Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Captain America: Civil War - Special Double Movie Review

Captain America: Civil War In Theaters Now

The tradition continues!

Rick and Ben are back with independent reviews and analysis of Captain America: Civil War in another double blind, double shot!

You know the drill, soldier! Ben will be writing from Los Angeles, California, while Rick will be reporting in from the great state of New Mexico. We have not discussed the film or its production to ensure that our opinions remain our own. As is the intent of the blog, we will analyze the film from the perspectives of admirers of the works and the character of Captain America and about modern storytelling.

SPOILER ALERT - Please be advised that these reviews contain detailed descriptions of plot, character and dramatic conclusion of the film. - SPOILER ALERT

» Rick's Review
» Ben's Review



Civil War Heroes

review by Rick Arthur

This film was designed to be a blockbuster crowd pleaser, another in a growing line of movies made by Marvel Studios to support something called a “shared universe.” In this election year, there is no doubt that opening weekend crowds voted with their wallets and made a beeline toward theatres to watch the match-up of Team Cap versus Team Iron Man. This is a reminder that this review was done “blind.” I have no idea at all what Ben has written. I saw this film on opening weekend in regular format. I did not want this space to become a debate hall for 3D, IMAX, drive-in, etc. I encourage readers of this blog to post comments about points brought up in the reviews, the Marvel Cap movies, or Cap in the comics. Ben and I will both respond as time allows. Spoilers? Relax. This is ALL spoilers as it is a frank discussion of the ideas presented in the film and comics.

My overall opinion is very favorable and I give Captain America: Civil War forty-one stars out of fifty for being fun, fast paced, and packed with action. The stunt and fight coordinators really earned their keep creating sharp, interesting set pieces which are impressive in this film and also in Captain America: Winter Soldier. When I was a kid, Marvel comic characters were always sporadically appearing. The Hulk TV show was a favorite with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. We went around the house ripping our shirts off in slow motion and giving the Hulk growl. Barely animated FF and Spidey cartoons and not too much else. The Spidey theme song is unforgettable. I always longed for the day when comic books could be brought to the big screen. Fast-forward a few decades. Now, comic characters, particularly Marvel characters are everywhere. Special effects and camera work have caught up to our heroes allowing them to fly, jump, kick, punch, lift, throw, and spout cheesy dialogue just like in the comic books. These colorful characters have been turned into super big budget opening weekend popcorn movies with lots of action, thrills, and little plot. Captain America: Civil War is the kind of movie that would have absolutely wowed me as a ten-year old kid.

The story behind Civil War is simple. Set a situation up (some multi-nation accord) that makes heroes register with a United Nations oversight committee. This is an echo of the Mutant Registration Act from the X-Men movies. Iron Man says yes. Cap says no. Heroes take sides. There is your Civil War, the conflict that is supposed to drive the plot of the movie. Weighing in at two hours and twenty-six minutes, the filmmakers have plenty of time to tell any kind of story they choose. What needs to be remembered is that this is the third in the Captain America series of films. Astute blog readers will notice the review I gave Captain America: Winter Soldier and I am afraid that Marvel’s misuse of Cap as a character in his own movies is systemic. I want to note that I spoke with several moviegoers who thought this was an Avengers movie the same way that Winter Soldier was confused for a SHIELD movie. Cap does not carry his own film and is in effect a supporting character. Moviegoers, particular those just going to the theatre to get entertained have been easily misled into thinking this was another Avengers outing. They don’t understand or care about the character’s alliances in either the comics or other films.

The action sequences in Captain America: Civil War are crisp, fun, and feel new. I have broken the action down into a few categories: Car/motorcycle; Guns; Hand to hand combat; and Iron Man. The fight sequences are choppy, fast, and have thunderous impact. It gives a sense of speed, weight, and gravity to the undertakings. Serious fights make the audience want to root for the hero. There is a sense of consequence, of things changing which is a result of masterful fights. It feels like a comic book come to life. This action film more than succeeds and viewers should be thrilled to the edge of their seats.

While I won’t talk about the Zemo mess, as the third in the Cap series some emotional beats got the slightest of mentions. The death of Peggy Carter, Cap’s love from WWII, is poorly handled. First time moviegoers have no idea what is going on or why they should care. The same can be said of the Sharon Carter/Cap kiss. What was that all about? There is zero impact to what should have been emotional moments in the script. There are other misfires as well. At the end of the film, the Winter Soldier problem is laid to rest. Cap and Bucky/Winter Soldier talk about the old days in Brooklyn in what should have been a very satisfying emotional payoff. However, we only see the back of the characters and the scene feels eerily like it was added as an afterthought by using extra footage. That conversation and the conclusion of Bucky’s story are handled poorly. Also handled poorly is the end of the Civil War. Cap writes Iron Man a letter, after all the deadly combat, and we get the conclusion read to us as a voice over. There are many instances where this technique could be used effectively but not here. What is Tony Stark’s reaction to Steve Rogers? We will never really know. A more direct approach is required. So, to end the movie Cap uses a voiceover letter and to end the three-movie arc featuring the story of Cap and Bucky we get more warmed over voice work. Sounds like the filmmakers dropped the ball big time.

What are the driving ideas behind the story? Many plot questions are never addressed. Listen closely to how the characters talk to one another. They are all glib, even smarmy. I find it a weakness on the part of the script that all the characters: Vision, Scarlet Witch, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Cap, and Iron Man have similar dialogue, at times interchangeable. There is no individuality except Spider-man. Why isn’t Thor or Hulk present in this film since it is clearly about the Avengers? The answer is weak especially since Hulk is animated. Captain America deals with conspiracies in this film while confronting Iron Man. While the tale of Bucky as the Winter Soldier drove the plot in the second movie, Winter Soldier’s abuse by Hydra competes with storylines involving the Civil War,

Marvel feels the need to roll out more characters from its vast empire. Black Panther has a great role in this film and creates a wonderful trailer for his stand-alone adventure. Spider-man has been borrowed from Sony and steals valuable screen time from the main players. Just in case we forgot he has a sequel coming out, Ant-man drops by for a few minutes of screen time too. Without all the cameos could this film be under two hours? While Black Panther was included as part of the story, both Ant-man and Spider-man tag along in order to sell themselves to audiences. This should not be surprising but it is disturbing. More seeds for later include a growing relationship between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen). In the original comic books, they are married pretty early on (1975).

I found a few things in the film Captain America: Civil War to be coincidental, not to the degree that there is a conspiracy but just so you scratch your head. Captain America, the comic book character, was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941. The fact that Cap was iconic while at the same time borrowing from other patriotic heroes in the comics near that time, did not take away from the many stunning new innovations Simon and Kirby cooked up. Later, during the revolution in comic books that came in the 60s at Marvel, once again, Jack Kirby had a hand in creating the Avengers. The original line-up was Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man/Goliath, Wasp, and the Hulk. Moving forward to the Civil War movie, Black Panther was also introduced in the film and was co-created by Jack Kirby back in FF#52. The character was the first mainstream black hero in comic books. Does anyone find it coincidental that Black Panther’s father dies at the United Nations by a bomb supposedly set by Winter Soldier? Then Winter Soldier killed Tony Stark’s mother and father? I was afraid they would try to pin Ben Parker’s death on Winter Soldier too.

I should take a minute to refresh your memory as to why Marvel even exist. The company went into a deep and serious bankruptcy under the leadership of corporate raider Ron Perelman (1996). In bankruptcy court for an unprecedented two years, Marvel was on the verge of being totally liquidated unless a plan could be formed to pay off their considerable debts. A last minute gamble to borrow even more money to make movies at Marvel Studios, which up until this time was merely producing films, turned to gold with the release of the Jon Favreau directed Iron Man. Robert Downey, Jr. stunned and charmed audiences with his portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man with a tight little script, an indie cast, and no big names. If Iron Man had failed, the odds for Marvel paying its debts and emerging from bankruptcy court would have been long indeed. That film was not heavily advertised and was not expected to do more than break even.

Captain America is a genuine hero. I feel pretty badly for Cap. Both his sequels barely involved him. The second film was all about SHIELD. The third film was all about the Avengers. I think Marvel missed an excellent opportunity to showcase Captain America. First and foremost, the character has all the virtues of a hero: strength, intelligence, courage, loyalty, honor, and a lot more. As skillfully played by Chris Evans (remember him as Johnny Storm?), Captain America embodies all that is good about American military strength and democracy. He should inspire. He should inspire by example. He should inspire by his words. Speeches from Cap will move men to action or tears. He is a natural leader yet humble. Instead of being picked on for being a fish out of water, Cap would lead…

I suppose that Stark, a control freak in the films, wouldn’t admit to it but he would want to follow Cap too. Instead of throwing mud at a man who fought in WWII and trying to disparage his wholesomeness as out of date in a world of spies and assassins, Stark should simply acknowledge that he wants to be like him but can’t. Captain America acts as a foil for Iron Man in these films but if that is his only role then all the rest of the character is left by the wayside. It might have been nice to see Cap and Iron Man engaged in an escalating battle of wits along with all the fisticuffs. Yet it really would have been great to see Cap do what he does best: be a hero; a legend; a symbol of the American spirit to fight against all odds for that which is right. Yeah, I would have liked to see that. Maybe next time.

Captain America: Civil War. Forty-one stars out of fifty. Strong action sequences. Little plot or characterization. Still fun.

Liberty for all,
Rick Arthur
Central New Mexico
May 9, 2016


The Man Who Planted Trees

review by Ben Alpi

I first have to say that I’m really glad to be back writing alongside Rick again. It’s been a long time and I’m glad we could do this. (Even though I have no idea what he’s writing!) I enjoyed watching Captain America: Civil War, the latest and likely the climax of the Captain America films. Differing from my normal avoidance of all news and trailers about a film I want to go see, I actually did see one trailer of the film last year, their first one, in front of Spectre. And I think it’s interesting. My wife liked that trailer and I actually didn’t. I said it made the film seem small in scope and like it was set in our normal world—not the world of superheroes. Interesting…


Overall, the film had some truly fantastic moments with some solid performances and great action. It was a very fast paced film which was great in some ways, but also meant a lack of depth. Being a Captain America film, I would figure we’d have a solid understanding of what he stands for and his motivations. I’m not certain that we did. I think the directors Anthony and Joe Russo did a great job of juggling such a large array of characters, but where the storytelling was sometimes very clear, at other times the logic and motivations were fuzzy. Although I haven’t read anything about it yet, I’m fairly certain this film was two, or even three, scripts blended together with a very late addition of a certain Web Head. But let’s get into the fray!

