Why So Serious? Captain America: Civil War Reviewed

In many respects, the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a triumph. The cinematography was beautiful, the acting was excellent, the costuming was marvelous. The fight scenes were well choreographed and easy to follow, and they did indeed drop my jaw. Not to mention that the story held together with only a few holes  despite an enormous number of important characters. But alas, there was something missing from Captain America: Civil War that has been such a major part of the franchise.

What happened to the witty banter and quirky moments?

Like, we get it. Big, serious things are happening. Everyone’s down in the dumps. Are they really going to crack jokes when their friends keep running off to who-knows-where (like Thor and the Hulk)? Or falling on opposing sides in a political power struggle? Or getting seriously injured?

Sure, Iron Man makes a few fun comments. But there’s a reason that Spiderman webbed in and stole the show — he was having fun! Why wasn’t anyone else having fun? Or at least chilling out with some shawarma after a hard day of misunderstanding and brutally beating their friends?

And this is not just a problem with Civil War. I’m sure you’ve all noticed that grit is having a moment right now. Has been for the last few years. From Game of Thrones to Batman v Superman to The Walking Dead, what’s popular in broadly defined speculative fiction is dark and dour.

And I’m kind of done with it, because we can actually do better. I haven’t seen the show, but the book series of The Magicians walks the tightrope between realistic with realistic consequences and big colorful magic, and then finishes with a triple backflip and sticks the landing. Robert Kirkman’s other big comic book series, Invincible, isn’t a TV show like The Walking Dead yet, but it too manages to juggle serious and fun. Deadpool continues to blow my mind for being so crass, so funny, so over-the-top, and so real all at once.

I watched The Witch, a horror film peopled entirely with unsmiling, sin-obsessed pilgrims.  And even they knew to punch up the MAGIC at the end. So what happened, Civil War? Why so serious?

My hypothesis is that our current wave of blockbuster comic book movies is still riding the wave whipped up by Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, which were notably dark and gritty in a complete departure from earlier comic book to film adaptations. They did have their fun, colorful moments (the Joker, cough cough), which is why they mostly worked, but grit was the main theme.

So maybe the big studio exec default thinking is if they don’t have utter genius writing the script, at least keep it serious. People take serious things seriously, right? And this is a big, serious story. But the problem is that serious by itself is boring.

Tell me, which would you rather see?

(1) A bunch of characters state that they will or will not sign the Sokovia Accords, give brief explanations as to their positions, and then rather than talk about it Captain America goes to a funeral for a character that — to be honest — only he really cared about.*

(2) A bunch of characters order Chinese take out and have an actual conversation about the Accords, argue its merits back and forth, make each other and the audience laugh about it, have difficulties with their chop sticks, and ultimately agree to disagree without yet fully grasping how bad things are about to get bad. Skip the funeral scene.

Two sounds better, doesn’t it? It still deals with the weighty subject material, but it doesn’t make the audience suffer for it.

I’m not arguing for pure escapism, like a certain serious “literary” subset seem to think all this super hero, giant robot, and magic stuff is. If you divest these characters of their moral confusion and PTSD and just have them fly around and hit each other with wiffle bats and rainbows, you’ve lost my interest and don’t have a story.** It’s a balance.

Here, I’ll make it simple. I liked Civil War, especially the big six-on-six fight which was the entire reason we were all there. But I would groan if you asked me to rewatch it.

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*It could be that Peggy Carter is a major character in Agents of SHIELD, and I’m just ignorant. I have my own books to write, I can’t watch, read, or otherwise imbibe everything! 😛

**Some amazing art though…

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Time Traveling Through Fiction

I spend a fair bit of time frolicking about in Middle Earth, or Westros, or Narnia, or Discworld, or any number of other pseudo-medieval realms.  I like to time travel this way, and take a tourist’s visit through what seems like the past.  I enjoy the silly costumes, the fortified architecture, the bad food and worse sanitation, the lack-of-guns, and then I’m all too happy to return to the present.

