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.

Advertisements

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.