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On Liking Things

Before I get started, this has completely unfiltered spoilers for Secret Wars and basically everything I’ve read from Nick Spencer’s run on the Steve Rogers side of Captain America.  I haven’t really read any of his post Secret Wars Sam Wilson stuff, so I don’t know how relevant it is to the discussion.

I’ve been following the whole Hydra Captain America since it all went down with Steve telling a scientist “Hail Hydra” and it’s engendered a lot of discussion.  However, I think a lot of it is misguided and actually offensive in how sort of childish and immature the discussions have been.  Literature is all about emotion, specifically the type of emotion it engenders in its audience.  This emotional reaction is in a lot of ways, the main goal of all types of literature, or if not the main goal, one of the major ones.  Humans, being rational beings, tend to attach themselves to things that they find emotionally appealing and detach themselves from things that they find emotionally repugnant, regardless of how irrational it is.

The discussion about Nick Spencer’s Captain America work, specifically the stuff about “Nazi Steve,” as I like to call him (because I thought it was from a movie), has fallen into this territory and a lot of the discussions around whether or not it should or shouldn’t be done, and whether or not anyone should actually like it have really been, for a lack of better phrasing, stupid as goddamn fuck.  Specifically, it’s a perfectly acceptable to not like the story, find it offensive and think that thanks to the political climate and burgeoning white nationalism in the United States to think the story might be in poor taste.  Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with taking any of these positions, and they’re perfectly rational positions to take, actually.  Social critique is actually a very important element of literary criticism, and while there are people who are taking it to a rather vocal extreme, it’s still a rational side to take on the whole thing.  Taking a work within the context of which it was created is a valid thing to look at when doing literary criticism, so to look at a story where a symbol of liberty, democracy and the ideal of America is corrupted, either in universe or at a meta level (or both), into a far-right authoritarian terrorist owing fealty to alien elder gods during a time of high anxiety about white nationalism and feel like it’s not exactly a good time to write it is perfectly valid.  At the same time, it is equally valid to say that this is exactly the time to write this story, mostly because of that context.  Both sides, of course, are right, because literary discussion doesn’t exactly have “right” answers.

Literary criticism is about looking at something from a specific angle, and no angle is truly more “valid” than any others.  I tend to think post-modernism is stupid bullshit, as an example, but a person who looks at Jack Keroauc’s “On the Road” from a post-modern perspective is no more or less right than if I looked at it from a Marxist or modernist perspective.  Also, what the critic takes away from that is generally pretty valid, provided they can back up what they’re saying with textual evidence, and people who have been arguing they don’t like Captain America being the leader of Hydra because it makes Captain America into a Nazi, the thing he was literally made by two Jewish comic creators to fight, has a lot of textual evidence to back up what they’re saying.  The people arguing against that also have a lot of textual evidence to support their point of view.  I don’t agree with them, but they do have it.

This comes back, however, to the comic itself.  The actual discussion is less about the critique of the story from one literary perspective or the other, and more about people’s emotional response to each other’s arguments.  Many people, on either side, are generally now allowing anyone to really have that discussion, mostly because they’re saying that the other side truly isn’t a valid discussion, and therefore that other side should just shut up.  They will completely disregard the other side’s points, deliberately misinterpret them and throw them back as if they have defeated their argument, when in reality, they’ve just said they didn’t like what they said, so they shouldn’t be allowed to say it.  In something completely unrelated, it pains me when my students don’t listen to me when I try to teach rhetoric.

Look, is it okay to be offended by a piece of work?  Yeah, it totally is.  Especially when the story features a subversion of a work in a way that is extremely off putting.  It doesn’t mean the people who are saying that Steve Rogers should never be a Nazi are right, but it doesn’t make them wrong to say that they don’t want to see this kind of story, either.

As for me, I think it’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons and Captain America holding goddamn Mjolnir and being considered worthy is pretty high up there.  I’m guilty of not liking it for political reasons (also not liking it because I’ve never liked anything he’s ever written and because the story doesn’t even make sense within itself, and it requires itself to even work, because it doesn’t work without the context), but mostly I just thought it was stupid because the whole “twist” was going to have the dumbest twist so Spencer can put everything back into the toybox when he’s done.  There’s no way that Cap would permanently become a right-wing authoritarian terrorist.  I think what pushed me over the edge was actually seeing Cap holding Thor’s hammer over the broken bodies of his friends.  Sure, it might be a fakeout, but Mjolnir has become something of a symbol to white supremacists everywhere.  It’s hard to want to see that be a thing in the best of times, and not just because Steve has always sort of represented a quasi-leftest, pro-diversity sort of character.

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This New Captain America Stuff is Stupid, and I Like Stupid Comic Book Stuff

I haven’t spoken about comic books on this blog since 2011.  That’s so crazy.  I used to do those “what should they fix” for DC on the lead up to the New 52.  Considering how the New 52 turned out, well, I’m guessing no one at DC comics reads my blog.  That’s insane, because so many things have happened in the world of comic books since then, and I never even got a chance to blog about Secret Wars, which might be my favorite event book ever.  I guess I really only come to this well when I have something to bitch about, and well, Secret Empire #0 has given me a lot to bitch about.