"Cry 'Havoc!'..."

The film opens with a solid action scene that establishes the new Avengers team. I really liked the fully formed Falcon although, his programmable drone reminded me of the strange programmable Batarang from Batman Returns. The super-side of Black Widow was on full display and was perhaps the best action sequences of her using her Sting. Wow, Scarlet Witch is far more powerful than she seems in the comics! Cap has some really nice action with some great uses of his shield. As the heroes win the day however, the main bad guy (Crossbones) decides he’s going to blow himself up. That’s not good! But Scarlet Witch is able to contain the blast in the force field and flings it… into a building? This opening scene had a lot of very shaky/too-close camera work which made it a bit hard to follow the action. Perhaps it was that, but even though Scarlet Witch is the newest team member, her mistake felt off. I think if the directors wanted us to feel strangely, that’s great, but the camera shots and Scarlet Witch’s movements didn’t really seem to say she tossed the force field off to the side, instead of straight up as anyone with their feet planted would do. Magic and super powers, even The Force in Star Wars, can be difficult to balance in a story because you don’t want your heroes to be too powerful. So, sometimes they work as well or are as powerful as the storyteller wants. Spider-man’s popularity might be in part because his powers are so well defined and he has a built in foils, one of which being his mechanical web shooters often fail at crucial moments. Scarlet Witch doesn’t know the extent of her powers and I don’t really get any indication that she’s working on that. So, the Avengers have put a ticking time bomb on their squad and she eventually goes off as was to be expected. Seems pretty convenient.

Meanwhile, Iron Man is speaking at MIT and is then stopped short by the encounter with a lady who blames him for her son’s death in Sokovia, the city the Avengers evacuated in Avengers: Age of Ultron. This sets up the assumption that the Avengers are reckless despite showing in that film to what lengths the super team will go to try and keep people from harm; namely the small army of robots Tony sends down to clear the stage for his battle with the Hulk and the massive flying evacuation efforts at Sokovia. (Wait, Iron Man versus Hulk? How much in-fighting do the Avengers have anyhow? A lot. So much in fact, it spills into Cap’s movie.) Still, given Tony co-created Ultron, I could certainly see how Tony would blame himself even though that fact isn’t mentioned in this film. And, the fact that this film is not a sequel to that one, but of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. So, the woman’s blame makes sense but it seems like Tony would have had encounters like this several times throughout the years; especially given he was actually the object of blame in Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Why is it this time it really shakes him up? Given this is a crossover and not an Avengers sequel, I think if they had mentioned Ultron or established that Tony was already (still) blaming himself, this event would have tipped him over the edge and had much more weight. Perhaps I’m nit-picking here, but this is one of the cornerstones of the film and if the directors leave a portion of it to the assumptions of the audience, it will be at least a bit shaky.

A Tale of Two Movies

The other thing about this second sequence of the film is Iron Man is given something we never really get with Cap, his very own scene which establishes where he is personally/emotionally and what he’s been up to. This scene replays Tony’s last evening with his parents giving us a powerful reminder of what drives him. Also in this one scene, we get to hear him speak about what he holds dear, helping people, the future, invention, and we find out he and Pepper are having relationship troubles again. In a single scene we get a full setup of Tony’s situation and that’s really good filmmaking. And, there are no other major characters featured, it’s fully Tony’s dramatic, dialog-heavy set of scenes. This is what first tipped me off that this film might have started out as two separate scripts. This is a scene from an Iron Man film, not a Captain America film.

In the next scene, the setup of the Sokovia Accords clearly frames the central argument of the film and the cause of the Avenger’s Civil War. I really liked how the directors took the time to establish the debate. I do have to mention though that Secretary of State Ross’ listing off of New York, Sokovia, and Wakanda is terribly laborious given we already are familiar with them. As far as the debate, I felt like Cap and Iron Man had been given each other’s lines. And, actually, Cap is completely right; the Accords are a slippery slope and would only shift the blame. I don’t see how ‘reigning in’ the Avengers, Iron Man’s side of the debate, will solve anything. Even as I turn it over in my mind now, perhaps the Accords would help with PR or politics, but they would do nothing in reality, certainly it wouldn’t do anything to stop other super beings, hero or villain. Although I’ve never read the original Civil War storyline in the comics, I know that it involved the entire Marvel universe and that makes much more sense. When you narrow the focus to just the Avengers, it reduces the scope of the film and the severity of the conflict. Unlike in the early 20th Century Fox X-Men films, I didn’t get the feeling that the media, the governments, and the people were all against the Avengers and certainly, I would think the world’s anger would apply to all super beings, not just the Avengers—and not just Bucky.

Ending the scene, Cap gets a text that someone has passed away. He leaves saying to his team, “I gotta go.” (The leader of the Avengers leaves as if he’s your pal at the college dorms? I know the Avengers are chummy, but Cap has responsibilities and he really should leave like a leader, not a college kid.) Where he goes is to the funeral of British super spy Peggy Carter and the only Cap-centric scene in the film. Instead of a tragic scene of Cap’s last conversation with Peggy, the woman he fell in love with, she had died while he was doing other things. This is a terribly tragic thing and I really felt bad for Cap missing the chance to say goodbye, but his regret is never really addressed. Instead, Cap learns that his hot CIA neighbor, Sharon Carter, is Peggy’s niece. (Hey, isn’t this from the 70’s Cap film?) In her eulogy Sharon quotes Peggy, “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t… it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree… and say ‘No, YOU move’.” This is taken from a speech by Sam Clemens/Mark Twain and was quoted by Cap in an issue of Amazing Spider-man during the Civil War storyline in the comic books. It’s a very powerful quote but I feel that without context, it alone does not solidify Cap’s resolve to go against the Accords. Certainly, I’m afraid I don’t think he has reason enough to put the beat-down on his friends and fellow soldiers, and certainly not to put their lives at risk. I get the distinct feeling that the writers don’t really know what soldiers are like and they certainly don’t know how the British handle the death of one of their fallen heroes. Dang nab it, I could easily see a scene where in her death bed, Peggy comforts Cap, a mere boy to her years, telling him that she has lived her life and was lucky enough to become old. So many of her comrades and friends were not so lucky. Cap confesses that he wishes that he had the chance to grow old with her. She raises his head by the chin and looks him in the eye. Although there was no way she could have known that this is how their lives would turn out, it’s no excuse for him to not live his life. To not use his gifts. To not stand up for what he believes in. And then she would quote from Churchill, Shakespeare, or Kipling and her extended family would gather around them, and she would say her goodbyes and peacefully pass away. A dignified death for a woman of distinction. Very British.

In the actual film, after the funeral Cap is hanging around in the empty church. I don’t know if he has gone to the burial or if Peggy is to be buried at a later date so, finding Cap simply standing around is a bit jarring. So, why is he there? Is he talking to God? Let’s hear it! Let’s find now what he’s thinking, where he’s at in his life, what he wants the future to hold. By definition, the main character of a film is the character we spend the most time with, it’s the one we get to know the best, we get to see the world the way he or she sees it. But we’re held at arm’s length away from Cap through the entire film. Sharon enters and they talk. Now, I know these two are soldiers and death comes with the territory, but what they don’t talk about is Cap’s regret, perhaps even guilt, about not being there when Peggy passed. I have to say that I think there is another trend in Hollywood, a lack of understanding of emotions. This is an obvious opportunity: Cap has just lost someone who is the embodiment of the life he missed, of the friends and family he suddenly lost in a wink of an eye. Isn’t this when it would all come down on him like a ton of bricks? And Sharon is someone with a connection to that past, someone outside of the Avengers, someone who won’t judge him. A real friend. Shouldn’t we be teaching or reminding people how to handle grief? What real friendship looks like? In Cap’s generation, a person would drop whatever they were doing to help a friend. We should show that. And we should give Sharon’s character more meaning in the film.

After the funeral, there is a meeting at the UN to sign the accords. King T'Chaka is so wonderful. And his son, T'Challa/Black Panther is really great as well. In one scene we get introduced to the Prince, we get a sense of his feelings and the pain he feels for those lives lost in his country. As a result, we feel for him deeply when his father dies and we totally understand he wants revenge. There was some really good digital double work with Panther that helped show off his abilities. Bucky is implicated in the attack by a photograph of him in the area. This sets Black Panther on his very clear mission. Cap then finds Bucky who says that he doesn’t remember being the bomber. So Cap assumes Bucky’s been mind-controlled and helps him escape… although near the end of the film, Bucky says he remembers every assassination he’s been sent on. (Gads.) Still, we get a great display of Cap’s strength as he pulls down a helicopter Bucky tries to escape in. It was real reminder that he isn’t just a Batman-like character, he actually is superhuman.

But why is Cap doing this? One might say that Bucky is the embodiment of Cap’s side of the argument. Even if that’s the case, I’m not sure if Bucky himself wants to be included. Saving Bucky makes total sense, but Cap is dragging him whether he likes it or not. Why would Cap do that? Why not bring Bucky in and give him a trial date the same as anyone? Cap, above all, trusts in the Constitution and in due process. Sure, the German police could have killed Bucky, but Cap can bring The Winter Soldier straight to the President of the United States and demand he gets a fair trial. Certainly, there could be some tampering with evidence or the prosecution could use some unsavory tactics to get a conviction, but even if Cap can’t stop that, there is an appeals process. (Or he can break him out at that point.) And I don’t know if Bucky would mind being in jail, or back on ice, until he can be deprogrammed. How great of a scene would that have been, Bucky revealing to Cap that he killed Tony’s parents? And then a scene where it’s revealed to Tony? We would have known Cap was holding back that information and would have constituted a true betrayal. That’s a real reason for Iron Man to start blindly lashing out. But, these are two schools of thought in writing: withhold information to create a ‘twist’ later –or– give information to particular characters, or just the audience, and withhold it from other characters in order to create tension.

