Monday, June 9, 2014

Comic Books You Should Be Reading: All-New Invaders

Hello! I’m not dead! Wow, I say that a lot.

This week’s blog is both another installment in CBYSBR and the start of what I hope will be a semi-regular tradition—Bottom of the Stack. Check the end of upcoming blog entries for an informal list of comic series I’m really enjoying at the moment. I won’t post everything I buy—just the two to five series at the bottom of my monthly comic stack. (I read in reverse order of preference, so the best stuff is at the bottom.) I hope it’ll help those of you who are contemplating getting into comics to find a way in. Not everything I read is for newbies, but my very favorite comics are usually well-written and all-around fun, so if you’re not too picky about needing to know all the continuity in advance, they should all be a good read.

Cool? On we go!

I’ve agonized over whether to add All-New Invaders to Comic Books You Should Be Reading. It is, hands down, my favorite monthly comic book at the moment. Hell, even Flatmate’s gotten into it—she asks me every couple of days when the next one hits the shelves, and complains loudly that she’s gotten so sucked into the plot and characters that she wants a new installment every week, like a TV show.

On the other hand, I yet cling to the last shreds of my journalistic objectivity, and I know that All-New Invaders, for all its virtues, is not going to be everyone’s favorite comic in the universe. I buy it for specific reasons, I love it for specific reasons, and some of those specific reasons are personal to me rather than universal to comic readers, or even general to the readers of my blog.

But what the hell. It’s my blog, and you wouldn’t be reading it if you couldn’t stand to hear my opinions now and then.

Here’s the SparkNotes version: All-New Invaders is a standard Marvel superhero comic, done extremely well, with a strong flavor of Band of Brothers and just a touch of Joss Whedon about it. If that sounds good, buy it. Seriously. Go buy any or all of the first five issues. I’ll wait here until you come back.
Captain America and the Human Torch will have coffee while they wait for you.
Here’s the backstory for the uninitiated: back during World War II, there was a superhero team called the Invaders whose membership included, among others, Captain America, Bucky Barnes, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner, and the Human Torch. (There were also other members who came and went but don’t much matter right now.) The group broke up around the end of the war, and the heroes mostly died or disappeared. In the present day, the core team has been resurrected and/or recalled from obscurity in various Marvel books, and now they’re banding together again to handle stuff they can’t trust anybody else with. That’s where the Band of Brothers homage comes in—the core of this book is the relationships among the team’s central players and the fact that they trust and understand each other in ways that are utterly alien to most modern superheroes. 
"Don't worry, Jim." "We've got your back."
-Scene from My Little Invaders: Friendship is Explosive.
So while the main plot of All-New Invaders is standard superhero fare, the engine that drives the story is the friendship between four extraordinary men. I’m a big fan of this kind of storytelling, not least because I think the Western world would be less screwed up if there were more cultural space for intimate platonic male friendships. And the fact that writer James Robinson manages to balance excellent World War II flashbacks and present-day action with the complexity of those relationships bodes well for the future of this series.

Robinson is best known for his series Starman for DC, which itself balanced the legacy of a Golden Age superhero with a hip modern sensibility and beautifully delineated family dynamics. It’s no surprise, then, that he can turn that knack to a new family—a group of superpowered freaks and loners who essentially adopted each other in the middle of a world war, and have found those bonds unexpectedly resilient despite their decades spent apart. Robinson has also gotten lucky in his artist, Steve Pugh, whose work incorporates both gorgeous anatomy and action shots that make the book a smooth read and distinctive, expressive faces that add another layer of meaning to Robinson’s dialogue.

Don’t believe me? Take this panel, which takes place after Captain America has spent several pages insisting that another World War II hero, Aarkus the Vision, will help the Invaders out just because they palled around with him during the war. Nobody has believed Cap because Aarkus was always kind of weird and now he’s fully off his nut. But when asked, Aarkus basically says, “Of course I’ll help—you guys are my brothers,” and this panel happens:
See that wry, slightly smug smile on Captain America’s face? That’s how the nicest guy on the Avengers says, “I told you so.” It’s not easy to get that kind of expression out of a face that’s 75% covered, but Pugh does it.

