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.

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.]


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.

4/5/2012 - Central NY

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Myth Blog Retrospective: One Year Later

Back for more! A special Captain America! Redefining Modern Myth double post marking the one year anniversary since we launched on February 4, 2011...

Heroes Lost, Heroes Found

by Ben Alpi

What’s in a year? So many wonderful things, unfortunate things and horrible things happened. In the time from February 4, 2011 and February 4, 2012 the world changed. Dictators fell and freedom rang out. The waters of the Pacific rose up trying to swallow the rising sun. Speech was tread upon, privacy eroded and liberty constricted. Teachers of children had to defend their profession. Veterans came home from war. Great and beautiful minds left our world to travel beyond the veil. That unfortunately includes the venerable Cap co-creator Joe Simon, age 98. And around the globe people took to the streets in great numbers to protest tyranny.

Can you recall any one name who led the charge? A man stood against his government and made them listen. Do you know what country? Do you know his name?

These days, it seems like we’re almost afraid to even use the word “hero.” One of the main attributes of a hero might be someone who doesn’t quite fit into society. Not fitting in is of course one of the best ways to get yourself reprimanded by society in some way—beaten by bullies, fired by your boss or skipped over for a job or promotion. A hero finds the courage to raise his or her head above the parapet. Of course, doing so is the best way to get it cut off by society. If you don’t run with a ball, crunch financial numbers or make good investment bets or if your job involves marker boards, pencils, keyboards, or test tubes, you had best walk on eggshells.

In the entertainment world, as I’ve spoken about at length, there is a perception that a mythic hero is simply unrealistic-- ‘No one is THAT [insert positive trait here]. No one is perfect.’ It’s true, stories often skip over many hardships a person would normally face, but that doesn’t make the character obsolete and sure doesn’t mean the ideal is not worth pursuing. I mentioned to Rick what I was thinking of writing for our anniversary here and he offered that I could mention how in the dark days of WWII, they looked for heroes “to extoll the nobler qualities of man.” In all times previous to the twentieth century, art and stories drew out dark forces for a reason. Many of the most horrifying of images, a painting, sculpture, illustration, photo or film, held beauty and optimism within it. But it seems our society would rather snuff out the flame for fear it might burn too brightly.

Such movements as “conceptual art,” perhaps begun with Dechamp’s Fountain (famously, a urinal with “R. Mutt 1917” scrawled on it,) sought to break tradition by passing mundane objects off as art. This style still greatly influences contemporary art today although it’s grown more grotesque. The amateur and the defamer has been elevated to a higher place than the master. Best not ask a master because they’re just so set in their ways anyhow and/or are just elitists who would rather hold their mastery over us than help. Is that true? Are we so afraid of looking like we don’t know as much as someone who has spent years of their life to become an authority that we’ll avoid them or tear them down? Nope.

I must admit the thought of Cap’s heroism and brilliantly clear intentions always give me a heavy heart. Whilst growing up I never thought superheroes were real, but when I realized that real people didn’t emulate them, something kind of broke inside me. This year I wrote a short animated film called Looking Up. In the film, a son sees his father as a mighty superhero but is ultimately let down when his dad abandons the family. This leaves the son grasping for a role model. Even though real people can let us down, concepts like Cap remind us that there is an ideal worth striving for. I feel that to the bottom of my soul. And that’s why I write about heroes and not anti-heroes or villains masqueraded as heroes. It seems our society as turned upside-down where degenerates are lauded for risking their reputations for fame (read: infamy) and crude behavior is applauded and encouraged for our entertainment. This past year, more scripted television and documentaries were replaced by “reality” television; poorly shot and executed programs wherein reality is re-written in the editing room to enhance conflict. Oddly, but not surprisingly, many people seek to emulate the celebrities created by these destructive shows and in some cases, it seems they imitate the soap opera-like drama in their own lives. Some say these are signs that our society has dropped off the precipice, our Golden Age is over.

The last hundred years saw us trying to redefine ourselves after incredibly rapid changes. Modern art has reflected this by widely rejecting tradition and deconstructing it. Art has become anti-art and heroes anti-heroes. Again and again Rick and I returned to the question ‘Could a film about Cap still reflect his purity and stand up to society’s new-found anti-goodness tendencies?’ I see now that this tendency is almost a form of self-loathing. Producers fear that showing a good-intentioned and noble hero could make the audience feel inadequate. It’s true that our young people have been coddled overmuch and our society has been softened by cheap goods, technology, and credit cards, but do I think that we should capitulate to this anti-idealism? Over. My. Dead. Body.

