Saturday, April 12, 2014

Shields of the Marvel MCU

A week ago I saw Winter Soldier. Meant to write sooner but life has been very dense lately.

It was a great movie. Maybe the MCU's best offering yet, including Iron Man and The Avengers. It has the focused storytelling and character development of the original Iron Man, with all of the interconnected cross-world hijinks of The Avengers. And best of all, it had the MCU's cannon diverge from the comic books in a daring, meaningful way. Frankly, it's the kind of storytelling I expected from Joss. I wanted to see it in The Avengers. I wanted to see it in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The last place I expected to find an enormous in-fiction paradigm shift was with Marvel's most conventional leading man. Like a c-list super villain, I have a bad habit of underestimating the Cap.

Spoilers will be peppered throughout.

I really dug Cap's new outfit. Very solid poster too, 
excepting the obvious T&A pose from Black Widow.

My initial assessment of Captain America was that he was another cardboard paragon; Superman sans superpowers--a really fit boy scout. The first Cap movie, The First Avenger, set me straight. It showed me Steve Rogers was a man who earnestly wanted to make a difference, but lacked the ability to do so. When the universe called his bluff, he rose to the occasion and proved that all he needed was the chance. There's some other really good shit in there about a man who becomes co-opted by propaganda and decides to become something more. It was better than I ever dared dream.

But I figured, "Alright. We've seen this guy's arc. It was a fantastic story, but he's a product of his time, and taken out of that context, what is there left to say?" A whole hell of a lot it turns out. While the self-referential anti-propaganda plot threads of The First Avenger did a lot to quell the inherent jingoism of the Captain America identity, it was still there lurking in the shadows. If you see a guy with armor colored like Old Glory, you can't help but imagine a soldier who will do whatever his country deems necessary. Winter Soldier takes that misconception to task and shows general audiences that Cap not only represents what America is, or even what it can be, but what it ought to be.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely waste no time putting Steve Rogers at odds with Marvel's super-spy agency  S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division). In this case, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a transparent stand-in for the NSA with obviously toxic, Minority Report notions on surveillance and security. So, already, like the original Iron Man flick, which stands as one of the first, mainstream cinematic Trojan Horses for post 9/11 thought, Winter Soldier gives us one of the first mainstream post-Snowden narratives. And it's fairly meaty! At least, as meaty as such a thing can be when your heroes primary vehicle of expression are fisticuffs and gunfire. That and shield-bashing.

Please indulge me a paragraph to nerd out about Cap's shield.

Shields are the punchline of violent literature. They are typically ineffectual, or at least invariably penetrable, and generally portrayed as the armament of choice for cowards or hidebound meat heads. One of the things that makes Captain America refreshing as an icon, is that he is a bad-ass who takes care of shit with a shield. In The First Avenger he also regularly uses guns and rifles to eliminate opposition, but it was a war-movie. In a war, a shield is not sufficient to win the day. But in Winter Soldier, we are in the modern day of the USA which is peacetime. A shield is a far more fitting tool for somebody whose mandate is to protect. In Winter Soldier Cap bashes the crap out of people with his magic shield, only briefly wielding guns and knives to turn them back on his attackers. His shield really is magic too. There is a ridiculous (but admittedly awesome) scene where he takes out a S.H.I.E.L.D heavy aircraft by jumping on top of it and throwing his shield at it a couple of times, really, really hard. In this specific scene, the shield causes explosions and works as a perfect boomerang. In other parts of the movie, it completely negates fall-damage, stops all gunfire and incendiaries, and cuts through anything (admittedly most of this is consistent with the properties of vibranium in comic lore. Freaking Wakanda man).

Okay. Shield rant over. Initiating S.H.I.E.L.D rant:

The thing I liked best about Winter Soldier is its big plot twist (which I am about to spoil). It is not an upheaval for the sake of controversy, but an IP molting; a fictional universe sloughing off vestigial and irrelevant appendage to create a newer, leaner, more relevant form. Midway through the movie, it is revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. has not only been infiltrated by, but sculpted in the image of H.Y.D.R.A., the sci-fi branch of Nazi fucks Cap defeated back in The First Avenger. It is a fitting (if crude and underdeveloped) allegory for what happened to our national psyche in the 50s through the 80s. To this day, S.H.I.E.L.D. is a mainstay of Marvel comics, though frankly, they've always been more than a little scary and Orwellian. They reek of Cold War politics, policies, and paranoia. They are villains more often than not, and in a universe full of godlike heroes, it was high time somebody took them to task, or at the very least, instigated a serious regime change.

Captain America, Black Widow, Falcon, Maria Hill and Nick Fury do just that in Winter Soldier. By the end of the movie, S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a thing any more. They physically destroy and then legally dissolve S.H.I.E.L.D. from the MCU. Even if you brush aside over 50 years of comic continuity, that is still a really bold and interesting choice if you will recall that Marvel has a prime time network television program in the same shared universe called Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It would be even more interesting if Agents wasn't just awful.

A couple months back, I firmly stated that I would give Agents the benefit of the doubt, at least for the first season. Well folks, time makes fools of us all. I quit a quarter of the the way through. The standalone episodes were disposable. The writing has been atrocious, from predictable plot-points to a heinously shallow and unlikable main cast. Even the frank and earnest every man, Phil Coulson could not carry such an unevenly paced, cliched, and downright dumb show. Winter Soldier made me care enough to look up the episode synopses, and frankly, I feel like I've dodged a round of bullets. I did watch the latest episode, with it's scandalous betrayal and direct address of Winter Soldier's fallout, but the whole thing still feels like an anomalous lump on the body of the MCU. It has completely failed to pay off on the titular promise of my initial review.

There is a lot I'm not going to delve into. The huge laundry list of Easter Eggs, setting up innumerable sequels. Robert Redford playing the best MCU villain since Tom Hiddleston's Loki.  Scar-Jo's awful one-expression, one-tone, one delivery approach to acting, but her appealing psuedo-sexual bromance with Chris Evans. Anthony Mackie's immensely likable Falcon. The surprisingly poignant and understated man out of time narrative present at the periphery of the movie.

But if you ever wondered why the really cut guy with the magic shield was calling the shots for Hulk, Iron Man and Thor, this movie will answer that question.You see, Steve Rogers is not like Superman without godlike abilities. He is more like the Batman's optimistic, socially adept twin. Both Steve and Bruce are orphans. Both feel powerless and rise to make a difference in imperiled worlds. Batman's quest is personal. His motivations are personal. His resources are personal. Even with his extended 'Bat Family' of crime-fighters, his methodology is deeply personal. Cap is an extrovert's superhero. He was a team player from the start. His resources were governmental. His motivations were global. He was not concerned with America, but rather, what he wanted America to do for the rest of the world.

The best superhero scene in the movie is not the opening sequence when Cap wrecks a ship full of bad guys, or even that part where he takes out a gunship with just a disc of witch-metal, but rather at the climax, where he gives a speech to an entire institution, and convinces at least half of them to do the right thing and fight for the good guys. After a spate of grimdark reality, and grimdark heroes to match, Captain America is the kind of hero we need, and the one audiences deserve.

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