After another action scene, Cap and Bucky are ultimately captured and the true villain of the film, Baron Zemo, surfaces to gain control of Bucky and find out what happened on a certain day and date. Non-Baron Zemo is a small guy, inconspicuous, smart. He gets what he’s looking for and escapes. After Cap and Bucky also escape, for some reason Cap begins to build a team to run up against the one Iron Man is also beginning to build… for some reason. This is actually when the film picks up. Cap, Bucky, and Falcon bring in Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, and the brilliant Ant-Man. Iron Man amasses Black Widow, Black Panther, Grey War Machine, the amazing Vision, and the spectacular Spider-man. The humor and light-heartedness brought especially by Ant-Man and Spidey is so welcomed.


A Spidey-Shaped Shoehorn

This is of course the introduction of Spider-man, one of the most beloved comic book characters, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Somehow Disney was able to borrow the license from Sony, perhaps that company driving the property straight into the ground had something to do with it, and Marvel wastes no time in finding a spot to wedge Your Friendly Neighbor: in Captain America’s film. Tony tracks down Peter Parker, meeting the high schooler and his no-longer-elderly Aunt, “Aunt Hottie” better known as Aunt May. Unfortunately, this follows the strange trend in Hollywood to make all characters younger—and whether it’s ageism or not, it certainly doesn’t reflect reality. And when this film is trying so hard to be Batman Begins-level realistic, that’s tough to swallow. Besides that however, Peter is brought in as another weapon in this war with no motivation except that Tony’s a sweet talker and Peter’s a big Stark fan. So, the accident in Wakanda was supposedly caused by a rookie Avenger and so Tony’s answer is to bring in someone who’s only had his powers for six months? Spidey is another one of my all-time favorite characters, but his inclusion is really just to show him off. To the degree that he gets an additional scene after the credits followed by “Spider-man will return.” Wasn’t this a Captain America movie?

So, the stage is set for what may be the biggest super hero battle ever put on film. It’s an amazing battle, pitting Cap’s bandits versus Iron Man’s lawpersons. The fight is superbly shot allowing the audience to follow every step. Spidey and Ant-Man continue to stand out with their humor and smart use of powers—even if I don’t think either of them could go toe-to-toe with Earths Mightiest Heroes so effectively at this point. Neither of them have reason to pick a side. I think Hawkeye was just bored at home. Not even Scarlet Witch has a strong motivation besides being under house arrest for… several days? (The horror.) On Iron Man’s side, they even state that they’re pulling their punches. Then why are you fighting at all? I would think that Cap would exhaust any option he can think of before risking the lives of his friends, let alone strangers. When given the opportunity to stop mindlessly punching people, does Cap do what you expect a man of his stature and history to do-- and lead? No. He does not convince his friends that they should not be fighting, but should join forces against an evil bigger than them all. He instead says “We fight.” Certainly, by statement and by deed Cap is determined not to sign the Accords and he’s dedicated to protecting Bucky, but I really don’t understand why he’s willing to go to the lengths he, and Tony for that matter, is willing to go. I commend Cap on his dedication, but for someone who is supposed to have a tactical mind, isn’t he really just being a battering ram?

They continue their battle which results in the severe injury of Rhodey. In other words, finally, in all this silliness there is finally a consequence. It is then discovered that Bucky was actually framed and Tony goes to help Cap and Bucky stop Zemo from waking up the other Winter Soldiers. They arrive and the soldiers have been murdered. That’s a pretty big twist. I’m not sure I liked it, but did we want another fight scene with a group of super soldiers? This was all a rouse to get Cap, Bucky, and Tony together so Zemo could exact his revenge for his family dying in Sokovia. And that is to reveal that The Winter Soldier killed Tony’s parents. That is to say that for the first time in this film, the good guys have a reason to be fighting. Assassination has been a cause for war, in fact. However, I have to believe that somewhere in Tony’s mind, he must know that he’s lashing out. He must know that Bucky wasn’t to blame. And for that reason, I would think that he and Cap would not have such a deadly fight. I think the makers wanted us to see this as the culmination of the Civil War, but it really didn’t have anything to do with it. It had to do with the murder of Tony’s parents. Plain and simple. There is no ideology, no encroachment of freedoms, it is the very personal pain of one individual. And it’s not even the pain of the main character. With everything that happened throughout this film, I wish this event had been much sooner so we could see how Tony and Steve recovered and how they reconciled. That would be the real reason for an olive branch.

Thinking back, this film seems to require that you have seen the other Marvel films but it also wants us to forget some of the events. Given Tony was against government controlling his actions in Iron Man 2, it makes more sense that he doesn’t get the hint at first—that instead of him totally going to the ‘reign in’ side, that his encounter with the woman plants the seed. That would be the start his character arc. Same with Cap; certainly, he would be against any government limiting the freedom of its citizens and he was right to be suspicious of SHIELD’s giant gunships and Tony’s security experiments, but I don’t see why he would be so willing to go against the wishes of the world’s governments, and ostensibly the people, and be so totally willing to attack his friends and those he’s supposed to be leading. He’s totally abusing his power and position and that is more an Iron Man move. And we don’t really see the fallout of the decisions of either side, we just get the predictable outcome—they were both sort of right and both sort of wrong. By the time we get to Cap's betrayal of Tony (by not telling him), the real central conflict of the story and something worth fighting about, it’s the end of the film. Bucky goes on ice, problem solved. If that’s the case, shouldn’t we have stopped to think about this earlier? This makes me wonder about the tidal forces behind-the-scenes of the film's production. Maybe this film never had a chance to be refined and formed into what it really should have been. There are so many Marvel properties involved, so much money, there must be a lot of pressure to change the film and, especially, add more properties. Perhaps if there had been time, the directors could have made a great Captain America film and worked in some of these added bits better. Perhaps with more perspective, they would have seen that broadening the conflict to be about all super beings and flipping the opinions of Steve and Tony just makes more sense. If it was Cap that recruited Spidey because the web-slinger was being persecuted like all super folks, it really brings the conflict home and raises the stakes. It also would have created a proxy character to bring the audience into the story. It also means Spidey gets to develop on his own, not through his new sugar daddy, which has always been one of the cool things about his more homespun, down-to-Earth character. If Cap’s film has to be the pad that launches Spidey, at least let Cap be the one to send him up.

In the end, I enjoyed this film in the theater far more than I’ve enjoyed thinking about it after the fact. And that’s something that has been happening to me more and more over the last decade. It used to be you would jump out of the theater after a film and be energized or be humbled by the immensity of what you have just seen. Filmmakers were tasked with wrapping up as many story threads as possible so the film, much shorter than a novel, feels complete and satisfying. This no longer seems to be the case. It’s rapid-fire editing, action, and done. There are moments in films past that I’ll never forget. Films today are flashes in the pan. ‘Thanks for your patronage. Next!’ What stands out most in this film? Spider-man. Did I mention Spider-man? It was Spider-man.

I don’t know why Marvel decided to make Winter Soldier and this film ensemble casts instead of stories about Cap. Even more than the last film, Cap is relegated to a co-star in what is actually an Avengers film. Why not call it what it is? And I would wager if you added up all the screen time and dialog of Iron Man and Cap, Iron Man would win hands down. That’s just wrong. Cap should have been the one solving problems and leading everyone in more than battle. I think the most tragic thing about the Captain America trilogy of films is that the makers were so afraid of the character not being popular, that Cap would come off as a boring, one-dimensional ‘Boy Scout’, that they ended up making him exactly that. Through all the Avengers and Cap films, how many times did Iron Man mention Cap was “perfect”? Is he? In the first film, instead of treating Cap like an elite soldier, they sent him out as living propaganda. Why? Steve wanted to fight Nazis. Did he ever get to? No. He finally fought Hydra because in the field, no one could say no. And even then, he really only got a montage of fighting because there wasn’t enough depth in the writing for him to do anything else. So, instead of embedding Cap into WWII history, a living example of the Greatest Generation, we made him fight a small group of terrorists. Already the gravitas of the character is compromised. In the second film, it had some great character development, but Cap was still reactionary. I really liked Falcon, Black Widow, and Nick Fury, but I still didn’t feel like we got inside Cap’s head, that we got to know the real Cap, and that we got to face his demons with him. Civil War was even worse in that regard with more characters and even less time with Cap. This is a man from a different time and a different perspective, why not use it? Indeed, what makes Captain America unique and worthy of a film about him? Those are the kinds of questions a writer or director should be asking when considering putting years of their life into a project. I know the business folks want to keep the money machine rolling, but we cannot make filmmaking into rinse-and-repeat. We need to put time into the writing, into the production, and let the characters have their defining moments. Captain America would expect no less.

Thanks for reading. I hope you do go see the film and share your opinions!

For a more perfect union,
Ben Alpi
Los Angeles, California
May 10, 2016

» back to Rick's review

Monday, April 7, 2014

Captain America: Winter Soldier - Double Shot Movie Review with Ben Alpi and Rick Arthur

Winter Soldier. Sounds like a Cold War hero if ever there was one.

Ben and I will continue the tradition of independent reviews. This should be pretty easy because I will be viewing/writing from the great state of New Mexico and he will share his thoughts from Los Angeles, California. Neither one of us has discussed the film before viewing or after so this will ensure that our opinions remain our own. As is the intent of the blog, follow us through the "Cap as 70 years of source material - so how do you make that movie?"

SPOILER ALERT - Please be advised that these reviews may contain detailed descriptions of plot, character and dramatic conclusion. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you do not want SPOILERS!


CAPTAINS ORDERS

review by Ben Alpi

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent Cap film. After I successfully avoided all reviews and trailers, my wife and I headed to the theater. We saw it in 'boring old 2D' in a theater equipped with the latest Dolby Atmos surround sound system. Overall, I really enjoyed the film, the music, the dialog, the overarching story, and the general plot. A fine effort by the Russo brothers, the writers, and the cast and crew. There was a lot of sophistication here; the film was more like a 70's spy film which is a very positive thing. There were some slight drawbacks, which I'll get into, but is overall a solid, fun film. Let's get started!

