Friday, May 23, 2014

Wave Upon Wave Of Demented Avengers March Cheerfully Out Of Obscurity Into The Dream

You know, I was looking forward immensely to using that title, and meanwhile, despite my best plans to hoist it up there in a timely fashion, Captain America came and went. Today, the X-Men will take the reins of cinematic superheroes-of-the-month, which actually gives me some good points to compare and contrast (and a reason to finish the post!), even before I see the movie.

But first, I want to say that I enjoyed the hell out of the new Captain America flick. My first thoughts about it were less to do with the title character, or with comic book movies in general, and more to observe just how far action movies have come in these late days. Winter Soldier doesn't really develop as a cerebral Cold War-style political thriller (maybe they thought Robert Redford would carry the office scenes? He didn't.), and maybe that wasn't the intent, but it does communicate the emotional immediacy that I associate with movies of that era, now with a sense of explosiveness that modern cinematography can actually deliver, which kind of balances the whole equation. As viewers, we know that the rumbling threat of shit going down, can, if necessary, and with good enough direction, be delivered with full fan-splattering spectacle.

And they got the kinematic balance right in this one, in a big way. The scenes in Washington traffic were great, as one small example. Somehow people and cars were depicted at the right first-person level--the aggravation and frantic energy of disrupted driving in that town was believable--and when the holdup turns out to be an armed weirdo standing stock still in the middle of the road, it was incredibly intimidating. I'm reminded of Paul Greengrass style tension again, and maybe that's part of the development of the art, except that these couple of guys were apparently directing sitcoms two years ago. What a break for them.

As a character, Captain America was always a tough sell in a modern age. Like Superman, he's one of the lazier concepts of the comics world, and like Superman, he's a throwback from a time when readers were, apparently, more comfortable with silly patriotic hyperbole. I thought the first Cap movie was somewhat enjoyable in its attempt to bring the yay-rah goofiness into a contemporary framework. The movies confront it (as did the comics, or so I understand) head-on. The first Captain America flick gave a big hat tip to the cuffed boots and dollar-bill shield of the character who once punched Hitler in the jaw (putting silly patriotic hyperbole right where it belongs--in entertainment!), and it wisely allowed some measure of cynicism about it from people who were the actual bloody, tired fighters. I've read that the directors of Winter Soldier intentionally kept the CGI to a minimum, as though people are finally learning that even with comic exaggeration, these movies aren't better as cartoons, and Chris Evans does a very good job of communicating the character with a kind of pure-hearted capability--Americans as we pretend ourselves to be--struggling to find a footing in a more cynical time, and his performance in the role gives credibility to everything else.

I only really read comic books with any kind of seriousness for a year or two of my life. Even then, I didn't care enough to actually spring for the damn things, and if my friend hadn't convinced his mom to buy him a stack every month, I was unlikely to have smeared as much teenage acne grease over as many collectible pages as I did. I never got much from the power fantasies they laid out, but I did relate to the otherness that these characters endured with such over-the-top pathos, and I absolutely loved the full-spectrum weirdness that Marvel added with a combined universe--where every story is epic, and you have gods, war heroes, scientists, freaks, aliens and athletes working at similar purposes and on improbably equivalent scales, and everyone looked impressive in spandex, which they probably needed less to show off their abs than to keep the requisite two tons of angst crammed tautly into every 180-lb body. I admit it was fun while it lasted.

The Marvel universe was just huge, with a gigantic B-list of characters, connected to itself on hundreds of levels. It was brilliant in its way, but it was also a problem, because with so many writers pulling these characters in different directions, it proved impossible to keep anything like a consistent story or even vision going. And it didn't take me long to realize that even within a given title, any investment I made in the story, setting, or character growth would never be rewarded, doomed instead to be split prematurely on the rocks of the next writer's unfaithful (and inevitably worse) vision, buried unceremoniously in some awkwardly shoehorned retroactive continuity. The word "retcon" comes out of the comics world in the first place, thanks to this pervasive, and fundamentally inconsiderate, practice. It's one of the main reasons I stopped reading them. (The other one was that in those days, nerds weren't cool.)

Adaptations in the movies have suffered the same problems, and also added new ones. Even with the ability to lift and adapt the best stories from decades of comics, it's a challenge to stuff something that develops slowly over many issues, using a large cast, into a two-hour film. I am looking forward to the next X-Men flick, but Days of Future Past is one of the few arcs I do remember from my brief fandom, and if I'm hopeful that it's maybe an easier (that is, shorter) one to adapt, even as they omit or combine characters, I still haven't forgotten that the "Dark Phoenix" storyline, goofy and elaborate as it may have been, couldn't have been Ratnered any worse in X3, so we'll see. A diversity of directors and writers have utterly wrecked any hope of continuity for those mutants, and poor Spiderman's a similar mess of reboots and overstuffed villains. So that part is just like the old comics, then, and it's kind of a shame.

I think the most forgivable way to look at all these disorganized and diverse efforts (some of them ranging over 70 years), is that through repetition and retelling, they've produced icons, characters that have been averaged out to a set of timeless and identifiable traits, fighting characteristic battles over and over again, living and dying, but never really changing. Ironically, this imbues them with something like the mythic status they originally copied.

Well, it was like this until recently. Captain America and the rest of the Avengers properties are taking a different and (for this kind of material) innovative path. I know from reading the nerdblogs that the film rights for the Avengers cast are owned by a different studio than the others (which means they'll never meet the Silver Surfer), and the tie-ins and cameos have all been intentionally part of a loose, overarching plan by the producers. (I'm on record as thinking this approach was gratuitous and unlikely to work. And I was wrong--it's great.) It's allowed for hit-or-miss individual films (really, this is the first one that's as good as the original Iron Man), in a variety of styles, but it's brilliantly correcting something that ruined the comics for me 25 years ago. These characters are actually developing over the course of the big arc. They're aging (live actors give you little choice on that one), and they're getting wiser. Superheroism is affecting the world around these guys, and those changes keep growing into more developed settings for the next movies. My inner fourteen-year-old fanboy is squealing at finally seeing the dream done right. And it's big, it's weird, and it's all kinds of fun.