Fantasy does a lot for me, but on top of the entertainment and metaphorized drama it makes me grateful.  Despite all our present troubles, we live in an age of miracles.  They might have bawdy taverns and nut brown ale, but we have electricity, flush toilets, and the World Wide Web.

Yet sometimes I want a more authentic experience.  I head back into history on the arm of someone like Diana Gabaldon, or Ken Follett, or Philippa Gregory.  Someone who has done his or her research, and is happy to introduce me to the celebrated places and persons of the past.  And it isn’t just us moderns who have exercised the time-traveling powers of good fiction.  Nathaniel Hawthorne and Alexander Dumas were both more interested in writing about the past than the present.  Victor Hugo was painstaking with his research for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, set three centuries before his own time.

But I’m fooling myself if I think I’ve really left history’s tourist traps this way.  For all their research and imagination, no author can really introduce me to a time older than their own.  They can only gloss, give impressions, or stereotype.  Hugo was making it up when he introduced me to 16th century Paris.

If I want to really time travel with Victor Hugo, I have to read Les Miserables.

Then history isn’t just a fun place to visit.  It becomes real.  I walk 19th century Paris with Jean Valjean, and see how our current conflicts between rich and poor, state and populace, are old conflicts indeed.  I read Othello, and learn that white men have feared losing their daughters to the arms of black men for four centuries.  I read the Bhagavad Gita, and realize that we have struggled with our own transience and purpose for thousands of years.

I’m no tourist then.  This is real time travel.  I’m living history on ancient words, and my empathy grows as I realize that we are, and have always been, only human.

Killing Your Darlings (like actually killing them)*

Death is an important part of fiction.  We spend a lot more time contemplating Hamlet (where almost everyone dies) than A Midsummer Night’s Dream (where no one dies).  And in speculative fiction, the bar keeps rising.  JRR Tolkein may have killed Boromir, but he’s the only one of the Fellowship of the Ring who kicks the bucket (permanently anyway).  JK Rowling definitely raised the stakes with Dumbledore, George RR Martin axed both Ned Stark AND put on a Red Wedding, and don’t get me started on the end of The Hunger Games.

(For those who haven’t read it and are waiting for the final movie, I’ll be vague and just say that Suzanne Collins broke my heart.)

So, how do you pick who to kill?

First, it’s a matter of timing.  You can kill a number of characters all within a short span of time or pages (as JK Rowling does at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), but each death is going to pack less punch.  The reader gets a little numb.  It’s one thing to kill a room full of extras, but space major deaths out if you can.

I won’t tell you to keep deaths to the end of a story or character arc.  It’s frequently a good idea, but Hedwig’s death (at the beginning of Deathly Hollows) was a powerful death that foreshadowed the more serious tone of the last book in the Harry Potter series.

Next, make sure that you don’t have anything really interesting to do with that character later.  That’s one reason you may get a slew of deaths at the end of a book or series.  The story is over, there isn’t anything left for any character to do anyway (except star in fan-fiction).  This is key.  George RR Martin had a stroke of brilliance when he thought to execute Eddard Stark — the character was at a dead end, imprisoned and with no other out but ignominy among the Night’s Watch.  AND it is Eddard’s family’s thirst for revenge that inspires the continuation of the plot.

But the Red Wedding?  Shocking as it was, it ground the plot to a halt.  With the only serious threat against the Lannisters taken out, there was nothing left for the nobles in King’s Landing to do except tear each other to pieces — which turned out to be a lot less fun than I thought it was going to be.  Catelyn Stark’s death was appropriate, but Robb King in the North still had work to do!

And finally, don’t plan your deaths.  I’ve found that the best, most shocking, and most meaningful deaths just happen.  I’ll walk my character into a situation fully intending to carry him or her through, and I can’t.  There’s no way without a corny deus ex machina, or without turning the dreadful foe into an oaf.  It hurts sometimes — I’ve cried after killing characters.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  We read and write to process our darker emotions, and the most primal of those is the fear of death.