In the opening scene Cap, Black Widow, and a SHIELD team make a drop onto a SHIELD ocean-going vessel with some very cool action. This sets up Cap's current gig and the players that surround him. The only problem I have with this sequence is it ends with a video game-like boss fight, the French kick boxer Batroc. Although I know the character from the comics, his outfit is unforgettable, I didn't recall him by name. Even though I figured he was from the comics, he seemed just like some terrorist dude giving the orders. Batroc goes toe-to-toe with Cap after crashing through a few walls/windows and have a really cool fight where we get to see Cap's shield-based fighting form in full swing. On one hand I was wondering how this guy was able to keep up with Cap, but on the other I have always wondered if a martial artist like Bruce Lee could stand up, at least for a time, against a super hero like Cap so it seemed plausible. Then Cap tosses away his shield and helmet to prove he can go toe-to-toe. That didn’t really make sense, except for the fact that Batroc wouldn’t stand any chance otherwise so, all right. The fight is really well done but it does go on for a bit too long-- although I may not have felt that way if it wasn't so plainly a boss fight. Still, there's nothing bad in any of this and a lot of good. Start the film with a bang and some friction with Widow, cool. One last thing, Cap's dark uniform and dulled shield are great and create an excellent contrast. (Which is something Rick and I emailed about years ago.)

Chris Evans appears much more mature and assured in his role as Captain America. Really locked into the role. He also somehow looks more like Cap, perhaps he's actually leaner and he may have been shot better-- Cap should tower over normal folks and he mostly does in this film. Chris is six-foot tall so he's not small, but I feel that the last film, and perhaps even Avengers, didn't make him look big enough. I originally had reservations about him taking on the role of Steve Rogers, as you may recall, but this film proves he can do it.

We find out eventually that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hired the terrorists as a cover for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to uncover the real mission of the vessel. Okay, but that's pretty darn elaborate considering the number of dudes killed. Yes, they're likely bad men, but still... in the end this seemed a bit easy for this kind of team which should have made Cap wonder but, it's all in the SHIELD family so, I'll buy it.

Cap's conflicted relationship with Black Widow is really well done although, I feel the texture of Widow's character is missing. She's ex-KGB but you wouldn't know it. I don't see her past play on her face when she talks about it, for instance. Even though there are a lot of nice moments with her, I don't really feel her emotions. She seems like a normal person put in extraordinary circumstances and keeps fighting through thick and thin. That's not bad at all but should she herself seem more extraordinary? I think she was a more tactile character in Avengers even though she had less screen time.

Moving through the film, we find out that Cap is still kind of drifting and hasn't found a real purpose in his new life. So, when he finds Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) working with vets, that is just top notch. His reveal as Falcon was also bang on good writing. Also great fun in the film was the reveal of Dr. Zola (Toby Jones) who has been transferred into an ancient, but powerful super computer-- just fantastic! The scene with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) was heart breaking but was a great scene.

Jackson as Nick Fury was probably the best he's been in the role yet. He has the dynamism of his role in Avengers with added depth of being in peril himself. Really solid acting and excellent writing. Okay, I knew he wasn't dead, but that's just because I know way too much about this stuff!

Hydra, like many of the elements of this film, have been brought up-to-date. They're more like a loosely connected terrorist network which is cool. There really isn't a big mastermind pulling the strings, as of yet, just cells with their own leaders. Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford!) sets up a great dynamic with a powerful character who is not super and who isn't defeated in a fistfight. He's much more like Lex Luthor if he was a politician. The only thing is I didn't really feel anything special from him, similar to Black Widow. When you have an actor with the gravitas of Redford, you expect something special. I didn't get that.

The Winter Soldier. It wasn't tough to figure out what was to become of Bucky. In the first film he "dies" pretty easily, a give-away that he'll be back. (This is Marvel so, he'll be back.) Overall, I really liked him. He's a bit of a Terminator relentless killing machine but the film needed someone super for Cap to fight somewhere. As such however, it seems his role was smaller than it should have been to be listed alongside Cap in the title of the film. The film was far more about Hydra and Pierce than The Winter Soldier. The fights and gun battles were very good, though. I really liked how Bucky always managed to defend with his robo arm and how Cap chopped his shield into it at one point. All really well done. The funny thing is they kept his costume pretty close to the comic complete with red star. Red star. Er, uhh, red star as in Russia. I'm sure that no one was thinking that kids today would be confused by this but it is odd that Hydra would take the time to keep painting on a red star when there doesn't seem to be any relation to Russia-- unless I missed it. I suppose Hydra could have been involved with Russia too so, a small point.

Working up to the big reveal of Pierce, I didn't really feel the danger much of the time. Redford's performance doesn't change at all after his reveal as a villain and that contributes a lot to my feeling it was flat. It would have been terrible if he has suddenly started twirling his mustache and cackling, but I would have liked some kind of change. I didn't really feel why he was compelled to submit to the retinal scan and why he didn't 'zap' the Directors (and Widow) sooner except to serve the plot. It's possible that I missed something though, like his phone may have been on his desk and he couldn't get to it. I don't recall that fact being communicated to the audience though. Still, Wikileak'ing the SHIELD and Hydra files was pretty cool and very up-to-date story-wise. That's one of the great things with this film-- it has current ideas in it that fit the spy genre but haven't been seen in many films. To have a cutting-edge film with a 70+ year old character is superlative.

Finally, Cap gets a great speech to rally the troops. Well done. Although, I must also point out that I don't know if the film really built up to it. All the performances in Winter Soldier are decent although, as I’ve mentioned, they’re a bit bland. Cap never really gets choked up about anything. Black Widow is the girl next door. Cap's speech was awesome, but it feels sudden because folks are inspired by Cap more by default than being inspired through his word and deed. There was no Hydra agent who was like "You're right Cap, F Hydra!" Cap is from another generation, he should still be a fish out of water simply because his very code of conduct is different from today. Cap is not a regular Joe as this film portrays him. He's way more than that. Although, the setup from the first Cap film does not make him an idealist. That is perhaps a key to why I don't feel for these characters as much as I might, they just don't seem to be very passionate about what they're doing. Falcon is. Fury is. They have motivation. Everyone else is kind of going with the flow. They're very... normal. Would a real life politician risk death to complete his traitorous mission? Nope. He'd do whatever it takes to escape because ultimately he's just a guy taking advantage of his position. He's not an idealist, he's an opportunist. For a film though, that's kinda boring.

Overall though, I really like the concept of balancing the fisticuffs (Falcon/Cap/Bucky) against the battle of wits (Pierce/Widow/Fury) for the climax of this film. This is a capital plot. A-1. These days there are so many action movies with giant, drawn out action sequences-- so much so they simply devolve into tedious visual effects spectaculars with no human element (the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels are great examples). The only problem is Pierce is beaten as soon as Fury enters the room so, the rest of that side of the sequence drags because of it.

On the fisticuffs side, Falcon and Cap were a great team and I didn't mind that their objective was on the easy side-- all they need to do is swap two "blades" in the computer cores of the gun ships and poof, they’re under good guy control. It turned out to be a good balance though, it was really hard to get to the server, but then they could just plug them in and keep the scene moving. This felt a lot less Death Star than it could have, which is great. What happened to Falcon was well done-- he really kicked butt but was ultimately taken out by Bucky. But, he continues to help inside SHIELD HQ all in believable ways (since he has no super powers). Of course, the fact that no one except for Cap and Bucky has super powers, the amount of punishment everyone takes is a bit excessive but I guess no more than other action films. If I remember correctly, Widow comes back from her gunshot wound (nicely seen as a through-and-through) to help but doesn't do a huge fight. That worked well-- unlike some films... (Dr Shaw in Prometheus, anyone?) The visual effects were really great throughout the film with excellent digital doubles and the final cacophony of gun ships is epic goodness. Yay the heroes win! I have to say that Cap saying he won't fight Bucky any longer was a bit lame for an instant but his mission was complete so it makes sense he'd switch to his mission to save Bucky. He gives his all which is very Cap. So a pretty satisfying end to that battle.

Not quite so satisfying was the scene with Black Widow at the hearing. This is complete conjecture, but I wonder if there was a different ending but then test audiences showed a need for some closure from leaking the files. So, they did this as a pickup shoot. If this scene was shot with different people behind the camera and a limited budget, that could be an explanation for the lower quality. Widow's dialog is not great and it looks like they filmed on a small stage, possible against a green screen. The focus is shallow and the reporters are REALLY close to Widow taking notes (which is actually pretty distracting). Wait, why are they standing? Why aren't there chairs like any normal chamber? Do quick Google Image search for "congressional hearing" and you'll see there is always seating. Given the great lengths the filmmakers went to make everything authentic, this scene got no love and it leaves things a bit sour. So, when we get to the Joss Whedon-directed mid-credits scene, it stands in stark contrast and seems kind of campy. We got no super villainous monologues in Winter Soldier (except maybe Dr. Zola's?) so this scene really sticks out. I love Joss' stuff so I'm sorry to say it hit me like a commercial. The final post-credits scene is also kind of lackluster. It's cool that Bucky is learning about his past but, like Widow's hearing scene, it doesn't really add anything.

**WARNING** Now entering the director nit picky zone **WARNING**
If you'd like to skip to the conclusion of my review and to Rick's review, please look for the end-of-warning below. If you want to get down to some nitty gritty points, read on!

I've talked a little about the human aspect of this film. Fantastic human moments ground this film and ultimately help it succeed. The only thing is it's very human. It seems the prevailing notion is that audiences don't want to watch super human feats done by people with super human ideals and passions. They think that audiences will only be able to identify with characters who are normal, they just happen to have amazing powers. Spider-man is likely the mold that other heroes have been forced into-- he's just a normal kid who gains super powers. Is that true though? Sure, Peter Parker was a nerd and was picked on at school so when he got his powers, he used them for revenge. Then, through tragedy, he learned what the gift he was given truly meant. Peter was not a normal teen, he was extremely intelligent and cared deeply for his aging Aunt and Uncle. And, through the death of his uncle, he becomes very abnormal indeed. The reality is that although Peter sometimes wishes he was just a normal guy, he's dedicated himself to defending the powerless because he feels a personal responsibility to do so. He still tries to live a normal life on the side, but it's really tough going. In many films however, it feels more like the heroes have normal lives, or they're actually evil, and are trying to be heroes on the side. So, we're teaching kids to just to be average and maintain the status quo? Maybe someday something extraordinary will happen to you? NO! We have to show them that it's okay to be extraordinary! When I was a kid, we were taught in school that "I am special." We even had pins that said it. This is certainly true, we're all special but it's very easy to act like you're not. We all can be extraordinary but we have to take responsibility for it and make it happen through our word and deed. That's exactly what Cap signifies. He wasn't just a skinny kid who tripped over a super soldier serum; he was a skinny kid with such tightly held ideals that despite being under weight, he tried to enlist repeatedly. He went through boot camp and almost died-- because he was normal? No! Because he wasn't normal. He wanted to fight for his ideals and against tyranny and he was willing to die trying. This is who Steve Rogers is. Extraordinary. And you can be, too.

