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.

Thor: The Importance of Restraint

Thor is an indulgent movie. It’s the first intergalactic movie in the MCU and director Kenneth Branagh wants to make sure that the experience is unforgettable. And it is. Thor’s world, Asgard, is fantastic and believable. I must make a special mention of the music that implored me to play closer attention and delve deeper into the scenes. The villain is both endearing and formidable. The movie is funny without being campy. Thor tries to combine elements of a family drama, science fiction, action and romance. And that is where the film goes too far. In trying to be everything, the writing falters and stops Thor from reaching its full potential.

First, the positives. Much of the film is extremely well written. This includes the family drama, much of Thor’s time on earth and the characters of the protagonist and antagonist. Thor (played by the oh-so-gorgeous Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston) have layers to their characters and well-defined character arcs as the film progresses. Thor starts off as brutish and thick. But as the film progresses he understands that governance cannot be carried out with muscle. Throughout the film, Loki is the master manipulator. As the film ends, however, he is shown as vulnerable, when he fails to prove himself to his father. Such changes mean that these two principal characters are well-rounded and therefore believable and relatable. Thor and Loki also share an easy chemistry which works great for a family drama. I need to say this about Loki before I move on – he is easily the best villain so far by a mile. The writers made his character just so damn charming. Unlike any other villain in the MCU, he makes me happy when he’s on screen.

Now for the negatives. The love story in the movie is wholly unnecessary. Jane (played by Natalie Portman) plays no role in carrying the story forward. Thor and Jane meet on earth for just a few days. It is entirely unrealistic that in that time she would believe Thor is an alien from Asgard, fall in love with him, and endanger herself and her friends in trying to protect him by lying to a top government agency. Her scientific research, rather than love, would have been a much stronger motivator for helping Thor find Mjolnir and go back to Asgard. Similarly, Thor’s desire to protect Jotunheim could simply have been the result of the empathy he learnt while on Earth. There was no reason to suggest that love for a woman he had known for three days had anything to do with it. Add to that, Hemsworth and Portman (both great individually) share no chemistry on screen. The scenes between them distracted me from an otherwise engaging movie.

Thor left me feeling both elated and disappointed. Elated because other than the love story, this has been the most enjoyable movie I’ve seen so far. And it could have been a much better film had the writers exercised restraint. Rather than making the movie a hotchpotch of every popular genre, it would have been better to stick to drama and action, because those were the most well developed. Ah well… I’ve heard it gets better in Thor: Ragnarok. Can’t wait for that.

Iron Man 2: Solving the Villain Problem

Day 3, Iron Man 2. Overall, a fun, slightly cheesy movie. Honestly, all I could think of while watching this film was how they had managed to solve the villain problem from the first film. From the very outset, the villain, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), is introduced as formidable and having a stake in dethroning Iron Man. He understands the Stark Industries’ arc reactor and has the knowledge to make the miniaturised version that Iron Man uses to power his suit. More importantly, he has nothing to lose. This makes for a gripping story, but the writers, director and editor have gone a step further to also make it a good cinematic experience.

They have done this in two ways. First, the writing has made sure that the antagonist is the protagonist’s equal. If Stark developed the miniaturised arc reactor while in captivity in Afghanistan, Vanko did so while living in poverty in Russia. Stark may have a suit, but Vanko wreaked havoc on Iron Man even without one. Both Stark and Vanko inherited the knowledge required to build the arc reactor from their fathers (who worked together on the project). Stark has a legacy to protect. His motivations are driven by what has name represents. While Vanko isn’t acting out of the desire to protect the Vanko name, he too wants to honour his father’s legacy by taking forward the work he did. Vanko’s vitriolic hatred for Stark translates into him developing sophisticated technology that can challenge the latter. The film couples that with shattering the myth of invincibility around Iron Man. Iron Man has a powerful suit that can help him fly around the world and dodge attacks from powerful weapons. But the suit can’t prevent palladium poisoning and unless Iron Man can replace palladium in the arc reactor keeping him alive with another metal (hello Vibranium), he is going to die. This raises the challenge for the protagonist and keeps the audience from getting comfortable in the movie.

The second device the director and editor use to engage the audience is to intersperse the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. So, as we are watching Iron Man indulge in silly antics or worry about palladium poisoning, we see Vanko becoming stronger. Unlike in Iron Man, the antagonist’s gradually increasing power and Iron Man’s vulnerability reach a crescendo. Now the protagonist can only win if rises to the antagonist’s challenge. Iron Man proves himself to the audience which keeps them invested in him as the film ends. Even though Iron Man 2 isn’t as highly rated as the first part in the series, I personally enjoyed it more because of these storytelling techniques.