Secret_Empire_0_Cover

Copyright Marvel Comics and Disney

God that makes me so mad.  I guess they’ve made a point of pointing out that Hydra isn’t always a Nazi organization, but Steve Rogers joining, and having always been a part of, a secret, far right authoritarian terrorist organization is not a good look, no matter how much Nazi shit you want to scrape away from it.  I guess Steve is the “good” part of the right wing authoritarian terrorist organization.  Also, he wants to put mutants in camps.  It’s wonderful.

The whole thing is stupid comic book shit, and I’m not even going to make a big deal about it being in bad taste because Trump got elected because this was in the can before he got elected, so there was no way to stop it from happening.  Also, I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the real world ramifications of making Steve Rogers a violent, right wing authoritarian.  It doesn’t help that the whole thing will be retconned away at the end of the story, having just been a stupid thing that changes nothing, because mainstream super hero comics will always return to the status quo no matter what.  It is hurtful, in a way, I guess, for a lot of reasons, but that “Hail Hydra” scene really managed to make me rethink comic books

Right from the get go, I knew this was going to be temporary.  If it wasn’t the original plan,  it would be overturned eventually.  There was no way Marvel was going to keep Steve as a member of Hydra for long, and it’s not like they’re going to kill him again, they just did the whole passing of the mantle thing a couple of years ago.  No, I knew it was going to be brainwashing or cosmic cube shenanigans or a Celestial or Franklin Richards going through puberty, or whatever as some sort of explanation and it was just throwing the whole “nothing ever matters in super hero books” right in everyone’s faces.

The full page panel of Steve saying “Hail Hydra” was like a crystallized moment in time.  A moment that said “none of this stupid shit matters” and I almost stopped reading super hero comics right then.  I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to, Al Ewing and G. Willow Wilson are still making great comics and Superman is a lot of fun, but it was the most impermanent “shocking swerve” I’ve ever seen.  I was six when Superman died, and even then, I knew he was going to come back, because that’s what comic book characters did.  I always knew it wasn’t going to be permanent, but there was something about this one in particular that shook things up and made me really want to evaluate my hobbies and what I really enjoyed.

I won’t like, the political implications of it didn’t make me happy, but what really made me sad was seeing a character I like a whole lot get transformed into the opposite of what he was in what was the most lazy way possible.  Consider the alien suit for Spider-Man, which slowly tried to transform him into something different, corrupting him.  It was a slow burn story, and while we all knew Spidey would get the red and blues back, it didn’t matter, the story was about the struggle.  None of that is here.  Steve is just the opposite of what he was, and apparently he always was that.

Then I guess Marvel decided to make it worse.  Today, in Secret Wars #0, we discover that the Nazis really won World War II.  The desperate Allies used the Cosmic Cube to alter reality, thus changing Steve Rogers from Hydra Agent into Captain America.  I mean, obviously, that’s not how the story is going to go.  Obviously, the real twist was that the Nazis altered it, then the Allies altered it back, but it doesn’t stop it from feeling really gross.  Other than how messy on all fronts an Axis victory would actually be (unless they mean the Allied invasion was stopped), it’s just not cool to double down on the Cap is Hydra thing by really doubling down and also declaring the Nazis won World War II.  There’s a lot of cultural baggage to that war, and to say “nah, the only reason the Allies won is because of a magic space cube” is terrible.  Coming back and being all like “oh, but no, it was how we all remembered it” at the end really isn’t going to help much, because we’re still stuck with having to deal with 8 issues of Nazi victories and more Nazi Steve.

Still, one thing I think is especially weird is that Steve wants to put mutants in camps.  Jesus, why?

Nazi Killin’ Fun

Sometimes a movie will just be a huge surprise, like Iron Man, and manage to be impressive in every way and exceeding any expectations anyone has for the film.  Much like Iron Man before it, Captain America: the First Avenger is that kind of movie.  Clever, charming, if a little simple, Captain America is probably the summer’s top blockbuster.

Set during World War II, Captain America follows 98 pound weakling Steve Rogers, who, having been bullied his whole life, wants desperately to stand up to the biggest bully of them all, Hitler.  After being rejected several times for enlistment, Rogers is picked up by a special Allied “Science Unit” designed to breed an army of super soldiers and he is subsequently embroiled in a conflict with the Red Skull and his Hydra cult, and their desire to conquer the world.

This movie has a lot in common with the original Iron Man.  It hits a lot of the same plot points and concepts and it has the same basic story structure, for good and ill.  This is a good thing for Captain America though, because it gives the audience a very strong first and second act, which is a very smart character study of Rogers and the people around him.  Just like Iron Man, it goes through the process of realistically building Rogers into the hero he is destined to become.  It takes the time to show his transformation while studying what effect this has on him and the people around him.  It’s not just Rogers who gets time to shine, but Bucky, Peggy Carter and Colonel Phillips all get a lot of growth in the first two thirds of the movie.

