Monday 1 August 2011

the local hep cats are gonna dig this crazy joint

There's a complaint leveled at the superhero concept that it detracts from heroism that occurs in the real world, and while that's a complaint that I can certainly understand in the context of a genre which typically operates in extremes, it's not one I necessarily agree with in blanket terms (1) given that superheroes are both aspirational ideals and fictional characters who do actually have to be doing something on the page or screen to keep punters' interest from flagging - Superman can't refrain from blowing out forest fires because it detracts from the sterling public service provided by firefighters, for instance, Batman can't refrain from administering CPR to a junkie because it might detract from the credit due paramedics, Spider-Man can't refrain from stopping a mugging because it might make cops look bad, and so on. The superhero needs to DO stuff, preferably good and worthy deeds rather than a constant and interminable battle of wits with colourful terrorist masterminds as seems to be the norm of late in most of my funnybooks, and I don't blame writers for resorting to theatrical heroics to help tell us character A is a good egg for whom we should be cheering. Nonetheless, Captain America: The First Avenger is a movie about a guy who wears a flag and fights Nazis around the time they were just getting it in their heads that the answer to the Jewish Question was pretty much what they did at Babi Yar only in a more efficient manner - some sort of camp perhaps? - and making a film about someone calling themselves Captain America was already going to be a tough sell (certainly in a day and age when comics publishers and movie makers can't even bring themselves to use "and the American Way" in any project involving Superman despite it being a pop cultural idiom at this stage devoid of political meaning to anyone but those trying to strike a pose as a concerned liberal) before you got to that no-one in their right mind, no-one with an ounce of sensitivity or common decency would make a superhero movie where the main character battles against a background of concentration camps and industrialised genocide (well, maybe the writers of X-Men: First Class, but the Nazis would probably be the good guys in that script), and Captain America does at least avoid this pitfall, firstly by having the action start before the Nazis cottoned onto using camps, then advancing the action to a separate WW2 battlefront of laser cannons and hulking steampunk robo-men far away from the horrible truth of what went on circa 1943 and Cap's final battle with Hugo Weaving's mincing leather-clad panto-queen Red Skull.
Captain America as a movie and as a character is sidelined from the real war and instead fights a dieselpunk version of it where he can dress like a tranny on the frontlines and jump towards the screen while things explode behind him like the 1990s John Woo visual trope love-in never ended and we can sit like morons lapping it up to our heart's content. This here is a stoopid fillum, but by not treading on the toes of history or whizzing on the graves of those who gave their lives and those who had them taken, it's not a heartless one, and I think it deserves props for that just as much as it deserves criticism for not having any story arc for the main character beyond "was bullied, now isn't", which happens at least twice across the film, first when puny Earthman Steve Rogers is bullied for being puny until he gets some steroids that make him able to beat up who he pleases, and then again when he's despised as an all mounth no trousers showboat propaganda tool by the real soldiers of the WW2 front in much the same way real Vietnam soldiers despised John Wayne for making Green Berets (according to Oliver Stone), right up until Steve - bafflingly still garbed in his primarily-coloured show outfit - disobeys orders and goes behind enemy lines to free those same soldiers who despise him from captivity. That's about it for character arcs, really, with even the death of his closest friend seeming to be rather loophole-friendly for those familiar with the fate of Bucky Barnes from the Captain America comics of recent years and not actually adding much to any kind of grand theme beyond that chaps die in war.
Admittedly I went in knowing the film to be little more than set up for next year's Avengers movie, but I'd still have liked there to be something of consequence happen rather than a vague "this is what I did before I was froze in ice" that's not really self-contained enough to be a classic superhero movie in its own right, though it's still pretty good fodder for an evening's entertainment, and however scattershot the time jump at the end may seem in story terms (and God knows what the non comics-literate viewer made of it, or the lack of any sense of closure to the WW2 story that comes from Cap's fate and the Red Skull just sort of 'going away' at the climax of their showdown), Cap's final line is oddly bittersweet and probably helps argue that the whole point is that his life and story gets uprooted from one place to another. I also like that in portraying Cap, they've taken at face value the notion that the America in Captain America's name represents fraternity rather than nationalism without having to lecture the audience about it.

