No need to define the trend, it’s obvious. No need to talk about the reasons why. They are fairly obvious as well, and the reasons that aren’t so obvious have probably been picked through like a complimentary bowl of mixed nuts at a cashew convention. So instead of the set-up and dwelling on the how’s and why’s of Hollywood’s (and the public’s) current hyper-enthusiastic embracing of comic book movies, I’d like to take a sec and talk about one release in particular.
Captain America was the first movie I’ve ever walked out of. I surprised myself. I was a bit troubled by the previews: sets seemed a little too bare, dialog a little wooden, but I over-intellectualized my way out of it: maybe this is a throwback to pulpy war movies of the ‘50’s, where action felt more stage-y and stilted, where lines and the accompanying acting was a bit too rhythmic and plastic. All that being said, I walked into the theater cautiously enthused.
Captain American, first scene, arctic wasteland. Heavy storm, low visibility, headlights approaching. Oh no. They are copying Close Encounters. Double oh no. They are copying Close Encounters shot for shot. Triple oh no, they are copying dialog from Close Encounters while shooting directly from CE3K’s storyboards. They even copied the intonation on specific lines of dialog. They copied the actor putting the hand on this hat (hood) to keep the wind from blowing it off. They must have had a digital copy of CE3K on the set, running on a 60” HD LCD for reference.
[Seriously, go back and watch the first five minutes of CE3K and compare it to the first five minutes of Captain America. You’ll be astonished.]
I love early Spielberg films. It may sound overly romantic, but my youth is entwined and strangely defined by them. I saw Close Encounters three times in the theater. I made my dad take me. I was five. You know how many times I saw Star Wars in the theater? Zero. I was a Close Encounters freak. At its core it was a love of Spielberg or at age five, the love of the colors and music, and that appreciation grew well into the ’80s with 1941, Raiders and E.T. and, finally being old enough to watch it, Jaws. A lot of my understanding of tension and staging comes from Spielberg’s visual lexicon. Among a laundry list of talents, he had a gift of understanding the camera as representing the audience (that’s worth another post altogether) and the concept of tableau. As such, I totally get it when a director, cinematographer, or writer goes back and is inspired by some of early Spielberg’s cues and devices. Most modern blockbuster directors have “quoted” Spielberg in their movies, some effectively, some not so, some heavy-handedly, some with more finesse.
To burrow down a wee further for a second:
To me, there are three levels of imitation (there are more, but breaking things into threes gives good-enough fidelity.)
1) Adaptive integration: the highest form of flattery. A technique is seen, and remembered, and then adapted and made itself a new thing. Like the dolly zoom in Vertigo being appropriated for Jaws, and from there dozens of imitations since. You really have to earn that move, and it has to fit into your sequence.
2) Replicating with understanding or synthesis: you understand why the mechanism works, and you have a need for it because of similarity in sequence, be it emotive or action oriented. “Understanding” here is a fairly broad bucket and also includes “having a moral and ethical system in place and enough creative self-respect not to wholesale lift someone else’s work.” It might not make sense to use the device, but you do it ‘cause it is neat. At least your heart is in the right place.
3) Copying (replicating without understanding): Eff it, we’re too lazy to figure out something new, copy-paste from someone who knows what they are doing.
The opening of CA was a total lift of the beginning of CE3K. Captain America started with a Level 3 Imitation. Bad start. And I am ignoring the heavy-handed Aliens, Transformers, and The Thing influences. If I went into actual execution, we’d be here all day, and I tend to be verbose, so moving right along …
The above is a beef with a particular sequence. Movies are made up of individual scenes. Those scenes are brought together to create a sequential and coherent plot. There are fundamental changes that take place in the characters over the course of the that plot. These are called arcs. You could argue that the arcs are the movie, without which there would really be no reason to shoot the story. But, again, a topic for another time.
On its surface, Captain’s journey is familiar: Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, that Karate Kid guy. Same arc, different characters: scrawny insignificant guy with dreams of something greater gets his wish and is off and running. Usually, they succeed, and they end up the heros of the world. The world can be big (in Star Wars, a galaxy) or small (in Karate Kid, Ralph Machio’s school). It really depends on the scope set by the picture, but the arcs are still the same.
Luke, Frodo, and Daniel (had to look it up) all end as fundamentally different people by the end of their respective arcs. Luke goes from being a boy to a man (his orgasmic gasp at loosing the lethal shot into the Death Star is pretty obtuse, but so is the death of his ‘parents’ and his mentor). Frodo goes from being a rather pleasant and naive adventurer want-to-be to becoming a severely damaged recluse. Daniel LeRusso goes from being a victim to being fulla’ beans with an awesome crane impersonation and a date to the prom.
What is Captain America’s arc? The only obvious one I can find is this: he goes from being a little runt to being a large muscle-bound guy. Hell, that’s an arc, right, John? No. No emotion. We could watch a guy lift weights for two hours and have the same emotional attachment (maybe more so: the weight-lifter would be earning his muscles through hard work.)