Here’s the casting rundown, with what makes each character distinctive and interesting:
Pictured: not Johnny Storm
Jim Hammond/The Human Torch. Jim was one of Marvel Comics’ first hit characters, way back in 1939. He’s a “synthetic human”—android? robot? accounts vary—who, thanks to a design flaw, can burst into flame and fly. In this comic, he’s a sweet and slightly world-weary Frankenstein’s creature who likes people but doesn’t really understand them and is on the brink of giving up on ever being one himself. By the end of the first arc, he’ll be reconsidering his lost quest for humanity, and wrestling with the question of what kind of man he wants to be.
"Arrogance! Stupidity!" Namor's life words.
Namor the Sub-Mariner. Another classic, Namor is a human-Atlantean hybrid (his parents were Romeo and Juliet with more salt water involved) who’s strong, tough, and able to fly and breathe both water and air. He’s also the most arrogant, imperious character you’re likely to meet thanks to the fact that he’s the honest-to-God king of Atlantis, with a lot to prove to his people because of his half-breed status. Oh, and he’s technically a mutant—among Marvel’s first. All of that translates to a massive chip on his shoulder that he removes only for the guys who knew him before he was king. In the first story arc, his customary arrogance takes a real blow when his stubbornness gets him captured and results in the death of one of the few people he genuinely likes.
"So this is like the old days, gentlemen." Cap's favorite thing to say.
Steve Rogers/Captain America. If you don’t know who this character is, why are you reading my blog? There have been a lot of interesting interpretations of Marvel’s super-soldier, but Robinson chooses to strike a delicate balance between Cap’s military training and his feelings for his friends. Cap is the team leader, the team strategist, and also the guy who always believes his pals will come through for him just because they’re his pals. Captain America is great at reading soldiers and figuring out how they’ll handle a situation … but he tends to see only the best in his closest friends. The unspoken question of the series is who will be the first to let him down, and how he’ll cope.
Falling off a roof while shooting at aliens.
Must be Tuesday.
James “Bucky” Barnes/Winter Soldier. Rounding out the main team roster is Cap’s former sidekick, now a Marvel star in his own right. Of all the team members, Bucky is the most personally loyal to the group (or at least to Cap), but also the most problematic. He is legally dead and supposed to be keeping so far off the radar that even his former allies in the Avengers don’t know he’s still walking the shadows rather than pushing up daisies. The first story arc will leave readers questioning Bucky’s psychological stability even as he puts his life on the line for his team.

The comic has just wrapped up its first story arc, “Gods and Soldiers.” The plot involves a Kree device called the Gods’ Whisper, which can control the actions of deities—Norse gods, Eternals, pretty much anything in the Marvel Universe with god-level power. The Nazis got hold of it during the war, but three Invaders took it away from them, broke it up, hid the pieces, and then had their memories wiped so even the Allies couldn’t be tempted by the possibility of controlling the gods themselves. The story begins when the Kree decide they want their doohickey back and go after the three Invaders in question, kidnapping one of them (Namor) in the process. Once the boys realize what’s going on, Captain America leads the team to the Kree homeworld, Hala, to destroy the Gods’ Whisper and rescue Namor. They’re after the Gods’ Whisper because they don’t think anyone should have it, but they’re rescuing Namor because almost nobody else on earth actually likes Namor, which means he’ll literally die of being a jerk if they don’t do something.
Captain America delivers the team's mission statement.
Also, "Namor being Namor" is going to be that guy's official cause of death.
If that sounds a bit Whedonesque, that’s because it is. This story revolves around a group of veteran heroes (and actual veterans) being there for each other—including lots of shooting, face-punching, and death’s-head humor—because they know nobody else can or will do the job. Oh, and they’re also saving the world for pretty much the same reason. It’s a cross between a war comic, a superhero adventure, and a slightly metafictional family drama.

Meta? Oh, yeah, it’s meta.

Here’s an example. (If you can’t abide spoilers, skip down seven paragraphs RIGHT NOW.) At a key moment in the fourth chapter of the story, the heroes have been captured by the Kree and are being told the fates in store for them—imprisonment, dissection, etc. Now, because this team includes the Winter Soldier, I got to this chapter assuming that he would completely lose his composure at some point because the central macguffin is a device that controls people’s minds. Bucky does not cope well with the prospect of mind control, and the mere suggestion that he’s going to get his head messed with again is usually enough to make him go postal.