The human aspect is also reflected in the production design. Falcon's wings and jet pack are grey metal. Batroc is dulled. I know this is intended to make the film seem more realistic but to me, it simply makes it more humdrum. This isn't just a problem with this film, but pretty much all super hero films from Batman Begins to [insert many other super hero film here], the comic book design elements have almost been totally removed. I'm not saying they should have used Batroc's terrible costume, but everything is just so bland. Fury's in all black, Black Widow hardly uses her sting, Falcon has gray goggles. The sets overall for this film were very nice, though.

"PDA"? It’s so odd that they listed PDA's in what they can track people with being PDAs have been widely obsolete for years now-- replaced by smart phones.

Many scenes in the film become static. It's expected that there will be scenes where the actors enter, plant themselves in a spot and simply have a conversation. Often times we'll give the actor something to do while they talk, called 'business,' or move them around the set motivated by their mood or a need to do something. This film seems to have a lot of just talking-- Cap and Fury in the office, Cap and Fury in the elevator, Cap and Fury in the hangar bay, Cap and Widow in the kitchen, Cap and Widow in the truck... these are not bad scenes but there is a sense that the directors wanted to get the actors to their marks and get into the closeups as fast as possible. In television, this is the norm so, perhaps since the directors came from TV their staging is like that? It just felt a bit stilted and made the dialog a bit dry in spots. It's a bit more like running through the lines to get to the next scene rather than those lines really meaning something to the characters (and thusly to us).

I'm pretty sure digital filmmaking did not help this movie. I haven't been able to confirm it yet, but this film looks like it was shot digitally and likely projected digitally. I say that because I noticed what boils down to a lack of resolution-- the image degrades when projected onto the big screen. Many shots seemed out-of-focus and artificially smoothed. That blended with the over-saturation and brightness of the overall film (for 3D?) it just did not look good at points. Some shots, especially the ones of the uniforms in Cap's museum, looked like cheap video-- overly sharp with no motion blur. Also, any slight misstep with makeup was magnified. In several scenes Widow's makeup was apparent and looked muddy. Many folks looked like they had blush on and the whites of their eyes were pink. Some closeups of Cap where we should be swooning, feel very brightly and flatly lit making the shot and him look normal instead of fantastic and inspiring. Film emulsion and film grain work in such a way that when a 35mm frame is projected much larger on the screen, it still looks fantastic-- even magical. It’s high latitude and excellent falloff mean the contrast between colors and between light and shadow look quite pleasant. The grain breaks the image up in an organic way which actually fools the eye into thinking images and motion look nicer than they would without it-- like digital. Also, the softness of film and the way it handles color give some degree of leeway with makeup and makeup effects. It can even help ‘sell’ some visual effects (help em look real.) I’m surprised that actors who see their makeup look so poor don’t demand they be shot on film. I wish they, along with cinematographers and directors, would do so and also demand a standard frame rate of 24 frames (with some caveats). Otherwise, there is a very good chance we’ll be stuck trying to not notice bad looking makeup and movies that look like a poor approximation of film. I love Peter Jackson's work and am thoroughly enjoying the Hobbit series, but even with the amazing amount of talent and craft brought to bear on those films, shooting on digital pokes holes in the fantasy and delivers a substandard image. Just like my point of making the heroes more 'normal' takes something special away, having an image so sharp and unforgiving takes away from the concept of suspending disbelief instead of bolstering it.
**END** Now exiting director nit picky zone **END**

To sum up, I recommend Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its sophistication, action, and humor. There were some things I didn't like, but they're relatively small and shouldn't hold anyone back from seeing this film. Thanks for reading! I'm really glad Cap got a solid film and an excellent characterization by Chris Evans, the Russo's, and writers.

Let freedom ring! (The real kind, not the under threat of death kind, k?)
Ben
Los Angeles - 04/06/14



SHIELD v SHIELD: MARVEL FILM MYTHOLOGY

review by Rick Arthur

I enjoyed the movie Captain America: Winter Soldier. From the beginning it flexes it's action hero muscles with dazzling choreography and breakneck pacing. The fight scenes are interesting, exciting and contain plenty of twists as well as quiet moments to intensify the impact. I would recommend it for adrenaline junkie film goers as solid entertainment.

The film as a whole carries some heavy weight as it tries to lay another building block in the foundation of The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, the preoccupation is with badass Nick Fury played by Sam Jackson as he uses Captain America, Black Widow and others to do his dirty work for him. The "secret" agency of SHIELD, a run amok version of Homeland Security on steroids, has been infiltrated by members of HYDRA. This would make for an interesting mix except in order to tie HYDRA into the story as previously set up in Captain America: The First Avenger, gigantic leaps of faith have to be made. There is a thin explanation of how this supreme subterfuge can have existed for 70+ years and gone undetected. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) still alive even in computer form and undetected? Really? The entire ends justify the means "practicality" as presented by Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce, Robert Redford's character is borderline ridiculous and paints the whole reason for the characters and subsequently the story with a super wide brush.

The first Cap film is very deliberate in creating depth of character and motivation. Here in the second Cap go round - a spies, heroes, technology, ideology smash 'em up, strong characters and motivations are replaced by a plot composed of putting everything in a mix master. The fact that such strong character actors can be piled together to say their lines, hit their marks and scowl on cue is a testament to the casting department. Having Robert Redford even loosely associated with the film is a huge feather in the cap for Marvel. Yet, the demographic of those under thirty consuming the film probably don't understand who he is and why they should care. Check out Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Brubaker, The Natural, Sneakers, Out of Africa, The Electric Horseman, Three Days of the Condor, The Sting, The Candidate, The Way We Were, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. His body of directing and producing work is also vast. In his role in Cap, Redford gets to mug with holographs for most of the time and strike Winter Soldier across the face. I am not sure why he ever consented to work on a serial action film as a paper thin villain. Perhaps he always wanted to be a Bond villain.

For that matter, Toby Jones is a fantastically gifted character actor with a longer history than playing Zola or appearing in The Hunger Games. Does the target group know Sam Jackson from his credit card commercials, Snakes on a Plane or Pulp Fiction? How did these actors and more get roped into the production of Marvel movies which are essentially high quality, never ending Saturday morning action serials? It wasn't the script. These are not intelligent, tightly scripted masterpieces that will enhance an actor's career. In Captain America's case, it is the presence of these higher calibre players, ably assisted by strong turns from Chris Evans as Cap, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon that elevate otherwise flat material. I wonder what this same script would look like as brought to life by lesser known or unknown players and it is not so hard to imagine something slightly better than than direct to video. Much of the success or failure to these films is owed to the casting department. They should get a round of applause.

Again, as entertainment, Captain America: Winter Soldier is fast, hard hitting fun. While the first Cap is a character piece, this second film is totally different in concept, execution and style. It does not build on the strengths of the first film or even the strengths of Chris Evans as the lead. Instead, it happily wallows in a large, confusing cast involved in self referencing pseudo spy intrigue played out in massive scale in broad daylight. With so many explosions, gunfights, missile launches, fires, car crashes and gigantic air craft carriers falling from the sky (actually all the fun parts...) it would be impossible to be involved in anything stealthy or spy-like. SHIELD supposedly lasted 70 years to this point? Doing what? AND they were infiltrated by HYDRA for the whole time?

Yet, this isn't going to be a pile on for how many things don't make any sense in what is basically a thrilling escapist exercise. How does this stack up against the comics? I will leave that debate for others. What I am mostly concerned about is Cap himself. How did he fare in his own movie? To answer that question, I will simply add that Sam Jackson and SHIELD hijacked Cap's movie in which he becomes an important bit player. Larger story arcs like fast moving glaciers, have overtaken Captain America. I always thought it would be great for Cap to have his own movie with stories that showcased him and maybe a few extra characters folded in. Why shouldn't Cap take center stage in his own film? Instead, we are treated to MARVEL: THE MOVIE also featuring Nick Fury, Black Widow, and dozens more - with some patriotic guy toting a shield. It is a little disappointing from that regard.

Back to some more positive sounding examples from the film!

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon is a standout. A natural. He carries in his few brief scenes a charm and innocence that echoes yet is not the same as Steve Rogers. I think that is why the bond is so great between the two men. Both have gone through different yet equally hard circumstances and have come out the other side respectful and thankful. Mackie grounds Evans and reminds him of how the idealism he once held can be healed. It is a strong message which is unfortunately buried underneath all the action. This is the center of Sam Wilson's character, and Cap's and should be the undercurrent at the heroic center of the film.

I was cheered by the inclusion of a scene in which Cap finds a single microphone (This zone is for loading and unloading only, people) and gives the "traitors among us" speech. After which, Sam Wilson is unabashedly inspired, asking Cap if he wrote that down first or just came up with it off the top of his head. It is a great heroic moment and reveals more about what is in Cap's and Sam's heart than all the gunfire ever could. Unfortunately these moments are too far in between. This film needed more human moments, more inspiring moments. Cap, unlike many of his other superhero counterparts has a unique role as a symbol to inspire.

Bucky Barnes is experimented on during WWII and ends up becoming a character called the Winter Soldier. He is totally badass with a mechanical arm buts spends nearly the whole movie being speechless and wearing a mask and goggles which cover his face. This is too bad for Sebastian Stan, the actor playing him. He gets to do nothing but scowl and use a variety of weapons against Cap and other opponents. Still there is something plucky about the character which Stan has been able to add. This is a solid action movie performance. From the film, not the comics, does anyone know why Barnes is called Winter Soldier or why he is part of the title? If I only look at the title for the film, it may be confusing that Winter Soldier actually refers to someone other than Cap. I am sure this is explained in the comics but in the film, I feel it is a mystery.

