July 26, 2011
Blew my mind, in every good way possible. I hardly know where to start. So I’m going to go straight to the metafiction.
A proposition: World War II is becoming American culture’s Camelot or Middle Earth. It’s the place and time we go to be heroic, without irony or cynicism. The super-serum doesn’t make Steve Rogers a hero — he already is. During that particular war, in that particular time, a kid from Brooklyn could be a hero without doubt or argument or apology.
This is in contrast to the last 25 years we’ve spent pathologizing superheroes. It’s a symptom of the “gritty realism” everyone’s been after. What makes someone put on a mask and tights to fight crime? They must be crazy, deluded, dysfunctional — at best. Psychotic at worst. Probably both. The concept of heroism itself becomes suspect — a means to an end rather than its own reward, the excuse for putting on the mask, rather than the other way around.
There’s this bit in the middle of the movie where Rogers has been barred from combat, but wants to help, so he gets put in a war bonds fundraising show. And it’s kind of brilliant, because this Captain America is wearing tights, the costume from the comic books — he’s our Captain America, the fictional one from the real world who punched out Hitler on the covers of comic books (that cover really does appear in this bit of the movie). He’s a construct and a symbol, both in the “real” world and in the fictional world of the movie. And this is where our modern, cynical take on superheroes gets shoved. Shoved, compartmentalized, and disposed of. The show is ridiculous, Steve knows it’s ridiculous — but it’s also useful and he keeps doing it. Right up until he gets on stage at a USO show in Italy in front of an audience of battle weary troops. Suddenly there’s a blazing neon subtext: THIS IS REAL. SHUT UP AND DO SOMETHING. And he loses the tights, puts on a leather jacket and helmet, and goes to kick serious, serious ass. A friend of mine has pointed out that in the film, Captain America doesn’t fight in any actual, real battles. He doesn’t take a single victory or ounce of respect from the troops who fought in World War II. Because of Red Skull and Hydra, all his fights — while very spectacular — are completely fictional. The real troops — the real heroes — still beat Hitler and the Nazis all on their own.
The movie was aware of its own subtext, its own metafiction, and aware of the very fine line it had to tread between gee-whiz four-color comic book action awesomeness (flying wings! ray guns! Red Skull! Zip-lining to a speeding train!) and the reality of the war. It’s not a movie about superheroism — it’s just about straight-up heroism, as anything set in World War II very nearly has to be.
And now a brief word about expectations (I’m going to try to do this without spoilers): The frame story was very nicely done. I was hoping we’d get what we got. But I thought we’d get a tease. We’d get a hint, and clue, and we’d be done. But we got so much more than that. We got a couple of entire scenes. Great scenes that left me emotionally beat up and in tears. This is a lesson for writers: go further. Be brave. Take the risk. Play the scene that ought to be too hard or too much. Because you may just shock your audience, and that’s often a good thing.
And the **SPOILER** Avengers trailer at the end? HOLY SHIT Y’ALL! Remember how I said I wanted to see Thor and Tony Stark posturing at each other? They teased me. They are evil. Pure, terrible, wonderful evil. Why do I have to wait a whole frakking year?!?