And he does go postal, in spectacular fashion—
Leap BEFORE you look!
What, AGAIN?!
I was laughing right up until the body hit the floor. Then I started wondering whether such a popular character could be killed off with so little fanfare. It had to be a fake-out, right? Even though if Bucky were going to get killed on an Invaders mission, that’s exactly how it would happen …

But it turns out, of course, that he isn’t dead, that it was a fake-out, and that this is, in fact, all part of Captain America’s plan.
Note the bodies on the floor.
Because Bucky Barnes.
Let me be clear: Captain America planned to have Bucky completely lose his mind, get shot, and die—because it was exactly what everyone, including readers, expected of him.
"Why can't JIM die this time?" Because he lights himself on fire, that's why.
This may be the best piece of metafictional humor I’ve seen in comics in a while.
All told, All-New Invaders is a wonderful blend of action, humor, and personal drama. The writing is crisp, the art is both lively and technically proficient, and there’s very little continuity that requires actual explanation—you don’t need to know precisely why these guys are friends to understand that they are friends, and very good ones. Sadly, the book is on the publishing cusp right now, not selling enough copies to be a breakout hit but not an obvious failure either. If it’s going to live up to its excellent potential, it needs some more readers. (Hey, editorial! Would it kill you to slap Cap and Bucky on the cover more often? Maybe pull in some movie fans?) It suffers a bit from not being a high-concept book—I can’t sum up its appeal in one sentence that actually appeals to people who haven’t heard of the Invaders. But every issue is like a visit with old friends, combined with a really good action movie, and that’s a rare feat in a comic these days.

If you’ve got the budget for it and you’re in the mood for space adventure, superheroics, and arguments about why it can’t be Jim who fakes his death this time, this is the book for you. A new issue hits the stands this Wednesday.

Bottom of the Stack:
All-New Invaders (Marvel)
Loki: Agent of Asgard (Marvel)
Winter Soldier: The Bitter March (Marvel)
Original Sin (Marvel)
Daredevil (Marvel)

Monday, May 5, 2014

Making the invisible really freaking obvious.

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. It was also the day I had a sadly revealing conversation that got me thinking—a lot—about the state of the culture I so enjoy. Also grammar. Bear with me here.

I’ve mentioned Flatmate, my longtime friend and house-buddy. (We decided when we moved in together that we couldn’t be roommates because we didn’t share a bedroom and, because we watched way too much British TV, “flatmate” sounded better than “housemate” or any variant thereof.) I have not mentioned what she does for a living. Flatmate is a speech and language pathologist. Basically, if your kid has a speech impediment or a speech delay, trouble pronouncing certain sounds or having certain conversations or just talking at all, you’re probably going to take the kid to someone like her. She works with a lot of kids who are on the autism spectrum and a fair number of kids who aren’t. And because she lives with me and we are both massive geeks who encourage each other in geekery, she’s started using comic books in her clinical practice.

It works really, really well.

Most speech therapy relies on traditional therapeutic tools like flashcards to get kids to practice saying certain words and sounds over and over. That’s okay for a while, but when you’re trying to get a five-year-old to say the “f” sound, you can only show him so many pictures of fish before he gets bored. So Flatmate recently pulled one of my Captain America collections out of her tote bag, turned to a page that didn’t have anything too objectionable on it, and pointed at a certain winged superhero.

“See him?” she asked her kid. “His name is the Falcon!”

“Falcon!” the kid repeated, excitedly. And suddenly he was way more interested in saying his Fs.

Flatmate does this kind of thing a lot. She’ll use popular cartoon characters, movies, and the like to get kids to do what would otherwise be boring, repetitive linguistic tasks that most of us learn to do by instinct as we’re growing up. Any comic retailer can tell you that comics are good for developing brains—good for visual and spatial processing, verbal development, the whole shebang. It’s not news to geeks, but it’s just starting to penetrate practices like speech therapy, largely thanks to geeky therapists like Flatmate, who has superhero Mr. Potato Heads in her office right next to her TARDIS cookie jar.
Thor, Potato of Thunder.
Anyway, because last Saturday was Free Comic Book Day, Flatmate and I roamed from local comic shop to local comic shop, trying to collect as many kid-friendly comics as we could for her to use on her kiddos (because Ed Brubaker comics, while useful in a pinch, really are not appropriate for five-year-olds, and there were only so many pages that contained the Falcon and not anything that would freak out a little kid). We picked up most of the appropriate free comics, but Flatmate was most interested in graphic novels and books with sturdy bindings that could take a lot of abuse. I pointed her at youngster-friendly comic lines like Marvel Adventures, Tiny Titans, and so on, and I mostly wandered around the store looking at the grown-up stuff while she sorted through the enormous pile. I bought myself a Winter Soldier bobblehead that makes me smile every time I give him a cognitive recalibration—er, a bop on the noggin.