THE SHIELD!!!

Captain America flings his shield around as he never did before. These scenes are well choreographed as well as exciting. I was very impressed with this aspect of the film. First, it captures the feeling of the comics very well and second, the shield is handled in a way that it only could be done on film. I would state that this really brought the character to life and created a signature defensive/offensive weapon that made him unique. Sure, Captain America has thrown his shield before but this movie really integrated it into his fighting style in a way that captures the excitement of the comics. Well done! All the choreography in this film is very skillfully done and seamless as far as supporting the needs of the story. The fights are sharp, thrilling and have a natural feel to them which can be hard to obtain.

The closing credit sequence is unique and worth commenting on. The silhouette images bleeding into one another create a strong visual which really captured my attention. During the first movie, the motif was WWII era propaganda posters during the credits which I greatly enjoyed. Here, the images tell the highlights of the Winter Soldier story in graphic, comic style silhouettes. Very nicely designed and executed.

Does Marvel/Disney have any plans to donate Cap money toward the physical and mental rehabilitation of U.S. soldiers returning from combat? They don't need the cash. The veterans do. Services are so poor for those heroes and it would be a tremendous gesture that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby would have endorsed.

You won't see me carrying a protest sign in front of theaters saying "Hail Hydra!" Yet, maybe a strongly worded email to Marvel/Disney might be in order. More Captain America in his own movie!

I will leave that as my parting thought. Check out the rest of the blog if you haven't already.

Liberty and Justice For All!

RICK
New Mexico - 4/6/2014

There you have it. We hope you have enjoyed the movie review double shot for Captain America: Winter Soldier. We encourage you to browse through our almost 90 posts delving deep into the background of one of America's most exciting, mythic heroes.



Monday, February 4, 2013

Captain America vs. the World!!

To mark our second anniversary, Rick writes a few whimsical comments from his sand-filled bunker in central New Mexico. Then! Ben sends a communiqué from somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean...

Cap blog at its second year. A look back. A look forward.
by Rick Arthur

I just like the title, Captain America vs. the World!! I have been looking for an opportunity to use it and this post concerning the second year of the Captain America: Redefining Modern Myth blog seemed like a great place. Ben and I will take a look back at both Cap and our own personal lives in the last two years as well as sound off on what is to come in the future. Grab your star spangled shield and hang on for adventure!

Ben Alpi and I have been friends a long time and like a lot of people have stayed in touch by phone and internet. We have a lot in common including a love of movies, comics and writing. Two of my favorite things about Ben are his imagination and his willingness to explore new ideas. These talents have come in handy as he builds his career writing and making movies. I am excited to collaborate with him and the Captain America: Redefining Modern Myth blog is one great example!

The Cap blog actually arose from a long, complex series of email and phone conversations that spread out over several years. One thing which quickly escalated was signing off our emails using Captain America sounding quotes. Instead of saying "later dude," "talk to you soon bud," or "your pal," we began trading sign offs like "Liberty, justice and freedom for all..." or "Tyranny must be stopped at all costs." It didn't take long until we were giving Cap things to say and do. It must be noted that I seem to recall we dabbled with Iron Man quotes and scenarios around this time as well. The first Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man movie directed by oddball choice Jon Favreau was catching on with both comic fans and the public. There was some speculation as to which Marvel characters would get their own movies especially considering that Iron Man was not a natural choice and nowhere near as well known as Spider-Man, Hulk, or the Fantastic Four. Captain America had not been announced yet nor Thor nor the Avengers. We continued to write back and forth.

Ben produced a short six page script entitled Captain America: A Beginning which appears in the blog labeled Emails #1: THERE IS NO TEA!!  I think from this point on, especially after Ben wrote the short script, we were off and running. Finding bits and pieces of dialogue, script or discussion about Cap in my inbox from Ben on a regular basis was often the high point of any day. We dreamed about the era, the challenges, the villain, the clothing, weapons, campaigns - and all the banter became a way of shaping the answer to the central question, what could a Captain America movie be like with almost 70 years of background material to pull from? Both of us knew that an examination of what made Captain America tick was also an investigation into the mechanics of modern myths, storytelling, filmmaking and writing. It wasn't until we were very far along that it began to dawn on us just what our friendly, meandering, banter was producing - a document on redefining myth for the current era.

You may find wedged into the discussion such topics as the exact origin and motivation of Steve Rogers wanting to enlist. What event jump started the scramble to create a Super Soldier Serum? Just how did the Red Skull come into being? How big a role did symbolism play in the fighting of WWII and where did the shield come from? Or Bucky? Was there a Bucky? I would like to think we had pretty exhaustive talks about these and many other issues. I know that we meandered or changed direction quite a few times or came back to revisit an idea we had discarded earlier. So, we both have favorites of our own and each other's.

What resulted was the blog you read now which was created by combining email correspondences and fitting them into post-length sizes. Our temptation to explain or pare down entries was resisted and only minor changes like pulling out family names or contact information kept them from being 100% as originally posted. Spelling errors, sloppy grammar and faulty logic, mostly my own, are preserved as both Ben and I had originally intended. While not written as a blog, once we had decided that there was too much email material to keep to ourselves, arranging the material was a relatively easy task. See for yourself how more than 80 posts comprise this meaty glimpse into the creative process and many posts include exclusive artwork designed to compliment specific entries. Read as we puzzle together fact and fiction onto the cinematic bones of a modern day telling of a story originally set in WWII by comic book pioneers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

The Red. The White. The Blue.


I had the unique opportunity to work as both designer and art director of Annin, the world's oldest and largest flag making company. It was there I met friend and artist Mark McMurray. Part of my enjoyment, especially as a designer, was drawing eight solid hours a day. As a result, my outside cartooning work improved dramatically. My curious mind also thrilled at seeing pieces of history tucked away in the art department files which contained historic designs, letters, purchase orders, drawings, blueprints and more. Annin had designed the flag that flies on the moon and the famous flag at Iwo Jima for example. I also started work on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles around this time which was one reason I reluctantly left that job. A curious up-tick in American themes and depictions of flags show up in my work after this. Annin had been quite a patriotic experience for me and I would recall this as I wrote about Steve Rogers' drive to enlist. I made a point to have an all female welding unit craft the first Cap shield from Pearl Harbor battleship scrap. I had taken several tours of the Annin applique and embroidery departments and the sight of all the work stations filled with foreign women turning out various flags never left me. That is what inspired the inclusion of the welders in my version of the Cap story.

I recalled hearing just a few stories from my own grandfather about WWI. He hardly ever talked about it. No one did. Yet, he had been in France in the midst of mustard gas bombs and had gotten THE flu more than once. Somehow he survived and came home. It wasn't until much later that I would read of the horrific number of dead during 1918-1920 of the Spanish Flu. When working on the Cap emails, I unearthed a poorly accepted rumor that biological warfare was responsible for the deadly flu outbreak. Rumor, maybe. In the fictional tale, the government launches a massive program to create soldiers who are immune to such biological weapons and that is how the Super Soldier Serum came to be, I theorized. It fit the time frame and had the delicious ring of plausibility you need when concocting fictional history.

Certain images kept finding their way into the discussion. My contribution to post #3 entitled Terrible Times Demanding Terrible Sacrifice is a brief outline of what a Captain America movie trailer could be like. Cap frozen in ice was used in the comic series to bridge the Captain America of the Timely Comics and Marvel Comics and was never too far from my imagination. Later I would try to conceptualize it during the final conflict with the Red Skull. Cap's main villain must be defeated and escape. Cap himself must win the battle yet be trapped in ice until he can spring forth in a new era. Some of the conceptual fallout might have been too much to handle for a casual moviegoer. There would be strong depictions of concentration camps. The use of atomic weapons would have horrified Cap and the Russians would not have been viewed by him as potential enemies in waiting but as heroes who sacrificed more than all others, gave blood, heart and soul to defeating the Nazi menace.

Skipping ahead to post #7: Red Skull. Yeah Baby. This is the first post to sport a full color collage and I like the way it came out. Also, in a comment on the post, I lay out the corrupting motivation of the Red Skull and in many ways a lot of comic book villains. Ego. Red Skull was evil. Good guys don't have bright red skeletons for heads. Doctor Doom, Galactus and every Spider-Man villain tried to pull off elaborate, grandiose stunts, coldly delivering invitations for our heroes to try to stop them, narrowly defeated yet always to return again. Red Skull boiled in his hatred of Captain America and his goals of ultimate victory would never be realized as Cap always thwarted him. He would love to crush this man, this wretched American mongrel and at night it is all he can dream about. It wouldn't have taken much at all, a superior gloved hand tightening on Cap's throat. Maybe a minute, only a single minute. Yet the Red Skull does not let his mind rest there. From defeat there is a plan, a brilliant plan fully formed and he sneers to himself. This time... this time things are going to be different. The go for broke audacity of a master villain like Red Skull is what makes Captain America's ability to overcome him a heroic virtue.

I wrote a scene called The Cold which appeared as Emails #28 and it is kind of a trailer. Cap is pursuing the Red Skull through the snow toward their final conflict and he is praying for divine guidance in the middle of a storm. Cap has a dream/vision/memory of discovering skeletal survivors at a concentration camp. The desolation and wail of the train whistle hammers home the need to combat evil without restraint. I really wanted to show Cap defeated, perhaps even inching through the storm about ready to give up. In doing so, I create an opportunity for Cap to choose the heroic path and in essence be willing to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of evil. Along with Captain America: The Beginning, it gave me an itch to think about writing a screenplay based on our ramblings. It is fun to think about even now.

Post #37, among others, is great for a reread. Entitled, 1918 Epidemic and the Super Soldier Serum, Ben and I lay out in pretty inelegant terms what the probable timeline would be for the development of a Super Soldier Serum and where Steve Rogers' involvement would be. This is important because it is the grounding that both a comic book and movie version never had. It cements the relationship between the first war, Cap and the second war. Once this is anchored, many aspects of the conflict between Captain America and Red Skull start to fall into place. You can also see my own hand holding a vial, some cologne, in the collage sketch.