You don’t have to write tragedy.  Personally, I like a little more sweet than bitter in an ending.  But don’t go into a story refusing to sacrifice any particular character.  It’s a lot more fun to keep your readers — and yourself — on pins and needles.

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*I’m aware that the meme “kill your darlings” originated as “murder your darlings”, advice given by Arthur Quiller-Couch during a lecture titled “On Style”.  Quiller-Couch spoke about “murdering” frilly turns of phrase, not characters.  But it still makes a great blog post title, doesn’t it?

Diversity Now!

When I was ten, I read Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons.

This book rocked my world.  It subverted the fairy tales and Disney movies I was familiar with.  It turned a princess into a protagonist with intelligence, ability, and agency.  Cimorene does everything!  She saves the prince, she stops the evil wizards, she makes sure her (female!) dragon-employer becomes king (yes, king).  And when she does need help or advice, she gets it from other female characters.

At the time, I did not know I was looking for depictions of capable, complex women — I was only ten.  But I spent the next decade mostly dissatisfied with my media consumption without knowing why, and the decade after that knowing exactly why.

Where the hell are the women?

Sure, there’s frequently a woman around, but she’s the only one, the girlfriend, the token.  The ladies of Dragonlance are usually doled out one to a group.  They are always less interesting or capable than their male companions, and take on a narrow set of roles; healer, diplomat, Strong Female Character who is captured or dead or otherwise incapacitated for the final battle.  The same holds true for much of A Song of Ice and Fire, The Belgariad, what little of the Xanth series I’ve read…

In essence, there is a hell of a lot more Sigourney Weaver from Ghostbusters than Sigourney Weaver from Alien.  And I’ve never seen another story-driving group of women like Cimorene, Kazul, and Alianora from Dealing with Dragons.

I see story-driving groups of men all the time in books and movies.  Duos like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  The Three (or four) Musketeers.  The Fellowship of the Ring, the pirate crew in Treasure Island, the Lost Boys of Neverland, the Knights of the Round Table, Robin Hood and his Merry Men — where outside of the Amazons of Themyscira (or brothels) do you ever see groups of all women like that?

Admittedly, I can think of a few disparate examples.  A Game of You, the fifth collection of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic, is dominated by five ladies (six if you count the Cuckoo).  The story is about them, pushed forward by them…and yet their actions culminate in the summoning of the titular Sandman, who proceeds to save the day.

This is typical.  Even when women get to take center stage in speculative fiction (and even when the writer is as excellent and self-aware as Neil Gaiman), their actions usually revolve around a man.

So what should writers do to fight tokenism and the ubiquity of male-centric story-telling?  Well, you’ll notice I mentioned Ghostbusters.  If you haven’t heard, a reboot of that excellent franchise is in the works — one that will star four lady Ghostbusters instead of four dude Ghostbusters.  I don’t know whether this movie will be good or not, but the concept is spot on.  It is the solution to our problem.  We’ve been trained by our media to think of male as “normal”, and so it’s no wonder that many writers start with a male character and fill in around him as our world-building and story-building progresses.

But we don’t have to.  We can put a little more effort into it, and change that “everyman” into a woman.

Or why not make your characters brown?  Most of the people in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books are brown, including the main character Ged, but that’s really unusual in speculative fiction.  On TV there’s Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, and Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori books are set in a world that resembles feudal Japan…and that’s about it, unless you go foreign or reach for straight historical fiction.

Gay and bi characters are a little more common, and I even see a trans character now and again, but the sexually diverse are frequently relegated to stereotyped sidekick.  Fat characters are treated similarly.  And you won’t find too many handicapped or chronically ill characters either.

Yes, you can center your action-heavy fantasy around a disabled character (and not screw it up like George RR Martin did with Tyrion)!  Go watch Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood if you don’t believe me.

Yet fantasy is all about metaphor.  Does sexual diversity have to be explored using actual gay people, or can you infer a pro-gay stance by using straight vampires (as the True Blood TV series attempts)?  Didn’t Tolkein explore racial diversity with his humans, elves, and dwarves, even without including a variety of skin-tones in his good guys?