I don't normally like bobbleheads,
but he's just so cute and disturbing!

But on the way back from the last shop, Flatmate said something revealing.

“I wish there were more girls in these comics.”

I was familiar with the lament, and gladly joined in. Yeah, it’s a crime that there aren’t more strong, well-developed female characters in comics; yeah, it sucks that the gender ratios among creators and creations are so insanely out of whack; yeah, it’s awful that comicdom so often presents itself as hostile to anyone without a Y chromosome. I was just getting a good rant going when she interrupted:

“I’m not talking about that.”

Then what, pray tell, was she talking about? I wondered.

“I’m talking about pronouns.”

As it turned out, because Flatmate so often works with young children and kids whose verbal skills lag seriously behind those of their same-age peers, she often uses her geeky books as part of therapy with kids who can’t actually read. So one of her favorite exercises is to use a series of pictures—including those in a comic—and ask the kid, “What is [name of popular character] doing here?”  The kid then replies, “He/She/It is …” This gives the kid practice at connecting subjects and verbs, creating grammatical sentences, and, yes, using pronouns. But because most of the patients Flatmate sees are boys, she fills her office with superhero and Pixar properties that appeal to little autistic boys … and therein lies the problem.

“I’ve got some great Avengers books,” Flatmate said, “and Toy Story, and Monsters Inc. … but aside from Boo and Black Widow, who don’t show up all that often, there really aren’t any girls in these books. I want to find something that will give the kids practice at saying ‘she’ and ‘her’.”
This picture is only here because it's awesome. Carry on.
Think about that for a second. We spent half a day collecting the very best pop-culture detritus … and we couldn’t come up with enough female characters to teach a male toddler that feminine pronouns exist. Not that girls can be just as strong and competent as boys, or that rigid gender roles do no one any good … I’m talking about teaching kids that the English language contains the pronoun “she”.

We finally found a Hello Kitty book. God knows whether Flatmate’s patients—and remember, spectrum-diagnosed boys far outnumber spectrum-diagnosed girls—will take to it. Iron Man and Captain America are pretty much a lock. Hello Kitty, maybe not. But for now, the fate of the feminine pronoun rests upon a Japanese cartoon cat.

This isn’t a radical feminist agenda. Flatmate’s not part of the wild and crazy liberal Left you hear about on conservative talk radio. She’s trying to teach small children to use basic parts of speech, and she’s really quite innovative about it … but she’s working with the product of a culture that, more often than not, doesn’t admit that girls exist outside of highly girl-centric media like My Little Pony. Girls looking at girl books will still learn to say “he” and “him”, if only because Disney princesses usually end up with Disney princes, and they’re a lot more likely to read boy books than boys are to read girl books anyway (because the Avengers are awesome no matter what your chromosomes look like). Boys looking exclusively at boy books, however, will not learn to say “she” and “her” because Iron Man and Captain America tend to fly solo, at least in toddler-level stories.

Is there a better indication that this culture is fundamentally FUBAR?

Never mind the high-minded attempts to get more complex female characters into pop culture aimed at grownups. I want to see some girls in the toddler market. I want to see boy books that have girls in them. Girls who do things. Girls who show up in a significant percentage of the pictures. Girls involved in the action, whatever it is. I want to see boy books that acknowledge the existence of girls in the same way that girl books acknowledge the existence of boys. I want Flatmate to be able to point at an illustration in a boy book and, at some point, ask a kiddo, “What is she doing?”

Girl books are allowed to say “he”. It’s long past time boy books learned to say “she.”

Stories are the human operating system. What does it say that our operating system, at its most basic level, denies the very existence of half the units using it? There’s a theory in linguistics that holds that ideas that cannot be expressed in words cannot, in most cases, be clearly thought. If you can’t say it, you (almost) can’t think it. It’s certainly very hard work to think it. Not something most people do without a really good reason.

We’re starting an awful lot of humans out in life without the basic tools to think about half the human population. Is it any wonder our culture treats women the way it does if, for the first few years of our lives, half of us don’t happen to learn that women (other than the ones we personally know) exist?