Unfortunately, I also got to grips with Captain America: Super Soldier over the weekend, too (I can actually play videogames again - YAY!), and it's a far more ugly experience. The PS3 game based on the film is clearly the product of the makers playing a lot of Batman: Arkham Asylum and that is certainly a good place to start, but they then go and ruin it by returning to the bad old days of the plot to games being an afterthought by getting the game's accountant or tea lady or whoever is passing the office to write the script, which is leaden with cliche and occasionally mean-spirited in a way the movie was not, with terrible lines like "you haff outlivt yorr usefullness!" appearing in a non-ironic or knowing way and some lazy storytelling like Cap talking over his radio earpiece to other soldiers despite this being WW2 and not a Call Of Duty game - although there's plenty of nods to some of that franchise's ideas in here, just not as well-realised as the source material. Perhaps I'm spoiled by games like Mirror's Edge or Jak 3, but I do expect more from my game stories these days, and this is especially important in games that are palpably shoddy in their construction like this one is, though I suppose I'm probably the one at fault for thinking the makers of shovelware, even the writers, would attempt better.
It's pretty much what you might expect from the idea of an Arkham Asylum game with Captain America and shield-throwing shenanigans instead of Batman: a room-clearing exercise with the odd bit of climbing and very light puzzling along the way to the inevitable boss scraps that are more frustrating than they are actually challenging by the inclusion of groups of standard goons who rush you in the middle so things aren't "too easy", reducing fights that should be rewarding and fun to frustrating and random.
I know it's shovelware and I've probably already lost the right to throw stones after admitting that the poor story was what disappointed me most in a videogame, but even so, it's unengaging as a game and equally unengaging as a narrative exercise and if it wasn't so darn easy to rack up trophies for my PS3 online profile I'd probably have pawned it off on some unsuspecting relative already. I'm not angry at Captain America: Super Soldier, I'm disappointed.

(1) Although I'd agree that DC comics have taken things too far by having Wonder Woman be present in the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima war memorial statue in Arlington and photographs of the event that exist in the DC universe. Why someone would ever think that a good idea is beyond me.


  1. Hello Mr B:- "Although I'd agree that DC comics have taken things too far by having Wonder Woman be present in the Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima war memorial statue in Arlington and photographs of the event that exist in the DC universe. Why someone would ever think that a good idea is beyond me."

    Is this so? For you are a man of the plausibly absurd statement and I a man of the incredibly gullible nature. The worst thing is that I could easily believe that this had not only been done, but then referred to again.

    But I'd hope that it's not so. I hope it is that thing that young folks call satire.

    "given that superheroes are both aspirational ideals and fictional characters who do actually have to be doing something on the page or screen to keep punters' interest from flagging"

    I've read so much ill-digested *!$* about what the superhero stands for and how it functions since Supergods was published. I realise that the following is a given, but it was a relief just to read something which was unpretentious and sensible.

    My thanks, Mr B.

  2. Very welcome, Colin.

    All the same, I would be lying if I said I wouldn't read a story about Batman sitting down and doing his taxes, but I am still an advocate of superheroes getting out of the house and saving the odd kitten, even if it does reflect badly on animal control workers shown to be ineffective in contrast. Possibly this is why I didn't much take to Loners, as it was about former altruists in a city over-run by supervillains who sit around not helping out because they've decided they deserve something more than their perfect bodies and free superpowers - no you don't, you big-breasted, straight-toothed idiots, YOU ARE HERE TO ENTERTAIN ME AND IF NO-ONE PUNCHES A GORILLA WITHIN THE NEXT TEN PAGES I AM GOING TO BE SO MAD. I still can't believe that book has someone crying within the first seven pages about being able to fly and we're supposed to sympathise with that everyman problem...

    But yes, the Wonder Woman thing is actually true. Couldn't say where I saw it as it was a while ago, but the rough timescale makes me believe it was either a Superman book, an Alan Grant Batman tale, or a JLA issue, as I stopped reading DC regularly after the awful Our Worlds At War event - I've since come to the conclusion I found the copious quotations from actual soldiers and war leaders plastered over splashes of Superman punching Mongul or Darkseid to be a bit too much, though at the time I think I just found it lazy and dull storytelling, and not good enough value for what I was paying.

    I think I fell out of love with Marvel for similar reasons as with DC - specifically Paul Jenkins' Civil War: Frontline issue where he metatextually equates the Marvel Civil War crossover as the same kind of thing his grandfather went through on a WW2 frontline that scarred him for the rest of his days. Mind you, he wasn't my grandad so I suppose I'll just have to take Mr Jenkins' word for it.

    A good day to you, Mr Smith.