Yeah, I guess.  But in True Blood Lafayette was standing right there, just being gay and doing a much better job of supporting gay rights than the “God hates fangs!” stuff.  And all the dark-skinned bad guys in Lord of the Rings — orcs and Haradrim alike — really undermine the message of racial harmony.  Diversity in fiction is not accomplished by characters soapboxing about differing factions getting along, but by mere representation.  Have a gay character, have a brown character, and they don’t have to go on and on about civil rights to normalize being gay or being brown.

There’s nothing wrong with using vampires to explores sexuality, or humans and elves to explore race (heck, I do a bit of both).  But if you want to write about diversity, include some real diversity.

There is nothing limiting the diversity of your cast but your imagination.  There is nothing stopping you from re-casting or re-plotting your work-in-progress so that it becomes more inclusive.

The real world is diverse.  Your fantasy world should be too.

How to Write Time

My writing follows a yearly cycle, and once again I have followed that cycle into — and by now mostly through — the creatively barren months of December and January.  The days are short, the sun-angles are low, and these things trick my brain into thinking I should be eating and sleeping more and working less.

We remain tied to the physics of the world around us, humbled by the tilt and spin of our planet, despite the best efforts of Tesla, Edison, and general industrialization.

It’s easy to forget how dependent we are on astrophysics while writing a novel, particularly one set somewhere other than Earth.  There isn’t a ready-made calendar; no system of days in a week, or months in a year, or annual holidays.  The writer has to make all that up, and then keep track!  That isn’t an easy task, and many writers simply don’t bother.

For all the work J.R.R. Tolkein did on language for Lord of the Rings, the scale of Middle Earth remains vague.  He usually doesn’t tell us how long the Fellowship of the Ring remains on the road, or how far they have traveled.

The Midworld of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is pointedly timeless, space and time both stretching and thinning as the Beams that support the world erode and break.

In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, summers and winters both last “for years,” whatever that means.  Two or three years pass between books one and five, yet the unchanging season and lack of annual holidays left me feeling as if the events had taken place over maybe six months.

Obviously, you can write something brilliant without worrying too much about time.  But my body goes through monthly and yearly cycles.  Holidays mark my year, weekends punctuate my weeks.  I wanted the time in my world of Endrion to be palpable, just as it is in the real world.

To that end, I set about building a calendar for Endrion.  I decided to use 24-hour days, 7-day weeks, 28-day months, and a 336-day year.  These values are all similar enough to the values of Earth’s calendar that my readers will be comfortable.  My calendar also lacks leap-days, months of different lengths, or other irregularities.  Partly this is to make keeping track of my calendar easier for me, but it also fits the character of Endrion.  It’s a magical world, watched over by beings that might as well be called Gods.  Wouldn’t such a world have an eerily perfect calendar?

However perfect, though, it had to be imposed by the people of my world upon themselves.  I’ve not only invented a calendar, but a history for that calendar.

The days of the week are named by number — First Day, Second Day, and so on though to Sixth Day.  (Many human languages name the days of the week after numbers, including Hebrew and Japanese.)  The seventh day is Sabbath, the day to go to temple and otherwise rest, the weekend.

The months are given names which I meant to be evocative of the time of year, but which are ultimately meaningless.

On a larger scale, I also invented twelve major constellations for Endrion’s skies that fulfill the same role as Earth’s Zodiac.  No, they don’t influence the lives and fates of my characters — they serve as the basis for deciding what the current age is.  We count our years beginning with the assumed birth year of Yeshua of Nazareth.  The people of Endrion count their years by which constellation sits where the sun rises on the vernal equinox.

I keep notes on what day it is as I write — the year, the month, the day of the week.  My characters likewise notice time passing.  They vary their activities on the Sabbath from the rest of the week.  They feel the seasons passing, they note the phase of the moon, they know what day, month, and year it is.

It may be tricky to do all the world-building necessary to have these details at hand, but it is the little details that give a fictive world the air of solidity.