Come on, pop culture. The least you can do is use all the damn pronouns. 
And now, a photo of Winter Soldier Bobble with a tiny
plastic Groot on his head. You are welcome.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Eating crow on Winter Soldier

I’ve decided that if I’m going to devote a long blogathon to, among other things, my predictions about this movie, I’d better check in on whether I was right or wrong now that the movie is out. Honestly, I was shocked at how many of my predictions turned out to be accurate … and that the accuracy rate was slightly higher with the batshit-crazy pet theories. I did not have script access, I swear. Apparently I’ve just got one of those brains. (But you probably knew that.)
So without further ado, here’s a rundown of my predictions from the second, third and fourth days of the blogathon, and how they all turned out. Spoilers ahead, of course.


1. Paranoia and conspiracies abound.
Yeah, I think we can say this showed up. I don’t know about you, but by the end of the movie I was watching every blue uniform out of the corner of my eye.

2. SHIELD vs. SHIELD is officially a thing. Well, considering that Hydra was inside SHIELD, I think we can safely say that one happened.

3. Cap goes on the run. Yeah, he took it on the lam, all right. Bonus points for the sight of Captain America stealing a car … and walking around a shopping mall. The horror. And lying low really did not work out too well for him. Of course, breaking into the Smithsonian didn’t help …

4. Cap maybe falls in love (but probably not). Well, they kissed, but I did call the shot there—they weren’t kissing for the most common movie reason. (It was the second most common movie reason.)

5. The Falcon is Cap’s rock. Yes, yes, and yes. Falcon wasn’t a SHIELD agent (good thing, too), but he was definitely the solid foundation Steve Rogers needed in this story.

6. Peggy Carter returns. Briefly, but yes. And not only was Steve a bit wrecked by that scene, I don’t think I’ve been in a single screening where I didn’t hear somebody sniffling by the end of it. Bravo, Hayley Atwell.

7. Robert Redford is a spook. Eeeeeyup.

8. Nick Fury has a bad day. Oh, hells, yes. And may I just point out that I said before the movie came out that “Fury’s major weakness … is bureaucrats who go over his head to get things done. How high do the bad guys go?” Pretty damn high, as it turned out.

9. The Winter Soldier is a sock puppet, not the main bad guy. Yeeeaaaaaahhh. I’m gonna call that prediction a slam dunk. The main bad guy would be the guy smacking Bucky in the head for misbehaving.

No, not Steve! The first guy to smack him in the head!

10. Black Widow plays a major role. Yup. Though we didn’t get to see as much of her backstory as I would have liked.

All right, all right, I hear you saying. It’s hardly rocket science to predict stuff that is obviously in the trailer. What about the stuff that wasn’t in the trailers?

1. Agent 13 plays a significant role. I’m going to call this a split decision. She was there, and she was important, but she wasn’t as big a player as I expected, and her relationship to Peggy (if Peggy even was the “insomniac aunt” on the other end of that phone call) was not explored.

2. Agent Rumlow is not to be trusted.
This is a big ol’ check. You definitely can’t trust that guy. He even rocked Crossbones’ crossed-straps-and-horrible-scarring look by the end.

3. Batroc is Batroc. This wasn’t much of a surprise, but check. He even did some leaping. And while he didn’t betray an unscrupulous employer, he did turn out to be (probably) working for the good(ish) guys. Well, Nick Fury. As close as you can get.

4. Hydra is back in some form. Holy hell, yes. Not even “in some form.” Actual Hydra, dumb salute and all. Nice. I hereby pat myself on the back.

5. The Zodiac is involved. Big ol’ miss. Not a word about the Zodiac in this movie. Oh, well. Maybe it’ll show up in Guardians of the Galaxy.

6. Mind-control magic will show up. Well, it certainly didn’t look like the means of mind control was Tesseract-related … though it did turn out that Hydra had Loki’s scepter, and SHIELD had the Tesseract more than long enough for Hydra to power their shiver-inducing brainwashing rig with it. I’ll call this a miss, but it just might be a split decision. We may find out more in the next movie, when Bucky’s set to appear again (and, presumably, Steve’s going to dig into that file).