Have our intentions in education, art and entertainment changed so much that we’re no longer interested in challenging our children and ourselves? There is absolutely nothing wrong with the story of a sickly boy who endured and persevered even though more of his days were filled with pain than not. Steve Roger’s pain gave him a core so absolutely strong, no one could break it. His pain also opened him to empathy and later as Cap, he could identify easily with the weakened and downtrodden. Cap knows better than most that folks just want to be free. Free to live, love, move, enjoy their lives and to be free of oppression and pain. People want to feel they’re a part of society and feel like they’re contributing, not to live in fear.

Cap is also a student of history. He knows this all has happened before. He knows that lessons were once taught harshly with starved lions eating prisoners and slaves in the Colosseum. I don’t think he’d want us to go back to that, but I also don’t think he’d want us to try and deny the existence of right and wrong let alone avoid all matters of violence or reality say, in children’s television. It’s interesting how it seems we’re trying to avoid teaching our children about reality while we also try to tamp out their imaginations and make them grow up quicker. And once we’re older, somehow we crave only guilty pleasures? Well, back in Cap’s day gluttony was not a favorable trait and that’s not changed. Heroes cannot make you feel bad about yourself; they can only make the guilty feel so. Challenges cannot destroy character, they can only build it. Being exceptional is not shameful or a curse or a burden. It’s a gift. We’re all exceptional at something and we all should delight in that. And we shouldn’t need the darkness of war to show us the light.
Although he sits at the microphone like any other American testifying to a Congressional committee, the Senators are uneasy at the presence of the imposing figure of Captain America.

The Senator from Nevada who chairs the committee shakes his head.“I’m sorry, but you’re 70 years too late, Captain. Our job is to root out government waste and I see no reason to continue funding a project like yours which is simply beyond its usefulness. We don’t need symbols anymore. We won the war.”

Cap looks him and the other Senators in the eye as he speaks. “I wish I could agree with you, Senator, but even the founders knew we had to seek a more perfect union. Perhaps I’m out of my time, but my message, our message, has never been more important. We’ve won many battles, but as long a one child goes hungry or one person is hurt for being different, there will still be work to be done. And I’m here do my part.”
Be exceptional. Stick your neck out. Help someone in need. Be gentle, but don’t blind your children. Drink less, stop smoking and get more sleep. Spend more time talking to your loved ones than listening to newscasters and talk shows. That’s what Cap would want you to do. He’d also remind us that a democracy is not a concrete pillar; it’s a Liberty Garden that needs our constant attention. It needs to be tended, watered, and sung to. He’d also say don’t be afraid of heroes.

The man I mentioned before who stood up to his government was Anna Hazare. He went on a hunger strike to protest corruption in the Indian government. After eleven days of only water, his actions shamed parliament into agreeing to at least give credence to his anti-corruption plan to make public servants accountable for massive scandals and end their culture of bribery. India is the largest democracy in the world with a population of more than 1.2 billion, has six national political parties, and 21 languages recognized by its constitution. I know about Hazare only because I traveled to my future in-laws in England during his protest. Anna Hazare is a hero and we should know his name. There are more. And what about you? Are you a hero?

Over this past year I was blessed to work with Rick on this project as well as my short film Cowboy Creed. Thanks to Rick and a host of other kind backers, professionals, and artists the film is now in post-production. Cowboy Creed will not shy away from displays of heroism and villainy and I think you’ll like it. I absolutely loved writing this blog with Rick and opening his sketches each week was a joy—which has been wonderfully relived today! And there is so much more to discover! The next twelve months will be a challenge just like the last twelve, but let’s all make the most of them. With Cap running out in front showing us the way, we can’t fail! Thank you all for reading!

