Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I Understood That Reference To Our Political Turmoil (CA: TWS)

So, apparently the whole time I was watching this movie, according to my sister who would know because she was there, I was making a high pitched screeching noise and chewing on my fingernails. I do not remember this, because I was too busy gazing in wonder at what has to be my favorite superhero movie. Ever. Full stop. Yup.

It was so good, you guys. So good. It was pretty much everything I've ever asked for in a movie about a blonde hunk of a man fighting political corruption (which is also something I have asked for in a movie). So, without further ado, and without more lavish praise on my part (at least until we get to the end), what on earth was this movie about?

Picking up about two years after Avengers, this movie finds Steve (Chris Evans) working for SHIELD to stop global terrorism, save puppies, and just generally protect American interests. He's not super jazzed about it, but a job is a job. It's also heavily implied that he's been running a lot of ops with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), because their skill sets are pleasantly complimentary, and because Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) trusts Natasha to follow orders more than he trusts Steve. With good reason.

The movie opens on Steve and Natasha storming a hijacked SHIELD ship out in the ocean. For whatever reason, SHIELD has been boarded by French mercenaries, who seem to be trying to find some intel. Steve rescues the hostages and is about to leave, when he finds Natasha secretly downloading some intel to a flash drive. Very suspicious.

Back in Washington DC, Steve is pissed the Fury went so far as to give Natasha her own op to run while they were supposed to be rescuing hostages. But it's clear that Fury is a little concerned, and doesn't really feel like dealing with Cap's moral issues at the moment. He has bigger things on his mind. Things like Project Insight, a massive surveillance and pre-emptive security system that is pretty much comprised of an algorithm to detect crime before it happens and way, way too many guns.

Steve is not impressed. He's actually downright pissed, because he's Steve and he believes in privacy and freedom more than he believes in security. Damn straight.

Nick's also worried about the project, though more subtly than Steve, and decides to ask Secretary Pierce (the head of the World Council or something like that, played by Robert Redford) to delay Project Insight for a while.

SPOILERS now.

It seems this might not have been a wise move for our fearless Director Fury, because right after talking to Pierce, Fury finds himself in a firefight and car chase in the street. He barely escapes, only to find himself on Steve's doorstep, warning Steve not to trust anyone, handing over the stick of classified information, and then dying in a hail of gunfire coming from the sniper across the street. A sniper who happens to have a full face mask, long hair, and a metal arm. Cue the squealing.

Fury is dead, and no one knows how to cope, least of all Steve. And, worse, he's called into SHIELD to consult with Pierce, who Steve quickly realizes is out to get him and that information. From here on it's a conspiracy thriller, with Steve and Natasha teaming up with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to get the dirt on who ordered Project Insight, and to stop SHIELD from starting armageddon in the name of peace.

Oh, and HYDRA has risen again, Nick Fury isn't really dead after all, and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is a terrifying assassin with memory problems who doesn't understand why he can't seem to kill that one guy, or why that one guy seems to know him. Did I mention the part where Steve and Natasha pretend to be a married couple in an Apple Store? Because that also totally happened, and I enjoyed it.

Seriously, though, it's hard to express how much I liked this movie. The plot was fantastic, and while I enjoy a good thriller-action combo just generally, it was amazing to see a movie that so fully encapsulated the actual political debates of our current national climate. That's especially interesting since reportedly, the writers have been working on this script for a very long time. And it was timely as hell. 

It also worked really well thematically having a difference of opinions between the shady government types that think they know best, and a character whose name is literally America. That was cool too.

Now is the moment to note that this film not only passed the Bechdel Test (I think), but it had four interesting, named, fully fledged female characters, and it easily passed the Race Test. Seeing Steve Rogers, Nick Fury, Natasha Romanoff, Maria Hill, and Sam Wilson sit down at a table together to plan out how to save America from itself was so amazing that I got chills.

And ode should also be added here for Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, because he absolutely nailed the role, but also the role itself was amazing. Sam Wilson is a kind and generous person who likes Cap as a human being, not just as an icon. But more than that, he's able to appeal to Steve's soldier side. They're able to address topics like PTSD and veteran care and the struggle of fighting for a country that doesn't understand you and seems to hate you when you get back. 

Plus he's hilarious and he makes for a really awesome superhero. More Falcon, please.

