rather than being self-righteous, America is being self-critical and cautious. This prevents the character from becoming a stereotype, and makes him rounded. As a result, he responds much more organically to the story which is what makes the film memorable. Captain America is working for SHIELD now, an international security organisation. When SHIELD is compromised, its Director, Nick Fury, approaches the Captain to help save the organisation’s secrets and thwart any attempt at mischief. The rest of the movie is about the Captain assembling a team to uncover the traitors within SHIELD.

I guess the only infuriating thing about the film was that Captain America didn’t take the one order Fury gave him, and what circumstances suggested he follow – don’t trust anyone. Instead he proceeds to form a team with Black Widow, Falcon and Agent Maria Hill in order to save the Earth. However, I think it would have been nearly impossible to have a Captain America movie otherwise. After all, the Captain does need an army he can lead. But this film went beyond the image of Captain America and explored the person behind the costume. Captain America was designed to fight the battles of the state without question. Steve Rogers, on the other hand, can ask tough questions (even to those in power). In addition to demonstrating that he’s more than a pawn, Captain America exposes the problem with a purely neorealist understanding of security.

Neorealism, in the most reductive sense, suggests that the natural order of the world is anarchy. And power is the currency of international relations. States, in order to survive, must strive to procure as much power as possible. Power, in the case, is measured by military superiority. So, the most powerful state in the international system is one with the most powerful military capability.

How does this relate to Captain America, you ask? Well, as Secretary of State, Alexander Pierce admits that he and Fury share a realist understanding of the world. That it is necessary to remain ready to fight at all times, even if that means pre-emptively striking potential enemy targets. In this case, the struggle for power is only not between states but against alien threats as well. To that effect, Fury commissioned three helicarriers with hundreds of jets capable of striking hostile forces. A neorealist understanding of international relations would laud such policy. But the Captain recognises this policy for what it is – the powerful holding a gun to everyone’s heads and calling it security.

Amassing weapons indiscriminately, ironically, can have adverse implications for security, as the film goes on to show. HYDRA, previously the deep science division of the Nazis, which later morphed into a worldwide terrorist organisation, had infiltrated SHIELD, and planned to use the weapons to kill millions of people and restore order to what they considered anarchy. Captain America’s solution was not only to foil HYDRA’s plans, but to dismantle the structures (albeit to a small extent) that subscribe to neorealist understandings of power. He calls for the dismantling of SHIELD to increase transparency and reduce temptation to develop advanced weapons programmes.

Captain America’s image promotes a much more positive Idea of America. This America is interested in cooperation and transparency, rather than amassing power. It stands against any party using power to bully the rest of the world, even in face of unimaginable threats. That endears the audience to the character and what he represents. Add to that a well-written story, and you’ve got yourself a thoroughly enjoyable film.

The Avengers: A Lesson in Continuity

Unlike most superhero movies, The Avengers is one of two movies I seen twice before. The previous two viewings had been when I hadn’t watched the preceding Marvel movies. I had watched it as a standalone film and I had liked it. After re-watching the movie now, however, I understood the movie much better. What’s the verdict on this movie now, you ask? Up until the very end the film is fun and believable. The climax showing Iron Man carrying a missile with a nuclear warhead into outer space through a wormhole and making it back alive? Not so much. Regardless, what I really admired about the movie was its ability to take a story that weaves through different films and tie it all together without alienating any audiences. Basically, if you like me watched the movie as a standalone film with no prior knowledge of the universe, you would still be able to understand and enjoy it.

The director, Joss Whedon, did a great job recapping the five previous movies into one film. The way he does that is by not rushing to make the viewer comfortable right away, but by taking his time to firmly establish the plot of this movie before filling us in on details. For more than an hour into the movie, the film provides references to recap the stories of each of the superheroes through dialogue and flashbacks. Furthermore, the interactions between the characters also help the viewer understand their essential nature and therefore engage with the film. Thus, rather than a mishmash of different people with cool powers, the film becomes cohesive – one of a team banding their forces together to serve as the protagonists against a group of powerful antagonists.

Let us first look at how the film fills the viewer in on the backstory. The Avengers’ challenge is that the story of the film deals with the Tesseract, an energy source that has been important in previous movies. A large chunk of the audience is also familiar with the stories of four out of the six Avengers in the movie as well as their relations with other characters in the film. But placed together, the events and timelines can be confusing. Before the film takes off, it needs to jog everyone’s memory. Since the Avengers don’t know each other, the film uses introductions and initial interactions as a way to sneak in the story line thus far. For instance, we learn about the conditions that transform Bruce Banner into the Hulk – high-pressure environments and pressurised containers like aircrafts and submarines are triggers that can unleash the Hulk – when Banner is trying to explain to SHIELD why he shouldn’t be on the team. We also learn that the Hulk cannot be controlled or killed. This information is important for the viewer to understand what a character (in this case the Hulk) can do. Similarly, we learn about the Tesseract (which was introduced in Thor and was explored further in Captain America) when Natasha Romanoff tries to explain it to Banner. The uninitiated audience gets a sense of what this object is, why so many parties are interested in it and why they need a team with a specific skillset to get it back since it’s been stolen. In doing so, the audience gets a sense of what the catalyst in this intergalactic conflict is. Using characters to introduce themselves, their stories and their interests gives the audience context about the story that is unfolding.