Our movie reviews seemed to be quite popular. We tackled THOR (between post #40 and #41), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (between post #53 and #54), CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER (posted July 25, 2011) and THE AVENGERS (posted May 13, 2012). These were enormous fun to do and Ben and I both wrote our reviews independently of one another allowing some basic points to echo. Story, for both of us, seems to be the important element and character development is the only way to get there. The reviews are a good way for us to keep score with the real world filmmakers on the Marvel characters' major plot points. Our most popular review was for the THOR film. The thunder god sparked our followers to tune in and read not one but two reviews which broke down the sweeping saga. Captain America seems to be at the center, along with Thor and Iron Man of a Marvel movie universe build on classic archetypes. The successful movies will all have a strong story and well defined characters as a solid base.

Lastly for me, I wanted to poke around with The RED SKULL. As we got closer to the end of our previously written emails, it became obvious that neither Ben nor I were going to have the time to devote to writing a screenplay AND Cap was already announced as a Marvel film so it seemed moot. Still, there was an itchiness to tell the tale of Cap defeating the Red Skull. So, I gave it a shot with a series entitled, Red Skull: Endings (Part 1 of 5). I came to realize over the course of our blog that the Red Skull was not just a great villain for Cap but a great villain period. He oozed evil, arrogance, power and corruption with a single minded quest for greatness that strictly put him on top of a short list. I wrote him in many ways to be the opposite of Captain America, vain, greedy, lustful, immoral, and more than willing to sacrifice others to further his goals. These qualities in a living, breathing villain were fantastic for Cap to act as a heroic foil - and without which, Cap's ascension to being a living legend, an icon of hope and freedom, a symbol of purity would be for naught without a master villain to have conflict with. I made the Red Skull stronger, smarter, more cunning, more evil than Cap could handle and it is inevitable that he should triumph soundly over Cap. It is then that Cap assumes his true heroic nature and rises against all odds, all expectations to face his much stronger nemesis in a last battle in the snow.

I would love to say I pulled it off and created a dramatic conclusion with Red Skull: Endings but the drafts needed a lot more work, more input from Ben's creative influence, and stronger editing. I think perhaps the action could have been compressed into one long scene or two smaller ones. Weak plot elements needed to be dropped or pumped up. The Red Skull's final words and actions also needed to be cranked up into something powerful and memorable. This is his humiliating defeat after all. Ideally, that is what would have happened. The first draft would have gone to a second, a third, etc. and Cap would have become more heroic in the process as well as a more tragic figure. He will not be around to understand or enjoy his victory. It was fun to write though. Fun indeed.

In the past year, my wife and I, along with our dog and a mountain of books, furniture and clothing have moved to New Mexico from central New York and it is beautiful here. Stunning. I have had some time to write and draw but have started teaching a college level drawing class (Drawing For Comic Books) which is an exciting first for me. I've had a couple of pieces of artwork hanging at a local gallery show too which is something else I have never been involved in. Thanks to all of you for reading this blog. Ben and I tried to blend as much research and historical fact as we could into the characters to make them breathe. The blog stands as a great testament to our efforts and shortcomings in developing these characters. Of course Captain America is never too far from my thoughts...

Liberty, Justice & Freedom,
RICK
2/2/2013 - New Mexico



Making it real with a little help from my friends
by Ben Alpi

Cap could totally take the world! But he wouldn't because he's not that kind of guy.

Holy Toledo! Has it been two years?! I miss working on this blog quite a lot, mostly because of the collaboration and exchanging of ideas with a troublemaker like Rick Arthur. Don't tell him I said this, but he's one of the most creative people I know and his passion for story and character is unmatched. I also miss the blog since it's so forward-looking. Talking to Rick and writing these emails was and is still truly inspiring. The long chats we had about character, storytelling, and structure mostly in relation to films, comic books, and literature were not daydreamy musings, but deep discussions about applying what we spoke about. I learned a lot from him and his encouragement helped me push forward to write and direct my first short film, Silver Lining. That production played on television in both the US and Canada and got distribution with Ouat Media in Toronto. From there I became second unit director on Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II and got to work with some amazing people including John Carrigan who you'll read about later.

After several more projects including the blog, I recently directed my second short film, Cowboy Creed. I’ve loved Westerns since I was very young—I mean horses, guns, and fisticuffs, where can you go wrong?! My siblings and I grew up watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as well as slightly lesser known Spaghetti Westerns like Django. (It was too funny watching Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained—complete with a special appearance by the original Django, Franco Nero.) For Creed, one of my main objectives in writing was to incorporate what Rick and I had been talking about in the last few years—including what we’ve written in this blog. Westerns are well and truly America’s myth, and since I happen to live in the area where many Westerns have been made, it was the perfect project. Cowboy Creed is a short about Phineas Creed, a young cowboy trying to find his place in a post-Gold Rush world. When the international criminal “Limey” kidnaps his ladylove Miss Graves, Phineas faces the most harrowing showdown of his life. The script actually began more as an action scene. From that, similar to how Rick and I worked on Cap, I started researching the time period and began developing not only a more involved short, but also the groundwork for a feature-length film. The short script actually expanded and contracted a few times as I tried to find the right balance to encapsulate the new, broader tapestry I developed but keep it to 10 minutes. (And keep the budget down!) Rick kindly read one of these drafts and gave notes and even agreed to do pre-production concept sketches for the film. Given how busy he is I was surprised and doubly glad to be working with him again—an artist with genuine professionalism in addition to talent and skill. As anyone who has read this blog knows, we spoke at length about the underpinnings of the story. Over the last 100 years, American culture especially has marched slowly but steadily toward the anti-hero. A lot of care goes into the creation of villains because we need a complex one to keep us interested and make us believe he or she is a challenge to the hero. This quest sometimes leads to a much more interesting character—perhaps an even more likable character. Doctor Doom for instance is really only looking out for the good of his precious Latverians, right? Magneto is really only trying to protect his fellow mutants, right? These villains need a reason to do evil things and over time audiences have become increasingly sympathetic, so sympathetic that they start to side with them more than ‘droll’ heroes. What is good? What is evil? Today the difference is no longer a matter of black and white hats. We have gone from Flash Gordon, beacon of good in the universe to Dexter, serial killer who tries to keep his murders limited to criminals. As tantalizing the thought of attempting to cast a villain as a hero may be, we should not call Dexter a hero. The concept targets the chinks in our armor, our dark fantasies of revenge on those who do wrong. Dexter leaves behind the ideals of societal justice and replaces it with a kind of personal perversion of justice. My intent is to knock the pendulum in the opposite direction. I don’t think audiences will believe a character is all-good with no dark side. We all have one of those. But, I think we still need someone to look up to. As interesting a show like Dexter is, he is not someone to emulate. He is not someone who is standing up to adversity and changing the course of history for the oppressed. I sought to create a hero who is as complex as a villain and who is still a hero worth emulating. Funny enough, as I worked towards this goal, the feedback I was getting about the script was the villain wasn’t complex enough. Oops! I put my nose to the grindstone and kept at it until “Limey” was the fully formed character he has to be. I was making edits to the script right up until filming in December 2011—which was partly funded by Kickstarter Backers from the US and UK. Thanks again to them and our other donors! We had a fantastic crew and an amazing cast led by Kendall Wells as “Phineas”, John Carrigan as “Thomas Michael ‘Limey’ Lyme” (whom I mentioned before), Tara Platt as “Miss Graves,” and Anthony De Longis as “Sheriff Eli Graves.” The film also stars Leandro Cano as “Rook,” and Wayne Webb as “Bishop.” I’m currently submitting the film to festivals internationally and we’ve shown the film in private screenings now in Hollywood and near London (with the help of John Carrigan.) The feedback has been very positive. In fact, viewers so far have been surprised at the high level of polish and refinement the project has, despite being a short—nicknaming it a “mini epic.” That’s great to hear and is a credit to all those who have helped make this film possible. I hope this story and these characters will continue and I get to direct a heroic feature film with them. To keep up-to-date on Cowboy Creed-related happenings, keep a look out on http://runicfilms.com/.

Along with the film, I’ve been busy in a lot of divergent areas and in the middle of it all, my girlfriend Dr. Jyotika Virmani and I were married in the Spring of 2012. Jyotika has also been a great inspiration and is a great help as a producer on Cowboy Creed. She happens to be an avid reader of classic literature and avid watcher of film, which is great. (And she puts up with my constant working on film!) She is also an expert in tropical storms and maintains an excellent blog during hurricane season here: http://jyotikastorms.blogspot.com/.

What’s next then?!

I’m glad you asked! I’m currently working on a few scripts ranging from sci fi to fantasy to drama. It’s a wonderfully electric time and I couldn’t be happier plugging away at new ideas. This includes collaborations with friend Tom Mercer as well as my brother Bob on two winning scripts we will complete this year. Also, I hope to direct another short, this time a mind-bender—more details to come of course. I do wish I still had time to work on the blog here and explore mythic storytelling all the more. Perhaps we should do something bi-monthly? Please pipe in down in the comments and let Rick and I know what you think! As always, thanks for reading folks! And hold high those ideals of life, liberty, and happiness. That’s what Cap would do!

Sincerely,
Ben
02/04/13 - Somewhere over the Atlantic



Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Avengers (Some Assembly Required)

Don't let the quirky title fool you!  I loved the Avengers movie as directed by Joss Whedon.  I went to view it on Sunday afternoon and since it was showing on so many screens in both regular and 3D versions, as I was walking in, a large crowd of pumped up moviegoers - many families with young kids - were walking out.  I couldn't help over hear parts of the conversation and how one character in particular captured their attention.


SPOILER ALERT!! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF:
You haven't seen the film or you care about the plot to The Avengers being given away.

I will discuss my idea of how Cap specifically fares in the Avengers.  This is after all a blog about Captain America...  Along the way, I will touch on plot, character and screenwriting - and the rest of the Avengers team.