The other great highlight of the film is Scarlett Johansson's Natasha. I've pointed out before that I adore her and desperately wish she could have her own movie already, but this film really highlighted how much of a compelling character she is. Natasha is the woman who was unmade, and I love that this film actually dealt with the idea that she doesn't entirely know how to remake herself. She's still a mystery, and she's never really tried to be an authentic person. I actually got choked up when Steve asked her who she really was, and Nat replied, "Who do you want me to be?"

And, of course, I adore Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier/Bucky. So many feelings, so little time. He was so vulnerable and yet ass-kicking, and he brought a huge layer of authenticity to this potentially silly role. That scene where he's about to get wiped, and all he can think is that someone recognized him, that he saw something familiar - it killed me.

The real star of this movie, though, is the villain. And that's a weird thing to say, but I don't think it's untrue. Most superhero movies really do rise and fall on the strength of their villains, and this was one area where Captain America: The First Avenger actually fell flat. As my sister pointed out, Red Skull is just plain weird, but HYDRA was so similar to actual Nazi party, and their motives were so unclear, that it generally came off as a bit disrespectful, and overall not thought through. I agree with that.

All of those problems, however, are happily fixed in this movie. Because here, Steve isn't facing off against a guy wearing a weird facemask, he's fighting the entire institution of governmental security that he helped create. Steve's enemy here isn't a single man, it's an idea. And that is powerful.

Especially when you consider that Steve himself is really the representation of an idea, the idea that moral goodness doesn't have to lose. And that is perfectly played out in the very end of the film, when Cap and Sam and Natasha have saved the day, but Cap and Bucky (who still doesn't know Steve) are trapped on a crashing helicarrier. Steve has the opportunity to run, but he doesn't. He frees Bucky, who then turns around and tries to kill him. And Steve lets him.

It's perfect. It's everything I want out of a Captain America movie.

Because Steve Rogers is that guy. He'd rather die at the hands of his enemy than fight him. He'd rather redeem his friend at the cost of his own life than break a promise. Steve is pretty much every Biblical principle of morality (the real ones) wrapped into a big muscle-y package, and I love it. I need it. It's a movie that needed to happen.

Not just because I needed to see a character who was willing to give of themselves, though I did, but because I feel like we've forgotten something really crucial in this age of political paranoia and cynicism. Namely, that those aren't the only options. We don't have to choose between oppressive security and dangerous freedom. We can risk ourselves for something better.

And we should.

*high pitched screeching noises*

7 comments:

  1. The other great highlight of the film is Scarlett Johansson's Natasha. I've pointed out before that I adore her and desperately wish she could have her own movie already, but this film really highlighted how much of a compelling character she is.

    I like that they didn't just divide Nat and Steve into a brains and brawn pair. Both were badasses - just that he was superstrong, while she was hellla experienced and adept at using her environment. And they were both smart - but soldiersmart and spysmart are different, and notice different things, Like they'll both spot they're being followed in a mall, but Nat's the one who knows how not to be spotted in that sort of environment. And while she finds the base, it's Steve who has the background to notice what's out of place there.

    Also, while I liked her reverse-interrogations in Avengers, it was nice to see nothing of the kind here, just her being awesome.

    Also, I love that this is three films in a row now when she hasn't been romantic with any of the guys.

    It also worked really well thematically having a difference of opinions between the shady government types that think they know best, and a character whose name is literally America.

    I liked that did give Fury some genuine counterpoints, especially regarding his paranoia. Steve may be right, but that means more when the side he's right over does have something going for it. On another forum, I saw someone expressing as their favourite part that when he addresses SHIELD over the coms, telling what's happening, and exhorting them not to be a part of it, more than half of them immediately start fighting back against the HYDRA element.

    Adding the greatness that is Sam/Falcon (which was especially good for me in that I had never heard of this character before seeing the film, so he came out of comparative nowhere). And the civilians who helped each other out of the wrecked bus. And that when Black Widow was being chased by the Winter Soldier, a couple of passersby looked like they were about to try to help her before she shouted at everyone to get out of the way.

    This is a film that *brims* with heroes.

    Which also brings me to one of my other points - something I also really liked about Thor 2 - Marvel are getting very good at designing their problems so they need everyone to solve them, not just the central hero. Steve, Falcon, Nat, Fury, Hill - none of them were superfluous, and would have had a much harder time without the rest of SHIELD pitching in to boot.

