Monday, May 28, 2012

Marvel Movie Project: #15 Captain America

Aimee here!

I bet you're surprised to see that today's special Memorial Day edition of the Marvel Movie Ranking Project is Captain America. C'mon, you know you are--it was heralded like the second coming of Jesus last summer and everyone but everyone was all too happy to throw movies (like, say, Thor) right into the trashcan after observing this movie's amazing majesty. It was a red-blooded All-American hot dog of a country-fried eagle, wrapped up in Summer Blockbuster fare, and distributed accordingly to all the happy peoples ready to charge into a short-lived bout of July fireworks-boltered American patriotism.

If you don't like this movie, you're a damn commie. I guess that means I'm a commie.

I'm not here to tear down the concept of patriotism on Memorial Day; on the contrary, I'm here to remind you why this film does not honor the patriotism and history it really seems to want to embrace.

Now, be forewarned. I was raised by a history enthusiast and went on to earn a degree in history. I'm also kind of a hipster in that I like retro design aesthetic, and one of my favorite pastimes is watching old informational filmstrips. When I watch a film, it can get ruined in a heartbeat by pervasive and nonsensical anachronisms. Not to say that a movie must be perfect--far from it. But when the tone of a film is being presented in a certain way--for example, Captain America seems to want me to take it seriously--and its set design, props department, costumers, scriptwriters, etc are presenting the film in another way--"It's a retro-futurist piece!"--I simply cannot hold it in.

I wanted to write this like a research paper, but I decided that, for simplicity's sake, it would be better if I just hit the high points. Let's begin!

1. It's Retro Future!

 Let's remove that "retro-futurist" bullshit right now. I heard "retro-future" tossed around a lot around the release of Captain America, and it doesn't work. It was said in an effort to remove movie-goer doubts about the amazing number of anachronisms.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Metropolis, and The Rocketeer are or have elements of a "retro-future" story and design aesthetic. Captain America  is a period piece and cannot have these elements. Why?

Because Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and The Avengers are all set in the "real" world. They are fantastic stories, sure--but they are grounded in the everyman, everyday American experience. If Captain America comes from the same continuity as Iron Man, it can't take liberties with the development of that continuity--meaning, the WWII experience of Tony Stark's world had to be roughly the same as the WWII experience of our world. This means some of the more blatant anachronisms, if explained as "retro-future" would had to have effected the continuity.

2. Closed-circuit TV!

This was the first thing that really set me off, because I had, up to that point, been willing to accept a few anachronisms and move on. But once that pressure gauge hits a certain reading, I can no longer accept anything, and seeing this particular anachronism was too much.

Hydra uses it in their base. It is visualized on roughly rectangular screens that *kind of* have a retro design aesthetic as long as you don't remember that the proto-TV's of the era looked like this 1939 Philco:


This awesome scan comes from

The average TV of the pre-War era contained a kinescope tube so long that the only practical way to present the image was to face the screen to the ceiling and reflect the image by mirror for those gathered in your parlor. Oh, and they were absurdly expensive considering that TV didn't really get started in earnest until the Post-War era. TV would begin making extreme improvements immediately following WWII, both in the sense of the actual appliance and the broadcast itself.

So when I see this:

I want to lose my mind. HYDRA boasts closed-circuit TV that displays on impossible screens. Plus, these freaking cameras MOVE. Remotely. Red Skull had to have had these things before the Cosmic Cube dropped in. No, I don't think anyone invented this stuff. No, I don't think he made them using the Cube!

3. The Cosmic Cube does NOT explain it all!

Ok, whatever the Cosmic Cube/Tesseract does in the comics, it does not do those things here. It is presented and used ENTIRELY as an energy source, a position that has only been backed up by the release of The Avengers. 

A dear friend of mine keeps going back to the Cube. Saying that all the stuff that doesn't look right or is an anachronism? It's the damn Cube. Well, I have news for you. You know how when, you see a movie like, Back to the Future Part 2 for example, the future looks suspiciously like the year the movie was filmed in? That's how our brains work. Design evolves slowly. True vanguards are usually regarded as strange until their designs are watered down and integrated. When we conceptualize a new invention, we do so using the design aesthetic of our time--or at least, design aesthetics we have seen before.

This is a 1943 Dumont. This is what "video" cameras looked like.
My point is, Red Skull would have, at the very least, conceptualized anything he got from the Cube in the design aesthetic of his era, or close to it. And maybe you can make the point about the surveillance cameras... but how can you make that same point about the blue-glowing HYDRA laser guns? I think they'd probably look either like real projectile weapons or they'd be laughably campy tributes to the budding sci-fi serials of the day. In short, if it was going to be a laser pistol, it'd be the first kind we all "knew" about. Flash Gordon level stuff.

4. New York, Land of Plenty... of Gasoline

Ok, so, why would there be a World's Fair type event all night when the Eastern Seaboard was under a blackout restriction because of the real threat of U-Boats? Why are there SO MANY CARS on the street without gas rationing stickers on them, and in addition to that, where are they coming up with all that gas? They sure are shiny, new-looking cars. Doesn't look like the war affected anyone.