Aside from techniques, what also impressed me about Iron Man 2 was that it gave Stark’s character more layers. In the first film, Stark was arrogant, pompous and erratic. You don’t learn anything more about the character. In this film, confronted with the enormity of his creation and his own impending mortality, we see the character have questions about his work, where he is heading and what he wants. His descent into debauchery is out of frustration at not arriving at straightforward conclusions to existential questions rather than carelessness. Even though I still find Stark’s character insufferable, I understand him a bit better and have more empathy for him.  This makes the character richer, more relatable and sets him up for the role he will play in subsequent movies. And that is a real win for writing.

Here goes Day 3. Tomorrow it’s time for Thor, a film that has been on my list for weeks. I cannot wait!

Iron Man’s Villain Problem

Like so many others, I am beyond excited for Avengers: Endgame. However, I am not a traditional superhero fan. I became interested in the genre only recently and I haven’t seen all the movies in the MCU. As a result, I don’t know everything I there is to know about the Avengers. I plan to remedy that before the release of Avengers: Endgame. Between now and then, I am going to watch and review every movie in the MCU. If anyone wants to gush about the Avengers, I am available in the comments! So here goes, the first movie of MCU Phase 1 – Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) is largely a very fun movie. It is exciting to see a man build a suit out of the limited materials he has at hand in a cave to make an escape from his kidnappers. The action sequences with Iron Man are genuinely enjoyable. I did find the character of Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) insufferable, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t overlook (with the occasional eye roll, of course). Overall Iron Man is a great movie to start us off. It is well-written story with good action sequences and a decent plot – a weapons’ manufacturer trying to undo his legacy of war and destruction by becoming a superhero. The problem with Iron Man, is that this genius hero doesn’t have a comparable villain to go up against.

So that makes the principal antagonist of the film, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (played by Jeff Bridges), a poor villain? First, at the very outset, Stark is portrayed to be superior than Stane. In the second scene of the film, we see that at 21, Stark becomes the CEO of Stark Industries brushing Stane aside. Right away, Stark is better than his antagonist. Second, the villain isn’t able to develop his own powers. Stane steals scraps of Iron Man’s initial suit to make his own. He can’t even develop the Miniaturised Arc Reactor by himself; he steals it from the protagonist. This further perpetuates the idea that the Stane is no match for Iron Man. This is before the any direct fighting between Iron Man and Iron Monger. When the action begins, it fails to create the tension required to engage the viewer in the film. As the viewer, I already know that Iron Man can defeat Iron Monger because the film has told me so.

In addition to being perceived as less formidable, Iron Man has almost no comparable opponent for more than half the movie. At the beginning of the movie, Stark’s main opponent is his kidnapper, Raza. The playing field here is levelled because although Stark is very capable, he is trying to create something amazing in a cave in rural Afghanistan with whatever materials are available to him there. He is also in captivity making him vulnerable to his opponent. This makes the film interesting and makes Iron Man’s escape all the more impressive.

But Raza isn’t the principle antagonist of the film. He is being used by Stane in the latter’s quest for dominance. But rather than building up the character of the villain along with the hero so that the viewer doesn’t take Iron Man for granted and becomes invested in the conflict in the movie, the director Jon Fraveau only allows the viewer to see the already formidable Tony Stark transform into an almost indomitable Iron Man. At the point the viewer’s perceptions about the hero have already been developed, and the film doesn’t make an effort to subvert them. This reduces the impact of the antagonist.

About one hour into the movie, long after Iron Man’s character has been established, the movie finally reveals that the antagonist will use the scraps from Iron Man’s suit as the basis for his/her armour. The armour of the antagonist is not discussed again until 2/3rds of the movie is over. Furthermore, Stane isn’t revealed to be the bad guy until more than halfway through the movie. Even then, he is shown to be opposing Tony Stark in business, not as a supervillain. It is only in the last 25 minutes of the film (including 10 minutes of credits) that the main conflict of the movie emerges, and the antagonist challenges the protagonist. Couple that with his perception as an inferior fighter and you have the villain problem in the film.

Despite a major problem, Iron Man is a fun watch because his powers are super cool. They are tested in multiple situations throughout the film (his big escape from captivity, his encounter with militants in Gulmira, getting chased by the US government, and his final battle with Iron Monger). As a viewer this made me want to root for Iron Man. That being said, I hope Iron Man 2 offers our hero more of a challenge.