Keep your dreams alive,
Ben Alpi

Captain America and Heroism - One Year Later

A Blog Anniversary

by Rick Arthur

February 2011 was the official start of the Captain America! Redefining Modern Myth blog.  Ben Alpi and I ran some blog tests in late 2010 and Jan. of 2011 to measure the format and work out some technical issues.  Some of these posts became the “Preamble” to our blog about Cap.  Having spent several years exchanging emails, deciding to collect them, and based on the super hoopla from the Big Football Game which included both a Thorand Captain America movie preview, we created the first official offering after the game as a sort of “kickoff."  So, in the shortest month of the year, wedged in between Ground Hog Day and Valentine’s Day and just after a 31-25 Green Bay over the Steelers win in game XLV, Captain America! Redefining Modern Myth - the blog which became about truth, justice, freedom, patriotism and liberty debuted with a post entitled, There Is No Tea.”  We set out to ask “How do you make a modern film about a character with almost seventy years worth reference material?”

Ben and I achieved a growing success as we rolled out the posts like clockwork three times a week.  After a few weeks, I proposed we add more color to the posts and set about with Ben’s help to recreate the background graphic and layout.  Ben’s vision for the look had been full of WWII browns and tans also designed to work well with the type selected.  Several artistic efforts proved to be unsatisfying.  What did we end up with though?  Small color “sketches” to grace the posts themselves. While I created a majority of these color sketches, Ben also tried his hand - plus gave invaluable advice on much of the others.  This solidified our graphic layout.

Content proved to be fairly easy.  We had made a decision early on NOT to edit the text much.  What we got was a conversation with a very natural sound that reprinted in most cases our exact emails.  I split the emails into segments and gave them post titles.  Topics ranged from discussing Simon and Kirby to WWI, WWII, Steve Rogers as a boy, what is patriotism, who is the Red Skull, what would it be like to film certain scenes.  My favorite parts include the scenes, the dialogue and reading what Ben would write back.  His action filled opening script with Cap parachuting larger than life onto the battlefield is astonishing and set a lot of the tone for what would come next.

It is the “what comes next” that concerns us here.  We could not have predicted any of it.  Emails about Cap took a decidedly sharp turn.  Who was he and what forces shaped him?  What constituted heroism? Bravery? Patriotism?  What did WWII really mean from the perspective of the time - just how dangerous was it, how close to loosing it all?  What was the nature of sacrifice?

An important aspect of the character was how he took the arc of a heroes’ journey.  This is more important than jumping from “cool visual” to “big explosion here.”  Reading the blog you will be able to follow the sometimes contradictory steps we take in building Steve Rogers from the ground up, laying the foundation of WWII from the aftermath of The Great War, having him engage in battle and having him come up against an opposing force in the shape of the Red Skull who tests Cap’s mettle and makes Cap question his beliefs.  Despite all of the strengths a hero possess, the villain must always appear stronger, often besting the hero before the hero discovers an important truth about himself. Only with that can the hero claim victory.

Our emails began to build toward us actually writing a screenplay. This would have been a logical extension of our searching for character and a great deal of fun for me because my script partner, Ben, is a filmmaker and would have taught me a lot about the process.  This type of writing though is not light and fun, not something I could do in just 15 minutes a day.  A screenplay would require more dedication and time than I could give.  While a lot of material was available to work from, solutions for scenes would consume brain power, trial and error, and time.  Just for a first draft.  Marvel announced a Cap movie while we were still emailing.  I worked a job as did Ben.  We had to be content with amassing background information and knowing that the character had gotten a fair investigation by us.

Ben also writes and reminds us that being heroic and following your instincts are an important part of the human condition.  What can I do?  One man or woman can make a difference.  Standing up for individual liberty, freedom and responsibility is what Captain America as a fictional character was all about.  Tales of heroes remind us time and again to strive for a perfection of our inner virtues and live entirely without fear - the kind of life that could shine as an example to others.  Honest. Open.  Selfless. Compassionate. Devoted. Despite all our struggles and failings, heroes stand before us and say “Get up.”  We are reminded of how life’s trials are both a sprint and a marathon and some obstacles will knock us down in the dirt.  Cap got up again and again when he could have stayed down, when avoiding a stronger opponent would have kept him safe...

I am very happy with the resulting blog.  I feel it represents much of the thinking we had developed on the character.  As we finish our first full year, I am able to see the body of work for what it is, a love letter to Cap, to our superhero youth, and more importantly a proud remembrance of the sacrifices made by the greatest generation of Americans to secure freedom and liberty in the darkest chapter for mankind. Thank you to all who serve.

Thank you too, dear reader, for embarking on this journey with us and discovering a different Steve Rogers and a revitalized Captain America.  If you have read this blog before, discover it again and if you haven’t then be prepared for a treat!

Let Freedom Ring!