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…

Fury Road, Genisys, and Men’s Rights

What a week for speculative fiction movies and gender role discussions, eh?  On the one hand, some of my fellow feminists are having trouble dealing with the problematic backstory Marvel has always had for Black Widow and the fact that Iron Man is a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” who would totally crack a rape joke in poor taste.  On the other, the so-called “Men’s Rights Activists” are going nuts over the new Mad Max and Terminator movies.

I’ll be candid — I haven’t seen the original Mad Max movie (shame on me, I know; it is, like so many books, video games, comics, tv shows, and movies, on my list).  I also haven’t seen Fury Road yet, and I certainly haven’t seen Genisys* (‘cause it ain’t even out ‘til July!), so there’s really only so much I can say.  But let’s start with what an MRA is.

An MRA is a person (male or female) who thinks that feminism is out to strip men of their rights.  And they have a point.  Before feminism, men got to keep their kids and their stuff when they got divorced from their wives.  After feminism, it is easier for women to collect alimony and take custody of their children than it is for men, no matter how deserving he or she is.  Fortune was historically unbalanced in favor of men, now (in some ways) it is unbalanced in favor of women, and really we should work to have fortune balanced between the sexes.

(Pssst, I’m totally with you there, MRAs.  That’s why I’m a feminist!)

There are a couple of different flavors of MRA.  Some call themselves Men Going Their Own Way (MIGTOW), and they say they’re after equality in their relationships, splitting the bill and such.  Others, like Pick-Up Artists (PUA) believe they have been denied their right to sex, and are interested in learning how to manipulate women to obtain sex.

Some MRAs seem like they are actually decent people.  They’ve been hurt by the women in their lives, and are trying to find ways to cope together, and that’s fine.  But a lot of the individuals involved in these groups are trolls and haters, some are openly and proudly misogynistic, and they bring that toxic energy into everything MRAs try to do more collectively.

Like find excuses to troll, dox, stalk, and make things generally miserable for female video game journalists and designers (Gamergate).  Or stuff the ballots for the Hugos in favor of less aware literature (Puppygate/Sick Puppies/Rabid Puppies).  Or cry out at the unfairness that is bad-ass women in post-apocalyptic, big budget movies, as we see here.

Seriously, that’s the complaint.  Hot women running around on screen, doing cool stuff.  Why is that a problem?  Because it means the man in the plot isn’t doing all the cool stuff.

I do get it.  For a whole bunch of political, social, and economic reasons, men are in a bind.  More women are graduating college than men.  More women are turning into the breadwinners of their household.  Catcalling is wrong, draw lady superheroes in more dignified postures, enthusiastic consent or it’s rape.  The definition of what it is to be a man and the rules about appropriate behavior are changing under your feet, so why can’t you at least have your manly movie franchises to yourselves?

Well, you can’t.  Slowly, slowly, Hollywood is getting it that women like big, action-packed movies too.  We’re a demographic with cash — thanks Disney’s Frozen for getting the point across at last!

So what can you do?

Enjoy the movies.

But how can you, with a woman potentially doing just fine on her own without a man to stomp faces for her?

What, do you think I’ve never enjoyed a movie without a woman in it?  I love Venture Bros. and Better Call Saul, and those are totally dude-centric shows.  And in books, I’ll take The Dark Tower over The Mists of Avalon any day.

It’s easy for me to empathize with men, to experience a story as a male main character.  It’s easy, because men and women aren’t that different.  We’re both in fleshy bodies that require near constant upkeep and care.  We both want to protect our loved ones.  We both like to be awesome, be the hero.  We both want to be loved.  We both can react badly to being hurt.

With that in mind, go watch Fury Road, and be Imperator Furiosa.  Go watch Genisys**, and be Sarah Connor.  Just like you would otherwise be Mad Max or Kyle Reese.

After all, going and enjoying these movies anyway is the manly thing to do.

*                   *                   *

*most awkward “cool” misspelling ever

**ugh…seriously that’s bad…

Feminism in the Age of Ultron

If any other writer/director had done Avengers: Age of Ultron, there would be minimal critique by the feminist community.

But instead, Joss Whedon did it.  Joss Whedon, who created Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenburg, River Tam and Zoe Washburne, and Echo and her many personalities from the Dollhouse.  Feminist Icon Joss Whedon.  Joss Whedon Who-Should-Have-Done-Better.

Considering the liberties Whedon takes with Marvel’s characters and story lines, maybe he could have done better.  I would have loved to see Pepper Pots and Jane Foster in this movie.  Scarlet Witch could have been quippier.  And Black Widow didn’t need high heels.  But let’s get real for a moment.

First, this is not Whedon’s creation alone.  He has decades of comic book superhero material to incorporate into these movies.  He can depart from established plots, he can change the relationships between some of the characters, but he can’t change so much that it (a) negates the movies made before Whedon was crowned King of Marvel, (b) transforms the characters beyond recognition, or (c) goes outside what corporate has planned or is willing to fund.  Black Widow is upset about being sterilized because she is upset about it in the comics — Whedon didn’t make that up himself.

Second, Whedon still had more major female characters with agency and an effect on the story than at least 95% of big budget Hollywood films.  Most movies give you one, maybe two ladies, and most of the time they have no real identity outside of “girlfriend” or “mother”.  Here we had Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Dr. Helen Cho, with Laura Barton, Maria Hill, and Peggy Carter chillin’ in more minor roles.  True, the men ran point on almost everything, but there were usually women around.

(Same with people of color — I do wish the main cast was more diverse, but there were scenes full of black and Asian extras, and that’s really more unusual than it should be.)

Third, our world is sexist.

Well, duh, Your Hipp-ness, the world is sexist.  That’s why Joss Whedon was supposed to show us all the way, and not stick a single female character with some woman-trope, like pregnancy or cleaning up after the boys.

The funny thing is that Whedon does show us the way.  Black Widow is respected by her fellow Avengers.  She’s assumed to be smart and capable, and so are Scarlet Witch and Dr. Cho.  When Black Widow is underestimated by Ultron (which makes sense, considering that he just exposed himself to the entire Internet), she rigs up an old radio and brings in the rest of the team, instigating the fight that ends in the failure and death of Ultron.

Sure, there are fewer women on the front lines than men — but hey, that’s just like real life!  Laura Barton is home pregnant with the kids while her man goes to war — but hey, that’s just like real life!  Black Widow consented to her sterilization but deeply regrets it now — just like the real women who have been through our penal system and “volunteered” for sterilization feel.

I gotta tell you, this scares me a bit.  Here I am, sticking my neck out, writing feminist fantasy.  But I kick the crap out of my lady characters.  They wind up kidnapped, imprisoned, victimized, tortured, marginalized, raped, degraded, underestimated, dismissed.  So what is the inevitable complaint going to be?  Did I damsel or fridge someone?  Did I not give my women enough power?  Are there more male characters than female on the battlefield?  Am I more comfortable maiming my dudes than my dudettes?

Don’t get me wrong, writers need to keep asking themselves questions like this.  Push diversity, leave out or subvert the tropes, and put more women (and people of color, and gay, bi, and trans people) in the thick of your stories.  But the whole Fem-terweb shouldn’t be screaming-mad at Joss Whedon right now.

Whedon made an awesome movie that did assume women to be inherently capable, and there are so many popular writers and directors that I cannot say that about.