Unfortunately, around the time the bad guy really shows up and starts to be threatening, it’s also where the movie loses a lot of momentum, an unfortunate trait inherited from Iron Man.  The last third of the movie comes off as truncated and rushed, which is disappointing because the third act begins right as Rogers really becomes Captain America, but the audience only sees a montage of Rogers being Captain America before jumping right to the last couple of action sequences.  It makes the last part of the film seem rushed and unfinished.

Which is a shame, because the action sequences are amazing.  They’re well set up and they do a great job of blending the super hero mythos with common World War II film expectations.  Unfortunately, most of these scenes are in a single montage of unrelated missions where Captain America, Bucky and the Howling Commandos blow up some Hyrda goons.  This montage is sandwhich between two great action set pieces that do a great job of establishing and growing Rogers as a character, which causes the issue to stand out even more than it should.

The movie really shines with its characters, especially Rogers.  Chris Evans totally sells this movie, absolutely becoming Steve Rogers.  Even when CGI’d in half, there’s no point where Evans doesn’t come off as anything less than genuine.  His performance is what makes this movie and brings out some of the best scenes in the movie, demanding some top notch performances from the supporting cast.  Bucky, Howard Star and Peggy Carter all get more weight, more personality and become more real when Evans interacts with them.  Even at the end of the film, when the movie tries to switch into dumb action mode, Evans makes sure there’s still a sense of character.

However, when Evans isn’t around, some of the characters have difficulty standing on their own, or are woefully under utilized.  Peggy Carter is the most “under utilized” of any character, devolving from a true SIS Spy to a mewling secretary whenever Rogers isn’t on the screen.  She doesn’t even get to utilize the skills she’s supposed to have, and that’s unfortunate.  The Red Skull is one of those characters who just doesn’t stand very well.  Hugo Weaving does a good job with his traditional unnerving villain character and, although I like that I think V for Vendetta and Lord of the Rings prove he’s got more range as a hero, but unfortunately, he’s just not a very interesting villain.  He doesn’t really have a personality or a motivation, he just wants to take over the world, M. Bison style.  His best performances are next to Evans, but once Evans isn’t on the screen, it’s clear there’s not a person there.

On the whole, it’s a good, fun movie.  Cap never actually fights Nazis, which is weird for a World War II movie, but that doesn’t really change the fact it’s a well done, character driven action movie.  It stumbles a bit there at the end, and again when it tires to tie in some more Marvel continuity, but other than that, it’s great.

Avengers

After work today, I stopped by a local Books-A-Million to get some fake coffee and to check up on some comics and I read the latest issue of Buffy, which I thought kind of fell apart as a comic pretty quickly.  It wasn’t bad, just kind of “meh.”  However, the Twilight issues have been particularly stupid, especially with the latest issue partly because it was Buffy and Angel having “super sex” for 22 pages and partly because of Giles’ non-explanation about balance in the universe.  It was so bad, I vowed to come home and write something good to counteract that.  This isn’t it.  I’m taking a break from that to write this.

So, it’s old news that Joss Whedon will be allowed to direct the Avengers movie, and he’ll get to do some treatments to the script, which is something I’m not particularly thrilled about.  The man can certainly write well, and I’ve liked most of his stuff, but his super hero work has been pretty terrible.  I’m still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and guess he has difficulty writing in the comic book format (and I’m trying to convince myself Dollhouse wasn’t actually bad, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.  That’s not working as well), but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to give him a free pass, and that latest issue of Buffy has made me feel even more disinclined towards enjoying the thought of Whedon sitting in the director’s chair of the Avengers, even if Brad Meltzer wrote that issue.

What Wheedon writes has his typical style: snappy dialog, lots of snark and a tendency to have character’s die at seemingly random and anti-climactic, but “realistic” times.  Normally, this is pretty much par for the course for super hero fiction, but it’s also pretty much the reason the genre has stagnated over the past 30 years or so and worse, it’s something that doesn’t really translate well to the big screen.  Too much wordplay can bog down a script, and Whedon was smart enough to recognize this for Serenity, so that’s less of a concern.  It’s his tendency to kill characters in shocking ways that makes me wary.  It was one thing for him to kill the characters he did in Serenity because the characters are in an “anyone can die” situation, and killing one of them actually added to the tension.  The same goes for Jenny Calender in the beginning of Buffy.  However, most of the people he’s killed for shock value really did nothing but make the audience go “what the fuck?”  Tara getting shot is the most egregious (how did he hit?), but there was also Cordelia dying off screen, Anya getting bisected from behind and Wesley getting stabbed are all examples of Whedon killing characters for shock.

The man can write tasteful deaths (see: Angel “A Whole in the World.”), but most of the time, he doesn’t and a beloved character gets a shitty send off.  The fear I have is that someone like Ant Man will manage to save the team before getting his head blown off by the Red Skull just as it looks like the team is about to escape.  The way Whedon writes most death scenes is less about dying heroically or epically trying to buy time for the rest of the team or sacrificing their lives to save the world (well, okay, he let Buffy do this once, but not the first time) and more about a semi-realistic horror movie shock death and that’s not what super hero movies are about.  If someone’s going to die, they need to go off in a blaze of fucking glory, taking down whole armies in the process.  Hopefully, Whedon understands this.

On the flip side, the man can write a hell of an action scene, so it might all balance out to something slightly better than average.