What I admired about the movie (and about Marvel as a whole) is that it didn’t stop at recapping the stories of characters and giving us a glimpse of their powers. It tells us about the nature of these characters. Marvel takes character profiles very seriously. A character’s actions are motivated by his/her personality. So, an action-packed superhero movie is not just a bunch of characters performing antics. The films tell a cohesive story whose dynamics are shared by the personalities of the characters, not just by their powers. And as the films progress, their personalities also evolve. This means Tony Stark is still an arrogant prick, especially when he condescendingly tells Thor that he has a ‘mean swing’. But the death of a beloved SHIELD agent compels him to put his ego aside and work with the other Avengers. Similarly, Thor isn’t just an alien who can swing a powerful hammer. In the previous film we saw him transform from a brute to a king. Here the trajectory continues with him wanting to use his strength to ensure good governance on Earth. But he actually takes it a step further, by realising that he needs allies in his quest and working together as an equal with other heroes on his mission. The Thor from the previous film wold have led his friends into battle or taken on the enemy alone. Working with others is new for the character.

Regularly recapping the story and focusing on the nature and personalities of the characters lend continuity to The Avengers. Without them, the film could have quickly descended into mindless action that would leave the viewers dissatisfied and confused (like Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald did. But that rant can wait).

Before I end, I express a few thoughts on Captain America’s espousal of the Idea of America. Given as this movie is about an intergalactic war that is not being fought by the American state, the writers try to steer the Captain away from engaging in any explicit propaganda about the US. Much of his old-fashioned behaviour is explained away by reminding the audience that he was asleep for 70 years and hasn’t been in keeping with the times (like when he dismisses Thor as being a God – even though he’s a Norse God – by saying that “there is only one God, and I am pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”) Even so, he is America. This means that when Thor and Iron Man are fighting, he is the voice of reason that tells them to cut it out. And when the Avengers assemble for their final fight of the movie, it is he who calls the shots. But I guess that is just who the character is, and writing him any differently would do him disservice.

Lastly, a couple random thoughts. First, how great is Loki? He’s good looking, sassy, formidable, and in Iron Man’s words, a “full-tilt diva”. He commands the screen and owns the narrative like no one else. Second, how great was the action scene in Germany set to wester classical music? Who knew fighting and Franz Schubert went so well together? And lastly, I’m so glad the film introduced Black Widow and Hawkeye and I cannot wait for these characters to get their own individual films.

There you have it, the end of Phase I. Now on to Phase II.

Captain America and the Idea of America

At the very outset, let me start by stating that Captain America is probably my least favourite superhero. He is too overly patriotic and too old fashioned for me, and his fighting prowess doesn’t do much to make up for his personality. That said, Captain America: The First Avenger is actually a good movie. Set in the early 1940s, Captain America is an experiment by the US government to develop a supersoldier in order to help win World War II. The period and setting of the plot explain the patriotism and the predominance of male characters. This stopped me from rolling my eyes and actually concentrating on the protagonist.

Captain America has all the trimmings of a traditional superhero, but he is different in one crucial aspect – the character was written as a part of US propaganda during World War II and hasn’t been able to shake off the remnants of propaganda since. This is because Captain America isn’t just another superhero or even just a great soldier. He represents the Idea of America. He is the image of the US that the latter wants to portray to the world. And the writers have kept this in mind while constructing the character for the film. Georg Lofflmann, a professor of US Foreign Policy and American Politics at the University of Warwick, has expressed this idea in his PhD thesis, “The Fractured Consensus: How competing visions of grand strategy challenge the geopolitical identity of American leadership under the Obama presidency.” He argues, “Captain America [in his costume of stars and stripes] doesn’t just fight for America, he also is America (emphasis mine).” Therefore, a close observation of the movie can help us get some insight into how the US wishes to be seen in the world.

Let us start with Captain America’s origins. Steve Rogers is the literal embodiment of the American Dream. Before he became Captain America, Rogers was just another kid from Brooklyn. He wasn’t born with Tony Stark’s privilege or didn’t grow up with Black Widow’s training. He certainly wasn’t a god like Thor. Rogers was written as a man who believed that he had the ability to become whatever he wanted if only he went after it and worked hard enough – the literal definition of the American Dream. In the film his passion and perseverance turn a scrawny kid into the light-haired, light-eyed supersoldier who had the potential to win the war for the US.

Next, let us look at the supporting cast. When he realises that he needs to assemble an army to fight the Nazis, particularly to defeat their deep science division, Hydra. The Captain’s army comprises of people of different nationalities, cultures and races. People who otherwise would have been treated as refugees, having just been freed from an enemy camp. But Captain America takes them all under his wing and they become a part of his team. The banding together of different peoples is a metaphor for the US being a melting pot of different cultures domestically, and a capable leader of different nations internationally. These are both images that the US wants to project about itself (at least in part), and the film does that effectively.

Lastly, Captain America’s superpowers are an explanation for American exceptionalism, the idea that the US is not like every other country in the world. The idea, according to Lofflmann stresses the “singularity, superiority and essentiality of the United States in the international system.” Captain America has his powers because he got injected with a serum, but the serum only amplified what was already true of Rogers, that he was a good man and a strong soldier. The same serum when injected in the body of America’s enemies turns them into monsters, like Red Skull, the principal antagonist of the film. Captain America’s powers are therefore a justification for maintaining American military superiority because it perpetuates the idea that the US has the values to handle power, unlike its enemies that will only use power for destruction.

So where does that leave us? Clearly propaganda cannot be separated from Captain America. What will be interesting to watch in subsequent films (particularly after this viewing and analysis) will be how the character who is the personification of America interacts with other characters with different motivations. In the films that follow, I will be paying particular attention to this factor.