And interestingly, the movie kept some of the Soviet trappings of the Winter Soldier origin story—Bucky speaking what sounded like Russian during the bridge scene, what looked like a 1950s Soviet soldier in Bucky’s flashbacks, Widow getting the Winter Soldier files from “some friends in Kiev” (you decide whether that means the recently booted Yanukovich government, or the new one that booted him, or whatever the hell Putin tries to put in next) and what looked like a dossier written in the Cyrillic alphabet. So I might be wrong about the Russians being untouchable Marvel movie baddies.

Of course, that last paragraph did include the word “Putin”. So who the hell knows. And here ends my geopolitical rant.

7. Black Widow’s history will be revealed. Miss. We didn’t get much of that at all, except Zola revealing her patronymic and her date of birth (which I totally don’t buy—more on that later) and Natasha mentioning her past connection with the KGB. We got nothing on a possible Red Room past, or whatever she was talking to Hawkeye about when he was babbling about mind control in The Avengers. And she wasn’t running a long con on SHIELD (that we saw). Sigh.

All right, on to the main event …

Honestly, I was surprised at how on-the-mark these were.

1. Robert Redford is the Red Skull (or someone like him). Well, he wasn’t the actual Red Skull, but he was the head of Hydra and he tried to kill Captain America a whole bunch. That’s pretty like the Red Skull. I’m prepared to call this one a hit.

2. The nurse across the hall is Agent 13. Yup. Called it. She was there as a bodyguard rather than as a starter friend, but she was flirting with him, too. Call that a hit.

3. The Steve-Natasha romance ain’t happening. Bingo. The kiss was a fake-out.

4. The Bucky-Natasha romance might happen. Wrong. This was a big miss on my part, but I’m not terribly upset. Like I said up above, I don’t believe Natasha was actually born in 1984 like Zola said. Even if you can’t do the basic arithmetic involved (no more Russian KGB after the early 1990s), here’s a simple illustration: half my friends were born in 1984, by a remarkable coincidence, and if they ever worked for the KGB, they would have to have done it in grade school. Early grade school. I know Natasha “started early” in the spy game, but I’m not buying the notion of her being an experienced and competent KGB agent at five to eight years old. As a result, I think the birthdate Zola gave her was wrong. I still think Natasha has a longer past than she seems, and I still think Bucky’s in it somewhere. Maybe next movie.

5. Fake death(s). Oh, look. A major character faked his death. And another one conveniently disappeared. I’d call that a palpable hit. It wasn’t Bucky under that sheet, granted, but it was a fake death. Point to me.

6. Bucky is a super-soldier. Ding ding ding! And he was apparently supered up before he fell off the train, at least according to Steve’s theory of how Bucky must have survived. It’s pretty consistent with Bucky’s flashbacks, too. Go Steve with the inductive reasoning!

7. Arnim Zola resurrected Bucky. Oh, yes. They even used the same real-life history I cited. If you were in a theater on the evening of April 3 and a random woman punched the air and whooped when the Black Widow said “Operation Paperclip” … yeah, that was me. Sorry for the interruption.

8. The Winter Soldier is working for SHIELD. All right, it might be a bit of a cheat to claim both the “Hydra’s back” and the “Winter Soldier is working for SHIELD” theories as true when he was, in fact, working for the organization that I credit as both Hydra and SHIELD … but it was Hydra inside of SHIELD. I’m calling this a win. Look, it was even Pierce pulling the strings, and he was the head of both Hydra and SHIELD. Stop looking at me like that.

9. Peggy Carter and Howard Stark helped build the Winter Soldier. Okay, I was dead wrong about that one. I’ll have my crow medium well, thank you.

10. The Winter Soldier is a false-flag operative. Yeah, more or less. He was working for SHIELD/Hydra (Healed? Shydra?), but attacked Nick Fury under the guise of being not working for them. Check.

FINAL SCORE (not counting the stuff in the videos and the split decisions): Hits 11, Misses 4. Not bad for armchair screenwriting.

So what did you think of Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Let me know in the comments, while I try to stifle my fannish squealing …

Friday, April 4, 2014

Winter Soldier Review: Mouthguards, throat-cutting, and the hardest thing to do ...

Really, there’s only two things you need to know about my opinion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Thing one: First—and I say this as a huge Bucky Barnes fangirl—it could’ve used about ten percent more Bucky Barnes than it actually contained. Just ten percent.

Thing two: That’s the only negative thing I can find to say about it. It is otherwise perfect. In many ways, it’s better than perfect.