I was happy to report that the Captain America appearing in the new Avengers movie has a lot of similarities to the Cap in Captain America: First Avenger.  Chris Evans really comes across as feeling comfortable in this part and he plays it well.  I was afraid he might get crowded out of this cast which includes but is not limited to Nick Fury and female assistant, Agent Coulson, Captain America, Hulk, Iron  Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki.  Each character gets the opportunity to take several turns at the front of the class.  Cap is allowed to show his natural leadership qualities as well as his courage and resolve.

A few solid lines are made as to Captain America's transitioning from WWII via a block of ice and how much time had past.  While he was called a relic more could have been done with this to show the character growing and coming to realize his place in the modern world.  I understand that this was not Cap's film and that there wasn't three hours to play with.  It brings into focus Cap's conflict with Iron Man.  At one point in a heated argument, Cap asks Stark what he would be without his armor.  A millionaire, playboy inventor was the response.  Immediately, Stark comments that the best part of Cap was from a test tube.  It is an interesting exchange and it serves several functions in the script.  I took Cap's question as meaning: without the fancy armor what values or character did Stark really have?  On the flip side, Stark's remark meant that Cap was nothing without the super serum - his moral center meaning nothing.  It showed a lot about the way the characters view the world.

Chris Evans reacts to these remarks with a certain mixture of hurt.  I take it to mean that Cap is pained by the loose, morally ambiguous culture he is now dropped into.  Everyone else in the script including Thor seems to be inoculated to the back stabbing having come from a world of spies or the military.  Cap hails from a time when actions and ideals were more straight forward, direct and had personal consequence.  In his day, taking a stand and sticking by your decisions meant the measure of a man or hero.  Iron Man with his compromised values bothers Captain America.  It is only later that we discover that Stark uses a lesson he has learned from Cap while confronting Loki.  You will not succeed because you lack conviction - paraphrase.  The climax of the film also shows Iron Man making a decision to sacrifice himself for the rest of humanity - a position Cap had also endorsed.

There are a few opportunities for Captain America to show his leadership abilities but these didn't hit the mark completely.  By the time the big finish was in progress, Cap really had nothing to do except smash nameless hordes of aliens inside the "video game" storyline.  There are a few instances where Cap is put in a position of mediating between other heroes.  These touches lack punch because the director has made a conscious decision to shy away from using closeup shots in favor of the medium shot.  What this ultimately means is that all the heroes including Cap are treated fairly evenly and so it might not be obvious that Captain America emerges as the team leader.

As a side note to Cap's story inside the Avengers... He should have given the "Avenger" speech to Loki instead of Iron Man.  It would have further defined him as the FIRST Avenger and cemented the moral standing of the group as a whole.  Stark delivers the speech including the tasty line, "We have a Hulk."  Cap could have delivered the same line better AND hinted at the fact that he probably knew during WWII that the U.S. had the A-Bomb.  Of course I think that the director was trying to go for the whole chaos angle as far as group dynamics.  This is only fine if those same dynamics allow for the individuals involved to put aside their differences and become a real team.  Only Captain America is poised to be the leader that is needed.  His reason for being in the group is to knit it together.  Unfortunately, that does not come across on screen.  Perhaps it is hinted at or talked about between explosions but it is not expressed as a major point in the story.  It is not simply personal bias, Captain America should have been the one character to lead the viewer and ultimately tame the competing interests of the team.  None of the other characters can do it.

Agent Coulson, Nick Fury and the bloody trading cards.  Wow.  What a mess built contrivance on top of contrivance.  This makes Fury look like a huge A-hole for manipulating the death of a man to influence others.  It is more than a cold hearted move.  It is the stroke of screenwriting magic, improperly set up that should have nothing but a negative effect on the team.  As an audience we are expected to not only bite but swallow the lie.  The fact the Fury confesses to the manipulation only makes it worse.  The only one in the room who is going to react to the stunt is Cap.  The cards are a reminder of his past shilling war bonds before he got into the fighting and they are a direct link to him.  There was not enough set up of Agent Coulson in relation to individual Avenger members to say that he was loved, adored and therefore should be avenged.  This is designed to be a turning point in the story and it certainly feels like something that should have been left on the cutting room floor.  I felt this was poorly executed and not needed as far as motivation.

It is difficult to discuss the overall "story" of the Avengers movie because it comes across as a patchwork of screenwriters creating set pieces.  Loki comes into possession of the Cosmic Cube and enlists an alien race to raise an army to crush the humans of Earth, as a starting point to galactic domination.  This is established early on in a breezy, mostly wordless mind numbing series of effects shots.  This premise is tired plotting having appeared in countless science fiction writing, films, comic books, etc.  Loki, who is played with dramatic flair by Tom Hiddleston, schemes in a very non-specific way.  The filmmakers only roll out enough information to satisfy the story at hand.  There is no suspense or foreboding other than how certain Avengers will join the growing team.  When will the Hulk appear?  Thor, meanwhile who has the most at stake personally in Loki's plans is neglected in the same way the other characters are: not by being excluded but by being included in a large cast and presented on film in medium or wide shots.  The audience does not make the emotional connection it needs to make.

I was bored by the Black Widow (Johansson) spy stuff.  Not too concerned about Hawkeye (Renner).  Wished Fury (Jackson), Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the Helicarrier  had found their own movie to be in.  Not that I disliked any of them but this would have cut an hour of screen time best used for the conflicts and resolutions of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hulk.  Loki could have made a fantastic villain instead of spending half the film in a glass cage.  When the final conflict arrives it is not that exciting to watch and not really an important part of the story.  The aliens were pretty generic and not really threatening.  I am failing to see how they thought they could take over the planet.  The fighting was "furious" but signified nothing and the menace was easily dispatched.

The Hulk as played by Mark Ruffalo is perhaps an unexpected treat.  The motion capture CGI is great and the few scenes with the Hulk can barely contain the character's strength, rage or enthusiasm.  Banner playing against Stark teases us with the promise of an unstoppable force of nature seething under the surface.  It is unfortunate that the Hulk had nothing to reveal other than he was angry ALL the time.  His character is the least exposed out of the cast and maybe it is for good measure - keeping the glimpses fresh and powerful.

Tony Stark/Iron Man

Avenge what exactly.  Again?  Quit mumbling.  Avenge?  Really?

Captain America 
[directed to Tony Stark]

This 'living legend' signed up to fight evil during the darkest days of WWII.  Time may have past but I still know courage, honor, sacrifice and duty when I see it....

Tony Stark/Iron Man

You're a relic Mr. Rogers, a broken down soldier who just follows orders and never questions the sacrifice you are asked to make.  Isn't that what you are asking me to do?  This team?  Make a sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds?

Captain America

Frankly your selfish attitude is what I have come to expect but not for myself.  My generation did not have that luxury.  People were being killed, starved, burned and pushed out of there homes by an evil that wouldn't compromise until the whole world was an ash heap.  This alien army intends to do the same and if I must strike alone I will but if ever we were needed to be a team, to stand against injustice then it is now!

[Cap pushes past Stark and the others in the room heading toward the open hanger door]

Tony Stark/Iron Man

You don't have the guts.  They are too many...

Captain America

Avengers assemble!

[Cap jumps out the hanger door - twenty thousand feet above the earth.  Heroes collectively gasp and no one moves.  Sound of rushing air.]

Thor

This mortal shows more courage than a dozen warriors.

[Thor picks up his hammer and turns it, catching the light.  Inscription reads: "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor."]

Tony Stark/Iron Man

How about one for the road?

[Downs a mixed drink then shutters his helmet]

We better assemble before Cap disassembles.


During the time the Avengers comic book first appeared (Lee/Kirby), rivalry between comics publishing companies was pretty fierce.  Characters, stories, artists and writers were swapped back and forth, especially if they were successful.  Copy cat comic books were usually of lesser quality and did not do as well financially.  This was a common practice however for the times as rivals tried to capitalize on hit books.  The Avengers owed a debt to another team book from another company.

The Avenger movie has generated a huge pile of money for Marvel/Disney.  I am sure there will be sequels and copy cat films for the next decade.  The movie is well crafted and carefully designed while proving to be entertaining.  One of the great strengths of the film is it's ability to stroke in the broad shots both in scenery and in character.  It is hard to create any meaningful growth or depth however with 10+ characters clamoring for screen time.  This is something that is lacking here and it makes me wonder why half of the action takes place on the heli-carrier.  Why is Nick Fury lurking in the scenes or Agent Coulson?  Their task was to launch the story not be a continual part of it so their involvement is flat and unneeded.  Hawkeye does what exactly in the story?  He advances the plot how?  I love Jeremy Renner but his character could have been cut without affecting anything.  Ditto The Black Widow.  She is fun to look at but her scenes ultimately take the action of the story nowhere.  Neither she nor Hawkeye were in the original team either.  I suppose that doesn't mean much.  Like a lot of comics, there have been so many layers of revisions that the truth just isn't important.

Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America all certainly belong.  When writing this script, it must have been a high wire act in keeping certain things the studio wanted in or out and trying to write a fresh take on characters that are long in the tooth.  Additionally, any script simply must make sense and pack a punch as a movie.  In this case, the superhero/action genre demands certain conventions on it's own in order to get butts in seats and sell buckets of popcorn.  Writers today have the threat of toy lines and fast food tie-ins looming over their head.  While usually they don't directly deal with these concerns, upper management does and directives get sent down to fix things that don't really need fixing.  I would like to have seen the rough draft, final draft or shooting script to see what got axed.  Extra scenes that don't make the film are now usually bundled together in a sort of blooper reel on the DVD release.  Some scenes are even shot as teasers for the audience or to test the ratings board.

In the final analysis, what can you really say about the Earth's Mightiest Heroes?  When assembled they can defeat just about any foe.  So, if you want to watch two hours of special effects to come to this conclusion, be my guest. I enjoyed this movie.  The Avengers tried hard on a lot of levels and had varying degrees of success.  The costumes, sets, backgrounds, motion capture CGI Hulk and fights were all well done.  Where it lacked was in the difficult task of creating drama and real characters from paper thin source material.  I kept hearing rumors about what great dialogue Joss Whedon was going to contribute.  I know that it is hard to do with all the constraints a massive picture like this exacts but the scripting should have been a lot sharper. 

Maybe next time and there will be a next time.


RICK
4/5/2012 - Central NY