Why isn’t his arc Brooklyn no-one to American hero? Because, simple, he doesn’t change anything to get there. His mindset, outlook, emotions. Nothing changes. Therefore, there is no arc. There is no change. The circumstances have changed, but he is the exact same.
So what is Steve Rogers / Captain America’s arc?
I’d say this is Steve Roger’s (Capt.) arc: he goes from being an extremely dedicated and patriotic idealist to being an extremely dedicated and patriotic idealist with a dame.
Let’s discount my snarky “with a dame” right away. The romantic arc of the movie is not rewarding, nor is it remotely central to the plot. It seems that Hollywood has started putting women into movies where their sole function is to be love interests, or the pivot points, for the male leads. Captain America, Star Trek, Green Lantern, Paul, Tron Legacy, Twilight, etc etc. Some of these movies pull it off better than others. Some actually manage to weave the female character into the plot, and give her some backbone and responsibility. Most of them don’t and you end up with the female character as an “object” to be won and a rather shallow pandering to the female demographic. That drives me bonkers. But I digress.
What I am saying is this: Captain America has no arc.
Once you remove the dame, Steve Roger’s arc does not change at all. His character does not change at all. In the beginning, as a little skinny guy, he throws himself on a grenade. He has heart. He wants to kill nazis. In the end, as a big guy, he would throw himself on a grenade and wants to kill nazis. His mindset has not changed one bit. His performance doesn’t change one bit. In the car, as a weakling, he is still chatting it up with the female lead. He isn’t shy, he isn’t pip-squeeky. He’s Captain America, but in a little body. His arc is completely flat and without inflection. A body change is NOT an arc.
How would you fix it? What makes a more emotionally involving and sympathetic character for the audience to journey with? Well, why not have Steve Rogers start out as a victim, due to his size. He’s small, runty, has a high-pitched voice, and is uncertain around people because they’ve always treated him as a second class citizen; because they’ve judged this book by its cover. He can’t talk to a girl to save his soul, but inside, he’s a heart of gold and courage galore. And slowly, after he gets the new body and after he starts to learn how to use it, he begins to lose that uncertainty and gains confidence. He is no longer a professional victim, but a true leader. But he has to earn it. He has to fight through the entire second and third acts to get there. And since we, the audience, have agreed to go on that journey with him, we are fighting for him to get there. We want to see the little runty kid grow up and win it all, and we will sit there and feel great about it all when he does, and will feel terrible when he makes the ultimate sacrifice and ditches the flying wing into the, um, frozen tundra.
Nice reversal to be had there. He’s on the radio, about to ditch the plane, he looks at his hands, turns them over. “I haven’t changed at all. Since the day I threw myself on the grenade, all those times I got beat up, I haven’t changed at all. This body doesn’t matter, this uniform, the shield. They don’t make a difference. Why couldn’t they see that? I could have done all this stuff. There was nothing wrong with me, with me before.”
Maybe I don’t dislike the flatness of that arc as much as I dislike the wasted opportunity the filmmakers and screenwriter’s had access to and threw away. There could have been some powerful parallels between Rogers and the Jewish doctor that befriends him early on, and some interesting interplay between Rogers and his new found troop of buddies, as he learns to accept them as equals, and stops fearing them as potential tormentors.
I could do deep dives on this stuff, but I am keenly aware of the clock ticking and the value of your time, dear reader, and thusly, moving forward:
There are some key pivot points in the movie that make no sense. Since it is a comic book movie, I am willing to let go of a lot. And frankly, I WANT to. If you are doing a comic book movie, feel free to blow it out. Play with proportion, play with characterization, play with this and that. At the end of the day, I ask you one simple thing: have it make sense. And be consistent.
Even with accepting that certain genres are compatible with, or even ask for, exaggeration, there are still rules. Here are the two main inflection points in Captain America that blew my mind (in a bad way) and the ultimate reason I walked out of the theater. The fact that they occur within 90 seconds of each other didn’t help.
1) During the final fight between Red Mask and Captain America, somehow the Blue Cube of Valhalla pops out of the mega-wing’s Cube Holder. Red Face grabs it and … screams … and burns up. Whoa. What? This is almost as bad as Anakin accidentally popping a couple of caps into the shield generator in Star Wars 1. To repeat: the blue cube pops out by accident, the bad guy grabs it for some unknown reason, and he gets de-rezzed and sent to Valhalla for another unknown reason. Sort of random. Not very satisfactory.
2) Captain America grabs the yoke of the mega-wing, and decides there is no way to save New York but to crash the plane. Hard, nose first, at a 75 degree angle. Into ice. Howabout leaning a gun against the yoke, grabbing a parachute and floating gently to the ground while the plane ditches itself in the ocean? Howabout turning off the ignition and gliding to the waves below and pulling a Sullenburger? Howabout just pushing the pilotless bomb (remember, they had soldiers flying them to their destinations) out the door and flying safely home?
I crushed five people’s feet getting out of my row.* It had become a point of pride not to finish watching Captain America.
*For that, I feel terrible. I interrupted the ending of a movie for a couple rows of people. That is a criminal offense. Honestly, I owe those people their money back. I have a rule never to interrupt a movie in progress (even Captain America) and I broke that rule that day.