Honestly, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, and you like superheroes enough to read my blog, open a new browser window right-the-hell-now and buy a ticket to see this. I’m not completely convinced yet that The Winter Soldier is better than The Avengers, but it is definitely in the same intellectual, emotional, and all-around fun weight class. This is the big-budget, high-stakes Captain America movie that you saw in your head when you read the Brubaker/Epting comics, and the one you have longed for in your heart.

One completely spoiler-free example? This movie actually gave Bucky’s story a better ending—well, a better ending-for-now, because you know it’s not over—than the comics. Yes, better than blowing up the Cosmic Cube and reappearing at Fort Lehigh. Yes, better than Steve having to convince everyone he knew that Bucky wasn’t dead again. All I have to say about this ending is stay all the way through the goddamned credits, because there is a scene you have absolutely got to see. Remember the shawarma scene in The Avengers? It’s got a sequel, only it tears your heart out instead of making you laugh maniacally. Glue your butt to the seat and watch both credits scenes. You can thank me later.

And then there’s the overall awesomeness that is the Falcon (seriously, his every scene is solid gold) … and the horror of Steve Rogers in an Apple store … and the best car chase in years … and fight scenes that work on every level … and some of the finest character work in any Marvel movie, ever …

Okay, I think I can breathe now. Time to pretend I’m actually reviewing this movie, instead of just gushing my brains out.

Because here’s the really important part I haven’t gotten around to telling you yet—this movie is a lot more than explosions and car chases and Scarlett Johansson kissing Chris Evans. This movie is after your brain, and your heart, and it’s not one you’ll forget in a hurry.

I really can’t spill too much of the plot in this review, not without spoiling some really great plot twists, so I’m going to focus on theme instead. Because it’s a big, big theme, and really the theme is a lot more important than the plot. The Winter Soldier is fundamentally a movie about tackling the biggest question in heroic fiction—the question of sacrifice. And the answer it gives, as much as it gives any kind of answer, is one that simply must be seen. It’s what elevates this movie from a standard superhero punchemup to something people will probably write dissertations about in the next couple of years. And the punching’s damn near perfect.

As we all expected, The Winter Soldier tackles some big issues on the freedom-versus-security front. Pretty much everyone who saw those trailers expected Captain America’s self-effacing, self-sacrificing 1940s ideals to clash with twenty-first-century paranoia and pragmatism … but nobody could have predicted the way that it actually drives the story. In The Winter Soldier, the central conflict is between Cap’s morality and SHIELD’s, but the sides are not exactly drawn up in the usual way. And the actual physical punching-and-kicking conflict, when it arises, encapsulates the moral conflict perfectly—and in a manner even more heartbreaking and thought-provoking than the original comics managed to do.

For years, Captain America has held the moral high ground in Marvel Comics. Thanks to his long record of unquestionably heroic service, he’s the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong; morally conflicted superheroes regularly seek him out for advice. But as a lot of readers have pointed out, giving Cap the moral high ground in a typical comic book is more problematic than it looks; he fought for years in a bloody world war, with all that entails. He’s not exactly pristine. Take that ultimate superhero bugaboo—death.

Unlike, say, Batman, there has never been any question about whether Captain America’s killed people. You can count the number of people Spider-Man’s killed on the fingers of one hand, but Captain America used to walk around with a giant death-frisbee, backed up by a teenager with a machine gun, accompanied by two guys who could light themselves on fire and a perpetually pissed-off sea king who liked ripping Nazis limb from limb and who once tried to drown all of New York City because he had a bad day. They killed a lot of people, is my point. They did things that you do not usually want your superheroes doing, and they were celebrated for it. Now, nobody who’s studied history thinks they were out of line to do those things, of course (there’s a reason Nazis are everyone’s favorite all-purpose movie villains), but it kind of blows a hole in the Captain-America-as-moral-paragon theory to remember that he did his fair share of throat-cutting with that shield.

Well, guess what? He’s not so ruined anymore. The throat-cutting’s still there—oh, my, is it ever still there—but this is not the Steve Rogers you knew.

In an early scene, after Steve complains about SHIELD turning a rescue mission into a black-ops job, Nick Fury brings up this very point—the Strategic Scientific Reserve did a lot of dirty work back in the day, so what’s Steve whining about now? But for once Steve has an answer. Like a lot of good guys doing bad things, he believed he was doing them for the sake of the greater good—so that bad things would no longer be necessary. Not so they could be institutionalized by the organization his friends founded, and certainly not so they could be repeated on a planetary scale. Maybe you don’t agree with him on that—maybe you think an organization like SHIELD is necessary, and you believe you can’t run it without spying on everyone and occasionally assassinating people who get in your way—but from that moment on, you believe that Captain America thinks it’s possible, and you understand why. And you very much want him to be right.