It certainly didn't affect that guy in the theater that made an ass of himself about not caring about the war. I assure you, Cap did NOT have to go beat that guy down--every mother and child in that place would have jumped him. The newsreels were one of the only sources of information for those on the home-front starved for even a glimpse of what their sons, husbands, fathers, uncles and friends might be going through out there. We live in a post-nationalistic era and we are, thankfully, more free to express anti-war sentiment than we used to be. But you know something? During WWII, that wasn't the kind of thing you were likely to encounter. Not saying it didn't happen. But the wave of patriotic spirit and national pride that accompanied the sacrifice and bravery of both those in the service and those at home keeping them supplied and keeping the homeland safe was hard to ignore. That guy was going to have a purse crashed over his head, minimum.

Captain America does it as a plot point. It's entitled to make that kind of call. But it's symptomatic of the most glaring problem the movie faces:

5. Nazis. I hate these guys.

We all know Nazis are bad. We all agree Hitler is a bad, bad man. No one likes seeing a swastika. It is hard for us, now, to believe that such incredible hate and suffering ever marched across Europe. It is hard to visualize the kind of environment that fostered. The world knew that Hitler had to be stopped, and through a long and costly war, did exactly that.

These are concepts that are uncomfortable in the post-modern era. And we've done our best to remove uncomfortable subject matter in certain movies for quite some time. Rather than watch heroes take actual lives--uncomfortable--we watch them cut down wave after wave of "drones". They aren't alive or don't look like they are, so we never understand the cost in human life--on either side. Some movies, those specifically meant to be poignant or painstakingly historical, don't pull those punches, and try to remind us that these are the conflicts of humanity.

Captain America, however, lets us all know that the war is... what? We never see any real combat. We never even understand who he's fighting--not just as Cap, but as an American. He "punches" Hitler a few times in his little stage act, but hey--no big deal. This and ONE NEWSREEL are the only places we see Nazi symbols like the Swastika. You don't even see much on the uniforms of the Germans meeting up with Red Skull.

And by the way, Hitler is so bad that even Red Skull seems reluctant to throw in with him--and with that we promptly forget that there is ANYTHING else going on in Europe and we only fight HYDRA from that point on.

How does this honor WWII as a setting? How is this patriotic? Captain America takes the heart of the WWII Era and removes all the teeth and all the meaning, and leaves us with an irrelevant action flick.

6. Summing Up

I'm afraid that I just flat out think this movie fails on every level except one. The actual character of Captain America. He's exactly what he needs to be, and he's absolutely wandering around in a movie setting that is as flimsy as the fake apartment SHIELD puts him in at the end. He shines in the Avengers  because he's the same, likeable, lovably old-fashioned Cap that we see in Captain America, but he's been removed from all the bad film-making decisions. I don't like the forced romance, and I think the crash sequence that comes at the end is very forced. Surprisingly, a similar sequence from Star Trek (the new one) brought me to tears, where this one just made me groan. Heck, the slow type-out of "LOVE YOU WIFE" is enough to make me blubber a little when watching the Abyss. Cap and Peggy? Just crash and go to the future already.

It's a fine movie if you can stand the problems. It's certainly not the worst. But there are FAR better movies out there, and as we move up the list, I hope you'll understand why one of the Marvel Movie Darlings wound up sucking up the dead middle.

Stan's Take
Aimee does a good job of giving you the play-by-play of what is wrong with this film.  She wanted to lead off this time around because she had such a strong reaction to the film.  And she's right.

What I wanted in a Captain America  movie was either a good WWII period piece OR a "man-out-of-time" story.  What I got was goofy sci-fi set against a flimsy quasi-historical backdrop.  So, I got neither.  I was more forgiving of some of the historical problems Aimee detailed, but as soon as the blue laser guns show up and the Nazi's vanish into the background, I'm out.  I'm just out.  Any chance of a period piece are just gone.  Like Aimee said, the movie should look like it took place in WWII, even if you have fantastic elements, it should still fit in its time.  The blue laser guns destroy any chance of that happening.  I fail to see why Cap would ever feel like a man out of time when he wakes up in the future.  He's already seen things far more fantastic than a jumbo-tron.  He's seen a stealth submarine, a super-jet, all kinds of fancy computers, laser cannons and guns, and a machine that turns 98 lb. weaklings into super-heroes, how is a big TV going to throw him for a loop?  Dumb.

Chris Evans' Stever Rogers and Cap are the only saving graces here.  Evans is likeable and believable, which is particularly challenging when you consider how little he was given to do.  The Cap fights are fun, but they also are bereft of meaning since his enemy is an unrealistic fictional entity created to avoid making modern Germans angry or sad because 80 years ago their country was led by a madman who convinced enough Germans to join his bizarre hate crusade.  History is ugly, but it happened.  If we have to create fictional villains to avoid upsetting someone who might be connected to the real villains, then maybe we need to not make a period piece to begin with.  Indiana Jones had no problem going after Nazis.  Nazis were EVIL.  EVIL EVIL BAD.  It is OK to say that and it ok for Captain America to go fight them since THAT IS WHAT HE DID IN THE COMICS FROM THAT ERA.  Pack up your touchy-feely postmodern bullshit and go home.  Or, you know, don't make a period piece and insult anyone with an education past the fourth grade.

I'm sorry, as I was saying, Chris Evans is the only reason to see this movie, just turn it off after the blue laser guns show up.

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