    I have to confess though, I'd have liked Nat to have had a different job in the battle at the end, and it really be Jenny Agutter's character who kicked the shit out of Pierce's goons. Perhaps followed by a line like, "What, I didn't win a top-level intelligence job in a raffle."

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    1. You're right - I hadn't thought about that. The Marvel movies seem to want to highlight the courage of ordinary people, like with the cops in Avengers or with that one SHIELD agent who refused even with a gun to his head to help the bad guys. As much as it's about the superheroes, it's more about a world in which we have superheroes to look up to. And as opposed to DC, where they seem to say that having superheroes will kill us, in Marvel they inspire us to be better. I like that.

      Also, yeah, I would have loved it if it was Jenny Agutter doing the asskicking. I was a little disappointed.

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  2. Absolutely adored the fact that somehow this movie managed to be full-throttle, cynical, gritty action, as well as unabashedly, unwaveringly, purely idealistic. Why can't more movies pull that off? Actually, I was rather shocked while watching it. It was so bizarrely realistic on so many levels, that I was getting into the action in a very no-holds-barred sort of way. During the finale, I was a hairs' breadth from standing up and screaming, "Oh, come on! Don't be an idiot! Kick that SOB while he's down!" Then I stopped, even in the middle of that scene, and thought for a moment, and realized that Captain America could never stoop low or even be practical in his fighting. He's too idealistic for all that, and they stuck to their heh, guns. Excellent, excellent job contrasting sinister smoke and mirrors with unbending moral courage.

    On a side-note though. Falcon very nearly stole the show for me. Heck, maybe he did. There are times when Cap's eyes look small and he starts to remind me of Richard Gear... which I can't deal with. And then we had snarky, sweet, BA, handsome, USAF pararescue dude... Oh Marvel, why must you fill my screen with such excellent and admirable hob- erh... heroes!

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    1. I think that juxtapositioning - the gritty action with the intense idealism - is a huge part of why I like this movie so much. Because it says that you can have it all. You can have a realistic plot and characters who are good people. It's possible!

      And I personally am never not in love with Cap and his dreamy eyes, but Falcon was hella cute too. And I just wanted to squish the Winter Soldier in a hug. Who am I kidding? That is an alarmingly attractive cast.

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  3. Sweet Anecdotes'R'Us moment: On another forum, a poster mentioned that when they were watching this, and it got to the point where Bucky is pulling Steve out of the water, a little girl's voice rang out triumphantly, saying, "I *told* you he was good!"

    And Theories'R'Us moment: When Sam invites Steve to go to the VA meeting, to "make him look awesome in front of the girl on the desk" - while Sam is probably not opposed to looking awesome in front of girls, last time I saw the film, I had a notion that he was offering an excuse for Steve to go there. Because as a guy from the 30's, a supersoldier, and - well - Captain America, Steve's loaded up with reasons to believe a VA meeting is something he ought not to need. Most of which double as reasons why he might need it a lot. So Sam offers an excuse couched as a favour to him. No evidence for it, but I like the idea of Sam as someone who'd think of that.

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    1. Re: anecdote. That is stinking adorable and I wish I'd been there.

      Re: theory. I definitely agree that Sam had ulterior motives. It's really interesting to watch his face while Steve is talking. He starts out super jazzed (yeah! this is Captain America!), but as Steve goes on, Sam's face kind of falls. He's seeing the pain, and the hurt, and how freaking much Steve is covering over it. So he makes the offer.

      I also think that there was an element, not necessarily of shame, in Steve's reluctance to go to the VA in the first place, but of confusion. He doesn't think of himself as having PTSD, because PTSD is what people who were in the really bad fighting have. Steve doesn't ever think of himself as having had a really hard time. He can always see the people who had it worse. So I think there's an element of self-delusion in there. "I don't have PTSD, there were lots of guys who had it way worse than I did!"

      You can kind of see that when Steve gives his speech about the modern day being great, because he's so focused on the positives like he refuses to admit that there are any negatives. If he admits that, then he's complaining. And Steve Rogers does not complain, because someone always has it worse.

      I have a lot of feelings about Steve and his deep and abiding need for therapy.

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    2. Steve doesn't ever think of himself as having had a really hard time. He can always see the people who had it worse.

      That's a really good point.

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