All of a sudden Steve Rogers has his naïveté back, and the audience really wants him to have it. By portraying Steve’s history of violence (and the surprisingly large number of people he kills on missions in this movie) as a deliberate act of self-sacrifice rather than a moral lapse, the movie places him on the moral high ground even as he’s literally trying to scrub the bloodstains out of his clothes. And by embracing that violent edge and going way past it, on a global scale and on a daily basis, SHIELD is devaluing that sacrifice. No wonder Steve is pissed. Instant conflict.

Unlike the 50 years of stories that mostly portrayed Captain America as morally perfect and absurdly claimed that he had never done anything so questionable as killing anyone, this version of Cap has taken a long walk in the darkness, and has gotten a good look at the abyss—and now he’s deliberately standing between it and his spiritual descendants. No matter where you stand on the Patriot Act, the NSA, or any other aspect of the way the world’s been run for most of my life, you understand immediately why Captain America’s doing what he’s doing, and why he considers it worth his life to do it. He is choosing, over and over again, the kind of sacrifice that defines heroism. And you’re going to bloody well root for him if you’ve got a sympathetic bone in your body. That’s the kind of character Steve Rogers is.

So whatever else happens in this movie—and especially in Cap’s inevitable conflict with his brainwashed best friend, Bucky/the Winter Soldier—that tension runs underneath it all. Can Captain America pull the world back from a brink that few people know, or care, is there? Can he do it without having to commit one last dirty deed—killing an innocent who also happens to be his oldest, closest friend? Because even if you’re not going to care about the big abstract questions of freedom and security and surveillance and control and destiny and free will and whatall, you’re going to damn well care about whether Steve, the kid from Brooklyn, has to put his best pal Bucky out of his misery. (Spoiler alert: It’s a lot of misery. I don’t think I’ve ever been so creeped out by a Winter Soldier mindwipe scene. OMG, I wanted to hide under my seat when I saw that mouthguard …) And that’s the real genius of this movie. It’s got a moral conflict on a grand scale … and it manages to play it out on the most intimate human level.

With a fairly clever twist, which I will not spoil because I like you guys way too much, the way in which Bucky is brought back from the dead and the way in which he’s used against Steve perfectly encapsulates the larger question at work. This is something a lot of movies try to do, but few if any do it as well as this one. If Steve can’t stop Bucky from fulfilling his mission, the world burns. But if Steve has to kill Bucky to stop him, Steve will burn in its place. The only way to save the free world and the soul of Steve Rogers is to save Bucky, both as he is now and as he was in Steve’s memories.

And here’s the good bit. Saving Bucky like that is just about impossible.

Did I mention there’s no Cosmic Cube in this movie? No Tesseract? I was right about a lot of my batshit-crazy predictions in the blogathon, but I was wrong about one thing: Bucky is not being controlled by anything like that particular cosmic macguffin. There’s no magical glowing box for Steve to grab and say, “Remember who you are.” If he’s going to save Bucky this time, he has to do it the hard way. And the hard way is a form of self-sacrifice that even Steve Rogers has never had to consider before. He’s not crashing a plane into an ice field now, and he’s not doing his country’s dirty work. He’s … well, I won’t spoil it. But it’s hard for anyone to pull off, and it’s harder still when it’s Steve Rogers who has to do it, and hardest of all when he has to do it while looking into the frightened, confused eyes of Bucky Barnes. (And while Bucky’s trying to bash Steve’s skull in with his metal arm. Because the plot doesn’t stop for angst.)

I’m not saying he does it. I’m not saying he doesn’t. Hell, I’m not even saying the movie actually makes clear whether he succeeds or not—something happens, but it’s kind of open to interpretation. And that’s as it should be, I think. This question is one that’s put to the audience as much as it is to Steve Rogers. Even Bucky gets a say, ultimately, in its answer, but it’s not completely up to him. It’s up to us.

Kind of heavy for a superhero movie, I know. But it’s that weight that makes this movie so very deeply worth the watching.

Okay, that and that one scene after the very end of the credits. Eeeeeeeeeee …